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"The Big Emptiness": Hoarding, OCD, Depression and the Quest for Meaning

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 7th 2009

bike on a beachThere is an interesting program being aired these days on A&E (Arts and Entertainment) Television. Its title is "Obsessed" and it is reality television detailing the lives of people who suffer from various types of anxiety disorders. The major mental health intervention is Behavior Modification. In addition to a different pair of patients on the show each week, there is also a psychiatrist and a psychologist who treat the specific patients on each episode. The cameras dramatically show the behavioral interventions used and their results. I believe the show graphically shows how behavior modification is used and its results. It is important to keep in mind, when viewing the program, that these patients are people for whom, by and large, other treatments have failed. It is also important to understand that these and other people also experience plenty of depression.

This past week, one woman, a 50 year-old who hoards everything she can purchase at garage and tag sales, used a term that I thought was very gripping. In describing how her OCD became a major hoarding problem, she stated the fact that things became intolerable after she and her husband divorced. Soon after, her son, now a fully educated adult, moved out in order to live his own life. In her own words, she states that it was then that the "Big Emptiness" began.

What did I find so gripping about that phrase, the "Big Emptiness?" What struck me about the phrase is that it is descriptive of one of the major underlying fears we all face. Some philosophers and psychologists might refer to the "Big Emptiness" as one of the "existential crises faced by each human being." There is a fundamental dread of abandonment and isolation. This fundamental dread is what lies under our symptoms of depression and anxiety. In fact, let us not forget that the "big emptiness" speaks volumes about feelings of loss and depression.

The woman portrayed on this particular episode was forced by circumstances to face the terribly dreadful reality of isolation because she was left alone in the world. Her efforts to hoard, to save huge quantities of possessions, was an attempt to fill the void she felt inside.

It is important to know that once the treatment team was able to help this woman give up her hoarding symptoms through the use of behavior modification, she still had to face the even bigger challenge of finding meaning in her life.

In my opinion, the search for meaning is a part of each person's quest in this life. Some people find meaning through religious beliefs and practices. Others find it through involvement in important causes ranging from saving the whales to helping relieve poverty around the world by going to poor countries and teaching people how to read, write or farm.

However, there are those of us who experience great difficulty in finding meaning in our lives. It is those among us who end up struggling with depression, anxiety and many other varieties of emotional turmoil. Even among those who believe they have found meaning for themselves, there often is a point at which they begin again to question, doubt and discover that they are feeling that great "Big Emptiness" inside.

Psychotherapy may not be the total answer to life and its many challenges, but it can help remove obstacles that we encounter as we move towards finding real meaning for ourselves and gaining a sense of fulfillment. Whether the psychotherapy involves behavior modification, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychodynamic treatment, the ultimate goal, after reducing depression and anxiety, is really to discover or formulate a meaning for ourselves and our lives.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Agony - Rebecca - May 16th 2013

I\\\'m surprised to find myself in love and involved with a hoarder. But I\\\'m struggling so much.  Initially I believed him when he told me that the mess and the junk was all in the process of being sorted and that it would be simple to clear. So it didnt dawn on me that such an intellignet sensitive artistic man could be a hoarder. He had made progress since becoming involved with me but it is painfully slow and exhausting as everything that is moved or thrown has to be \\

I'm a bit of a hoarder......... - DLT - Jul 2nd 2012

I am dealing with my hoard at the moment.  It has developed ever so slowly over the years & I think I've found things a comfort as my life has been stressful during the last 30 years & a bit traumatic at times too.

I have a shed full of stuff I've half sorted & an attic that was full, but is now half full.  I've taken loads & loads to charity shops, car boot sales & sold on ebay.  I'm winning & soon I've have 2 bedrooms in the attic instead of 1.  I'm also de-cluttering my clothing as I keep things in case I lose weight, gain weight etc. 

I'm getting there at my pace & I take offence at anyone trying to hurry me.  It is my stuff! :-)

Never give up trying..........

Help Me Understand - Allan N. Schwartz - Mar 25th 2010

Hi Confused,

Trust me when I tell you that you are not alone in being confused about hoarding. In my opinion, hoarding is not one illness and is not necessarily OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In other words, I believe that hoarding will turn out to be a very complex illness that has many sub catergories, once more research is done.

The hoarding that I have witnessed as a therapist and that you can see on television, is representative of a very severe mental illness. Some of these people are suffering from a type of psychotic disorder with delusional thinking. They do not just save what they buy. They save garbage and their own feces.

Other people may be suffering from a type of OCD that is less severe than those who are psychotic. You can see the differences in the types of homes shown on television. Some people save things as a way of holding on to the past, especially after loved ones have dies. Like Mrs Haversham in Charles Dickens brilliant novel, Great Expectations.

In any case, this is a serious mental disorder.

Hope this help somewhat.

Dr. Schwartz

Help Me to Understand - I.M. Confused - Mar 25th 2010

I just finished watching a a program on hoarders on TLC and it was truly appalling. I know that when people are hurting they often do things to relieve the pain or attempt to help themselves cope - sometimes things that turn out to be downright destructive. But, at least you can see the initial comfort, how it promised them freedom from care or the ability to forget (drug and alcohol abuse); or keep them so busy (workaholics) that they don't have time to stop and think how much they are hurting. I'd like to know what hoarding does for people? Where and at what point did this obsession make sense or help them? Do they enjoy it - or not? My father had a shopping obsession and loaded our lives with endless things - arguing that he was getting an incredible deal and he paid a lot less. But, in reality, over time he paid as much - if not more - than others who get a few well-chosen things they can enjoy. And the burden it placed on our family was incredible. I can see you might get so depressed you'd let things go and not clean up like you should. Or, I can understand people getting ensnared by wanting beautiful, costly or prestigious material things for the limited, but real pleasure they give. But what is this problem really made of? Dad was a compulsive shopper, but also a neat-nik at home, so we weren't really "buried". What is the comfort of getting piles and piles of "things" - or several storehouses of things you can never, ever use - to the point where you can barely dig yourself out or enjoy your home or other's company? Is it avoidance - are they deliberately building a cocoon to keep people at bay, or trying to gain some unusual type of "control" over things? I have to say that in some cases, greed and/or laziness seems to play a part. I must say I just don't get it.

hoarding and depression - Julie B - Mar 6th 2010

About 10 yrs ago my husband walked out on me (and our 2 school-aged boys) to have an affair with a waitress.  He came back and left again twice more for the same woman.  Eventually he came back and has been home ever since.  When this first happened I became so depressed I don't think it would have been possible to feel any lower or more worthless.  I was seeing a Psychologist/Marriage Counselor who kept trying to get me to be more social to cheer myself up.  Eventually I went to a Psychiatrist who put me on Effexor, and I felt relief within one week.  I will be taking this drug for eternity, but since I started I have become a compulsive eater and gained 30 pounds, and I have developed a terrible hoarding problem.  Some days I look at all the stuff I have "hoarded" (Goodwill, Craigslist, Ebay....) and wonder how it got so much out of hand.  My house is not filthy like some hoarders, but it is cluttered and I have storage sheds just full to compacity.  I also now have more cats and dogs than I should but unlike other hoarders, they are well cared for.  All this tho is at the expense of my family, because my time is pretty much taken up with caring for the animals and trying to deal with the clutter.

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