Hoarding has been making major headlines in recent years. It seems as though everywhere you turn these days you see it on TV, in the media or maybe you have even had the personal experience of dealing with hoarding yourself.
The term hoarding is not a pretty word; it has stigmas attached to it that are not flattering. The definition of hoarding as far as my industry is concerned is an excessive collection of items with the inability to discard them. The key to the actual definition is the inability to discard them. We all know people who are not neat, people who have collections to which you might think are odd or excessive. But can those people get rid of those collections if they really had too? Often times the answer is yes. Being a collector or disorganized does not make you a hoarder, having the attachment to items without being able to let go does.
Hoarding was recently added as an official medical diagnosis which is no doubt paving the way for much, much more discussions on hoarding. As we become more and more aware of hoarding we naturally hear about it more and more and many times we only hear about the bad. But let me tell you there is some good that comes along with hoarding and I will get to that later in the article.
The Institute for challenging disorganization (http://challengingdisorganization.org) is a fantastic resource on the topic. They have created a standard to which we use in the biohazard industry for every residence we clean. The scale goes from 1 to 5 with 5 being the worst. A category 1 would be the perfect home; my mother in law would be a prime example. Always perfect, not a spot on any window and not a speck of food spilled on the countertop. (One might tend to call her a neat freak and possibly a little OCD, love you Christine). A category 5 is one where no rooms in the house are used for their intended purpose, the HVAC system is nonfunctional, dead animal carcasses may be present and the smell of the home is not a pleasant experience. If you have ever watched the TV shows on hoarding most of the times you are seeing a level 4 or a level 5.
Often when I am working with a hoarding client I get asked, “why do you care I’m not hurting anyone.”
This could not be further from the truth, you are hurting several and possibly hundreds of people if not millions because of your hoarding problem. Let’s be clear about hoarding. It is a disease but one that must be dealt with with firm undertones and compassion at the same time. It’s delicate dance that very few people can perform and do it right.
Let’s start with the hoarder themselves. They are hurting themselves and hoarding itself is a form of self-mutilation. It’s a self-induced torture chamber. Hoarders are often embarrassed about their problem. Many of them know they have an issue but suffer in silence, living in fear their truth will be discovered by the outside world. They are depressed, anxious and physically unhealthy a majority of the time. The number one question I get asked before we start work is along the lines of are my neighbors going to know. Are you discrete? Do you judge? Most hoarders understand they have a problem much like an alcoholic but suffer in silence because they feel there is no way out. They may start to clean but get overwhelmed and in turn this creates anxiety and they get stuck in a vicious cycle. They can’t seem to break this cycle and the problem gets worse.
Medically they are suffering from the diseases that are surrounding them and induced by their living conditions. Many times they are overweight, have lungs problems, anxiety, high blood pressure and suffer from depression. Poor hygiene is almost guaranteed when you aren’t able to use your bathroom as intended.
The delicate dance I was telling you about earlier is one my company has perfected. It’s not something that can be taught, you either get it or you don’t. I mentioned hoarding affects dozens, hundreds and even millions of people just off one hoarder. This cannot be taken lightly and must be expressed to someone who hoards. This is serious and they need to know it’s serious but you also have to be able to get them to understand you are mad at them for putting others in danger but show them understanding and compassion at the same time. As a retired paramedic when I would go to help someone who lives as a hoarder my safety was at risk, the police officers and firefighters as well as my partner. When a hoarder home caught fire there again the risk affected those of us working 911.
But what about the neighbor’s home that caught fire because the blaze was so intense? How about the insurance company paying claims because of the damage to several homes? Now millions of people more than likely will pay higher premiums for coverage because of this one hoarder? My point is hoarding does NOT affect just the hoarder; it affects all of us in one way or the other.
