Jan 7 2009

New Year’s Resolutions

With the start of a new year, Anna Leah, the moderator of a hoarding support group in New York, has challenged each of her group members to throw away one thing every day.

This resolution seemed somewhat unfathomable to one of the group members who claims that ubiquitous store sales continuously sway her into buying things she doesn’t need. Currently, her closet is cluttered with stacks of shoes, many of which she has never worn. In an attempt to curb her shopping sprees, the group member recently placed a sign in her agenda that says, “No Buy.”

Another group member recently donated a large quantity of travel books that she saved for trips she never ended up taking. Upon donating the books, she received a “donation receipt,” which she said motivated her to give away the books.

While she has taken control of cleaning out some of her clutter, she still feels obligated to ask her brother, who occasionally lives with her, whether she can donate his overbearing stacks of canned-food, which she says he’ll never eat. Another group member stressed that it’s important for her take control of her own surroundings and scolded her for suggesting that she ask her brother first before discarding his hoarded food.

At the end of the meeting, Anna Leah suggested that this year her members make an effort to create an environment where they’ll have access to fresh air and safe surroundings. The group members should start by clearing items away from windows or air vents, and if their homes are extremely cluttered, the group members should clear a pathway so that they can safely roam throughout their home.

Dec 25 2008

New Yorker Cartoon


A New Yorker cartoon from the December 22/29 issue.

Dec 25 2008

Clutter-Free Christmas Tips

Here are some links for the holidays. Happiest of festivities to all of our readers!

Dec 18 2008

Level V Jersey Hoarder

My escapades in hoarding investigation took me to Passaic, New Jersey, on Monday. I met with a chronic hoarder with whom we have been in intermittent contact over the past two months. The meeting proceeded as planned, yet I was concerned throughout that my relationship with our first major hoarder would be jeopardized by my inquiries. Like walking on eggshells, my conversations with Catherine aimed to satisfy my curiosities while remaining consistent with what I viewed as a reasonable level of empathy.

My worst fears as well as my most dashing hopes were confirmed in this watershed interview and exploration of a truly Level V hoarding site. The disgustingly repulsive fundamentals of Catherine’s hoarding were remarkable. I have already happened upon the holy grail of our hoarding investigation, and the sight of it may have been too much to handle. Catherine’s hoarding involves bottles, papers, toys, 8 cats, and furniture. But, far and away the most revolting part of this first hoarding scene experience was the presence of both human and animal excrement all over the hoarding scene.

Kitchen Floor

The kitchen floor, with litter boxes

Catherine claims that her hoarding problem has improved. However, that is hardly believable, given the current state of her residence. It is impossible to enter more than a step-and-a-half through the front door of the residence. At least three feet of stuff cover the foyer and living room floors. It is impossible to enter more than two steps from the kitchen entrance to the residence, as three to four feet of rubbish cover the kitchen and adjacent areas of the first floor. And, this is a mere 5 months after Don Tagatac’s clean-up company removed 5 tons of detritus in 5 days of de-cluttering. Tagatac said that the stuff was about 5 feet high before he tidied Catherine’s residence. Now, the stuff is back up to at least three feet high.

Catherine risks being kicked out of her house by the Passaic County authorities because of the environmental and health violations associated with her hoarding tendencies. The county will soon take her to court and most likely put a lien on her house – unless Catherine manages to cough up the cash for another cleanup like July’s, of which she financed 60%. The county may again be willing to pony up 40% of the clean-up costs, but it is also very probable that Catherine is nearing the end of her quarter-century of extreme hoarding.

Baby Pics

Catherine's baby pictures were almost discarded in the July cleanup

Catherine told me that I was the first human being who was neither family member, cleanup specialists, nor hoarding therapy group member to enter her residence in 25 years. That means that, since I was born, this woman’s life has been characterized by an unimaginable loneliness in her private life. The hoarding and loneliness clearly go hand-in-hand, as one builds on the other. Interpersonal connections are indubitably made much more difficult as the hoarding turns off potential acquaintances and mates.

