Shining a light on hoarding

Patrick Arbore briefly discussed the home of two brothers. Harlem Homer Lusk Collyer and Langley Wakeman Collyer died within just weeks of one another in 1947. It was up to the city of Harlem, New York, to clean up their brownstone at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 128th Street. The pair obsessively collected things, filling the entire space within their residence, blocking stairways and windows. It spread to the roof and caused a big stir when others outside their neighborhood got a glimpse of their stuff. Photo submitted

The junk and its accompanying smells were distinguishable before setting foot in the tiny entryway. And the closer one got to the front door — kicking aside an empty cat food bag and three dirty I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter containers, while avoiding overhanging spirals of collected dirt, dust and webs — the worse the stench grew.

Hand shaking, the key was inserted into a deadbolt lock and the door pushed open to reveal a black flash as a cat skittered by.

Dropping the keys, the hapless cleaner turned, scrambled down the four steps and rushed to the end of the sidewalk. It was no good. The stench was already buried deep inside the nostrils.

Rummaging through the car, the individual discovered a tiny bottle of Christmas pine scent potpourri renewal. “Good enough,” she said to herself as she rubbed some under her nose and inside the nostrils. It burned. But instead of the pungent stink of rotting food and overflowing cat boxes, the woman breathed in near-overwhelming smells of a deep pine forest.

It didn’t last, but as the woman returned to the front door for a second try, she thought of trees and braced herself as she retrieved the cluster of keys from accumulated clutter and filth on the floor.

Stuffed inside a singlewide mobile home was the accumulation of three lifetimes — the owner’s, her mother’s and her brother’s. Surveying the cascades of magazines, books, mail, tattered curtains, the would-be cleaner thought of one of her favorite quotes, a line from a do-it-yourself TV personality, “What the hell happened?”

A low-watt bulb still burned in a red lamp adorned with a shredded shade revealing boxes stacked high throughout the living room. A narrow trail, just wide enough to allow feet to pass by, wandered past a dilapidated easy chair. A dirty television set with its top covered with bottles, tubes of hand lotion, an open tin of now dehydrated cat food and wisps of dust and cat hair, was pulled up to within inches of the chair. Behind it was crowded more furniture, including a hutch so crammed with objects that it was hard to determine just what lay behind the smudged glass.

A nearby table, where a rectangular antique clock once stood, was piled with ratty stuffed animals, tins that once contained fruitcake or cookies, papers, pens, dirty socks and change — cans and jars of it. This was all cleaned — when? A year ago or two, was that all?

Stunned, the cleaning woman moved on slowly. The paper towel trail with cat feces flowed into the narrow hall, made smaller still by a small desk, an antique end table and small bookshelves. The shelves overflowed with what were once treasured novels, but cat claws had been at work tearing at covers; framed photos, pictures, a watercolor were nailed in untidy or haphazard ways along the walls.

This was the home of an elderly woman who had succumbed to hoarding. When had it happened? Did it begin before her retirement? Yes, there were signs. Or was it earlier, say at the death of her mother? Yes, probably then too.

Overwhelming guilt that she hadn’t been the dutiful daughter she thought she should have been during her mother’s illnesses and declining years; the untimely death of her brother added to her mental depression, and retirement led to compulsions and excuses. She compulsively bought things — expensive blankets, collections of fairies that arrived by the boxful, throw pillows, stuffed animals. None of the stuff benefited the elderly woman; everything was piled into the back bedroom for safekeeping. And while buying she complained she didn’t have enough money to pay her bills.

Hoarding is a behavioral illness, according to Patrick Arbore, founder and director for the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services at the Institute of Aging in San Francisco.

Arbore led a presentation and discussion through Passages Area Agency on Aging of which Plumas County is a member.

On Oct. 18, caregivers, adult children of possible hoarders and those identifying with the mental health disorder came together to listen and share.

Are you a hoarder?

