Health

Hoarders’ hidden hell

If you’ve ever looked around your living room or ventured into the basement and thought, “I’m such a hoarder,” then you are not alone. Psychologists believe the number of Australian hoarders is on the rise.

The Department of Health’s Hoarding and Severe Domestic Squalor report revealed in 2013 that 41 local Perth councils had received health and safety complaints from residents during the previous 12 months. Experts believe more than 400,000 hoarders lived in squalid conditions across Australia.

You can, however, take some comfort in knowing your unnecessarily large mug collection, overflowing bookshelf, and sentimentally stowed childhood toys do not necessarily place you among that group.

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PHOTO: TraumaClean

The Concern:

In 2013, the Australian Psychological Society recognised hoarding as a mental disorder, similar to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Up to 30 per cent of Australians with OCD were also reported to have demonstrated symptoms of compulsive hoarding.

Psychologist Claire Ahern runs group therapy programs aimed at helping hoarders regain control of their disorder. She says more and more families are seeking help for their relatives, but the relatives must be willing to tackle their disorder to participate.

“An increase in clients brought by their families doesn’t mean an increase in people being helped, because essentially you can’t treat someone who doesn’t want to come,” she says.

Professional hoarding organiser Angela EsNouf works with hoarders and their families to educate them about the disorder. “Hoarders find themselves in this position when what starts as order turns into chaos. Often that occurs through a traumatic event,” she explains.

In this way, the mental disorder can affect people who live a typically organised, tidy and regulated life, too. “Well, they might start deriving comfort from acquiring and keeping things secure … eventually though, they find having those things induces discomfort. Sadly, most seek to resolve that by acquiring more stuff,” EsNouf says.

“They can only change when the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing.”

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PHOTO: TraumaClean

While many believe hoarding to be the by-product of a disorganised lifestyle, dominant traits of hoarding disorder suggests the opposite. Perfectionism and anxiety are two significant contributors to the development of hoarding behaviour. Many of those diagnosed see themselves as perfectionists and exhibitors of strict habit and order, which enslaves them over time.

The Cycle:

The mental disorder stems from the confusion and difficulty of assigning value to things. Each object is unique… So how do you determine its value? Imagine you’re struggling to decide whether something is worth keeping, and then an unexplainable emotional attachment rises out of nowhere and answers that inner debate for you.

Then a fear of being unprepared causes a pressure to prepare for each and every idea you have. Stockpiling old newspapers for future reading or collecting yarn for a possible craft becomes “I must” rather than “I could,” and there is never enough collected because, well, “what if…?” You might start the craft, but a crippling perfectionism quickly kicks in and you must either start again or abandon the project. Of course, you keep the half-completed item “just in case.”

Your collection itself is also being perfected, constantly adding in new sub-categories, each more specific than the last, some perhaps containing just one object. Which is known as underinclusiveness, where an item’s unique traits are underlined, creating an inability to categorize. What you intend to be baskets of green, blue, and yellow yarn becomes turquoise, sky-blue, mustard and so on, until forty categories exist instead of three. There is so much order that you disappear into it.

The Stigma and Services:

EsNouf refers to an extreme case in Sydney where a bedridden middle-aged man refused to allow carers to dispose of his adult diapers. “Some refuse to get rid of bodily fluid because it’s theirs, it belongs to them,” she says. “Many members of the public are so foreign to what happens.”

When discussing how this issue should be addressed, EsNouf says the public is judging a complex issue without understanding, and can not expect their neighbours to simply dispose of the clutter. “The classic clean-out only strips them of their coping mechanism, they need to work with a community to come to their own terms with their decision,” she says.

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PHOTO: TraumaClean

“It’s like helping an alcoholic. You don’t just throw out their bottles because they’ll bring back more. You help them get control and then you call in the cleaners,” she says.

When TraumaClean owner Ashley Hood started his service, he worked mostly on cleaning up filthy sites. But he soon started a service for hoarders because regular cleaners simply couldn’t handle it.

Hood says he does at least two cleaning jobs for hoarders each week in Perth.

“The people are always different – men and women aged from about 25 to 70, I’d say, but the houses are usually looking the same,” he says.

“Often, the services and toilets are broken and clogged up because they get too embarrassed to get someone in to fix things.”

Looking around him as he cleans one hoarder’s home, Hood says the rubbish is packed up against the walls throughout. “It’s odd what some people value, but they all have their reasons and you can’t judge. There’s some old furniture and books and such. People usually have some sentimental connections to them.”

Paper rustles as Hood tramples his way into the lounge room. “There’s the ‘I don’t want to see this go to waste’ connections, there’s stacks of magazines with cat pictures that the client probably thought they’d cut out one day, and some things it looks like they were planning to fix one day,” he says dryly.

“…It’s dingy, the lights are off and broken like the services, it smells pretty musty, and then of course there’s the tracking running everywhere.”

Tracking consists of 250-millimetre-wide paths used by the occupants to navigate through the house. “Like small animal tracks, it’s a bit of danger really, they’ve got to crawl to move around some places,” he says.

About 25 per cent of Australian deaths from house fires occur in the homes of hoarders aged more than 50. The clutter is often flammable and obscures the exit. Despite this, hoarders often struggle to recognise it as a problem, or they feel too ashamed to say anything.

“People are never confident asking for help. Society gives them a bit of stigma,” Hood says.

TraumaClean works with psychologists, carers, and doctors. “Mental illness is a big deal. There’s a whole network of people. We could never just come in and take their stuff. It’s a long process,” Hood says.

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PHOTO: TraumaClean

The clients usually aren’t home when Hood and his team show up. “I mean, they’re losing a part of their life, the things they want to retain, they see a purpose in. Why they keep some things and not others I don’t know, but I know they see some value in it.”

The question of value is an interesting one. Consider a woman walking through Perth’s CBD pusing a shopping cart filled with her belongings, made up of items collected off the street. A bicycle tyre, broken umbrellas, three suitcase wheels and a scrap of shower curtain with yellow splashing ducks can all be seen. It’s difficult to put a value on them.

Is this a collection? A hoard in the making? A disorder?

Now think about the mugs, the toys and last month’s incomplete crossword that clutter your own house.

Everyone collects. Everyone orders. Everyone assigns value. In a city where the clutter is spreading, at what point does value turn from reason to insanity?