When Things Become Substitutes for Human Connection: Hoarding Disorder and Loneliness

From the moment we are born we need social connection—the tender touch of a hand, the soft loving voice of our mother, and reassuring words from our family. Millions of years of evolution has shaped us into a species who need and thrive human connection.  We need social connection just as much as we need food and water to survive.  We are a social species, and are not meant to be alone and isolated.  We need our parents to feed and protect us when we are young.  We need our neighbors, community, teachers and friends.  Human interaction is not optional to our well-being. We feel a sense of belonging and comfort when we are with our friends and family. Really, we don’t need science to study this fact, it is clear that human connection is imperative.  We enjoy our get-togethers with friends and family—sharing stories that are meaningful and even humorous conversations. We all want to feel included and a part of a community. It goes without saying that if our lives were void of this human interaction we will feel sad, isolated and yes, lonely. There is no argument there.  But what is less clear, is what will happen if our lives were empty of human connection.

Studies are being done on how much the lack of human contact and isolation impacts our physical and mental health.  The proliferation of loneliness is considered today by many researchers as an epidemic, despite the pervasiveness of social media.  Statistics show the prevalence of loneliness is on the rise, showing no signs of positive change. Being with others is a biological and instinctual need, that is just as essential as the air we breath, the food we eat or the water we drink for survival. It is dangerous to be isolated. It is not about collecting “friends”, but about the quality of friends that bring joy, feelings of belonging and contentment.

To help understand what hoarding disorder is, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization describes hoarding disorder as blind to race, age, gender and nationality.  Those who suffer from hoarding feel an extreme need to hold on to “things” regardless of their value, live in spaces that are so cluttered they cannot use a surface or a room as its intended purpose, and they feel significant distress caused by the mass of clutter.  These “things” become a poor substitute for human connection.  Hoarding behavior can begin early in life, but it’s most prevalent in older adults.  The old age question: What comes first, the chicken or the egg?  In regard to hoarding, what came first?  Is it because of their hoarding disorder, loneliness rears its ugly head as a symptom? Or, is the cause their anti-social behavior, life-long poor social skills, and living alone that over time leads to hoarding disorder?  The International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Foundation speaks directly to this, stating: “Loneliness is one of the main factors that causes hoarding to occur.”  In my experience, I have to agree with the OCD Foundation. The perceived need to save and save and the angst associated with discarding things is filling a need, but is it really just covering up what’s missing—human connection?

One of my clients who has hoarding disorder told me that when he was young he had low self-esteem. He wasn’t into sports like his father wished, and he didn’t really fit in. He liked to knit, not play football. In order to feel liked by his peers, he bought things to become more noticed and maybe even popular.   Well, it worked—he felt worthy and accepted any his peers. The things he bought filled a hole in his heart—a feeling of belonging that wasn’t getting met by his family. As he got older and earned more money, he fed his growing loneliness with more and more stuff. For him, loneliness plays a big role in exacerbating his hoarding behavior. Buying more stuff has become his “drug” of choice—an ”addiction” of sorts that he is aware of, but the nasty side of this disorder has taken control of his actions. Understandably, when he feels devalued or unloved, buying more stuff served as a substitute for human connection. But the illusion of acquiring more stuff is a poor substitute for real human connection. Thus, the vicious cycle sees no end.

My other client “Martha”, who has hoarding disorder revealed that while growing up, and attending college she had difficulty connecting and fitting in with other people. Even though she joined a sorority, she did not feel included and didn’t feel like she fit in.  She told me this was a depressing time in her life. Additionally, she wasn’t really close to her family, though one of four girls. Although she did get married in her yearly twenties, and had a daughter, her then husband cheated on her, and soon they divorced. She said she wanted to meet another man with the hopes of someday marrying again and having more children, but she found that most men didn’t seem interested in her.

She remembers more often than not, they would not call her back. She would tell me other men did not truly understand her, or they wouldn’t accept her. Her natural tendency to withdraw from social connections made her feel more isolated — which can be out-in-out socially dangerous. Eventually, Martha just gave up the search.  She adopted dogs for companionship and comfort, along with the accumulation of lot of stuff.  Living alone and isolating herself more—her house became like living in a “coffin”—dark, dingy, and unsanitary. This likely mirrored how she felt on the inside. Not able to even connect with her daughter, Martha felt like a “burden” and would not even think to ask for help. Martha would say, “She’s so busy”.  What I heard was, “I’m not worth it.”

People always ask me, “Why do people hoard?  How can you do it?”  Giving it deep consideration, and running my client’s stories over and over again in my head, I had an “aha” moment.  It became clear to me that people who hoard need to compensate for unmet social needs, so they medicate themselves by attachment and excessive acquisition to feel connected. The problem is that this attachment provides a false sense of connection—temporary and empty.  They receive a quick rush when they make a new acquisition, but soon that rush wears off. Guilt, a sense of self-worthless and more isolation set in.  To answer the question, “Why do I do it?” It’s because I know that with human connection, I can make a difference—that’s my purpose. To confirm my own assumptions about the effects of loneliness in hoarding, I hit the internet and found there is significant research being done regarding loneliness as a major global problem.

Research once showed that social disconnection was a consequence of hoarding. Now, it is widely believed that it may be part of the cause. I witnessed this connection first hand with my clients who hoard, especially in my two and a half years working side-by-side with Martha.  Each day that I had a session with Martha she would say she felt achy, didn’t sleep well the night before and really did not want to organize.  Her body language said it all—shoulders rolled forward, head hanging down and a low tone of voice. Admittedly, Martha was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, so she does suffer from chronic pain, but I noticed after being in her presence for only a half hour, Martha was a whole new woman!  We had lively conversations, laughed—I showed interest in her hobbies, and I asked lots of curious questions. I could tell from her body language, now walking upright, looking into my eyes and sharing engaging stories, something had drastically changed.

Sometimes we didn’t even organize, we just talk.  Initially, I felt guilty that I wasn’t organizing, but later I realized she needed that human contact.  Our healthy conversations were making her feel alive.  You would never know she had fibromyalgia or that there was anything wrong with her.  She’s now smiling, talkative, and her achy body didn’t seem to bother her anymore—well at least, she never mentions it.  She shows up and is present—and is making progress, albeit baby steps.

Research has shed light on the dangers of loneliness, and the numerous negative effects—both physical mental, including: depression and suicide, cardiovascular disease and stroke. Loneliness, research has also shown, is just as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In fact, that the odds of dying an early death from loneliness is 45-50%—more than smoking, alcohol abuse and obesity!  These are staggering statistics.  One of the leading and pioneering researchers on loneliness, John T. Cacioppo, University of Chicago psychology professor and  coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, explains, “the importance of social connection and how it can rescue us from painful isolation. His sophisticated studies relying on brain imaging, analysis of blood pressure, immune response, stress hormones, behavior, show that human beings are simply far more intertwined than our cultural assumptions have ever allowed us to acknowledge.” Another study published in 2012, found that older lonely people are 64 percent more likely to develop dementia than their more connected counterparts, and 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis.

There is a silver lining.  Even though Martha’s hoarding disorder is not curable, I have seen first-hand how something as little as our conversations, laughter and regular contact have made a significant impact on her mental and physical being. I am more than just an organizer to her—I’ve become a friend, a trusted confidant, and someone who understands her. In addition, there are other examples to fight loneliness, such as, volunteering, joining a group of interest, making it a point to reach out to family, taking a class to learn something new, and/or taking a walk. There is hope, and all it starts by making meaningful human connections.