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The Hoarders Among Us

Understanding the illness behind the reality TV images

"One of the biggest fears I have is throwing away something of value," says John M., a graduate of Columbia University who has a friendly, engaging manner. He spends his time overseeing his stock portfolio and half a dozen rental properties, attending ballroom dancing classes — and going to meetings of self-help groups, including Messies Anonymous. His clean clothes, trimmed hair and fashionable wristwatch belie the condition of his apartment. Standing in his living room — a jumble of empty cans, used paper towels and outdated bus schedules (he owns four cars) — John gestures in defeat. "It's totally overwhelming to get rid of it," he says.

A relative's death

Like many hoarders whose problem is exacerbated by the loss of a spouse or a parent, the death of John's 93-year-old mother in 2003 triggered the crisis that propelled him into treatment. His mother was a hoarder, he says, and as the youngest of three children, John, who never married, had moved into her home to care for her. To clean out her house so it could be sold he needed three years — and the help of a therapist.

John says he began having a "problem with clutter" decades earlier, in his 30s.

"Say you're 60 or 70 and a parent dies and you're the recipient and you have until the end of the month to clean it out," says Hoskins of Princeton. "There's a sense of betrayal of the parent for getting rid of the stuff. So you bring it home." The death of a spouse, who may have kept the hoarding in check, can trigger a loss of control in the hoarder.

"For a long time I had trouble getting rid of stuff because everything reminded me of my mother," says Kelly Ferjutz, 72. A writer who lives in Cleveland, Ferjutz describes herself as a pack rat. She says she hates to throw things away "that are usable, even if I can't use them."

Filmmaker Cynthia Lester has grappled with the dilemma confronting some families: what to do when hoarding becomes dangerous. In her documentary My Mother's Garden, Lester chronicled the experience of her mother, who was living in her backyard, crowded out of her rat-infested house in Los Angeles by a lifetime of severe hoarding. The property was about to be condemned when Lester took her mother to New York for several weeks while her brothers shoveled out the house, filling 10 industrial dumpsters.

Their mother was so upset by the result, even though she knew about the clean-out in advance, that she was briefly hospitalized. She quickly recovered and, Lester says, has resumed hoarding in a new apartment.

Next: What's the preferred approach in treating hoarders?

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