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David Moye
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Doll-Hoarding Grandmother Forced To Face Facts

First Posted: 06/23/11 10:31 AM ET Updated: 11/15/11 05:59 AM ET

By day, she's a certified nursing assistant in Griffin, Georgia, but by night, Phyllis, a grandmother in her 60s, has a shocking secret: She's addicted to doll collecting.

She has more than 50,000 of them, according to the A&E series, "Hoarders," which featured Phyllis on the season premiere episode that aired on June 20.

Her explanation for keeping the dolls -- which are in varying degrees of decay and shabbiness -- is simple.

"When I see their sweet little faces, it makes me happy," she said. "I don't collect them because they're valuable. I just like their company."

Yet according to her son Ed, the reason behind her crazed collecting is more complex. She began hoarding about 13 years ago, after her mom died.

Phyllis was the only family member not invited to the funeral and, as a result, she reverted to a childlike state and began collecting dolls.

Part of the problem is that she and her son are running out of space because of the dolls, the weight of which is comprising the structural integrity of their house.

The other problem, of course, is that Phyllis doesn't see a problem with her "little hobby" at all.

"These dolls are like a giant tidal wave, she can't manage, control or deal with," Ed said, fearing that Adult Protective Services will come in in if his mom doesn't clean up her act -- literally.

That could be difficult.

Recognizing the problem is the first step, and Phyllis seems reluctant to do that.

"I think I see a Cabbage Patch doll. I love Cabbage Patch dolls," she said after all her dolls were put in a huge pile in front of her house.

Hoarding expert Mark Pfeffer, who was brought in to help Phyllis stop ignoring the hoarding issue, says her behavior is simply an expression of underlying turmoil.

"Like the bags of dolls she's stored away in the shed, Phyllis has stored away her emotions," he said. "Even her nervous laughter was not laughter. It was anxiety and fear."

Gregory Chasson, another hoarding expert who is an assistant professor of psychology at Towson University, says Phyllis' attachment to her dolls is typical.

"Individuals with hoarding often develop attachments to objects similar to how you might attach to another individual," Chasson told AOL Weird News. "This might provide some clues about some of the biological and psychological mechanisms that explain hoarding, but the science is just not there yet."

Although medication is helpful for other psychological problems, Chasson says research is still needed to determine a proper treatment for hoarding.

"There's no evidence that compulsive hoarding is benefited by psychiatric medication," he said. "Cognitive-behavioral therapy modified for compulsive hoarding is a psychological treatment approach with tremendous promise and growing empirical support. However, it's not very accessible, because it's time and resource-intensive, often requiring many hours of in-home treatment by trained therapists."

Because this form of therapy is very expensive, and often not covered by health insurance, Chasson says efforts are underway to make the treatment more accessible. Non-professionals will be trained to deliver key parts of cognitive behavioral therapy for compulsive hoarding in the patient's home, which would offset the high costs by as much as 80 percent.

Although cases like Phyllis are on the extreme side of the spectrum, Chasson says compulsive hoarding, which is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, affects approximately 1 in 25 people.

"But this may be an underestimate since hoarding occurs in varying degrees in the general population. Some people experience minor or no hoarding tendencies, while others experience extreme versions," he said. "Television shows depict the very extreme cases because the mountainous clutter and unusual interests in objects, like dolls, makes for enticing TV programming. Not all individuals with hoarding are as severe as the cases shown on television shows."

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