Friday, May 01, 2009

#125: The Full Bug

I’ve been having an ongoing debate with a few people about hoarders versus collectors. Most people fail to see any difference between the two groups – you’re either one or the other, and each will deny that they’re the worst. A hoarder will tell you that they don’t hoard, they collect items, and a collector will tell you that they have everything under control and as such can’t be considered to be a hoarder. Over the past few years I’ve seen both types, hoarders and collectors, and I can tell you there is a very defined line between them.

Just for fun and games let’s look at the common (accepted) definitions of the two terms. Collectors are those people who buy and sell, or manage to gather from wherever, items of some value, be it monetary or otherwise. Collectors will generally itemise their collections, they’ll organise them, catalogue and, more often than not, will set up little displays for themselves and if need be, other people, to enjoy viewing. Collectors often have a specialised field in which they play – myself, I collect what I collect and I have no desire to have a collection of beanie babies. Evil bastard things, I’d use them for footballs if I had the chance.

A hoarder will gather anything and everything. They refuse to throw anything out, if they pass a Samboy chip wrapper on the floor they’ll pick it up and take it home. They have no rhyme or reason and they’ll fill both their properties and lives with clutter that soon over-runs their basic household needs and living requirements. A hoarder has a collection of stuff that, for the most part, is worthless. It’s not catalogued, there’s no use itemising it (“Oh, a rare January 2009 banana peel taken from a dumpster behind McDonalds,” is not a description of use) and no-one would be interesting in seeing it. Sorry, but a ‘collection’ of pizza boxes, complete with food stuffs left in them, does not constitute a valid collection. Hoarders will allow their possessions to utterly overtake their lives to the point of serious physical and mental harm. There might be a show named ‘Collectors’ on the ABC, but you’ll notice there isn’t one called ‘Hoarders’. I wonder why…

The Collyer brothers were hoarders. William Randolph Hearst was a collector. There’s your difference. One was rich beyond imagination and bought almost everything he saw, had it catalogued, itemised and shipped to storage or placed upon display. At his time of need he managed to sell some of what he’d bought for a decent profit and became rich again. The bulk of Hearst’s collection still exists at San Simeon and is a world renowned tourist attraction. The Collyer brothers died, one of neglect holding a bottle of rancid milk, unable to care for himself, the other buried beneath a pile of rotting newspapers which took weeks to clear. Nothing exists of the Collyer brothers ‘collection’ today, no tourist attractions exists and no-one wanders by to see a collection of Collyer Apple Cores. By now you should be able to see the difference very clearly.

Both a collector and a hoarder can suffer from a mental health issue, such as OCD, but, for the most part, OCD is not required to be a collector. It does seem to be a pre-requisite for being a hoarder though, along with various other diseases and issues. I doubt anyone ever caught nits or suffered suppurating sores from touching Prince Rainier’s stamp collection, nor did they have to endure warts by holding one of William Babcock’s Daumier paintings, nor has there ever been a case of anyone contracting bubonic plague from buying one of Edgar Church’s comic books. However these diseases, and more, could possibly be contracted from handling or eating food prepared in an old food container that hasn’t been cleaned in years, or by attempting to drink milk which is solid enough to break a shovel. Well, perhaps not the plague, but then rats are carriers, and they are often hang around hoarders.

Possibly the most famous of all hoarders, the Collyers, operated in New York and had a career hoarding spanning nearly three decades. When the elder Collyer, Homer, died of starvation in March 1947 it took the police a few hours to break into the property to find him. The brothers had gathered so much shit that it took the police two weeks to find the younger brother, Langely, who’d been killed by one of his own booby traps. The rats ate well that fortnight. The brothers had turned their four bedroom mansion into a maze of corridors and tunnels, formed by newspapers and other debris that the two found on the streets and dragged home. And the Collyers weren’t poor – they owned the mansion outright and their net worth was estimated at around $90,000 at the time of their death, in 1947 that was no small sum. $20,000 of that was estimated to be their piles of crap, piles that weighed over 100 tons, I kid you not. The Collyers are generally held up as being the most extreme example of hoarding.

Piss off. I’ve seen worse than that. This past month actually.

I’ve seen many examples of people hoarding and people collecting. I did a visit on a lovely lady who showed me, with great pride and deservedly so, her collection of fine Doulton, the bulk of which was behind glass in a display cabinet in her sitting room. Worth quite a bit, very decorative and although my knowledge of Royal Doulton is limited to the toilet, I could easily appreciate both the time and effort that she’d gone to in amassing her collection. The next day I saw another house where the tenant had made new rooms and corridors out of newspapers and magazines. The kitchen was one big sink – such was the sheer amount of clutter I had to ask if there was a table in the room. I was told yes, but I’d be damned if I could find it. Access to the house was via the front door or a side window, with the window being the preferred point of entry, not that I’d use it. I insisted on using the door, much to the tenant’s dismay. During the visit another person materialised, it seemed, out of thin air. He lived in another room within a room with some cats. The tenant told me that the cats kept the mice away but I felt that the mice left the property of their own accord. The tenant herself had several open, weeping sores on her hands and as I left she held one out for me to shake. I leapt backwards like I’d be stung by a bee, grabbed my clipboard and fled. Once in the car I spent the next ten minutes washing my hands furiously with alcohol based hand sanitiser.

What got me was when I asked the tenants if they needed help cleaning their place up they looked at me like I was an alien from the planet Arse. “There’s no problems though,” they replied. “But,” I said, “have a look. There’s stuff piled up to the roof, and in the case of where the manhole is, it goes into the roof.” “But,” they replied, “it’s just our collection.”

What I felt like saying was that a collection is the Doulton on the walls I saw yesterday, your pile of rubbish is a pile of rubbish. The house would have looked like the local tip, only without the order. I told a colleague when I returned, imagine five photos of five different places you’ve seen that have been invaded with hoarders. Now overlay the photos. And then double it. You’re almost there. And yes, it really WAS that bad. Not to mention the stench. It was a cold day, and slightly overcast, yet I could smell the property clearly from the road. At first I thought that someone had dumped some old potato peelings wrapped around cracked, rotten eggs into a pool of spiled milk and vinegar, but no, the smell was actually coming from the house. The closer I got the worse it got, but then I put that down to simple physics – the closer the proximity to the epicentre, the stronger the smell. Once inside my first impression was that someone, or something, had recently died. I didn’t ask because I really didn’t want an answer. The grass was overgrown and the house just looked tired. If a brick can age like a person and get exhausted then these bricks already had. I felt sorry for the property and thought that the noble and humane thing to do would to simply have it put down. At some stage one room might have been used for something like a bathroom, but now it was merely a room full of books, however I doubt that the tenants suffered from any serious form of bibliomania as the bulk of the books were mouldy and covered in what I hope was cat urine, but you know, I wasn’t going to be hanging around to test it. I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.

Hoarding creates its own special set of problems and issues. I’m sure that most people who live where I do have seen the footage of a property where a family lived, the child died a needless death. Now if you look at those photos you’ll see what happened – hoarding. More than one person has asked why didn’t we, as an organisation, do something about this and the answer is a very simple one – it wasn’t one of our properties, so we’re not to blame. But the property I visited was worse than the one that’s now legendary in the media, but as far as I’m aware there were no children present in the property, but then again I didn’t lift the newspapers up to look underneath. I wasn’t game. But I digress. Some of the obvious issues that hoarding brings with it include physical ailments of a serious nature. I’ve seen people in some houses who have needed immediate medical attention, however due to the nature of the related mental health problems commonly associated with hoarding, it’s never easy to get those people the assistance that they need. Hoarders often display characteristics of recluses, some often only come out at night to collect their items and vanish during the day. It’s hard to engage them, they’ll refuse to admit that there’s any problem to deal with – acceptance, which is important to aid treatment, if often missing. It’s also not that hard to draw a line between hoarding and mental health issues, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and kleptomania amongst others. The Collyers were so good that a hoarding issue, Dipsophobia, was nick-named Collyer-brothers syndrome in recognition of their events.

How do we treat hoarders? Good question. We can intervene to a point. Some hoarders will recognise their issues and sometimes they do cry out for help. Those who do ask for help not only deserve it, they get it. It’s easy to look upon a hoarder as being somewhat deranged – the crazy cat lady for example – and such a simplistic outlook is as unfair as it is inaccurate. My own personal belief is that hoarding, in its most extreme state, is an illness all of its own. I also believe that some people who claim to be hoarders just aren’t – just as there’s a difference between hoarding and collecting, there’s a large difference between being a hoarder and just being an utter lazy bastard. There’s an easy way to spot the difference and here it is. A hoarder will collect everything and most are extremely active – they’ll wander around the city and suburbs looking for more and more material in which to fill the house with. Lazy bastards will just be content to sit in their own filth surrounded by the debris of their lives as they can’t be arsed cleaning up behind them. Hoarders want to live in the debris of EVERYONES lives, not just their own. Hoarders will go out of their way to get out, under the cover of the night to explore. Lazy swine will sit there, watch TV, have the computer with the internet permanently switched on in the bedroom, or not that far from the bed and just throw empty bottles and food containers everywhere. Neglect of others can lead to serious illness and, sometimes, death. A hoarder will fall ill because of what they collect, not by what they’ve dumped. Both will lie about their problems, but in my observations the hoarder will simply lie to say that they have no problem and that they’re not a hoarder. The lazy bastard will lie about their problem and attempt to cover it all up by blaming others. For the lazy bastard society is to blame, not them. If they’re caught in a serious situation, such as death, then they’ll cry about how they were screaming for help, despite the utter absence of any supporting evidence. Shifting the blame is the name of that game. False claims, only in a totally different way. Spot the difference now?

What do we do with hoarders? In the extreme cases the properties can be declared to be unsafe on the grounds of health and safety. If such a thing happens it’s not that difficult to engage support services or obtain council and local government assistance and arrange the cleaning out of properties. In some very, very extreme cases I’ve seen what’s referred to as a pathological clean up of the property. For those who don’t know, pathological cleans are generally done when a violent crime or nasty suicide has happened, in effect something so toxic that the property isn’t safe for any form of human contact without the correct safety gear, gloves, biohazard suits, masks, goggles – you name it, you’ll be wearing it because the risks to your own health and wellbeing are far more important. Trust me on that one.

Just how much can you fit into a place is another common topic. Here’s an example – I once visited a tiny one-bed roomed unit that the occupants had turned into a labyrinth made up of newspapers, old magazines, clippings, form guides, TV books – you name it, it was in there. The usual tunnels and corridors existed, along with the main room of the property having been turned into a sub-unit made up of three separate sections, portioned off by newspapers from the floor to the ceiling. It took me and a colleague a good forty minutes to get in through the front door, and in doing so we had to remove enough items to nearly fill the front verandah section of the complex and hadn’t scratched the surface. Two people lived in the unit and I doubt that they’d seen some parts of the unit since they moved in. One person had turned an old lounge char into a bed, a bed that, upon him standing up, we noticed a family of mice living inside via a large hole in the seat. The electricity had been cut off a few days previously but this didn’t bother the tenants – they merely resorted to candle power. In the height of summer. And a heatwave. The tenants were totally oblivious to the obvious fire hazard that they were causing. Needless to say we effected what we rarely do – immediate removal of the tenants and the locks changed. One tenant wasn’t supposed to be at the property in the first place, the second had supports to take him away. I arranged a clean up by the council and was amazed to walk past to find three industrial sized skips out the front. They were all overflowing with garbage. The tenant’s supports had told the council to remove everything and they had. The next time I looked inside the unit it looked huge compared to the twelve roomed unit it’d once been. Now it back to a four roomed unit. We moved the tenant out and he’s remained hoard-free ever since.

I doubt anyone has any real answers to combat hoarding other than patience and understanding. If someone calls for help, if someone needs help, then we have a duty to assist them. There are solutions, if the person is willing to embrace them. Supports need to be in place, long term supports though, as short term solutions might clean the immediate problem but won’t eliminate the situation totally. You can clean a house out but if you’re not prepared to hang around then you’ll soon discover that all that’s happened if that the place has been prepared to be filled once more. A person also can’t be sucked into believing that hoarding is another form of collecting – it’s not. Without rhyme or reason, without any logical or rational pattern, the collecting aspect goes out the window and the hoarding comes in. And that’s where the problems all begin…


Anonymous said...

Pure. Comedy. Gold.

If this was an example in a textbook on how to turn tragedy into humour it'd be a benchmark to follow.

Mari said...

It's bad when it's your job to collect and your co-workers are horders. Crap gets cataloged... "Records of Utter Nonsense, 1930-1989, 39 boxes that no one ever bothered to open..."

Anonymous said...

"Disposophobia", not "Dipsophobia". One is the fear of losing things, the other is the fear of drinking alcohol.