Secret hoarders often reveal heartbreaking truths

Hoarders often need help. Picture: Comp

Hoarders often need help. Picture: Comp

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PAPERS, books and endless clutter were scattered across every spare inch of floor, piled high up towards the ceiling.

And it was there, perched on top of the 4ft high tower of print and junk that the frail elderly man laid his tired head to rest each night.

Hoarders

Hoarders

Linda Fay recalls the overwhelming scene inside the 82-year-old’s chaotic home with a slight shudder. Not because she felt disgusted by what might appear to some as sheer neglect for personal surroundings and a man-made haven for hungry vermin, but because this was evidence of a man in desperate need of help.

“It was the worst one I have dealt with,” recalls Linda, Scotland’s only certified counsellor specialising in helping people with compulsive hoarding disorder. “He couldn’t get into any of the rooms in his house, they were completely full with stuff piled halfway up the walls.

“He was 82, and at night he had to climb over it and lie on top to sleep, four feet off the ground.”

Of course, for most of us who are probably either tackling – or at least thinking about – the big spring clean, it’s hard to imagine living in a home so stuffed with what appears to be just worthless rubbish that we can’t enter our rooms.

Therapist Linda Fay. Picture: Scott Taylor.

Therapist Linda Fay. Picture: Scott Taylor.

Nor could most of us handle living for seven years in a house without heat or hot water, like one woman Linda was recently called upon to help.

“Her boiler was broken, and she had so much stuff blocking access to it that workmen couldn’t get in to repair it,” she recalls. “It was only when she knew she had to go to hospital and that she’d be returning to a house without heat or hot water that she realised she wanted help.

“Again, it’s not uncommon – quite often tradesmen won’t even go inside hoarders’ homes because they can be a bit smelly and dirty and not always safe to enter.”

It makes news that half of Britain’s motorists no longer park their cars in their garages because they are so full of junk seem small fry. RAC Home Insurance says 4.6 million household garages are so stuffed with half-empty paint pots and rusty gardening tools – alongside a host of other “stuff” we can’t bear to chuck away – that the family car ends up parked in the drive.

According to Linda, 45, recently confirmed as the UK’s sole certified chronic disorganisation specialist, some junk like that in our lives is normal. The difference is that while most of us reach the point of having a clear-out, for others throwing away things most regard as piles of rubbish – newspapers, takeaway containers, plastic tubs and old books – would be like dispensing with their most precious possessions.

And anyone tempted to charge in to clean it all up, however helpful that sounds, could end up doing more harm than good.

“There have been cases of people with good intentions who send someone on holiday and then clear out their house thinking they’ll be delighted about it,” says Linda, who has worked with hoarders across Central Scotland for the past two years from her Edinburgh base. “In reality, they are devastated. Some have even gone on to attempt suicide as a result.”

Instead, she says, it requires gentle coaxing and counselling to unwrap the often complex layers of behaviour to find out what is going on, and why.

“Most cases are linked to some kind of trauma or loss, it could be deprivation or abuse when younger, bereavement, divorce or redundancy,” she adds. “It could go as far back as childhood and lie dormant then, as life events happen, people go through periods of acquiring more things and it becomes a way to soothe themselves.”

Indeed, a hoarder’s home is a world away from the heaving shelves in the garage loaded with bits of bike and old tools that are being kept “just in case”, or the avid collector who just has to buy another example of their favourite thing. In some cases Linda, who has been working with fire services to raise awareness of the condition, has seen homes so full of papers, books and containers that almost every room was inaccessible, raising serious safety problems.

“We all have hoarding behaviour,” she points out. “People who hoard don’t do anything different to the rest of us, it’s the scale that’s the problem.

“Usually people realise they have too many things and sort them out. But hoarders often develop an emotional attachment to their belongings, they just can’t let them go.”

Last year, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified hoarding disorder from being an offshoot of obsessive compulsive disorder – OCD – to a full-blown condition in its own right. That was recognition at last, says Linda, of a problem that is thought to affect at least six per cent of the population and possibly as much as 15 per cent.

She is now working with at least ten hoarders, whose problems vary from a refusal to throw things out to a desperate urge to continuously add to their possessions.

Among them is a woman in her seventies whose home is crammed with new items she knows she doesn’t need.

“Her compulsion to acquire is to do with loneliness,” says Linda. “She is lonely and finds it hard to spend too long at home. She doesn’t want the stuff she buys, she wants the interaction with people in the shops and at the checkout.

“She has a large piece of furniture bought from John Lewis in her hall which is still in bubble wrap, and bags of food she knows she will never eat, piled in her kitchen.

“She can’t afford what she buys – quite often people like her will end up in debt – but shopping is an easy way for her to interact with people.”

It’s a desperately sad story but not uncommon among the hoarders she’s worked with. Some, she says, are experts at covering up the chaos. “I have one woman who has worked for the BBC for 30 years,” says Linda. “No-one at work would guess she has a hoarding problem.

“People are good at hiding it. I see people with lives that appear very full, they’ll be out and about all day, doing things. In fact, they are 
avoiding being at home because being at home isn’t comfortable.

“But it’s still not bad enough for them to want to part with their stuff.”

Her role involves helping them understand the reasons for their behaviour and gradually letting go of the items they have kept. Sometimes she will work with other professionals to help untangle the behaviour while in some cases hoarders can have other health issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression or be bipolar.

Part of her time is also spent helping train others in understanding how to deal with a hoarder, and she is also working with Edinburgh Napier University on developing a mobile phone app which can be used to help guide hoarders through their behaviour.

For many caught up in their behaviour, such as relatives and friends, it’s the sheer worthlessness of what hoarders see value in that is most perplexing, she adds.

“Common items that tend to be hoarded are books, newspapers, tubs, takeaway cartons, clothes,” she adds. “People who hoard often see so much potential for things, there’s always a use for something. They are keeping it to give to someone but it never quite leaves them. It puts a lot of strain on relationships.

“People might think these people are lazy and dirty, but it’s not true,” she adds. “The truth is they often want help but shame and embarrassment stops them, and it gets worse.

“It’s not curable, but if people get the right support it can be managed.”

• Linda Fay runs Life-Pod, a counselling service for people with hoarding disorder (www.life-pod.co.uk).

Troubles in store

CONCERN among fire and rescue organisations about the risks that come with hoarding behaviour led to the first UK-wide hoarding awareness week.

According to the Chief Fire Officers Association, hoarding can lead to an a string of problems in the event of a fire – from the occupant becoming trapped by the sheer volume of their possessions and unable to escape, to the items themselves, such as papers, books and magazines, fuelling any fire which does break out.

Some hoarders who have blocked off access to electricity meters or gas supplies may be using candles for light or paraffin heaters – raising the risk of fire.

There are also concerns that hoarders’ homes could become a haven for vermin, raising health worries.

The campaign urged organisations working with individuals with hoarding behaviour not to suddenly organise a clean-up as it could impact on their mental health, and to instead help them seek support.

It stressed that people with hoarding problems are neither ‘lazy’ or ‘dirty’. “Usually the opposite is true,” said a spokesman. “They have often undergone a traumatic experience or had a huge period of instability in their lives.

“They experience shame and fear which paralyses them and makes it very difficult to understand how they can return to the way they were before.

“Incorrect intervention can often cause further trauma if they feel they have been perceived to be someone who they are not.”