Ask Unclutterer: Please help, I believe my sibling is a hoarder

Reader J submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer (some information has been changed to protect privacy):

I have a 60 year old sibling who has been hoarding since her child went off to college. S/he is now sleeping in the bath tub. S/he insists s/he is not a hoarder. The other siblings and I have attempted to help clean, but it is truly overwhelming. My sibling has issues with abandonment, victimization, and discrimination. Can you help?

To let readers of the site know, I responded to J when this question arrived in my inbox and didn’t make her or him wait for me to write about it in a column. It’s a common type of question we receive to the site, however, and so I wanted to address it more publicly for anyone who may come to Unclutterer with similar concerns.

Hoarding is a serious and real illness for those who are plagued by it. It’s not a personality quirk or something they’re able to control at this point in time. The person is not hoarding to upset you, but the stuff is likely upsetting the hoarder and he or she feels completely powerless about it. Similar to other physical and psychological ailments, hoarding is not a condition that goes away on its own. Hoarding requires the treatment of a licensed medical and/or psychological practitioner who has been especially trained to help people who are diagnosed hoarders.

Not all people who have excessive numbers of belongings, though, are hoarders (some are chronically disorganized, some have other ailments and hoarding is a side effect, some are situational and will be processed over the course of a year, etc.). That is why it is vital to have the person evaluated so proper help can be given to him or her. What is most important is to get the best care for the person who needs it. And, the best care is rarely a forced cleanout as the first step in the process. Although a forced cleanout would make you feel better — knowing your sibling is no longer living in a dangerous physical environment would most certainly relieve some of your anxiety — it won’t treat the hoarding and the place will just fill up with more stuff in a matter of months. (Or, worse — forced cleanouts have been linked to some suicides among the hoarding population.)

Thankfully, most licensed medical and psychological practitioners also work in combination with professional organizers who have been trained to work with this segment of the population. With treatment, almost all homes and lives of hoarders will see improvements over time.

As someone who loves a hoarder, it also can be difficult to see someone in need — as it is the same as seeing someone you love hurt in a car accident or in the hospital with pneumonia. You want to be able to fix things, and that desire is understandable. For someone on the outside looking in (both literally and figuratively), there are also resources available for you so you can provide the best type of support for your sibling (or spouse or child or parent or friend).

If you suspect you or someone you love may be a hoarder, seek out the help of the following respected organizations:

  • The International OCD Foundation’s Hoarding Center — This group is led by Randy Frost, PhD, and Gail Steketee, PhD, two of the nation’s most prominent researchers and clinicians in the field. I strongly recommend starting with this site to learn as much as you can.
  • Children of Hoarders — Although their site name implies they only help children of hoarders, they do much more than just help children. They have an incredible support forum for people who love those who struggle with hoarding. Additionally, their Resources section is very helpful.
  • Institute for Challenging Disorganization — The ICD provides superior information to those working daily with hoarders and individuals with chronic disorganization, as well as individuals seeking their support. This is another must-stop site when learning about hoarding and resources available for hoarders and those who love them.

Thank you, J, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope you are able to find the type of assistance you are searching for through one or more of the previously mentioned organizations. You’re also a wonderful sibling for loving and wanting to help your brother or sister. Please also check the comments for insights from our readership, many of whom have been in a similar situation as yourself. Good luck!

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

What we have been reading

I feel like I have been unintentionally collecting links to great articles recently. I’ll spot something clutter/organizing/productivity-related in the news, immediately think it would make such a terrific topic for an Unclutterer post, save the link to a text file of post ideas, and then do nothing further. Apparently, I want ALL the links for myself. All of them. Mine.

