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All that junk you've been hoarding could be making you (officially) crazy

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Whether it's boxes of comic books stacked in the living room or hundreds of used toothbrushes lurking in the closet, pack rats would be wise to cut the clutter now.

Otherwise, come next year, they could be diagnosed as mentally ill. As the Daily Beast reports, there's a strong chance hoarding will be included in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a.k.a. the psychiatric bible – due in 2013.

Yep, hoarding is no longer considered a mere personality quirk. Nor can it be explained as a vestige of Depression-era scarcity mentality.

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Hoarders are addicted to acquiring objects, which they imbue with a magical quality, says Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College and co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

In hoarders, "the emotional attachments to objects are much more powerful than the attachments most of us have with our possessions," he says.

Unlike people with obsessive compulsive disorder, however, extreme collectors experience their attraction to objects as positive. In OCD, by contrast, obsessive thoughts are always "depressing, distressing or somehow anxiety provoking," Dr. Frost says.

The distinction makes the estimated 2 to 5 per cent of the population with a hoarding problem exceedingly tough to treat. Drastic measures, such as emptying out a hoarder's house, could trigger rage, notes the New York Times.

According to the self-help website SqualorSurvivors.com, hoarders justify their habit out of future necessity ("I might need this someday"), an observation that the object isn't damaged ("This is too good to throw away"), sentimentality ("This means too much to me to throw away") and the item's perceived value ("This may be worth something someday").

But the fact is, hoarding is a public health and safety issue. The sheer volume and weight of flammable materials pose a fire hazard and the risk of building collapse. The infamous Collyer brothers, for example, starved to death in their New York apartment after they were buried alive by an avalanche of worthless junk.

If that's not enough to scare a hoarder sane, pathological pack rats could seek treatment out of pity for the next generation. That prized collection of 8,000 liquor bottles is a legacy no one wants.

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Do you think one man's trash is another's treasure? Have you ever had to cope with a hoarder's habit?

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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