We’ve all returned from our winter break and are ready to get back to work on this important project. Coincidentally, hoarding is making the headlines. The Sun is reporting two hoarding deaths occurred in the same week across the pond in the United Kingdom.
The tabloid reports Gordon Stewart, 74, may have died of dehydration when he became disoriented and got lost in an elaborate maze of tunnels he had dug out of boxes and random debris he had hoarded for years. Like many hoarders, the story notes that officials believe Stewart had no living relatives. From the few pictures The Sun posted on its website it looks like Stewart was an extreme Level 5 hoarder.
Photo Credit: The Sun
Photo Credit: The Sun
Photo Credit: The Sun
Two things stuck out for me from this story. First, Gordon Stewart is a man. From our research we’ve found this affliction is more common among Caucasian widowed or single women. Second, his neighbors alerted the police only when they hadn’t seen him come outside for a few days. It’s an interesting contrast to Catherine’s case because her neighbors have alerted health and county officials who have threatened to take her house away if she doesn’t clean up at least two rooms. I wonder why Gordon Stewart’s neighbors and local British authorities put up with the trash and debris outside his house while Catherine’s neighbors and county officials insist on her getting parts of her house cleaned ASAP?
The second story reports that Joan Cunnane, 77, was buried alive “under 3ft of ornaments, clothes in suitcases and electrical goods, still in their untouched packaging”, she had hoarded for 16 years.
Joan was a borderline level four/five hoarder. She is more typical of hoarding cases because she was white and never married.
Photo Credit: The Sun and Cavendish Press
Joan had the same problem that Catherine has with her car. The hoarding spread to her car with only room to seat the driver. The story also highlights the effect this disorder has on the physical safety of people living and interacting in a hoarding situation. Joan’s best friend, Roy Moran told The Sun about the danger he faced when he’d visit with her.
“There were thousands of videos. When I walked in they fell down. It was a death-trap.”
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.
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.
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.
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.