No one answered when I tapped on the front door which was slightly ajar. As I stepped inside the home of my very first hoarding client, stifling air and bad smell hit me. Thick dust covered everything.Papers were stacked and piled everywhere. The floor appeared to be made of dirt. On closer inspection, the carpet had turned to dust. Suddenly, from behind a cluttered pile on the kitchen table, a petite, perfectly coiffed elderly lady in a lavender sweater set and pearl necklace stepped out…
What is Hoarding? I am not a mental health professional so I can’t make a clinical diagnosis. But I can tell you what I have seen and what it looks like to me. I can also share with you my considered opinion of what causes it from the perspective of a person who sees hoarding on a regular basis, not from a tidy therapist’s office but from the real,down and very dirty places where hoarders live.
Hoarding is not the same as being a slob. Hoarding is not dirty dishes in the sink and a pile of unpaid bills or unread newspapers on the kitchen table. Hoarding is a condition where the debris and collected materials of an individual become so large and unmanageable that it affects their relationships with others, their health and their safety. The saddest part about hoarding is that the sufferer is often extremely resistant to any changes and is willing to give up their family, friends and even their own well being for the sake of their “stuff”.
Hoarding can be classified in stages and the National Study Group on the Chronically Disorganized has a website that will give you a grading scale from 1-5. They also provide a list of trained professionals you can hire to help with a hoarder.
The first two stages are really just messy people. The mess is yucky but not life threatening and you can probably still safely visit them and drink out of their cups and use their bathrooms. After stage 2, check their beds. Hoarders, past stage 2, have piled up so much trash on their beds that they are either sleeping on a small part of the bed or actually sleeping elsewhere to avoid moving their precious junk. Stacks, boxes and piles of papers fill every space until there is only a narrow pathway in which to walk. Exits are blocked. The bathtub is full of stuff and sometimes even the oven! You are also talking filth: Rodent droppings, pet feces, fleas,bad smells, spiders and cobwebs hanging like stalactites from the ceiling, carpet so filthy it has rotted and turned to dust, kitchen appliances not working, toilet un-useable, wiring a fire hazard. Windows shut and filthy, air stagnant. This was how Lavender Lady was living. How many Americans live like this? Hundreds of thousands. They are your neighbors that never let you in past the front door. They are professionals, impeccably dressed at work and living in secret squalor at home. I’m sure my client’s neighbors had no idea how she was living.
What causes hoarding? No one has the exact answer, Mental Health Professionals will tell you that Hoarding is a mental illness caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, often combined with Depression. It can be inherited, learned or triggered by loss. I see a disproportionate number of retired teachers (such as my Lavender Lady) and other academics. Many Seniors succumb to hoarding. Lavendar Lady was 93! My work tells me that people who have suffered a devastating loss (job, death of a loved one, health) can succumb to hoarding. Hoarders seek to rescue things that they perceive to be abandoned just like them. They wish to give new meaning and importance to these items, even if it looks like junk to us. Try to separate a hoarder from their stuff and you risk extreme anger directed at you and serious emotional and even physical harm to them. Their stuff makes them feel rich, needed and safe. It gives meaning to their lives.
Here are some more hoarding symptoms:
– Excessive Saving: paper, tissue, bottles, cans, newspapers, magazines, plastic bags, etc.
– Excessive Collecting :old broken appliances, boats, cars.
– Excessive Rescue: Cats, dogs, birds, other animals which they often cannot care for properly, even though they have good intentions.
-Grandiose Ideas: 1. Save the Planet. They save recyclables to excess but can’t part with any of it. 2. A Museum in their Honor: All this stuff is so valuable and amazing, someone out there will appreciate it. 3.They want to help others. I had one client who was saving plastic bags for a mailman who no longer walked that beat. She really believed he would come back some day and be so thankful that she had saved all those plastic bags just for him. 4. Help a fellow teacher: They just “know” that some teacher out there could use their stuff in their classrooms. Lavender Lady had a truckload of rocks piled in her kitchen (for art projects) and over 100 ancient bird nests in her garage.
-Compulsive Shopper: Many hoarders will compulsively purchase items on television shopping channels. I had a client in a wheelchair who purchased roller skates. This tendency can put them in real financial jeopardy.
These are individuals who are lost, sad, lonely and feel useless. They think their stuff will make them happy and importamt. They create a job for themselves as caretakers and protectors of this stuff so that their own lives have meaning.
Hoarding, like any other compulsion or addiction, takes over the life of the sufferer and destroys the peace of mind of those that love them. Lavender Lady’s daughter had called me. The victim will often resist help when offered. The stuff means more to them than anyone or anything.
What do you do with a hoarder? Even Professional Organizers who are trained by the National Study Group on the Chronically Disorganized have a policy of not working with hoarders beyond class 3 unless the the hoarder is in therapy and on medication. It is just too frustrating and a waste of time and money. Anti anxiety medication is often prescribed. Be extremely careful of exposing yourself to toxins, germs, bugs and disease when trying to “clean out” a hoarder Trained Professionals use masks, gloves and often wear protective clothing.
Relatives and friends of hoarders often call me to “come over while the hoarder is on vacation or in the hospital” and just get rid of the all the junk. I can’t do that and neither should you. Removing their stuff without permission can cause them severe psychic harm and/or physical breakdown, stroke or worse. Do not take it away without their knowledge or permission. If they refuse help,the best you can offer is to make sure their living conditions are as clean and safe as possible.
Just know that the stuff will grow again into a filthy mess as quickly as the hoarder can do another “dumpster dive” or visit a garage sale, shop or eat packaged food.
Can hoarders be cured? The jury is still out. It requires first and foremost, a willingness to change coupled with professional therapy and medication. Progress is very slow with many years of therapy needed. It often gets worse with age. Lavender Lady refused help.
What can you do? Have patience and compassion for the hoarder. You can’t talk them out of their stuff. The best you can do is help them keep it under control so they are safe from injury, sickness and fire. Seek help from a therapist who specializes in obsessive compulsive disorder. Try to let go of your own worries as ultimately, it has to be their decision to change. Contact Social Services if their safety is at stake.