Since this is ridiculous and there is no good reason for me to be collecting all these links and not sharing them, I thought an ol’ fashion link roundup post was in order. Please enjoy all of these links that have been catching our attention:

  • Why aren’t hoarders bothered by all that junk? Scientists find a clue
    This article from NBC looks at a recent brain study by psychologist David Tolin that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the research, clinically diagnosed hoarders’ brains respond differently to physical stuff than the brains of the general population. As a result, their ability to make decisions is significantly limited.
  • Three habits that drive down productivity
    I’m still trying to decide what I think about this article from the Memphis Business Journal. The article references a study that analyzes the work product and attendance records of employees with very different lifestyles at three large corporations. The article concludes that healthier people are more productive workers and it specifically names smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise as productivity killers.
  • Plan of Work for a Small Servantless House (3 or 4 in family)
    After the war in Britain, many homes and estates that once had servants found themselves unable to afford any servants in the house. To help women learn how to keep house, someone (the British government?) published this guide for how a woman should spend her time. My friend Julie introduced me to this page from the I Love Charts tumblr, and I think it is a fabulous look back in time. I’m still confused as to how a woman with one or two children only seems to attend to them for an hour and a half each day “if necessary,” but maybe “servantless” doesn’t include nannies?
  • Re:Re:Fw:Re: Workers Spend 650 Hours a Year on Email
    This article from The Atlantic confirms that most people with desk jobs (referred to as an “office stiff” in the text) spend “13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email.” A quarter of one’s job is consumed with reading and answering email. The article also reports that time spent on tasks specific to one’s role at the company only consumes 39 percent of one’s time at work.
  • You Probably Have Too Much Stuff
    This short piece from The New York Times looks at the burdens of being “over-prepared.” I like the use of the phrase “over-prepared” in the article because it so aptly reflects the “I might need this one day” mentality.

As you also know, I’ve been doing some writing for the Women and Co. website lately. Most of what I’ve been writing continues to be about home and office organizing, but they’ve been letting me branch out a bit and pick up some other topics. It reminds me of the days I wrote the Sunday news for the local commercial radio station in Lawrence, Kansas, so very, very, very long ago …

Anyway, this is what I wrote in July:

Hoarding as art, in miniature

St. Louis-based artist Carrie Becker made internet fame last week when images of her hoarding-project in miniature “Barbie Trashes Her Dreamhouse” started being circulated on MetaFilter. The following image is one of Becker’s photographs of the home’s Laundry Room. In it, the furniture is Barbie furniture and the plastic items are made by Re-Ment, but the majority of the tiny items in this picture are handmade by Becker:

I’m fascinated by the artistic ability to create such life-like conditions in miniature. Becker explains the project in more detail on Flickr:

During the summer after completing graduate school I had some down time and decided to use my commercial photography skills to shoot my miniature collection as though it were “real”. Also during that time, I also frequently watched shows like “Hoarders” and “How Clean Is Your House?” With that in mind, this past summer I began creating the images that are presented here, though I reflect their inspiration as a mirror and not a judgement. For me, this series is about creating a small, but perfect world where the viewer cannot distinguish between what is reality and what is fiction.

In this weekend’s Riverfront Times, Becker showed reporter Aimee Levitt how she created the rooms for the project. The second page of “Local Artist Wonders, What If Barbie Were Secretly a Hoarder?” is a pictorial explanation of the miniature-creating process.

Personally, I’m less conflicted looking at these images — since I know they are staged and not real images of someone’s home — than I am about watching the television shows the artist previously mentioned. The shock and awe is because it’s tiny and not because of an actual person’s struggle with a hoarding condition. In this situation, clutter is art and nothing more, and I find it impressive.

Image by artist Carrie Becker.

Storage Wars: A new show on A&E

There is more than 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the United States, according to The Self Storage Association. Some of this space is used wisely — by people serving overseas, people storing personal things while they sell their homes, or for other temporary situations — but a lot of self-storage space is used as a very expensive extra room to hold people’s clutter.

Unfortunately, when people stop making payments on these units, they are sealed off and put up for auction. The television network A&E is tracking this auction phenomenon in a new series called Storage Wars:

A&E presents the new original real-life series “Storage Wars,” which follows four professional buyers and their teams as they scour repossessed storage units in search of hidden treasure. Part gamblers, part detectives, these seasoned veterans have found everything from coffins to the world’s most valuable comic book collection, paying as little as ten dollars for items valued in the millions.

The series begins tonight at 10:00 p.m. EST/9:00 p.m. CST with the episode “High Noon in the High Desert“:

It’s a showdown in the high desert as the buyers crack open a trove of abandoned storage lockers. Barry Weiss unearths the personal possessions of rap magnate Suge Knight. Jarrod Schulz and Dave Hester throw down their bankrolls in hopes of scoring a classic organ. And Darrell Sheets reveals a historic, one hundred and fifty thousand-dollar find. Classic items, wily personalities–let the storage wars begin!

