Face it: We like stuff.
In a consumer-driven society, in which a reward for a long day's work often comes in bubble wrap from e-Bay, it's difficult not to form some kind of attachment to our acquisitions.
Even those of us who curb spending for financial or environmental reasons can find places in our homes for items that have been discounted or "rescued" from disposal. Add to that family heirlooms, photographs, childhood keepsakes, our children's childhood keepsakes and those boxed items that never found a place after the last move, and it's no wonder that many of us have accumulated quite a collection of stuff.
But where does the line lie between affection for and obsession with keepsakes, and how can we tell if it has been crossed?
Five percent of the nation's population is living with symptoms associated with hoarding -- and 92 percent of those people can be diagnosed with additional psychiatric disorders, according to the nonprofit National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization.
Television shows such as A&E's "Hoarders" examine the psychological disorder of hoarding, which prevents those who are afflicted with the condition from disposing of even the most damaged, useless and sometimes potentially hazardous items that fill their dangerously cluttered homes. Some people who don't have the disorder still find it difficult to let go of items -- collectors, artists, home business owners, for example.
At what point do we, instead of owning our possessions, allow them to own us?
It isn't entirely clear how Florence Dowling's Pittsburgh home became unfit for her and the animals she sheltered. The 67-year-old declined to speak for this story, as she and a woman who identified herself as her attorney sorted through boxes recovered from Dowling's condemned home in late November.
In an earlier interview, Dowling told the Post-Gazette that years of depression and illness led to police removing years' worth of trash -- including plastic containers filled with feces -- along with 18 cats and a dog from her house. Electricity, water service and other utilities had been shut off. With structural and environmental damage too extensive to repair, the house is now on the city's list for demolition.
The American Psychiatric Association has proposed defining hoarder, in its diagnostic manual, as including these criteria:
-- Difficulty discarding or parting with possessions regardless of the value others attribute to the possessions. -- A strong urge to save items, and stress associated with discarding items. -- Symptoms so severe an accumulation of a large number of possessions fill up and clutter active living areas of the home so that their intended use is no longer possible,
-- Clinically significant distress or impairment in social functioning due to the symptoms.
Robert Hudak, a psychiatrist with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, works with patients who hoard. He said hoarding in the past has been considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but many researchers today believe it is a separate illness.
"I think either you're a hoarder or you're not," he said. Someone who is "just a little sloppy and accumulate a lot of stuff on their desks and just doesn't get around to throwing things away, I don't think they're at any risk for becoming a hoarder. Hoarding is a specific illness."
(The International OCD Foundation, based in Boston, maintains a Hoarding Center page on its website. It includes information on hoarding, including community services and other resources to help address the condition.)
But Vickie Dellaquila, owner of Organization Rules in McCandless, Pa., has seen collectors with some degree of disorganization end up in hoarding situations after a trauma. One female client who had problems with compulsive shopping ended up collecting everything from beauty and household products to junk mail after a loved one's death.
"She had already had tendencies of chronic disorganization, but (the death) triggered more hoarding when she couldn't deal with the loss. She's hoarding as a mechanism to cope," Dellaquila said.
She noted one major difference between collectors who have hoarding tendencies and collectors who may have too many things: Collectors without a true hoarding problem realize the overabundance takes away from their ability to track and display their goods or interferes with their personal space.
(Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this story.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)