Hoarding: The art of letting go

Hoarding can take over people's lives and homes, but only now is it being recognised as a distinct psychological disorder. Emily Jupp meets members of the first therapy group for sufferers

Oh, I wonder how that got there ... What is it?" Layla Jade (not her real name) has picked up a folded silver chewing gum wrapper, that has fallen, somehow, onto her carpet. She holds it close to her face, squinting, trying to work out its origins and whether it can be salvaged. After a few moments she places it carefully onto a side table.

A glamourous-looking woman, aged 58, Jade is a recovering hoarder. She is a member of the UK's first therapy group for hoarders, run by Orbit Housing Group, a community housing organisation based in Coventry. Her homely living room is now covered with comfy cushions and cat-themed knick-knacks, but it was once almost uninhabitable. A narrow path from here to the kitchen and on to the bedroom was forged through towers of clutter, piled high in each room.

"I can't throw anything away. I'm just sentimentally... I'm attached to everything." She sighs. "It could be a piece of paper a friend has written on and I won't get rid of it."

Each object here has a story, from the print of Jack Vettriano's "The Singing Butler" hanging in the bedroom – a whimsical scene of a couple dancing in formal wear on a beach, given to her by her mother for Christmas – to the bejewelled ruby lampshade, purchased on a whim on the way to a blood test at the local hospital, to the less practical things, like her collection of 22 dressing gowns, mostly in animal prints, or the pile of perfumes that she has owned for 40 years and never used. "I have all this, it's perfectly nice, but I won't use it and I can't get rid of it. When I think about throwing things away, I think, 'but I got that when I was at so-and-so place,' or, 'my ex brought me that.' Oh, if I could get him out my head..."

There is surprisingly little research available on hoarding, so little that the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the psychologist's bible) doesn't recognise it as a disorder in its own right, merely a possible symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But new research has shown it is a separate problem and its sufferers will show "persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to them". Jade's distress at the thought of throwing things away is a symptom that's very hard to overcome. The limited data available says hoarding affects around three per cent of the population, although this seems a conservative estimate, as hoarders tend to be very secretive about their hoarding and only those who admit to it and seek help can be monitored.

"Clutterers don't like to be called hoarders. It makes you think of an old miser," says Arthur Porter, 63, during the group therapy session, "we're not greedy or anything like that." Porter has "what is termed as high-performing clinical depression", he explains. Like Jade, whose difficult marriage and persistent depression led to agoraphobia and then hoarding, he also has a collection of different, yet interrelated, problems. His father was bi-polar and also a hoarder. After Arthur's father died, he found bits of wood and thousands of rolled-up plastic bags in the loft, one inside the other. Right in the centre of the layers of bags were rolls of old one-pound notes from 1982. "I'm like him, but he was better with plastic bags. I think it's genetic," says Porter.

It could indeed be genetic, says Gail Steketee, a professor at Boston University School of Social Work and an expert in researching the disorder. "We know that there does seem to be a genetic link, but so far, we don't have good information about whether hoarding is more likely to occur in someone who grew up in a hoarded home, but was not genetically related," so it could also be a learnt behaviour.

Arthur certainly emulated his father. He collected plastic bags, but also books and DVDs. They piled up in his home until the piles became towers and the towers touched the ceiling. Then one day, "I had a little fire," he says, "in a student cooker as the main cooker packed up." The fire department arrived and saw there was just a foot-wide path to walk to some rooms in the house – others were blocked completely with his "collections" (over five tons of books and DVDs) and a "great load of plastic bags". Porter was used to navigating through the mess, but the fire officials didn't approve. "I said, 'are you going to fine me?'."

That's when Orbit became involved. Porter attends the group session once a week, where he and the other members are assigned tasks like doing the washing-up or throwing away one DVD that they don't like. It's a very gradual, often frustrating process, but without it the members risk becoming imprisoned in their homes, not to mention the health and safety risks like vermin and blocking fire exits. "When Sheree [one of the Orbit helpers] went away, I went to pieces," says Porter, with a nervous chuckle. "I need Orbit to cope. It's someone there who knows where you are at."

Another group member, Beverley Drummond, 60, denies she has a problem. "I'm not a hoarder, I'm a collector," she says. "My mum died four years ago. She wouldn't allow a DVD player in the house, but now I have my John Wayne and my Octonauts ... OK I've got some DVDs but I've boxed them all up. OK, there are mice, but they've not caused me any problems." A helper at the group interjects, saying, "And how many teddy bears have you got?"

"Well I collect them to cheer me up. I've cut down, though. I used to buy four a day, now I only buy them if they've got a nice face." It transpires that Drummond has collections of calculators and mobile phones, too – in fact she collects anything that her mother used to disapprove of. Her collection of bears is close to 900 and growing, and the DVD collection caused a problem for the housing association because it filled several rooms; it was a safety hazard.

Orbit is working with a team of therapists and researchers from Coventry University to come up with a "toolkit" to give out to fire services and housing organisations across the country on what to do if they encounter a hoarder. Darren Awang, an occupational therapist working with the hoarders' therapy group says that through its work, Obit has found that hoarding can be triggered when a controlling parent dies, as in Drummond's case, and also by more general sudden traumatic events.

"Many local councils will try to empty the property when they encounter hoarding, but this can cause the hoarder inordinate distress and then they often revert back to the behaviour anyway," explains Cathy Sharman, a staff member at the self-help group. She says it requires a more "long-term approach" and that a combination of methods is needed to help, because each hoarder is different.

Part of the reason hoarding seems more prevalent now is due to profile-raising shows, such as Hoarders, an American TV series that goes into hoarders' homes, and Channel 4's Cutting Edge series, which recently highlighted the problem in a documentary, called Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder. But another reason could be that the ready availability of cheap goods is actually triggering the impulse to hoard in more people than before. For someone who grew up with rationing, or in a poor family, it requires a totally different mindset not to be seduced by cut-price offers. So does today's environment make it harder for hoarders?

"Yes, I think it does," says Professor Steketee, "the media urges us to buy, buy, buy and markets are flooded with cheap items. We have become a throw-away society and many people react against this, wanting instead to save and repair, rather than be wasteful. Others are attracted to the colours, textures and shining objects. This cannot be helpful to people with even a slight tendency to hoard."

Certainly, Jade's love of disposable fashion will strike a chord with many people. "I feel I've got too much stuff, especially clothes," she says. "It's ridiculous, ordering it all out of catalogues when I know I'm not going out anywhere, I've got nothing to dress up for!" Then why, some might wonder, does she get it? "Because I look forward to it coming through the door."

Although the group is helping them with their disorders, there is a sense that the compulsion to hoard will never completely die out. Jade will still feel sentimental about her possessions, Drummond will want to collect bears and Porter will continue his father's legacy, maybe one day becoming as good as he was with plastic bags. It's as essential and ingrained for them as going to work or doing grocery shopping. Plus, as Porter puts it, it's not all doom and gloom. "It would take something out of your life if you just stopped," he says.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
film
Sport
football
News
news
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
A photograph taken by David Redferm of Sonny Rollins
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

    £47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker