I thought it would useful to write a bit about these calls to help others who find themselves in this situation.
From the perspective of the callers, the clutter is worthless and the piles are fire hazards. They wonder how their loved ones can live this way. They think that throwing out the clutter is the answer – but why don’t their loved ones see that?
The loved ones who are hoarding have a different perspective. Their collections are useful, interesting and valuable. The problem is not the stuff. The problem is other people feel they have the right to tell them what to do with their stuff.
The situations are painful, frustrating, and scary – for both the callers and their loved ones. However, I can only address the needs of the person who calls me; it would be unethical and deleterious for me to work in a home without the homeowner’s prior knowledge and consent. It is news that rarely surprises the caller, but typically is met with resignation. There is hope if the caller is willing to do some work on his own.
1) Acknowledge what you are feeling and get support for you. Isolation often accompanies hoarding, not only for the person who is hoarding, but also for his relatives and friends. Hoarding is not a “water cooler” topic. But there are other people in similar situations who understand what you are going through, and that can be comforting. The website Children of Hoarders is a very good resource. If you are in the St. Louis area, the St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute provides support for family and friends.
2) Maintain your cool and be respectful of the person who is hoarding. Each of you has different perspectives. Suspend the temptation to declare a “right” and a “wrong” in this situation because it will lead you to a dead end. The likelihood of progress is far greater if you can act with empathy. Understandably, this may be hard to do. What you feel is legitimate and that is why I start with getting support for what you are going through.
3) Educate yourself. The International OCD Foundation’ s website contains a wealth of information and it has an excellent infographic that you can download. The Institute for Challenging Disorganization has a variety of informational downloads. The books Digging Out by Michael A. Tompkins Ph.D and Tamara L. Hartl, Ph.D. and Buried in Treasures by David F. Tolin, Ph.D., Randy O. Frost, Ph.D. and Gail Steketee, Ph.D. are excellent resources.
4) Prepare for the long-term. Hoarding behaviors do not go away in a week, a month or a year. This may be a life-long struggle.
5) Turn the conversation from throwing things away to making the environment safer and more comfortable your loved one. If you focus on throwing things away, then you are discounting your loved one’s perspective that his things are valuable. Can you agree not to block the door or to keep items off of the stove? Agree upon a goal together. You might consider these small steps. But it can be a big step for your loved one to agree to partner with you to take action.
Your loved one may not be ready to work with you. You cannot rush the process. There may be some emotional groundwork that needs to be worked on first, which is why it’s important to get support for what you are experiencing.
The temptation may be go into the loved one’s home and clean it out. Not only will your loved one continue to acquire items to fill his home, but in all likelihood you will seriously damage your relationship with him. Please take a step back, take a deep breath and proceed with care and respect for both of you. You are not alone.