When the phone rang one afternoon last December, it was an unfamiliar number, but I immediately recognized my father’s area code. It was his landlord. Before he'd uttered a single word, I was already braced for bad news.
And while the news was definitely bad, it wasn’t what I expected.
“Have you seen your father’s place?” came a voice with a thick Thai accent.
“Oh boy,” I thought, “we’re finally going to have to deal with this.”
The Secret Life of a Hoarder
My 85-year-old father lives four hours away from me, but I don’t get to visit as often as I’d like. My work keeps me very busy, gas is expensive here in Southern California, plus I have to spring for a hotel and restaurant meals when I visit because there’s no room at his place. There’s barely room for him. Over the years, my father "graduated" from being a pack rat to a bona fide hoarder.
Ever since my parents divorced in the 1960s, Dad has lived alone. The first decade, he rented a 4,000-square-foot former youth center for $300 a month. For the past 23 years, he has lived in an 800-square-foot studio in a rough neighborhood in San Diego. It’s a dump, but the rent still eats up a big chunk of his Social Security and veteran’s pension.
My father is smart, funny, interesting and interested in life. He likes particle physics and all kinds of music, from jazz to classical to Latin. He still makes the 20-minute drive over the border to Tijuana regularly to hear live salsa music. Back in the day, my pop was a gifted and respected jazz pianist, but he quit playing about five years ago, when his arthritis got too bad. I think that’s when his life went off the rails.
I started noticing that my father’s musical “collections” were getting out of hand. His place was packed with some 10,000 LPs, stacks of CDs that were inching toward his bed and 33 loudspeakers, stacked floor-to-ceiling (talk about a “wall of sound”).
Gradually the items filling his place weren’t just music and audio devices: He also had thousands of plastic shopping bags, boxes of books and tons of junky items acquired at thrift stores.
On a visit three or four years ago, I did my best to hide my horror and offered to do “a little cleaning up.” Wearing a face mask and rubber gloves, I solicited his guidance on what could be thrown out. I bought some large plastic boxes and put his important papers in there; clothing was folded and placed into plastic hampers. After a few hours, we had created a “doughnut hole” in the middle of his living room. We had a long way to go, but it was a start.
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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The next time I went to see him, about a year later, I was appalled to discover that things had actually gotten worse. In between visits, I’d tried to take more steps toward clearing out his place — even offering to bring in other family members to help — but my father resisted. He knew he had a problem, but he wasn’t ready to separate his cherished possessions from the junk. I grew frustrated and decided to adopt a “live and let hoard” philosophy.
Two years ago, my sister and I drove down to take him out for his birthday. The corridors through the piles were all but gone. His baby grand piano was piled so high with stuff that its top could not be opened, let alone have its ivories tickled.
The bathroom floor was coated in talcum powder and looked like a snowstorm had blown through. To reach the bathroom from the living room, one had to climb over the clothing hampers, stacks of boxes and Tower Records bags filled with CDs.
His makeshift kitchen had a fridge, a hot plate, half a dozen cans of WD-40, cases of motor oil, an amplifier, a cardboard box labeled “Sony cassettes” and a wall of shelves crammed with so many swollen cans of expired food that was it looked like the Tower of Pisa.
At lunch, my sister and I decided to candidly address the situation. Sheepishly, with obvious shame and embarrassment, our father finally admitted that things were totally out of control. But he continued to make feeble excuses and didn’t seem ready to accept help.
Frustrated, my sister made it clear that she wouldn’t have anything further to do with the situation until he called with a firm date when we could come back and begin the clearing-out process for real. Sadly, Pop couldn’t do that — though he repeatedly said he’d love for us to continue to visit.
And that’s how we left things until the landlord called.
The Long Road to Recovery
The first thing I did when I hung up that day was call my father. I told him he was ruining my relationship with my sister and bringing me into a major dispute with his landlord. I said I was really angry about what his problem was doing to my life.
Something clicked. Threatened with eviction and realizing the pain he was causing the daughter he loved so much, my father finally acknowledged how serious the problem was and said he’d let me help him. I negotiated a $50 rent reduction with the landlord — on the condition that my father truly began to clear stuff out.
I began researching professional help for hoarders. I found organizations and individuals who specialized in this condition, including the experts who appear on the compelling A&E show Hoarders. I forced myself to watch a few episodes to prepare myself for what lay ahead.