I’m interested in seeing how A&E handles this material. I’ve written before about my frustrations with the television show Hoarders (and also here), and how I believe the editing of the show pushes aside the mental health aspects of hoarding and instead aims to wow viewers with shock and awe. I think the show can be dehumanizing. (Again, I want to stress that I think it’s the editing of the show and not the actual professional organizers and psychologists who are responsible for the dehumanizing.) A large part of me fears that Storage Wars is going to forget that there are people who once owned the possessions being laid out for bidding. I’ll watch tonight and see how this sensitive topic is handled by A&E. My fingers are crossed that they have found a way to highlight the self-storage problem in the United States without ridiculing or embarrassing the people who are losing their things.

(Image from A&E.)

You are not your stuff

I was recently captivated by the article “The mess he made: A life-long slob decides it’s time to get organized” by Michael Rosenwald in the June 7 issue of The Washington Post. As the title of the article references, the piece is a first-person narrative of a diagnosed hoarder who went to see Randy Frost for help to change his ways. During Rosenwald’s visits with Frost, he came to the following inspiring conclusion:

This didn’t feel as bad as I had thought it would. I kept telling myself, This stuff isn’t me. If it all disappeared in a fire, my body would not implode, my identity wouldn’t turn to ashes. I would emerge, walking out the front door with soot on my face, the same person I was before the flames, only without the stuff. The stuff was not me, the stuff was not me — it felt like some self-help mantra. The more I told myself that story, the easier the tossing became.

Rosenwald’s realization — that his things are not him — is one we all have to go through if we want to make the transition from a clutterer into an unclutterer. This change of mindset was essential for me when I started my transformation. I saw my vast collection of things as proof I had lived a fun and exciting life, when in fact my clutter was actually preventing me from having a good life. It wasn’t until I realized my unhealthy relationship with my things that I could finally let go of all the trinkets, papers, doodads, and memorabilia filling every inch of my space.

Unfortunately, Rosenwald reverts to his messy ways at the end of the article, but hopefully he’ll keep practicing his new unclutterering skills. He seems to have already made the hardest step — a change in his relationship with his things.

Hoarding: Why forced cleanouts are unsuccessful

The A&E channel ran a Memorial Day marathon of the first season of its television show Hoarders. After showing all of the original broadcasts, A&E aired a new episode that showed the progress — or, rather lack of progress — of a handful of the show’s participants. Four of the five of the people featured in the new “Where are they one year later?” episode had fully returned to their hoarding ways.

I didn’t watch the new episode and actually heard about it through a blog post on Entertainment Weekly’s website. Learning about it this way was a solid reminder that the show is created for entertainment, and not necessarily to help the participants on the show or teach the audience about the mental disorder. I know from people who have worked with the show that behind the scenes they do try to help the participants, but so much of that isn’t transmitted to the audience. The scary music and the shock and awe storytelling dehumanize the participants, in my opinion.

In the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by hoarding specialists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee, the authors say that this recidivist behavior is the norm and should have been expected by the Hoarders production staff. From pages 96 and 97 of the book:

One of the worst experiences for someone with a hoarding problem occurs when another person or crew arrives to clear out the home, usually at the order of the public health department or a frustrated family member … These scenarios almost always leave the hoarder feeling as if his or her most valued possessions have been taken away, which in fact may be the case. Beyond this, most hoarders have a sense of where things are amid the clutter. When someone else moves or discards even a portion of it, this sense of “order” is destroyed. We know of several cases in which hoarders have committed suicide following a forced cleanout.

The time, expense, and trauma of a forced cleanout are not worth the effort if any other alternatives are possible. Although conditions in the home may improve temporarily, the behavior leading to those conditions will not have changed. Moreover, the likelihood of obtaining any future cooperation after such trauma is slim. One Massachusetts town in our survey of health departments conducted a forced cleanout costing $16,000 (most of the town’s health department budget). Just over a year later, the cluttered home was worse than ever.

I continue to have very mixed emotions about the television show Hoarders. I like that the show raises awareness about hoarding, but I don’t feel that it’s necessarily helpful and compassionate information that is being distributed. Did any of you catch the marathon and the “Where are they one year later?” episode? I’m interested in reading your thoughts in the comments.

