Under the roof of a hoarder

As we sift through stacks of dusty crime novels and rummage through mountains of unwanted clothing, ranging from size six to 22, my ex-librarian grandma, knowingly an inspiration for this article, reveals why she believes she hoards.

“I think it’s because when we were young in Yorkshire, we hardly had ‘owt, I had one dress, one pair of shoes and everything we bought was through the Tallymen.”

A new word to my vocabulary, my Google search clarifies that tallymen sold everything from clothing to furniture to groceries with instalment payments, they kept tabs on how much you owed them week by week and would trade to the whole community, directly on the doorstep.

“Miss Wise the spinster was ever so posh, but as a tallyman, she was so lovely to us. Never mean,” my grandma says, providing me with a window into post-wartime, working-class Britain.

From a young age, she observed that society consists of the haves and the have-nots. As a born and raised have-not, hoarding is potentially a way of her feeling less working class. Having everything she could ever possibly want strewn across every surface means that she never feels hard done by.

In a world where a bargain is always immediately attainable, unlike the items the tallyman could offer, purchases little and often from charity shops and car boot sales maybe provide my grandma with satisfaction too tempting for her inner child to shake.

Jo Cooke specialises in hoarding. At 55, she is the Director of Hoarding Disorders UK CIC, owner of decluttering business Tapioca Tidy and author of Understanding Hoarding, so she’s certainly qualified. Based in Berkshire, her role involves running three support groups and delivering hoarding awareness training across the UK.

“Essentially hoarding acts as emotional insulation, a comfort blanket. It provides a sense of control and fills a void. Trauma, bereavement, any sense of loss and grief contribute to hoarding behaviours,” Jo told us.

A pastel coloured illustration of two women attempting to sort through a pile of hoarded items.

Sorting a hoard [Yuting Zhang]

Hoarding is on the rise, Jo concludes from her career thus far, whilst complaining that little research that has been conducted in the UK. She bases this statement on the fact that “hoarding is an anxiety-based disorder and we are living in anxious times. We can’t control what is happening in our world, in our neighbourhood, in Europe but we can control our own environment.”

She estimates that roughly 2-6% of the population are affected by hoarding but cannot be totally sure this is accurate, due to their secretive nature, many could be in hiding or in denial of associating with the label.

Jo’s father had hoarding issues and after his death, she ‘project managed’ organising probate, liaising with her siblings about selling his house and dividing up his belongings: “I realised I was quite good at it” she says. Recognising an unusual talent, she felt compelled to start up her own company.

But in order to help other people successfully, “a great deal of research” was required. In which, Jo discovered APDO (the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers) and soon after she opted for voluntary redundancy. Her career change commenced.

Believing that “it’s about the person, not the stuff,” Jo tells me the character traits necessary to do her job are:

  • Patience
  • Compassion
  • A good listener
  • A keen organiser
  • Come without judgement
  • Empathetic
  • A sense of humour

During her new career, Jo has found that every experience of hoarding is entirely individual: “It’s a complex issue and each person’s hoard is unique, as are their reasons.”

Jo’s father had hoarding tendencies towards food and frugality. “He hated waste, especially food waste. We had to eat every grain of rice on our plate. Mealtimes could be quite stressful,” she says. As for frugality “he hated any frivolous items being bought and concentrated on essentials.”

In Jo’s lifetime, she has gone through both a divorce and her house being flooded; many of her possessions were damaged, taken or discarded. These experiences mean she finds it easy to totally disconnect from the idea of materialism: “I no longer consider items important to me and nor do I form a particular attachment to anything,” she elaborates.

“Essentially hoarding acts as emotional insulation, a comfort blanket.”

Approached by her publisher to write Understanding Hoarding, Jo’s book went to print in 2017. “Having had so many clients, my case studies lent well to writing the content. But even now I learn from the people I work with.”

The book aims to reduce the stigma around hoarding, help family members and professionals but also those who have difficulties themselves. She wants it to be “a go-to manual, to provide insight and help raise awareness that it is a mental health disorder and not a lifestyle choice.”

There does seem to be this notion of no resolution, but Jo thinks that over time, behaviours can be managed. “The person with the hoarding problem needs to want to reclaim their space and needs to want to change. Change is scary, so they need to feel supported through change,” she says, highlighting how important support groups are.

She also suggests asking the family member what their version of help looks like, working slowly and gently to “empower rather than take over.” She proposes that a combination of something such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and counselling paired with practical, hands-on help can potentially encourage motivation and change a hoarder’s mindset.

According to Jo, the representation of hoarding in mainstream media is unfair. She questions whether popular TV programmes are to blame: “Unfortunately, many people perceive a hoarder as someone who is dirty and lazy. It’s far more complicated than that.”

Instead of treating hoarders as entertainment she suggests that perhaps we should look to support them “with compassion and kindness, not punishment.” Much like we would with other mental health illnesses.

Successful TV presenter Jasmine Harman, from Hackney, allowed the nation into a part of her life that she’d never before exposed. My Hoarder Mum and Me aired eight years ago, so I called her to reflect on its impact both personally and culturally.