In essence, I was shocked by the disconnect between Catherine and logic. To a reasonable person, her hoarding mess would involve a series of concrete steps that would lead to a more functional and sanitary lifestyle. But hoarders cannot fully perceive the irrationality of their behavior and how it alienates them from non-hoarders. Perhaps they are capable of forming interpersonal bonds  with their fellow hoarders? This does seem somewhat feasible, but ultimately, serious hoarders create intimate relations with their junk in response to their isolation and disaffection from the rest of the external world. People who live with other human beings cannot accumulate the sorts of messes that exist in one-member households. Housemates cannot and will not generally tolerate extreme hoarding that has reached either Level IV or V – meaning severe impediment to living space and inoperability of most normal residential functions.

Living Room

The cluttered living room

To conclude, Catherine does not have many options left. Therapy may still be on the table, but her depression and ADD problems have long been co-morbid with her hoarding behavior. As she ages, sadly, it becomes less and less likely that she can kick her hoarding addiction. The shame inherent in the disorder prevents her from ever really coming to terms with how the behavior is viewed by non-hoarding public. The legal ramifications of her destructive clutter keep mounting, and it appears increasingly difficult for her to avoid the sanction of Passaic County authorities. I wonder whether living in an adult group home might be the optimal solution for this type of extreme hoarder.

Cleanup guru Tagatac was afraid that Catherine’s behavior had reverted to prior levels of hoarding, but it seems that he was not entirely surprised when I told him how severe the regression was. Barring the exceptional generosity of Passaic County and/or an immediate and total reversal of hoarding tendencies, Catherine is nearing full self-destruction. Hoarding takes a significant toll on society, but ultimately, it is the individual hoarder who suffers the most from the tragically odd behavior.

Video: Catherine’s back stairwell, which leads to her highly cluttered kitchen.

Dec 18 2008

Hoarders at Holiday Parties

Shockingly enough, fellow holiday party goers have been incredibly interested in talking about hoarding. Tis the season to be merry and jolly, but I would never have guessed how fascinated all these Chrismakwanzakah revelers would be in the issue of hoarding. Even more than that, I have managed to make an average of 2.5 solid hoarder contacts at the parties where I have sought to spread the hoarder gospel. And, those contacts just seemed to come my way with little effort hoarding hoarder contacts.

I will discuss a few of the hoarder stories that I happened upon at two particular holiday bashes. At the first, I met a young man from the city whose uncle had been hoarding newspapers in his midtown apartment for many years, until his habit became severe enough that his extended family intervened. Now, the uncle seems to be on less cluttered ground, having met a new girlfriend and continuing to ensure the relative cleanliness of his abode. It seems that many uber-educated New Yorkers are inclined to hoard information in either newspapers or books, but this problem is generally much worse with folks who live alone. There is a marked contrast that exists between hoarders-in-the-making who co-habitate with mates and those whose hoarding has fully materialized when their household consists solely of one person. Anyway, the second major hoarder contact at this particular holiday party on the Upper West Side was a young woman whose middle-aged Pelham mother has become a collector-addict with all sorts of memorabilia and knickknacks. There was little evidence of shame in this behavior for this specific case, but the hoarding tendency seemed indefatigable. One of this mother’s daughters is a practicing psychologist, who has made little to no headway in combating the scourge.

At another holiday party, I was taken aback by the phenomenal interest in hoarding conversation that was displayed upon my introduction of the topic. Initially, when I entered the hipster holiday bash in Williamsburg, there was a rather awkward silence. But, as I broached the hoarding subject, people began telling highly animated stories about their artist comrades whose hoarding of plastics, metals, paints, and all sorts of marginally salvageable materials gave me new insight into the ways that hoarding is part-and-parcel a form of aesthetic expression. Our project team had discussed in some depth how a hoarder’s space is analogous  to an artist’s canvas, in the way that belongings and accoutrements are splattered, peppered, plopped down, and organized in a way that is often entirely indecipherable to laypersons or people unfamiliar with that unique way of compartmentalizing objects within a space.

