Hoarders: Secrets Hidden Behind Closed Doors
There’s a secret hiding behind the doors of residents across North America, and it is often causes a high risk for fires, pests and even disease. Some homes in America and Canada are so full of random items and trash that the front won’t open and bedrooms and kitchens are inaccessible. Rotting food is trapped below boxes of old receipts, leading to rats, flies and other pests. The worst part? In many of these houses, the homeowner lives among the stacks of trash, some with young children. This problem is being called hoarding by mental health experts, and it may be wider spread than previously thought.
Not everyone with a cluttered or full house is a hoarder. Some people may have inherited a large amount of belongings from a relative. Many are overwhelmed by the idea of organizing such a large amount of stuff, and don’t know what is valuable and what is trash. But a hoarder is different. Mental health and social services experts say that hoarders are extremely attached to each item, down to a wrinkled receipt from years ago. They can often recall the exact memory of purchasing or receiving the item, and they become distressed emotionally if they tried to discard it.
Hoarders may also struggle to process information like other people do. This makes organizing their belongings cohesively difficult. Experts are not sure what causes a hoarder to begin their behavior, but stress and a strong belief in frugality or saving items for later use seems to be a common characteristic. Depression and anxiety are common diagnosis among hoarders as well. It’s speculated that the accumulation of physical items may make them feel more in control of their lives, even as the stacks and piles of stuff swallows their home and their lives.
People with a hoarding problem try to hide their secret collections. They may refuse to let friends, family, or landlords into the home. They often rent separate apartments or homes to store even more of their collection. Eviction and violation of local housing codes are obvious issues these people face, but disease and out of control pest infestation also occurs. Food or other rotting trash gets lost in the mess of Christmas ornaments, baby clothes from children that are now fully grown, and towers of boxes. Many hoarders stay in their homes even as maggots breed or flies swarm every available surface.
In Toronto, Canada on September 24th, an extremely hot fire broke out in a public housing apartment unit. It put other residents and firefighters at serious risk, and burned out of control for hours. When the fire investigators examined the apartment, they found that it had been packed with flammable materials including papers and books. Neighbors reported that they had witnessed the occupant squeezing through the door, which would not open more than a few inches. Records showed that social services inspectors had found several instances of hoarding and mold growth in the apartment during an earlier visit as part of a bedbug prevention program.
Officials in Canada have their hands tied in most ways when it comes to dealing with hoarders, even when their habit threatens others. Inspectors can order a resident to reduce the amount of stuff in their homes through the Fire Protection Act, but residents have a lengthy appeal process they can go through. Public health or social service workers can only enter a residence when they are invited unless children are present. This makes finding and helping adult hoarders difficult.
A television show exposing the struggle of hoarders has become very popular. The show is called Hoarders, and it is currently in its third season on A&E. Each episode follows the lives of two hoarders and their families as they try to get free of the clutter and trash that has swallowed them. Many of the people featured on this show are educated and highly intelligent, but no matter how convinced they are rationally that their hoarding is unhealthy, their strong emotional connection to their items prevents them from cleaning up. This show demonstrates that hoarding has led to divorce, the loss of their children, constant evictions, and many other problems for these people.
Experts on cleaning and decluttering are brought in to assist these hoarders in taking control of their lives. Therapists who are familiar with the causes and roots of hoarding offer support as each item leaves the home. Some of the people who are featured manage to stop hoarding altogether, while others halt the clean-up process in the middle of the show and suffer a breakdown. A few episodes of Hoarders also highlight another destructive behavior many people engage in while hoarding. Constant buying, long after the savings accounts are drained and the credit cards are at their limit, fills out a hoarding collection and puts a hoarder in extreme debt.
With their reclusive behavior, individuals who live in a house stuffed with useless items may not be recognized for what they are. Family members give up out of frustration. Friends never visit the home, and are never aware of the seriousness of the problem. Social workers aren’t invited in and repairmen don’t know who to tell. Many social service agencies are considering starting new education campaigns to help neighbors, repairmen and family members of hoarders recognize their behavior and help them. Experts say that as much as 5 percent of the population may be engaging in hoarding behavior at this time, but it’s impossible to accurately measure the numbers.
People who gathered items or held on to things in case they could use them later used to be considered harmless eccentrics and were called pack rats. But with the growing stress of everyday life and the proliferation of low cost items that are easily purchased online or in stores, some collectors have taken their habits to extreme levels. Hoarding ceases to be harmless when it endangers the people who have to live in a home where every square foot of space is full of boxes, stacks, and piles.