For the past two years, I have had the pleasure of working on two separate episodes of A&E’s popular show “Hoarders.”
The filming requires a team effort, with Cory Chalmers working as a lead organizer and my team at Organize By Design working behind the scenes boxing and bagging items the family wants to keep. The team from 1-800-Got-Junk remove most of the garbage and heavy items while waste clean up crews handle the nasty stuff like plugged toilets and tubs.
In 2015, my team and I worked on our first episode where hoarding clothes and holiday decorations had consumed the home of a family of four. It had been more than 14 years since the family had seen the floors in their home. Walking downs to the laundry room was nearly impossible because the mounds of clothes had turned the stairs into a slide with no place to step. The parents ultimately were forced to confront their hoarding when their teenage sons threatened to run away.
In 2016, the Organize by Design team helped Shannon and her three children, who had left their cluttered home and yard and moved into a homeless shelter. Upon leaving the shelter nearly a year later, the family needed to make their home clean and safe or face living on the streets. That was difficult. So many personal tragedies had occurred in the space, Shannon believed it was possessed by demons and harmful entities.
While the reason each of these people turned to hoarding is different — the effect is the same: they feel trapped and unable to let go of items, including many that most people would think meaningless like empty soda cans and old pizza boxes. In many cases, the hoarding escalates and affects more than just themselves. Often, they are faced with losing people they love. While that is terrifying, the anxiety of confronting their space and making it clean and functional is paralyzing.
Usually, some kind of emotional trauma has left them unable to more forward. They lose the ability to trust themselves and are fearful of making choices they might later regret. According to A&E Hoarders,
“Compulsive Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary. Up to 19 million Americans have hoarding disorder.”
Hoarding isn’t the same as needing to de-clutter your storage room, garage or spare bedroom. It goes beyond a dining room table covered with papers and bills. Hoarders have years of accumulated items. I’ve seen bags of garbage, broken furniture, mice droppings, mold and ivy growing inside through crumbled brick and windowpanes.
A person needs help when the clutter makes it impossible for them to use their kitchen sink, stove, microwave, shower, bathtub or closets, or they are force to sleep on a pile of clothes rather than their bed. Clutter and disorganization can be extreme due to other factors such as divorce, AD/HD, depression, illness or death of a loved one. But that differs from hoarding when the person becomes unable to let go of what is no longer needed and return their home to a place that is clean and functional.
For professional organizers, hoarders present a unique challenge as they are unable to go through the clutter and discard things item by item, a common practice in the industry. Instead, they need to let go of entire boxes of damaged books, garbage bags filled with clothes, or like Shannon containers filled with vacuum dust. There are times when individuals comes across a meaningful item like a quilt from their grandmother or a box of personal letter that because of their lack of care is damaged beyond repair.
In these situations you are forced to discard the items because they are no longer safe to keep. Sometimes we accidentally create our worst fears. When you are unable to locate what is meaningful to you and safely protect it from heat, water, animal damage, chances are it will need to be thrown away. With all clients there is the obvious physical clutter and then the not so obvious internal issues.
I know for certain that our space affects how we feel. There is a connection — or in many cases a disconnection — in how we interact in our personal and professional space. The goal is to balance your internal voice and your external stuff to create a new environment that will support you daily as you continue to move forward towards your goals. If you are working with a hoarder, remember the first step is to help them learn to trust themselves. They’ve taken the right step in hiring an organizer, now encourage them to get the help of a therapist who can really open them up to change.