Buried Alive: TLC Uncovers Secret Life of Hoarders

A hoarding hell from TLC series Hoarding: Buried Alive.
A hoarding hell from TLC series Hoarding: Buried Alive.

(CBS) What would you do if you were so compelled to hold onto your possessions that you were literally drowning in junk?

That's the question that haunts as many as two million Americans, according to some experts, and is the subject of TLC's series "Hoarding: Buried Alive."

In season two of the cable show, Laura G., a 34-year-old suburban mom living outside Raleigh, N.C., says her hoarding has driven her to the edge. She prefers not to use her full name.

PICTURES: Hoarders: Cindy Carroll's Shocking Story

"It's like I have two parts inside of me," she tells CBS News.  "One part that says, 'okay you've got to do what's best for your family, you've got to get rid of stuff. And the other part that says, that [stuff is my] safety."

"Hoarding is a potentially debilitating disorder where people accumulate more and more things in their home - clutter - to the point that they are no longer able to use their house for its intended purpose," says Dr. Julie Pike, Ph.D., who specializes in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorders, including hoarding, at the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Durham, N.C.

Pike estimates that two million Americans are affected by hoarding - whether they are hoarders themselves, or related to people who are.

"The hold of the obsession of hoarding is incredibly strong, and I look at it and explain it as an addictive process," say Pike. "People become addicted to not letting go of their things."

And the results can be shocking. Clothes, documents and boxes piled floor to ceiling; families broken apart because children refuse to return home or spouses refuse to endure living like that; shame and humiliation for hoarders who are unable to stop but know it's wrong.

"The people that don't understand it. You really hurt us by telling us we're lazy. We're not," says Cindy Carroll, who was featured last season. "It's hard to be a hoarder. It's a lot of hard work."

How is hoarding different from being messy, or collecting? The therapeutic community agrees that there are three general traits that separate hoarders from collectors.

1) An inability to discard objects like newspapers and clothing (although they can collect almost anything).

2) An extraordinarily cluttered living space that makes it hard to perform simple tasks like cooking or sleeping.

3) The thought of other people touching or removing their hoarded objects causes severe anxiety.

Can hoarders be cured? Dr. Pike says that the recovery process might be lifelong, but that with the "right motivation and the right kind of help and resources," it is possible.

If you or someone you love is affected by hoarding, do seek help. Here is a list of organizations that can point you in the right direction.

International OCD Foundation
Mayo Clinic

TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive," airs Sunday nights 9 p.m. eastern, 8 p.m central.

PICTURES: Hoarders: Cindy Carroll's Shocking Story