Again, if you or someone you know is a hoarder, please seek treatment from a licensed medical practitioner. The disorder can be dangerous and treatment has been shown successful for those seeking help.

The following organizations have “find a therapist” functions on their websites that list therapists specifically trained to treat hoarding:

Hoarding Disorder: A new disorder in the draft of the DSM-V

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is currently under review by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals for its fifth edition (the DSM-V) before its official printing in 2013. Included in the draft of the DSM-V is a new section on Hoarding Disorder, listing hoarding as its own diagnosis separate from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

The disorder is identified by five characteristics, the first three being:

A. Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with personal possessions, even those of apparently useless or limited value, due to strong urges to save items, distress, and/or indecision associated with discarding.

B. The symptoms result in the accumulation of a large number of possessions that fill up and clutter the active living areas of the home, workplace, or other personal surroundings (e.g., office, vehicle, yard) and prevent normal use of the space. If all living areas are uncluttered, it is only because of others’ efforts (e.g., family members, authorities) to keep these areas free of possessions.

C. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).

The third point, that the hoarder is incapable of “maintaining a safe environment for self and others,” seems to be the dividing line between hoarding and chronic disorganization.

Hoarding also appears in multiple places in the document as a symptom of other disorders. According to the Hoarding Disorder entry in the DSM-V draft, hoarding can also be a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, delusions in Schizophrenia or another Psychotic Disorder, cognitive deficits in Dementia, restricted interests in Autistic Disorder, and food storing in the Prader-Willi Syndrome.

I’m interested in following this topic to see if the proposed Hoarding Disorder ends up as a separate diagnosis in the final version of the DSM-V. Hoarding has appeared in previous versions of the DSM, but only as a symptom of other disorders. If it does make the final version, I hope that it helps people who are hoarders to get the quality treatment they need.

Ask Unclutterer: My mother may be a hoarder

Reader Anonymous submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I am hoping that you can give my brother and I some advice. Our mom is getting worse each year and refuses to believe she has a problem. In addition to her bringing other people’s garbage into the house, she also has a number of cats who use the house as one large litter box. When my brother and I attempt to clean, she yells and screams, and takes the rubbish back in when we put it out for the garbage truck. Unless we physically rent a truck to take it to the dump ourselves, it never leaves the house. We are so worried because it’s getting worse and she is approaching 70 and are at our wit’s end. She won’t go to counseling and when we clean anything it just gets disgusting again. There is food rotting as she doesn’t have a working fridge anymore and when she buys food she forgets about it and it gets compacted with stuff she puts on top of it. The piles of garbage are growing and we can barely get the front door open now. We have threatened not to come and visit and she said fine don’t. Nothing seems to work or get through to her. What can we do as we don’t want to see her die in this. Please, can you help us? Please don’t publish my name.

Only a doctor can give an official diagnosis as someone being a hoarder, but, since your mother is refusing to seek treatment at this point, that diagnosis is going to be difficult to acquire. I think that you will be okay if you function under the assumption that she is one, however, as it definitely won’t hurt her or you if you do.

Hoarding is a psychological illness. Your mother is not a bad person or a bad homemaker, she’s suffering from a mental health condition similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder or clinical depression. As much as she doesn’t want treatment for her condition, she desperately needs it. You and your brother can clean her house a million times, but it will always return to its current state if she does not get the medical care she needs. Cleaning her house against her will might also lead to her cutting off communication with you — and that is not something you want to happen. Keeping the lines open with your mother is extremely important.

Start by learning as much as you can about hoarding. There are many resources available to those who love and care about people who suffer from this condition. The Children of Hoarders website may be specifically helpful to you, and I recommend checking out their resources section.

Unless you believe your mother is endangering herself or others, you cannot force help upon her or commit her against her will to a mental health facility. Nagging, negative and judgmental statements, and disrespecting her stuff will only exacerbate her hoarding behavior. Learn as much as you can about her condition, be supportive and encouraging, and find non-threatening ways to encourage her to seek help. Best case scenario: She decides to seek treatment and finds a healthy way to live with her condition in a safe home environment.

