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Collectors v. hoarders: Is there a difference?

Linda is seen here in her basement where piles of belongings are stacked to the ceiling Tuesday Oct. 26, 2010.

Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail/tim fraser The Globe and Mail

Linda thinks she started hoarding when she was 10. Back then, it was tiny sweaters and booties for her future babies. When the Burlington, Ont., woman hit her teens, it was photographs, books and art supplies. In the mid-eighties, she got into retail managing gift shops, which only exacerbated the problem: "I was always buying and selling."

Today, Linda (who didn't want her last name revealed) and her "pack rat" husband keep four storage lockers crammed full of stuff, a substantial downsize from the 25 units they used to keep. Their basement is stacked floor to ceiling with plastic bins and 300 banker's boxes containing paperwork and empty binders from her retail days. There are also rugs, lamps, and piles of linens and dishes. Never mind the multiple homes the couple has sold "fully loaded, right down to the placemats" to get a "fresh start" away from the mountains they've amassed.

"It's such an addictive connection to stuff," says Linda, 56. "It's almost like, as long as I've got stuff I've got money, importance to myself."

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To her, the 1,000 decorating magazines collecting dust signify opportunity, but also leave her feeling paralyzed: "It chatters away in my head 24/7 now," she says, "what I might or might not do with all this crap."

It's one half of Linda's double life: Paradoxically, she works full-time as an interior designer, sometimes helping others minimize their spaces. Up the stairs from her basement, the house is neat. She points to her kitchen island: just a single glass jar sits atop it.

"I never knew that someone could be called a hoarder and be tidy. I always thought of a hoarder as basically someone who lives in a pigsty," Linda says. "I always think of hoarding and I associate it with mental illness."

Recently, the home decorator started coming to terms with the scale of her addiction: "I think I'm a hoarder."

The subject of perpetual curiosity and at least two reality TV shows, hoarders are again in the spotlight after a massive fire in a downtown Toronto high-rise turned up about 20 hoarders. The fire-causing culprit had collected piles of legal documents and archives while another two, discovered during the evacuation, were animal hoarders: One kept a dozen cats and the other 200 canaries.

What distinguishes a hoarder immobilized by possessions from your run-of-the-mill collector, compulsive saver of mementos, or a neat, high-functioning one such as Linda?

For one thing, sheer volume, says Randy Frost, a Smith College psychology professor who has studied hoarding for two decades and wrote Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things with Gail Steketee.

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"When the accumulation of stuff interferes with their ability to live or causes significant distress, that's the breaking point between hoarding as just a behaviour and hoarding as a disorder," Dr. Frost says.

Hoarding as a disorder is being considered for the next edition of the U.S.-based Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), due out in 2013. The criteria may include persistent difficulty and distress parting with possessions and rooms rendered unusable by piles of stuff.

"Their social worlds become smaller and smaller because they can't invite people to their home and they can't tell people about this. Once their car gets full, they can't really go anywhere."

Dr. Frost describes several varieties of hoarders: There's the info junkie who stockpiles documents, the guilt-ridden collector who hates to waste anything, and another who feels an intense, emotional attachment to possessions. Objects are of great value to hoarders even when they appear to be junk, and they fear losing a part of themselves along with a discarded item.

"It is an exaggeration of what we all experience. For all of us, possessions have this magical quality, where the value of a possession to us sometimes goes well beyond its physical characteristics."

For instance, he says, for a concertgoer, a ticket stub brings back vivid memories. "That's the kind of experience we see in much more dramatic fashion in people who hoard. They infuse that kind of meaning to everything."

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Recent studies estimate that between 2 and 5 per cent of Americans hoard, which places the number at a staggering six million to 15 million. What makes some of us more susceptible? Experts aren't entirely sure: childhood trauma, loss, concurrent mental health issues and genetics are possible origins. A strong correlation also exists between hoarding and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Carolyn Caldwell, principal of Toronto-based Wellrich Organizers, gets about two calls a week from distraught relatives of hoarders. She needs permission from the client to legally enter a home.

"Most of them have full-time jobs. Most of them you would not recognize [as hoarders]if you saw them walking down the street, but they probably haven't had anybody in their home in a while," Ms. Caldwell says.

She says hoarders need continuing support, often in the form of both therapy and home visits from a professional organizer to "stem acquiring and support discarding. …

"What distresses them the most," she say, "is having a sense of the life that they want to lead and having a life that doesn't reflect that."

Linda has not sought help, but forces herself to fill one garbage bag every day. She recently filled a cube truck for an auction and never wants to see the contents again, regardless of whether they sell. A great relief surged through her system the day she left a Wal-Mart with just the mattress pad and lock she needed for a client, but the outing was a struggle.

"I have this dream of being more free. I just want the bare necessities in my life but I don't know if I'll ever get there."

For now, she has taken solace in the fact that not a single locker sits empty in the massive new facility where she squirrels away her possessions.

"I'm thinking, 'Linda, you're not that abnormal. There's lots of people with stuff.' "

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