When Susan looks around her small one bedroom apartment in Victoria, all she sees is one big mess.
It never used to be that way, but during the last 10 years the 62-year-old has turned into a hoarder and her collections now consume the bulk of her living space.
Piles of organized items line the main hallway and have taken over the tiny kitchen. Susan can’t reach her cupboards or the pantry of canned food, but still has access to one burner on the stove. Fearing eviction over the clutter, she has no fridge since it kept breaking down.
Things are also piled in her bathroom and bathtub, making it difficult sometimes to take a shower. Most of the time Susan can reach her bed, but some nights she just puts a blanket on the floor to sleep.
“When those things happen it’s right in my face,” said Susan, who’s also had problems with mice. “I have one chair that I sit in that’s basically become my life line.”
In addition to her apartment, Susan has seven storage lockers packed with items she purchased from auctions. The cost of the storage lockers is nearly as much as her apartment’s monthly rent, and it’s beginning to have a financial toll.
Susan, who did not want to publish her real name, isn’t shy to admit she suffers from depression, which she attributes to a series of traumatic events in her life such as deaths and suicide. Wading around in a fog, she didn’t care about anything in the early stages of her depression. The only thing that made her happy was buying new things from craft fairs, flea markets and rummage sales.
“I just felt like I was having such wonderful experiences going to these sales. I got to know a lot of the vendors and we would have wonderful conversations,” said Susan, whose collections include tea cups, linens, china, teddy bears and dolls.
“I knew that I was overdoing it, but I didn’t care because I figured at least I’m still here. When I see something that I like it makes me happy. I just want to hang onto that feeling and take it home with me.”
Due to the shrinking space in her home, eventually Susan stopped having people over. But one person who still came by was her neighbour whenever Susan needed someone to look after her cat.
One day her neighbour left a newspaper article on the doorstep about the Hoarding Education and Action Team (HEAT). After much thought, Susan decided to give it a try.
Comprised of various service agencies throughout the capital region, HEAT began in 2012 and offers a drop-in, peer support group to help people overcome issues with clutter.
According to Island Health Psychologist Dr. Eric Ochs, hoarding is a mental health condition and there are various reasons why some people’s living space is slowly taken over by their possessions. 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.
Ochs estimates that one in 25 people in Greater Victoria is directly affected by hoarding, which is defined as the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. It’s a number Ochs found shocking.
“We have a whole mental health system in place to help people with depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia. Hoarding fits right in there and it does have horrible outcomes. Until very recently, there’s been very little in the way of an organized response to this,” said Ochs, noting the clutter is often a safety and fire hazard, and affects the health of everyone living in the home.
Despite the high prevalence, Ochs noted a lot of people aren’t thrilled to disclose they have a problem with hoarding. Even if the home is cleaned, the disorder will still be there unless the proper therapy and support system is in place.
“Things like obesity and hoarding are still highly stigmatized. People are blamed for their condition, they are vilified and made fun of…the idea is to really help address some of their skill deficits. You have to get in there and help the person get a handle of the problem with all that stuff.”
Susan is relieved to meet people in similar situations at the HEAT peer support group, but can’t help but feel overwhelmed about the task that lies ahead. She’s managed to get rid of a few things that belonged to other people, but has avoided letting go of the items with emotional attachments, along with things she’d planned to use if she ever achieved her dream of having a house — a dream she’s struggling to accept may never come true.
“Everything that I was buying to have for a future life, I am not able to use and I will never be able to use. I will never have the life that I am planning for because it will just never happen the way I am doing things now and that makes me really sad,” said Susan. “It’s a horrendous job to think that I could ever get through this in a lifetime, to be able to sort it and figure out what to do…It’s hard to think of what I would throw away.”
The HEAT peer support group meets every second Wednesday of the month from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Royal Jubilee Hospital. For more information call 250-361-0227.