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Recent fires show dangers of hoarding
"They don't see clutter. They see memories," said Johanna M. Lewis, clinical psychologist with the Counseling Center of Nashua.
Every yellowed paper, brittle photo, stack of Tupperware containers, mounds of clothing and cartons of clutter not only are precious memories, but a comforting presence.
"That would send them into a panic attack because they attach … meanings and feelings to the objects. So it's almost like throwing a family member out — emotionally that's how they feel about it," Lewis said.
That's why hoarding is a such a difficult challenge for those who suffer from this obsessive compulsive-related disorder, she said. It's also why it poses a public health and safety risk that easily can turn deadly, experts said. Falls, disease, infection, social isolation and fires are among the hazards hoarders face.
While there only have been about a half dozen fatal and non-fatal hoarder fires in the state within the last 20 years, they present a particular danger to firefighters and homeowner alike.
"It's dangerous to the occupants because of the rapid fire spread. Once something ignites, because of the amount of combustibles in the building, it makes it much more difficult for them to find their way to an exit," Degnan said.
"It's very difficult finding your way through a building like that," Degnan said.
Firefighters often are the first to come in contact with hoarders when they respond to ambulance and medical calls.
Progress comes slow
People who struggle with hoarding process information in the brain differently from those who don't, Lewis said. They have difficulty with organizing, sustaining attention, regulating moods and often have an intense emotional need to collect and hold on to their possessions, she said. Many suffer from depression and anxiety. While hoarders are hard-wired to this type of thinking, a traumatic event such as a significant loss can exacerbate it.
"It can take years to clean out a house," she added.
They best benefit by working in combination with an outpatient therapist, a psychiatrist and a professional organizer with experience with hoarders, Lewis said.
"There is a lot of baggage with family members and they usually wanted it done by yesterday," Lewis said.
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