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.

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