The thought of sorting through and getting rid of the hundreds of items consuming her small apartment in Victoria left Susan feeling tremendously overwhelmed.
Piles of organized items lined the main hallway and took over the tiny kitchen, only allowing access to one burner on the stove. Things also piled up in the bathroom and bathtub, making it difficult sometimes to shower. The nights she couldn’t reach her bed, Susan slept on a blanket on the floor.
Living with hoarding disorder and depression hasn’t been easy for the 62-year-old nurse.
In addition to her apartment, Susan has seven storage lockers (that cost as much as her monthly rent) packed with items she purchased from auctions. She knew she was overdoing it, but it didn’t matter. Wading around in a fog, the only thing that made her happy was buying new things from craft fairs, flea markets and rummage sales to add to her collection of tea cups, linens, china, teddy bears and dolls.
But after six years of living amongst the clutter slowly taking over her home, Susan reached her breaking point and decided to get help.
“You have to get to the point where you realize you want to change, that you are not getting where you want to get, that you never will and you need help,” said Susan, who did not want to publish her real name.
“You think I’m intelligent, I’ll just tidy up and I have the wherewithal, but you don’t know how to cope with it, you don’t even identify or know why it happens. I got to the point where I had to say, I don’t know what to do.”
Hoarding is a mental health condition that can be caused by a number of reasons. Sometimes genetic factors play a role and a person’s upbringing, along with other problems like decision making, being organized, and issues with emotional attachment.
An estimated one in 25 people in Greater Victoria are directly affected by hoarding, defined as the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. Despite the high prevalence, doctors say a lot of people are hesitant to disclose they have a problem.
Attending monthly meetings with the city’s Hoarding Education and Action Team (HEAT) peer support group, Susan began setting goals and tried to do something with the mountain of items consuming her home. But her anxiety and depression made it tough to get anything accomplished. Her mind was all over the place and she couldn’t think straight. Eventually Susan felt like she was losing control.
Seeing their family member in need, Susan’s sisters offered to help declutter her place and in August, the tedious task of sorting through and getting rid of the items consuming her tiny apartment and life officially began.
Working from morning to night for at least five days, they packed the items into boxes and put collectibles into another storage locker, bringing the total to eight. At times Susan was forced to make some hard decisions that left her crying in the backyard.
“I felt so embarrassed, I felt so upset that they shouldn’t have been doing that, but I was excited at the same time and really thankful that they cared enough to do this for me,” said Susan, who couldn’t believe what she saw once the process was over.
“It blew my mind. It was all open, I could see the floor in every room, it was normal. I started to remember what it was like when I first moved in (in 2004). It felt like a big load had been taken off my shoulders. I just thought I want this in my life.”
These days, things are looking bright for Susan who’s filled with a positivity she hasn’t felt in a long time. She’s managed to keep the clutter out of her home, but admits the Christmas season has caused things to get a bit messy again.
Learning how to control her disorder will be an ongoing process. Susan still likes to go out and buy things, but she’s learned, with the help of her support group, how to control what she purchases, noting they’ll only make her happy in the short term so take a picture instead. She’s also been pre-approved to purchase a house — a dream she thought at one point would never come true.
“I understand that it’s not over for me. I’ve got all this stuff that’s in storage now and I try not to dwell on it. I have a lot of really nice things that I’ve forgotten about because it’s in storage,” said Susan.
It’s facing a part of yourself that you don’t want to face. It takes everybody their own amount of time to get to that point where you say I can look at this, I have to because I am just so miserable.”