Perhaps the hoarder’s aesthetic sense is rarely appreciable by the non-hoarding masses, but this parallel is undeniable. Hoarders clearly project their worldview and attachment to their immediate external space via their cluttering tendencies, in the same way that artists render their work a function of their vision. It is unclear whether hoarders harbor a hypothesis about their hoarding task, in the same way that artists would generally have some sort of philosophy about why and how they create beauty. Hoarders probably cannot generally be said to create beauty in an intrinsically recognizable or logical way. Regardless, the manifestations of the hoarding instinct does reflect some level of commonality with the artistic sensibility.

Anyhow, on to the actual examples of hoarding that were discussed at the Williamsburg party. I met four folks who had concrete tales of hoarding that involved either themselves or close relatives/friends. One Chicago native currently resides in the East Village and obsessively rummages through the trash for CPUs. She has compulsively searched for other goods in waste receptacles in the past. At this point, she collects the computer hearts in order to fashion art out of them and display the finished products in galleries. It is unknown whether her level of hoarding would qualify any more than Level I on the hoarding scale, but it seems that her aesthetic instincts could very well spiral into more severe hoarding behavior. Moreover, she uses epistemological theories by Heidegger to explain her relationship with space and personal items. It may not be uncommon to have an advanced postmodern sort of explanation for hoarding behavior.

The next hoarder tale that was evoked involved a young Brooklynite’s godparents who reside in Sykesville, Maryland. These godparents have been antique dealers for decades, but their home has long been a hoarding nightmare, most likely hovering somewhere around Level IV. Their stove was long ago rendered inoperable by the dead animals that lurked therein. Serious maintenance problems arose from the heavy antiques that filled the residence. Vast portions of the house have been inaccessible for years, and the hoarding by this couple seems not to have faded at all. Hoarding most certainly worsens with age, as people become less and less able to become emotionally and physically ready to discard the innumerable contents of their dwellings. The behavior becomes more and more entrenched as the years go by. Hoarders seem to lose the decisiveness that comes with the ability to throw things out on a daily basis. “Normal” folks make scores of decisions every day pertaining to how much stuff will be discarded from their personal spheres, but hoarders are paralyzed in this process of excluding objects that seem like they could potentially be valuable or useful in the long term.

The third hoarding story from the Williamsburg holiday party was not quite a genuine hoarding tale, but a diabetic fellow named Danny mentioned his penchant for hoarding medicines and insulin that could be useful in the event of a disaster. I responded to him that such careful planning for the worst was most likely not hoarding and that this was a reasonable way to prepare for possible eventualities. He replied that there were nonetheless other types of collectibles that he saved somewhat compulsively, but I retorted that collecting one or two types of memorabilia or cultural items is not hoarding until it impedes one’s living space. Everyone in our acquisitive society enjoys collecting something, and it is not unusual to assume that this must qualify as hoarding. However, actual hoarding only occurs in 1-2% of the American population. This means that the vast majority of people are acquainted with at least one hoarder. It also means that many non-hoarders fear becoming a hoarder, or they are self-conscious/guilty about some  acquisitive tendency that could spiral out of control.


Taco Bell hot sauce packets, courtesy of Flickr user: su-lin

Taco Bell hot sauce packets, courtesy of Flickr user: su-lin

The fourth hoarder story from last Sunday’s Willyburg party was of a young Japanese art history student in Berkeley who hoarders a diverse range of objects: Taco Bell hot sauce packets, blond wigs, Queen Elizabeth memorabilia, vintage summer dresses, and much more! This woman is also very motivated by a theoretical explanation for her sociocultural bent and how it manifests in her treatment of objects and extreme attachment to a plethora of inanimate things.


In sum, a surprising quantity of regular folks have elaborate tales of hoarding, involving friends, relatives, and themselves. The journey is getting crazier and more cluttered…

Dec 17 2008

Children of Hoarders

Elizabeth Nelson said that she spent most of her childhood believing that she was one of the reasons why her mother suffered from compulsive hoarding and that her mother would frequently find excuses to blame the family for the clutter in their five-bedroom home. “My mother would tell us that the house is messy because you kicked your shoes underneath the dining room table and because your father doesn’t throw away the envelopes to bills,” Elizabeth said.

Like many children of hoarders, who are part of the baby boomer generation, Elizabeth grew up having no concept of what hoarding was. “We [my family] were all sort of taught that this was my mother’s thing to do, and we couldn’t do anything about it because she had such tight control of the house,” said Elizabeth.

