When collecting becomes a health hazard

Collecting in a confined space can become hoarding.
Collecting in a confined space can become hoarding. (Courtesy Fotolia)

Even when Linda Peters’ 1,000-square-foot basement suite was stacked to the ceiling with furniture and 11 animals lived in the same space with her, she didn’t recognize that she had a problem.

“I would drag couches four times bigger than me for blocks down the street home,” she said, “stuff (them) through the front door and stack (them) all up. … I didn’t even realize there was a problem.”

Her landlord finally put his foot down and asked her to leave. The contents of Peters’ Delta, B.C., apartment filled 17 trucks. As she paid an additional $1,000 to her landlord to cover the damage to the suite, Peters realized she had a problem: hoarding.

Hoarding hit home in East York last November, when a house on Withrow Avenue burned down killing an elderly woman inside. On Nov. 21, 2014, Andrew Kostiuk, a division commander with Toronto Fire Services, reported to CBC News that fire crews on the scene had found no solid evidence the woman was a true hoarder, only that she likely “collected stuff.”

Carol O’Neil, the owner and manager of Next Step Solutions, in Toronto, offers support services for people who hoard.

“We never use the word hoarding. It’s extremely disrespectful in our minds,” O’Neil said.

The phenomenon became popular via reality TV shows such as Hoarders and Buried Alive, in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

“On the TV show everybody is a dirty hoarder so people feel they’re being painted with that same brush,” she said.

Peters, now a student in Vancouver, learned that such TV programs stigmatized her previous activity.

“(Hoarders) characterizes (people) as kind of Looney tunes. I don’t think it humanizes them,” she said.

Linda Peters has tried to determine where her tendency to hoard came from. She said she grew up on a farm in an extremely poor family. She became a ward of the foster care system, “where you don’t really have a home.”

At 18 she was on her own and moved into that 1,000-square-foot basement.

“When you’ve lived in a world of such scarcity you tend to hang on to the things you have and that can rapidly spiral out of control,” she said. When it came to acquiring things for her new home, she remembered thinking, “I will never have the opportunity to get something like this … again.”

She said once she carried home a cardboard box full of used Mason jars covered in spiders and cobwebs; she thought the jars might be useful someday.

Next Step Solutions’ O’Neil, currently working toward a master’s in psychotherapy, said this is a very common story.

“Hoarding is about control,” O’Neil said. “You take control wherever you can and don’t let go of items because you don’t know when you will obtain something again to fill that void.”

Both Peters and O’Neil consider hoarding an addiction. As someone who actively hoarded for over 10 years, Peters explained that the biggest misconception about hoarders is that they are “completely in control, that they are making a choice to hoard.”

Peters admitted, as well, that cocooning herself among her belongings gave her a sense of security.

“There’s a feeling of being kind of enclosed, like in a nest, and that can feel very nice,” she said. “There is a comfort that you feel.”

Peters said to put the problem behind her, she used a service much like Carol O’Neil’s, called Good Riddance, to help her de-clutter her life. The service helped her channel her belongings to charities and other people. O’Neil’s support service employs the same method.

“We work directly with women’s shelters,” O’Neil said. “We work with elder reviews, animal shelters, soup kitchens, after school programs. … So we’re able to tell (clients) a story about where their things could go.”

Peters said the practice helped her make the transition more smoothly.

“It allowed me that half-step between the wasteland, the blackness of just getting rid of the thing,” she said. “I don’t know if it ever would have been really possible for me to get rid of all those things … if the service hadn’t offered that.”

Peters admitted that she still struggles with her past, that hoarding isn’t something people choose to do. It’s a continuous struggle because there’s always a tug, she said.

“The stigma of mental illness bothers me,” she said. “We’ve got this idea that we’ve all got to be the same way and we don’t.”

O’Neil emphasizes that the transition away from hoarding is a slow step-by-step process.

“I can’t stress enough that this is not about going in and making it good housekeeping,” she said. “This is about making their (hoarders) home safe and functional.”