The Hoarding Syndrome — When Clutter Goes Out Of Control

Saving stuff is normal. Sometimes, though, it can go too far.

By Deborah Branscum from Reader's Digest | March 2007

Family members often feel angry and resentful about a hoarder’s seemingly inexplicable behavior. They also feel trapped. Forcible cleanups are risky, but so is honoring a hoarder’s wishes to be left alone. Relatives often try to sort through a hoard secretly or without permission. That’s “a very bad idea,” according to Fugen Neziroglu, PhD, co-author of Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding and clinical director of the Bio-Behavioral Institute of Great Neck, New York.

Neziroglu encourages family members to take a different approach and confront hoarders about the problem with the help of an experienced therapist. Experts like her caution that disposing of a person’s belongings without permission can lead to trauma or worse. But relatives say they don’t always have a choice.

“The constant refrain we hear from professionals is ‘If they aren’t a danger to others, then they have a right to live how they want,’ ” says Donna Austin, who founded the Children of Hoarders online support group (childrenofhoarders.com). “When an aging parent runs the daily risk of slipping on glossy magazines on the floor and breaking a hip, or lives in an extreme fire hazard, it’s not so easy to stand by and do nothing.”

It’s not so easy to help either. By the time Eugenia Lester’s children stepped in, the 60-year-old former businesswoman was sleeping in the yard of her Southern California home. Piles of stuff blocked every door of the pale stucco residence, which could be entered only through a window. Unhappy neighbors had circulated a petition to force Lester out of the area, and she was in and out of court for failing to clean up the property, according to her daughter Cynthia, a 28-year-old filmmaker in New York. Even as rats rooted through refuse in the uninhabitable home, Lester was unable or unwilling to acknowledge the physical and legal dangers she faced.

Son Brian, 25, says cleaning out his mother’s home was like working at a landfill. “Everything inside was rotted and mildewed,” he says. “It looked like the city dump. There was stuff piled up about four feet high — trash, pictures, clothes, newspapers.” Household leaks meant the bottom layer was wet; the entire house stank.

Cynthia’s upcoming documentary, My Mother’s Garden, records the long, painful process of separating Lester from most of her possessions during the summer and fall of 2005. It took Lester’s children about eight weeks and some $20,000 simply to empty the place. Lester’s disorder made her anything but grateful when she returned home after the cleanup. “I hate you people; you robbed me,” she shouted, then started weeping. A few weeks later, Lester was so depressed and suicidal that she needed emergency care.

More than a year after the painful intervention, Lester seems to be doing much better in a board-and-care facility. “I think our family and my mother are in a much better space,” Cynthia says. “We are closer and happier.” But Cynthia is still trying to arrange appropriate treatment for her mother’s disorder.

Steketee says hoarders and their families pay a toll for interventions. “Whichever family members carry the stick are going to pay for that in terms of the relationship,” she says. The Lester family was no exception.
Cynthia says her mother may never forgive her for the forced cleanup.

Clearing a clutter-ridden home is so stressful that family members are often tempted to simply trash everything, which adds to the hoarder’s distress. Experienced organizers, while they can’t treat the problem, can help preserve family relationships and do more than fill dumpsters. New York City-based Bergfeld’s Estate Clearance Service, for example, has uncovered valuable jewelry, musical instruments and historically important documents for clients, who sometimes mix treasures with trash.

Not Cured but Under Control
During a big cleanup in 2002, Sue Howard worried that her husband was tossing too much, so she hid a few bags destined for the dump. As he returned them to the trash pile, Howard begged to keep them — even though she wasn’t sure what they held. And she wondered, Is this what drug addicts do, begging to keep their drugs?

After a counselor suggested she might be a hoarder, Howard found information and support on the Yahoo! Messiness-and-Hoarding online self-help group. Despite efforts to de-clutter, though, her house never stayed clean. Having her children taken away from her last year forced Howard to recognize how she had sabotaged decluttering efforts by continuing to bring new stuff home. Since that has stopped, she says, much of the household clutter is gone — but there’s still more to do. “My children mean everything to me, and I’ve worked very hard in my fight to get them back.”

The newly spacious home is a pleasure for Howard and her children, who live there on weekends. But Howard understands that her fight isn’t over. She likely faces a lifelong battle against the compulsion to acquire more — just in case. “I’ll still have hoarding tendencies, but I have to keep telling my brain the truth,” she says. “God’s going to provide what I need.”