Today Elizabeth is the moderator of the online support group, ChildrenofHoarders.com, which currently has over 2,000 members. Elizabeth believes that it’s important for children to confront their parents about their hoarding problems, unlike many psychologists who believe family intervention is not a viable solution and that it should be left to the professionals to handle.

Elizabeth Nelson

Elizabeth Nelson discusses hoarding during an interview with WXYZ (photo credit: WXYZ.com)

Several years ago, Elizabeth decided to address her mother’s hoarding problems, after discovering that her father, who is handicapped, was using a portable toilet in the living room because her mother had barricaded the bathroom door with hoarded items.

While Elizabeth’s mother was away visiting her sister, Elizabeth and her brothers spent over a week cleaning several rooms in her mother’s house. When her mother returned, she was shocked and angry by what her children had done – a common reaction amongst many hoarders who have had their belongings tampered with.

“Our intervention was not a complete disaster,” said Elizabeth. “We didn’t solve the problem and we knew that it was going to be a temporary fix, but we made the house safer for my dad.”

According to leading experts on hoarding, the disorder can never officially be overcome. Since the cleanup, Elizabeth’s mother’s home has, once again, fallen into disrepair.

While growing up, Elizabeth's bedroom was cluttered with her mother's hoarded items. (photo credit: WXYZ.com)

While growing up, Elizabeth's bedroom was cluttered with her mother's hoarded items. (photo credit: WXYZ.com)

Elizabeth said that many people within her support group have a difficult time organizing their own homes because they were never taught what a normal house should look like or what’s considered messy. She added that the support group has helped members differentiate between learning the behavior and having inherited the disorder.

Recently, the support group received a posting from a hoarder who reprimanded the members for “venting about their parent’s problems.” Elizabeth said that hoarders don’t always know how their children feel. “We’re not going to not talk about our experiences just to preserve their feelings,” said Elizabeth. “That’s not the point of the group.” “The point of the group is to talk amongst people who understand.”

Watch Elizabeth’s interview on her mother’s hoarding problems.

Dec 15 2008

De-Clutter Support Group Meeting

Today I attended a de-clutter support group meeting for elderly people at Dorot, where I met Karen Fuller, Director of Health & Nutrition Services, Linda Libow, a social worker, and Susan Kranberg, a professional organizer. Fuller and Libow manage the program, and Kranberg conducts the monthly meeting. Fuller allowed me to sit on the meeting as an observer and announced to a group of 1o attendees that I was there working on a project on clutter and hoarding.

The meeting was the last one Kranberg held for the year, and she urged attendees to throw away or give hoarded items like clothing, shoes, and books to charities, friends, and family for 2009. Their assignment for the next meeting is to report what items they have gotten rid of for the new year.

Disposal of papers was a major issue for all of the attendees. It seemed like everybody had a problem with throwing away hoarded copies of the The New Yorker and The New York  Times. There were a few things that struck me after the meeting. Two men and an African-American woman were in attendance. From our research, OCD-related clutter and hoarding are problems mostly found among single or widowed Caucasian women. Karen told me that Dorot’s de-clutter support group meeting is one of the few in the city that men actually attend.  I was also amazed at how social and frank some of the attendees were with regards to their condition.

When I arrived, I initially expected that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to speak to anybody besides Karen, Linda, or Susan Kranberg. And they made it clear to me that they didn’t want me to try and speak to attendees because of possible liability issues and my lack of experience dealing with people who have an OCD-related clutter and hoarding problem.

But three ladies approached me after the meeting and talked to me about their issues with hoarding and clutter. One lady named Susan (not Kranberg) had some especially interesting things to say:

  • “Procrastination is a big problem for people with this problem.”
  • “I wish I could find a psychiatrist or psychologist who would not tell me to throw my things away. I want to find one who can tell me how to live with my things.”
  • “I have many books on hoarding but I don’t have time to read them because I’m retired. And I don’t want to get rid of them.”

  • Dec 12 2008

    Hoarder Gets Ultimatum

    A KRQE (Channel 13 in Albuquerque, New Mexico) video on a compulsive hoarding case.