How can someone tell if he or she, a friend or a loved one, is a hoarder? The first sign, of course, is the out-of-control mess they’ve amassed. The stuff — piles and boxes of it — will probably make no sense to anyone else, but a hoarder will defy anyone who attempts to remove it. In fact, there’s evidence that when hoarders are forced to rid themselves of their stuff, when others move in to do it for them, they quickly amass more.

Arbore, working in the field since 1970, knows hoarders, their traits, characteristics, fears and needs.

“It’s a very painful syndrome,” Arbore told his audience.

Arbore began his discussion by inviting the audience to introduce themselves by first name only and say a bit about why they were there. As it played out, it reminded one of any 12-step program —Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous or any of the many anonymous groups.

“I’m Ed. I have the potential to be a hoarder,” one man confessed. His wife of years nodded. What does he collect? Flashlights. They’re everywhere — on tables, window ledges, in the cars, his wife said. “But I use them all,” Ed answered almost defensively.

The wife said she was concerned for their adult children. Her parents collected stuff and it was difficult when it came time to clean the house and the property. Her parents’ treasures were stuffed into trailers and storage units, she elaborated. “I don’t want to pass those difficulties on to my own children,” she said.

“I’m married to a hoarder,” said another woman.

“It’s difficult to live with a hoarder,” Arbore said.

Another woman said she was present because she tended to isolate. “I’m so glad you brought that up,” Arbore said.

Not always, but those who become hoarders often isolate. They don’t want others looking at their stuff. They want to be alone with it and often their own misery.

“Some hoarders are organized,” Arbore said. Sometimes the system of organization doesn’t make sense to someone else, but it does to the individual involved.

The tendency to go into hoarding generally begins with a trauma the individual suffers. It could have happened in childhood. And today’s adolescents are so much more anxious, they’re very likely to develop the characteristics, he said. “You used to never see this except in the old,” Arbore explained. Times are changing and so are the results.

Trauma, with or without depression, is a major symptom.

While he talked, Arbore shared stories of people he had known over his long career.

One friend hoarded furniture. There wasn’t a Dumpster she could pass up. And she would drag home whatever it was she found — broken tables, chairs, whatever — always with the intention that she was going to fix them up and sell them. She never did. They just accumulated around her.

He said that another friend was taking this individual to a big social event. They were dressed up and the one woman told the other she was not allowed near a Dumpster. She said she couldn’t tolerate it. And if she did it, she’d never talk to her again.

Before the woman knew it, the furniture hoarder was heading toward a Dumpster. And a broken table emerged. The woman who made the threat stood by it, telling her friend she was getting in a cab and leaving. As far as Arbore knows, they haven’t spoken since. Was the loss of the friend of importance? No. The woman’s hoard of broken furniture was far more fulfilling

Friendships, families, relationships between lovers all fall apart when an obsession becomes the foremost thing in the hoarder’s life.

Possessions become the security. It helps fill the hole left by whatever life has thrown at an individual. It doesn’t matter what object the hoarder finds security in. Without it the individual feels too vulnerable to face life. Without it, when it’s taken away, Arbore has learned, “It feels like I’ve been raped!”

“I’ve seen so many ‘National Geographic’ magazines in places that they don’t belong,” he said. One man at a table nodded. He ventured to say that he hasn’t read one in the last year, but he must keep them. “I’m always going to read them.”

“I save magazines and newspapers because I don’t want to miss anything,” said a woman seated next to him. “I’m always going to read them.”

She also saves paper and has it scattered in all the rooms ready to use. She admitted that when her son calls she makes notes on things and keeps them. She explained that she takes them while he talks. Her plan is to read them and then discuss the things with him when he calls again. He thinks it’s madness.

Over the years, a lot of research has been done on hoarding and those who do it. There is no difference between the number of men or women who hoard. And there is no difference in education levels. Race doesn’t have a place in it. Those raised during the Great Depression of the 1930s are no more likely to become hoarders than others, Arbore shared.

