Many of us have watched the TV series Hoarders. We are saddened by the effect it has on the individuals and family, but also curious on what they will find in each of these cases. While these are extreme cases, there is approximately 2-6 percent of the population who suffer from this disorder in varying degrees of intensity, but all create a life of anxiety, isolation, chronic disorganization, shame, and broken relationships.
The Difference Between Clutter and Hoarding
A person with a cluttered home is able to keep some order to it, though not efficiently. They are able to walk around their home without having to step over items. Important spaces such as showers, toilets, stoves, and other daily living appliances are accessible and functioning. The surroundings are free of any hazardous waste or materials. The home is kept somewhat sanitary. The home does not pose a health threat and is structurally safe and maintained. A person with clutter is most likely not suffering from mental illness that is causing the clutter.
There is no rhyme or reason to item placement and it creates a situation where rooms cannot be used for their intended purposes. Many times the person will have to step over or on the item to move around the home. Important spaces such as showers, toilets, stoves, and other daily living items may be inaccessible and/or non-functioning. Hazardous waste or materials are frequently found buried in piles which causes health issues and dangerous situations. Emergency personnel might have a hard time removing the person from the home in higher levels of hoarding. The person hoarding may (but not always) have additional mental illnesses.
Organizers work with clutter and low level hoarding. When the hoarding becomes bio hazardous, it is beyond an organizers’ scope of expertise, although they can be brought in with a team specializing in bio hazardous hoarding as extra support to the client, helping them make decisions that cause excessive anxiety. It is important to remember that a level of trust needs to be established between the organizer and client due to the sensitive nature of the disorder no matter what level the persons hoarding falls into.
Light Clutter, No noticeable odors, all doorways and staircases accessible, no more than three areas with animal waste throughout the home.
At least one blocked area, one appliance out of order, malfunctioning ventilation system including no cooling or heating for at least six months.
Cluttered household items outside of the home, at least two broken household appliances for six months, One area of light structural damage, excessive number of pets and neglect, rodent or insect infestation, narrowed hallways, one unusable bedroom or bathroom, Excessive dust dirty clothing or soiled flooring, noticeable odors in home.
Noticeable mold and mildew, structural damage to home that’s at least 6 months old, sewage issues, three areas with aging animal waste, unusable rooms, rotting food, insect infestation, more than one blocked area.
Severe structural damage, broken walls, fire hazards, no electricity or running water, clutter on every surface, noticeable human feces, most or entire home is inaccessible.
Hiring an Organizer
As an organizer, it is very important to work calmly with the client and be sure they make all decisions regarding to keep, donate, or throw away items. This can be a long, arduous process as many times the client will have an emotional meltdown at some point in the process. Because of this, it is more costly than a regular client with clutter due to the time it takes to look at every item and make a decision. Because of the hoarding disorder, it may take time for the client to process the item emotionally before letting it go. However, the end result is a home that is livable and can be a new start for that client which is PRICELESS. It is recommended that a family member who has a good relationship with the client be there, but it’s not required.
Counseling, Medical, and Organizer Synergy
It is IMPERATIVE that the client be currently receiving or starting counseling to address the underlying disorder, otherwise the home will go back to its original state very quickly. Cleaning up a hoard has to be supported by some type of aftercare counseling by a trained professional specializing in hoarding disorder. The organizer cannot fill that role. All professions work in synergy with each other. Many, but not all hoarders have underlying mental health issues. It is not uncommon to see anxiety disorders, depression, bi-polar disorder, or personality disorders in people that hoard and only a medical professional and/or counselor can address those issues. Until those issues are addressed, there is very little chance that the hoard will not happen again.
INTERVIEW - RECOVERING FROM HOARDING
At what age did you show signs of hoarding behaviors?
In my 30’s.
What do you feel precipitated the behavior to start?
The death of my mom whom I was extremely close to.
Do any of your family members also hoard?
No, none of my family has hoarding tendencies.
When you were shopping, what did it feel like?
I felt some level of adrenaline whenever I purchased something. Also, my things comforted me after my mom passed. I could hold onto my stuff and my stuff became a security blanket.
When you brought items home, what did it feel like?
The euphoria was gone and I usually placed it where ever there was space whether that be on top of something else or in a corner. It no longer gave me a sense of accomplishment. Many things stayed with their tags on or in their bags. It just became another thing and soon I would feel a need to acquire more.
When you lived among the hoard, how did you feel?
When I first walked into my place I felt anxiety, but it didn’t take long before I didn't acknowledge or see the hoard anymore. It became the norm. I’d just push things off my couch to sit. Most often I didn’t allow anyone over because even though it was the norm to me, underneath I felt embarrassed knowing this is not how people lived. I didn’t change it though and instead made excuses.
Did you ever try to clean up you environment yourself?
Yes, several times but it always went back to being a mess.
What happened when you tried to clean up (emotional, physical, spiritually)?
Severe anxiety, anger, depression, and a feeling of hopelessness. I would just quit or procrastinate. I’d throw a bag of garbage away and then realize it didn’t make a dent so I would justify not continuing with cleaning up. Physically I didn’t have the stamina, maybe by choice. Spiritually I felt numb.
Did you follow through to completion?
No, I would procrastinate and not want to face it. It became normal for me to live that way so I found other things to occupy my time…like shopping.
Did family help? How many attempts to help you?
My family tried to help but gave up. My counselor told me that I had to do it myself and that became my excuse when others tried to help. They tried several times but never to completion (there was too much) and I would just fill areas again after a time.
What was your experience when people tried to help you?
I made promises to do it tomorrow. I felt anxiety and agitation when they wanted to throw something away or donate something I might need in the future. My possessions somehow gave me worth and comfort.
If you were able to clean up, did you stop the hoarding behavior?
I never completed the clean up or stopped the behavior.
What made you decide to use an organizer to start organizing your home?
It was easier to have someone neutral to help me. Family would become too demanding of me because they had an emotional investment in me. They would rush me, so arguments would start and then the anxiety.
What was your experience? Was it different from the familial experience?
It was better to have someone sort my stuff in piles and then let me decide what to keep or give away. When it was done this way, I was able to see just how many of one thing I had. It started to sink in that I could not wear 25 pairs of shorts or need 5 staplers. I also saw how I bought things I already had because I couldn’t find it in the mess.
How do you feel now that your home is functional and you can find things easily?
It feels good. The only rooms left are a closet and my office which my organizer and I are working on now. I can find things I need to cook and I can eat at a table instead of my lap. I can have family over now.
Is this helping with stress, anxiety, depression and other emotional conditions that clutter causes?
Yes, greatly. Outside forces still affect my anxiety and reasoning at times, but my home has become what it should be, a place of refuge. I now have a maintenance plan with my organizer.
Do you have anything else to share? Any suggestions for individuals suffering from hoarding or their family who is also affected by the behavior?
Hoarding is a disorder that can be a lifelong struggle if not dealt with. It takes the willingness to get help. Professionals are there to help and I can tell you that if you can let go of what is not important, you can free up your life for what is. Even my relationships have changed. Hiring an organizer and getting professional help is the best decision I ever made for myself and my family.