Jasmine and Vasoulla standing together amongst the mess

Jasmine (left) and Vasoulla (right) featured in the 2011 documentary My Hoarder Mum & Me [YouTube]

Describing her decision to go ahead with filming as transformational, she says: “It was my biggest secret, it was my worst dread that someone might find out about it but actually speaking about it openly, I received so much more support than I could ever have dreamed of.”

She begins to explain that back in 2011, hoarding wasn’t actually recognised as a mental health problem: “It was seen as a symptom of OCD, but there’s a big difference between OCD hoarders and people who are suffering from hoarding disorder.”

Their BBC documentary was the first of this new breed of broadcasting that acknowledged the severity of the issue: “I think the programme changed everything.” She goes on to reference How Clean Is Your House? with Kim and Aggie. They went inside people’s homes and dramatised the dirt, without any thought that it might be due to a psychological problem, something that in hindsight is pretty problematic.

As a result, Jasmine’s mum Vasoulla received a media award from the charity Mind for being one of the first people in the UK to publicly address hoarding as a mental health issue.

“It showed hoarding as a serious problem, which it really is a serious problem, so I think it was important,” Jasmine says. Vasoulla felt her portrayal was realistic and fair. “It was very raw for us at the time, but it was very human. It showed that we’re not infallible, that we all have our problems,” she adds.

After the programme aired, Jasmine received contact from thousands of viewers who could relate in some way: “They all thought they were the only one, so it really brought it out into the light.”

Noticing a demand, she created the website Help for Hoarders: “I couldn’t help everybody individually, but I thought maybe I can help them help each other by connecting people through providing a forum to share resources and stories. We have a lovely online community, it’s really great.”

Jasmine admits her childhood was impacted by Vasoulla’s hoarding: “The first time I remember being aware of something being wrong was when we had a social worker come to the house to help mum with the laundry because there was a pile that was practically up to the ceiling.”

Nostalgically, but with a knowing, painful laugh, she describes climbing up and sliding down the pile “like it was a fixture in the house.”

“It was my biggest secret, it was my worst dread that someone might find out about it.”

Her mum got really upset with the social worker “who came to help,” Jasmine says with an air of sarcasm. She and her siblings quickly learned that their mum’s hoarding was something that they shouldn’t mention “otherwise we’d end up with social workers coming into our lives.” Vasoulla’s fear of interference had transferred onto them.

Growing up, she paints a picture filled with feelings of severe embarrassment, shame and fear of someone finding out. An unexpected knock at the door meant hiding and pretending to be out of the house: “I never had friends round my mum’s. In my late teens, I tried to spend as little time there as possible.”

Jasmine says that “the most important thing is to let a hoarding relative know that you support them, that you love them, and that you’re there to help.” However, in some cases, she recommends distancing from the hoarding and seeing the relative just as another person.

“For me, it was much harder when I was living at home and when I left the hoarding got worse but my need to try and fix it got less because I wasn’t having to live with it,” she admits.

Contrary to what you’d initially assume, she thinks that decluttering should be the final stage of recovery, “there is no point clearing everything out without dealing with why the stuff has built up in the first place.” As with any coping mechanism, taking it away without providing an alternative can make matters worse.

“It’s very hard, you can do a lot of damage by forcing someone with a mental health problem to get rid of the one thing that helps them to cope. Try and support them to process these reasons, the problems why their hoarding is occurring.”

Whilst stressing the importance of seeking psychological treatment, Jasmine suggests that alongside this if you feel the desire to help inside a relative’s home then ask to do the small things. “Ask if they’d like you to do the laundry or the washing up because daily chores get left behind, as clearing is so overwhelming. These things are on their terms, they can make up their own rules.”

A pastel coloured illustration of hoarded items spilling out of two doors.

Overspill [Yuting Zhang]

Unlike a lot of hoarders, Vasoulla is mentally very aware of why she hoards, and she no longer suffers from depression or suicidal thoughts, which is a positive step forward that’s helping her to acquire less. “My mum’s still a hoarder, it’s not gone away, but she’s working on managing it all the time. Her house is still the same, but she has to do it herself.”

Jasmine has come to accept that she can no longer declutter. She would much rather avoid ruining their relationship, spending hours arguing, fighting and upset just to clear one carrier bag full of rubbish. “At the end of the day it’s a drop in the ocean that can be refilled within minutes, there’s no point,” she says.

She has made the choice not to set foot inside her mum’s house anymore: “We see each other elsewhere. We go out or she’ll come to mine because there is literally no way that I can feel comfortable there. But I want to keep my relationship with her,” she assures me with integrity.

Describing the filming process as beneficial, she says that their relationship has evolved so that hoarding is not the primary focus anymore. “We might spend a whole week together and not even mention it, so it’s nice to have a relationship with her that doesn’t always revolve around her issues.”

Sounding positive, Jasmine is confident that they have a much better understanding of each other now. There is more respect, forgiveness and willingness to listen to one another without it turning into an argument. They are “less confrontational and in many ways a lot more relaxed”.

As an outsider, you can only admire Jasmine’s personal growth, high level of patience and empathy. Her future energy will be well spent investing in herself and her happiness as an individual that is able to simultaneously support her family from a distance.

A healthy balance.

 

 

 


All illustrations courtesy of Yuting Zhang.

Edited by Laura Scheepers, Emilio Molave & Kesia Evans.