A cat sits on the stove that is crowded with the results of hoarding at the home of Jeannette Hamilton's mother's Lake Station home in this picture provided Wednesday May 1, 2013 in Lake Station, Ind. It took Jeannette and other family members years to clear out and clean the house before her mother passed away in December 2011 at age 79. | provided photo~Post-Tribune
Updated: June 6, 2013 6:43AM
Jeannette Hamilton calls herself a “hoarder’s daughter.”
The Lake Station woman’s mother was a hoarder of all things, including animals, a common aspect of the mental illness condition that compels people to compulsively collect items and refuse to discard them.
“At one point, I could safely guess she had at least 25 cats and eight dogs in a 900-square-foot house that only had goat paths as a means of getting around,” Hamilton told me. “It got to the point that she didn’t even let me in the house.”
Hoarding is the excessive collection of things, for various reasons, typically creating such cramped living conditions that some homes are filled to capacity, and beyond. Into sheds, storage lockers, garages, basements and even surrounding property, if they can get away with it without complaints from neighbors.
The fascinating but revolting reality TV show, “Hoarding: Buried Alive,” on The Learning Channel, has helped pull back the curtain on this issue. It also illustrates how hoarders often don’t see their condition as a problem, which only sabotages treatment options.
“The most important thing to keep in mind is that this is a condition they have no control over,” said Bob Pratt, a retired fire marshal for the city of East Lansing, Mich. “Most are well aware of the unacceptability of the situation, but they feel powerless.”
Hoarding could be an exaggerated symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or chronic depression, or sparked from a traumatic event in someone’s life, such as the death of a close loved one.
“I don’t know if you will actually get a hoarder to answer. They will either be in denial or too ashamed,” Hamilton said in response to a query of mine in a previous column.
I heard from a handful of self-professed hoarders, but none of them would meet with me, allow me to visit their home, or reveal their names. They were simply too embarrassed, confused, or in denial.
“There’s nothing wrong with collecting stuff,” explained Thomas G. of Newton County, noting that his home is filled to the rafters with “collectibles.”
“It’s my home and I can fill it with whatever I choose,” he said. “Ain’t none of your business, or the police, how much stuff I keep, including animals.”
Most have animals, too
He has a point, to a degree, I learned this past week when I attended a special class on animal cruelty and hoarding, hosted by Lake County police detective Michelle Dvorscak, who’s served dozens of search warrants to animal hoarders.
“There is no crime called animal hoarding. These people aren’t criminals per se, although they can be issued citations for neglect and ordinance violations,” she told police officers and animal control officers at the Northwest Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Hobart.
There, in a classroom, she showed a slideshow of graphic photos and an eye-opening video of hoarders’ homes, each one looking like a house-sized Dumpster. Filled to the brim with junk, trash and mounds of animal feces, with one south Lake County home filled a foot high with dog feces.
“I’ve yet to meet a hoarder who didn’t hoard animals, too,” Dvorscak told the class. “and they often can’t bear to let go of things, even if it’s dead animals put into a freezer.”
In one case, animal skeletons were found underneath all the trash. In another case the stench was so strong, even the HazMat crew had to take breaks and wear new masks. Last month, a 450-pound female hoarder had to be extricated from her own Cedar Lake home after falling down in the mounting mess. Police had to make a hole in the side of her home to get her out, and transport her with a tow truck, Dvorscak said.
Hoarders aren’t easily categorized by race, age, income, ethnicity, or intelligence, she noted.
“Some are highly educated and extremely articulate, but many of them go from bad to worse,” she said.
Hoarders often fall into two categories once they’re revealed to authorities — angry, self-righteous and territorial, or relieved and even happy that their secret is finally out.
“One woman thanked me afterward that she was found out,” Dvorscak said
Anxiety overrules rationality
Hamilton’s mother always had hoarding “tendencies,” but the woman’s husband helped keep it in check. Once he died, things got worse.
“I finally saw it when she called one morning because one of her dogs died and she needed him removed, to get cremated,” Hamilton said. “My husband and I were in shock.”
Hamilton took desperate measures by showing her mother a mock letter from the city, officially informing her to clean up her act according to city code. The mother was very angry.
“She was devastated to get rid of her animals. It felt as if she could have gotten rid of one of her children easier,” said Hamilton, who took photos of the massive clean-up effort. “I threw away so many childhood memories that had all been destroyed.”
Hamilton is now convinced that her mother had OCD, and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2011 she still showed hoarding tendencies until her death 16 months later.
“Even into the last few days of her life, only weighing 70 some pounds, every night she would somehow manage to get out of bed on her own and go amass things from around the house and take them into her bedroom,” she recalled.
“Even in her dying days, she could not quiet the strong urges in her head. It was actually very sad,” said Hamilton, who is still cleaning out her mother’s home.
Pratt, the retired fire marshal, said the anxiety of parting with objects overwhelms a hoarder’s common sense. Because of this, don’t try to understand their reasoning with rational thought. It won’t work. His other advice is even more difficult to do, especially for people like me who have no problem purging things from our cluttered life.
“You must avoid judging them,” he said.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.