When she was a girl, she collected unusual rocks, birds’ nests, crooked sticks and dolls. As an adult, she gravitated to white ceramics and china, paperweights, kitchenware and art.
Year by year, the treasures accumulated until the only way she could navigate her San Francisco apartment was through a narrow line of what she called “goat paths.”
That was when her two grown daughters swooped in and cleaned the place out.
On re-entering her house, seeing it so sterile, so empty, Stark, now 71, says she felt traumatised.
Almost immediately, she began reacquiring things – with a vengeance: “You’re pulling everything in around you, building the hamster’s nest, building the wall. Part of it is for the high. It’s an addiction, sort of. But it’s also to fill a void. It fills a lot of void.”
It’s possible to have a messy house and be a pack rat without qualifying for a diagnosis of hoarding behaviour.
The difference is one of degree. Hoarding disorder is present when the behaviour causes distress to the individual or interferes with emotional, physical, social, financial or legal well-being.
“If you aren’t able to use the stove and your refrigerator is stockpiled with expired items, if you’re so disorganised you aren’t able to file for Medicare or make a primary-care appointment, [hoarding] becomes a major problem,” says Catherine Ayers, a geriatric psychologist at the University of California at San Diego who has developed a cognitive behaviour therapy for older people with the disorder.
The most common acquisitions are clothes and books. But often the stockpiling includes items that people ordinarily discard: junk mail, food packaging, shampoo bottles.
“I call it rubble without a cause,” says Fred Lipschultz, 78, a retired physicist from the University of Connecticut. Over the years, he has hung on to the ticket of virtually every show and concert he has attended. He says he collects papers, plastic containers and quart-size jars. “It does pain me to throw away something that’s useful.”