Arbore said he knows a Harvard graduate who is a hoarder. His wife has managed to make him confine his hoarding to his office and in that space, there isn’t a spot anywhere that isn’t filled with papers. For him the collection represents how long he would live. If he always has things he intends to read, then he would live long enough to eventually get around to finding it and reading it.

Another woman, Arbore knew, married a man who liked to restore old cars. He brought one to her house, and then others accumulated. Soon he was bringing in car parts to store inside. She didn’t like it. In counseling she gave him an ultimatum — his cars or her. With no thought at all he chose his stuff. Apparently they worked it out, but the man had to rid himself of his treasures and the woman learned a very hard lesson.

As a word of advice, Arbore warned that when someone wants to rid a hoarder of his or her stuff to take it slowly and be gentle.

He said he once called the producer of a television program about people who hoard. Arbore said he told the man that it was unkind to just go in and take everything. The producer responded by hanging up.

Arbore said that it’s clear and simple, the brain of a hoarder doesn’t work like another individual’s. This is clinically proven, he said. “It’s in the DSM-5,” he explained, which is the American Psychiatric Association’s list of recognized mental disorders.

Neuroimaging studies show divergent patterns of brain activity and various cognitive peculiarities are common to hoarders.

In the real world of compulsive hoarding, the individual is recognized by excessively accumulating stuff and the refusal to get rid of it — sell it, throw it away or give it away.

While hoarding tendencies are often triggered by trauma, hoarding is also genetic.

In addition, it often leads to interfering with an individual’s daily functions — the kitchen is too full to cook or even get to the stove and refrigerator. There are health risks because along with the clutter can come filth, especially if pets are involved. There’s poor sanitation — pets don’t go outside, the bathroom becomes inaccessible and the results mean poor sanitation.

There is help, he said. But ridding someone of a hoarding tendency is rare. There is no help at this point for people who hoard animals. Quite often, these two run together.

Arbore said that he once visited a woman who had about 35 cats in her house. They were thin, dehydrated and didn’t look healthy. But the woman thought they were fine. As they wove their way through her stuff, he happened to uncover two dead cats that the woman didn’t know had died.

The time spent with Arbore went quickly — maybe too fast, with the discussions from real people and the examples of others he provided.

Would the hoarders present go home and clear their stuff? No, probably not. It’s difficult. But they were in the right place at the right time to learn something about their true natures.

Are you a hoarder, packrat or collector?

Four years ago a study indicated that at least four million people in the United States suffered from a hoarding disorder. However, that number could actually be as high as 15 million.

A hoarder is someone who goes to extremes in collecting whatever it is that appeals to them. Sometimes they have something in mind — the woman who was always going to fix broken furniture to sell — others just compulsively save things.

Hoarders often feel distressed and believe that if they have the right stuff somehow, sometime they will start to feel better. Hoarding is a mental disorder.

A pack rat is someone who collects things with no organization involved. Pack rats often collect and keep too much stuff, but it generally doesn’t interfere with their lives. They can cook on the stove, use the shower because they are filled with things, and they have space to sit or sleep.

Collectors often have a few things that really intrigue or inspire them — a particular art form, a line of jewelry, cars or whatever it is that draws their attention and holds it.

Collections also typically have meaning and aren’t there for the purposes of filling a void.

Most notable hoarders

The sons of a well-known Manhattan doctor, the Collyer brothers, lived together for their entire lives in a Fifth Avenue brownstone.

And they collected stuff. Anything. Piles and piles of it. It filled the home, the rooftop and out the doors.

Because the brothers were afraid that someone would break in and remove their stuff, they made booby traps to protect it all.

According to reports, one of the brothers went blind and became paralyzed. He was totally reliant on his brother for everything. Unfortunately, the sound brother was killed by one of their booby traps and the other brother starved to death.

No one found them for weeks. Then it became the city’s job to clean up the mountains of rubbish and other items they had accumulated over their lifetime.

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