The woman lived on the east side of Toronto and had a myriad of health issues that made it difficult for her to leave home. In her late sixties and subsiding on the health supplement Ensure, the woman’s house was dark, dank and becoming a hazard — hundreds of papers and cans of old food, piles of furniture and a lifetime of boxed-up clothing. The hoarding, which had already overwhelmed her basement, was now spreading like an airborne disease and taking over her entire home.
“Everything had a meaning to her, and the hoarding was becoming a physical danger, if not a physical threat,” says Catherine Chater, an occupational therapist with VHA Home Healthcare, a not-for-profit outreach group in Ontario that specializes in rehabilitation services and home support. According to Chater, hoarding — a mental health condition that combines elements of obsessive compulsive disorder with the urges and desires of addiction — affects roughly 5% of the population, and is more prevalent (though less reported) among men than women.
“It can effect anyone at any point, and traumatic life events can exacerbate pre-existing symptoms,” Chater says. “Hoarders don’t respond well to extreme clean-outs. Similar to removing alcohol from an alcoholic, that doesn’t address the situation itself, and if you remove the person’s belongings without their involvement, it can come back more intense than it was.”
Hoarding — obsessively collecting objects to the point of risking one’s health — has become so widespread that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the guideline for psychiatrists, is considering a section on the disorder for its 2013 printing. Thanks to reality television programs on A&E and TLC, and a widespread discussion in the media, people suffering from hoarding — or, usually, their loved ones — are seeking out assistance in droves.
“I’m getting four times as many calls as I used to, and that’s just in the last two years,” says Dr. Suzanne Chabaud, a New Orleans-based clinical psychologist who is a frequent guest on A&E’s Hoarders. Chabaud, who saw a rise in patients after Hurricane Katrina, says hoarders are unable to place appropriate value to their possessions.
“Hoarders tend to have an excessive collection of valueless objects and they take in more objects than they can accommodate in their lives,” says Chabaud, who believes hoarding is a biological disorder that can manifest with the pressure of extreme traumatic events. “Hoarders will say, ‘This didn’t start until I lost my mother,’ but if you talk to their families, you’ll see they always had these hoarding tendencies, it just wasn’t so bad.”
To an observant eye, a hoarder’s home can stick out like a sore thumb. The windows will be drawn, the shades will be closed and there might be decay building up on the front porch or driveway. If you can’t use your bed or stove, and if you’ve let things like plumbing sit in disrepair because you’re too embarrassed to let a serviceman in, it’s a tell-tale sign you need help.
“I’m seeing a woman who hasn’t showered in her home in five years and, for her, that’s become normal,” says Geralin Thomas, an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder specialist and an expert on chronic disorganization. “This woman sleeps on the floor with her dog because her bed is so crowded, but she’s figured out a way to make that work. Like an addict, hoarders learn how to live with their secrets.”
Thomas, who began her company, Metropolitan Organization, in Cary, N.C., in 2005, says hoarding doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, like an infestation, it gradually sneaks in.
“It’s not like being pregnant in that you either are or you aren’t — it trickles into someone’s life as opposed to gushing in,” Thomas says. “Many of my clients were at one point neat housekeepers who had it together, but their collections become an obsession — it can get to the point where they can’t even throw out their trash.”
The good thing about hoarding — like ADHD, OCD and many other compulsive disorders — is that it’s treatable. Back on the east side of Toronto, it took a year for the woman to come to terms with her problem, but eventually she was able to clear out her home. She removed years of accumulated junk from her basement and even cleaned it to the point of being able to rent it out as an apartment.
“We’ve learned how to support our clients into developing new and healthy belief systems about their belongings,” Chater says. “It’s definitely only a success story that can happen over time. [It’s] the necessity of teaching people the practice of letting go.”