One reason my company is the top hoarding cleanup company in Minnesota is because we aren’t just cleaners throwing things away. We embody the entire process of the cleanup starting with the short term cleanup itself and help to set goals and limits with the hoarder while helping them work through the reasons why they hoard setting them up for long term success. We are able to clean the biohazards along with the garbage and use compassion that simply cannot be trained all at the same time. We hire and use only those who have experience dealing with people in stressful environments and many of them have worked in 911. As the president of the MN Hoarding Task Force says about us, “They just get it.”
Remember when I said there is some good about hoarders? I wasn’t just pulling your chain, there truly is. You see a large majority of hoarders are highly artistic and intelligent people. In fact, I would go out on a limb to say most of the clients we have served are some of the smartest people I have ever met hands down. Let’s just say they are also not type “A” people such as myself who are set firm in structure, lists and what many would call “anal.” These guys are creative and able to see the value in what many would call junk. The problem is they don’t seem to stop thinking and creating in their heads and they get ahead of themselves and bite off more than they can chew.
But the number one thing I have found about hoarders and is backed by a lot of current research about hoarding is that hoarding is a symptom and not the actual issue. The “collection of stuff” is a merely a symptom of a much bigger unresolved issue and that issue is a past traumatic experience or series of incidents. Divorce, death, past abuse, illness, etc. if left untreated can result in the need to collect things that can’t leave them or create more hurt in their lives.
Much like chest pain is not the actual issue but rather a symptom of things that are coming or are currently happening, hoarding is a symptom of things that have come and should have been addressed.
When I deal with hoarders I am almost always dealing with families as well. These families are almost always very upset with the hoarder and will scream and yell at them. Of course this achieves nothing is counterproductive to what needs to happen. While I understand the anger and frustration these family members need to hold themselves accountable as well for their actions and past behaviors. Much like an alcoholic often times families will think they are helping by cutting them out of their lives and closing the door on the alcoholic when the reality is that alcoholic is sick and needs encouragement and support not a door being slammed in their face.
A hoarder has been asking for help for years and while neither the hoarder nor the family members think they have, they have. Instead of making excuses the hoarders and their families need to take proactive steps to get help and get to the bottom of the real issues. Sweeping the issues under the rug is never the resolution and next thing you know the hoarder is forced from their home and into the streets because the city has condemned the property and now they have to spend thousands to get is up to code just to be able to move back in, not to mention catch up on the often times neglect of normal maintenance issues over the years that have taken their toll on the home itself.
Statistics show that hoarders who are forced to clean only end up re-hoarding faster than before. Remember hoarding is a symptom not the actual issue. That “stuff” is plugging a hole of pain and hurt. When yanked away from them it re-opens the wound and they desperately fight to re-plug the hole and pain. I can’t tell you how many times I have worked with a hoarder and over a short period of time I have them telling me all about their past pain and trauma. How they felt abandoned by family, friends. They felt worthless and basically decided to give up. But as they begin to open up to me they also strangely feel better and am glad I am there to help, next thing I know their “save pile” is taking second place to their “throw” pile. Strange how just understanding and talking can help someone work through the past.
When my company cleans out a home the process is never the same. We customize the process according to the needs of the hoarder and the families. Typical cleanups consist of items being sorted to save, discard, donate, and scrap or hazardous wastes. When looking for the best companies to help with your cleanup I strongly recommend you find a company with experience working hand in hand with mental health providers and families with hoarders. You may be tempted to use the junk guy down the street but the old saying you get what you pay for holds many truths in this industry. Hoarding cleanup is not just ”throwing junk” away. Without the proper short term treatment you can never gain long term success. That long term success starts with the short term cleanup.
We all have a responsibility to fight hoarding. If you really care about someone and know they have dealt with pain, get them help. If they resist the help then step back and monitor them and if you begin to see symptoms of dealing with that pain such as hoarding, depression, etc. then step in again. Don’t turn your back and sweep the issues under the rug. Hoarding affects all of us one way or the other and I am happy to finally see this issue start to get some focus that it desperately needs.
This article written by me was recently published in MAGiC, The Journal of the Minnesota Association for Guardianship & Conservatorship