'Hell' has many meanings for hoarders
Two hoarder homes, two different points of view: Kevin and Val are in denial and anyone who says otherwise can "bugger off"; but Val is desperate to escape her "hell on earth".PT4M31S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2rmn9 620 349 August 9, 2013
When you visit Linda Sexton at home, she gives you directions not just to her street address, but to her door. Can't come through the main gate. Front door is blocked. Look for the gap in the fence near the old birdcage. Follow the path (past the 44 gallon drums and broken white goods and clumps of onion weed) to the back door.
"You understand that I'm ashamed of myself?" she says, cracking open her boarded up entrance, wary of revealing the labyrinthine mess inside. "I didn't used to be like this."
The four-bedroom brick house in Melbourne where the 66-year-old retired secretary raised three children was once her palatial pride and joy. It is now difficult or impossible to navigate the clutter that is bagged and boxed, heaped and stacked and spread throughout every corner.
Bursting at the seams: Linda Sexton's living room. Photo: Joe Armao
There is dust and damp and rot here, and the smell of possum urine and kitty litter faintly masked by White King and Glen 20. The halls and passageways are so congested that Sexton estimates she has not set foot in her master bedroom for a decade.
The devolution was gradual. At first she filled her bedroom with cherished mementoes and slept in spare rooms. When those were filled - with clothes and books and bric-a-bric - she began sleeping on the couch. When the lounge, living room, dining area and kitchen overflowed with items found and scrounged, she was forced farther back. Now there is nowhere left. A bar fridge and toaster on a shelf in the laundry act as a makeshift kitchen. She sleeps on a single bed in her bathroom.
"I want my home back. I can visualise how I want it - I just don't know where to start. It's too overwhelming. I think I've lost the plot," she says.
Sexton is not alone. She suffers from hoarding disorder, a mental illness marked by the acquisition of (and failure to discard) possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value, creating living spaces that are so cluttered as to render rooms impossible to use for their intended purpose. The most reliable international statistics suggest that the disorder affects 2 per cent to 6 per cent of the population.
"That's a lot of Australians," says Professor Michael Kyrios of Swinburne University, recently returned from an international hoarding conference in San Francisco. "I think there's a little bit of it in all of us, but there is a point at which it becomes a clinical disorder - an extreme version of normality."
A 2009 study by the Fire & Rescue investigation and research unit found that fires in hoarding households represent one in every 12 NSW fire fatalities since 2000 and that one-third of these victims were aged 60 or older. For that reason they instruct first responders to install smoke alarms, unblock all exits, wide internal pathways and ensure safe cooking and heating areas are provided. Fire & Rescue has also put in place a portal on its website where citizens can point out hoarding properties for fire fighters to then assess and potentially report to local councils. In the months since April, five properties had been reported, but following a heavily publicised blaze in Marrickville last month in which two elderly residents narrowly escaped with their lives, another dozen hoarding homes have been pointed out to firefighters.
Kyrios has worked extensively with Dr Randy Frost, the American author of The New York Times bestseller Stuff, and points out that we live in an age where we have simply too many possessions - a consumerist glut of unwanted and obsolete ephemera.
"What do we do with things that are kind of OK? Do we throw them away? Give them away?" Kyrios asks. "Many of us can make those decisions - people with a hoarding problem can't."
It is difficult to grasp why people hoard. Sexton has had a tough life, including a violent marriage marked by beatings "between the neck and the knees", so no one could see the damage done. Her children had their own problems. She took in street kids and was robbed often.
The Australian Psychological Society sends Kyrios all over the country, training psychologists to understand, diagnose and treat the condition. When his clients say that they need to keep something, he poses a simple question: How is that working out for you?
"You're not sleeping in your room. You've got nowhere to shower or cook, and no one's been in your house for 20 years. So how is this going for you? Because I'm not seeing a lot of joy - I'm seeing you isolated and depressed and in poor health."
Hoarding was only recognised as a distinct mental disorder in May, listed in the DSM-V (the ''psychiatrists' bible"). There is a distinct lack of a standardised response. Is it an aged care problem? A social services problem? No agency has taken ownership.
"I want my home back," Sexton says quietly, her plaintive tone a mix of hope and desperation. "I want to live like a normal person.''
''And if I get that far, I want to volunteer to help other people in my position because I know what it's like - it's sheer hell."