Thank you, Anonymous, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. My thoughts are with you and your family. It is admirable that you and your brother are worried and care so much about your mother.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Life-threatening clutter

We often talk about the dangers of clutter, but tragedy has a way of bringing it home. An 80 year-old man in Evanston, Illinois, was found under several feet of clutter in an attempt to escape his burning home. From the article:

When firefighters arrived, they found flames coming from the west side of the home, said [Evanston Fire Department Division Chief Tom] Janetske. When they tried to enter the front door, they were unable, so went around to a side door, Janetske said.

When they were able to begin their search of the home, firefighters, including some who were able to force their way in the front door, found the man under about 3 feet of debris in the home’s living room, about 10 feet from the front door, Janetske said.

If you know of someone who is a hoarder and whose life might be in danger, please help them to find medical assistance. The Hoarders television website has an excellent resource page that lists many programs and organizations.

Hoarders season two premieres tonight on A&E

Tonight is the premiere of the second season of the A&E television show Hoarders at 10/9c. We’ve written a few times about the first season of the show, and even heard from people who have been featured on the program in our comments section. I continue to have mixed feelings about it — I love that it is bringing a human face to this mental health issue and raising awareness, but I wish that there was less shock and awe factor in what is broadcast.

We’ve heard from a number of people associated with the show that the second season is going to talk more about treatment options and look more closely at the psychological aspects of the disorder than was the case in season one. I truly hope this is accurate because I believe the hoarders on the show deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not saying that they weren’t in season one — I know from first-hand accounts that they were given excellent help behind the scenes during the filming of the episodes — but what translated onto the screen didn’t always reflect the entire process. I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode and seeing how the changes are implemented.

After the episode airs, feel welcome to jump onto our Unclutterer Forums and talk about it in our second season Hoarders thread. If you don’t get A&E, check out the official Hoarders website in a couple days where they will post the full episode online.

Hoarders: Geralin Thomas discusses her experience on the show

We’ve talked a couple times already about the new television show Hoarders on A&E, and I wanted to continue this discussion by directing you to an insider’s look into the show’s production. Professional organizer Geralin Thomas, who appeared on the first and second episode of the show, has written “Organizing a Hoarder’s Home for Television” describing her experience:

When working with a hoarder on this series, I have asked each client to commit to working with a therapist (counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist) and/or a professional organizer after I leave. (The organizing-filming only lasts 2 days and there are a lot of stops and starts for the film crew to change batteries, etc.) While it’s OK with me if the therapist isn’t on site at the same time I’m working with the client, I always stress the importance of the therapist-client-organizer relationship. There will be no lasting change if the hoarder is not willing to also work with a mental health professional for some period of time.

I was surprised to learn that filming only occurred over two days, and I think this explains why viewers don’t get to see anything other than the purging process. Geralin is an amazing individual and a highly skilled and trained professional organizer. Her insights into her experience are definitely worth reading and I’m glad she took the time to write her post.

Stuff versus relationships

Professional organizer extraordinaire Monica Ricci returns to Unclutterer to talk to us about the anxieties hoarders experience. You can follow Monica on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog for more organizing tips.

On a recent episode of A&E’s Hoarders a key concept was brought to light by my dear friend and hoarding expert Dorothy Breininger. The important concept is stuff versus relationships. It’s so sad to see individuals choose their stuff over the people in their lives. To those of us watching the show at home, the hoarder’s behavior doesn’t initially seem to make sense.

In my industry, I often encounter clients who have a history of choosing stuff over people. It’s not just hoarders who do it, either. People often choose the comfort of stuff over relationships because relationships can be scary. People can reject you. People are sometimes critical and judgmental. People can be mean, insensitive, and heartless. People can leave you, abandon you, and disappoint you. But your stuff never will.

That is, until your stuff chokes the life out of you.

It could be easy to watch the television show Hoarders and lose sight of the humanity of the people featured. But we shouldn’t. All of us can empathize with the anxiety that the hoarders feel — we’ve all felt abandoned, disappointed, and ridiculed by others. We can understand how someone stopped focusing on the people in their life and turned to their stuff. Hopefully, with time, treatment, and assistance, the hoarders featured on the show can turn again to people and let go of so much of their stuff. I also hope that you continue to make the same choice.