One organization that clears out houses, 1-800-Hoarders.com, sounded perfect, except they charge $3,500 a day. Even if we had the money, I wasn’t sure my father was psychologically prepared for that. I saw how the subjects on Hoarders reacted to being “invaded,” and I felt he would be the same.
I kept digging until I finally hit pay dirt. I stumbled upon a wealth of resources from the San Diego Hoarding Collaborative (many cities have hoarding task forces), which listed a free clinical trial run by the University of California, San Diego in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I wasted no time calling and was thrilled to learn that the program was still open. But first my father had to qualify — and there was no guarantee that he’d get into the group that included home visits (the other one was basically just cognitive therapy).
Prepared for defeat, I dialed my father’s number to see if he was willing to do this. To my huge relief, he said yes, and even admitted he was hoping for the home visits group. (Many hoarders prefer to get help from outside professional organizers rather than family members and are adverse to the heavy psychological work of dealing with the mental aspect of hoarding.)
(MORE: Giving Things Away Can Make a Life Transition Easier)
Facts About Hoarders
- No one knows exactly how many hoarders there are in the United States because they tend to hide their problem in embarrassment and shame. Estimates range from 1 million to 6 million, and I read that 1 of every 30 Americans suffers from hoarding — and some figures are even higher.
- Hoarders view their “stuff” very differently than other people do. They see numerous “opportunities” in items and feel “emotionally connected” to their possessions in ways others don’t.
- Hoarders suffer from a condition called “clutter blindness” — that is, they literally don’t see the mess they’ve surrounded themselves with.
- Hoarding has been added as a psychological disorder to the latest edition of the psychologists’ bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (due out in May 2013), and it often goes hand-in-hand with obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental disorders.
- Hoarders think spatially and categorically, meaning they prefer stacks of papers on a desk they can see over neat horizontal files in filing cabinets with papers tucked out of sight.
Help for the Helpers
There are a few important things to know if you are dealing with a hoarder.
- Do not clear out a person’s home or throw things out without him knowing. This could destroy your relationship with him.
- Don’t try to change him. Hoarders have to modify their own behavior and decision-making abilities. It is a very, very difficult path and unfortunately one that is not always met with ongoing success. Follow-up therapy is essential to keeping on track.
- Hoarding is often triggered by depression or trauma, like divorce, abuse or death. And early childhood experiences, like growing up poor or having a parent who’s a hoarder, may foster those tendencies.
Like Father, Like Daughter?
One of the most disturbing things I discovered in my research was evidence of a genetic connection. As I read up on the subject, I couldn’t get around the fact that I had a number — but not all — of the traits identified with hoarding, which is often lumped with ADHD. This certainly contributes to my discomfort with my father’s condition. And it hasn’t helped that he’s fond of saying, “I come by it naturally: My mother was a pack rat.”
In my own life, I suffer from the “stacks of papers” problem and have a hard time filing away bills and other papers. I am guilty of keeping plastic containers filled with papers that I need to sort through and more often than not, my kitchen counter gets filled up with odds and ends. I like to work on my “bed desk,” and during tax season, my bed becomes a horizontal filing cabinet. My clothes closet could use a good cleaning out/organizing as well.
It’s only now, with my father close to conquering his demons, that I can admit to my own tendencies and take action to nip them in the bud before I wind up with a lifetime of “valuable collections” to rival my pop’s. The good news is that we both are facing this unblinkingly, and neither of us is living in denial.
Thanks to that wake-up call from the landlord and the program at UC San Diego, we have new tools for helping my father, and he’s hopeful that he can make a fresh start. I think of the Scottish proverb: “Were it not for hope, the heart would break.”
Resources for Hoarders and Their Families
- The International OCD Foundation is the most comprehensive website for up-to-date, accurate information about hoarding, including where and how to seek help. Particularly helpful are Randy Frost’s videos.
- The ICD Clutter Test on the Institute for Challenging Disorganization site can help you determine whether you or a loved one is a hoarder, and at what level (1-5) on the hoarding scale.
- Online hoarding support groups are held every Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern time at 1-800-Hoarders.com. Participants can ask questions of professional cleaners, physicians, therapists and even other hoarders who’ve learned to manage their disorders. There’s also a weekly peer support group just for hoarders every Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
- The Institute for Challenging Disorganization, a national organization for professionals and the public, lists national and international support groups as well as organizers who are trained to help hoarders.
Leslie A. Westbrook is an author, freelance writer and book coach based in California.
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