Coalition to hold conference to help hoarders

Ann (not her real name), a self-confessed hoarder, looks into a room piled with things she can't seem to let go of. Photographed May 2, 2011.
Ann (not her real name), a self-confessed hoarder, looks into a room piled with things she can't seem to let go of. Photographed May 2, 2011. The Wichita Eagle

Ann admitted 10 years ago that her compulsion to stock up on household goods — from high-quality bed linens and luxurious soaps to everyday items such as cleaning supplies and toilet paper — had become a problem.

She rarely invited anyone inside her four-bedroom house because of the stuff piled up.

Her compulsion to hoard had started years before, after she graduated from college, said the Wichita woman, who did not want her full name published.

"I bought my first case of toilet paper, first case of paper towels," she recalled. "My friends used to laugh at me, but they would all ask me for toilet paper. My mother used to buy everything by the case, so I thought that's what I was to do. Everything I bought, I bought a lot of it."

She tried to keep everything contained in one room, but it started "oozing out of that room a little bit, like it was leaking out. If you needed something, I probably had it."

Although she now identifies herself as a hoarder, Ann is quick to point out "I don't buy trash. I buy good stuff, but I buy a lot of it."

On Friday, mental health professionals, experts on aging, professional organizers, law enforcement and others will meet for the Wichita/Sedgwick County Hoarding Coalition's daylong conference, "All Alone in a Crowded Room."

Hoarding can take many paths, says Krista Lovette, a Sedgwick County Department on Aging employee who founded the coalition in 2006. Some people collect animals, live or dead. Others can't part with takeout containers from restaurants. Lovette once worked with someone who collected cigarette butts.

Hoarding crosses ethnic and socioeconomic lines and is not picky about gender or age, though seniors are more likely than others to be identified as hoarders because they often need help that brings people into their homes, Lovette said.

The mental illness is the subject of TV shows such as A&E's "Hoarders," TLC's "Hoarding: Buried Alive" and Animal Planet's "Confessions: Animal Hoarding."

The county coalition has handled 46 hoarding cases since it started tracking them in 2008.

But that number is not indicative of the scope of the problem in Sedgwick County, Lovette said. Many hoarding cases go unreported. The coalition also does not work with people until they are ready to be helped. So a friend or relative might call for assistance, but until the hoarder is willing to accept help, the coalition does not open a case.

When someone calls the hoarding coalition for help, workers take a report and an investigative team goes out to evaluate the problem. Staff help the hoarder develop a plan to get the home cleaned up and connect the hoarder with resources such as mental health providers and Adult Protective Services.

The coalition has been involved in cases where there was so much hoarding that floors buckled and homes sustained structural damage from the weight of the items, she said.

One of the worst cases Lovette recalled was a recent one in which a man who lived with his mother and grandmother slept on newspapers he put down on the floor on top of animal urine and feces. Animal and other types of hoarding were problems in the home, she said.

Although Ann realized 10 years ago that she had a problem, she only recently started getting help for it. She attended the coalition's conference last year and earlier this year went to a four-week pilot group session called, fittingly, the "Pile-It Club."

Ann says she won't be able to curb her compulsive need to shop for and collect household goods until she figures out why she hoards.

"You really can't fix the problem until you get to the bottom of it," Lovette agrees. "You have to ask yourself, 'What's missing? What's causing me to surround myself with all of this stuff?' "

'Get a handle on it'

Lovette started the coalition in 2006. The department on aging was encountering hoarding and "no one really knew what to do."

After one case in particular, "I literally cried. It just saddened me" that people were living this way, Lovette said.

The coalition is made up of representatives from county and city departments ranging from law enforcement and fire to animal control and code enforcement as well as SRS, Comcare and others.

Ann, who is in her early 50s, said she is looking forward to more group sessions and wants to get ongoing professional counseling. The group sessions, she said, blew her away. Although the people were strangers, "I felt like as long as I was there, I fit in." She said she tried to "wean myself on my own, but I wasn't able to stop it because I didn't know why I was doing it."

She still doesn't, though she recognizes that her hoarding goes into full swing whenever she goes through a major life change.

She also recognizes that she is a compulsive shopper.

"I can take a $5 bill and make it work like no one's seen," she said. "I will find the best of the best. That doesn't make my hoarding any better. That doesn't make me any better than the person who hoards plastic bags."

Ann is in a relationship now, and that has affected her hoarding. One half of her house is "so clean you could eat off the floor," she said. "It's not my half."

Just as sports fans, quilters or antique car collectors find each other, so do hoarders, Ann said.

"Most of my friends are hoarders," she said. "Their's don't look like mine, but indeed they are. I tell you, I can smell a hoarder when I'm in their company. I can tell you who is just by a little bit of conversation."

Ann said she wants to change. One defining moment for her, she said, was when someone told her, "You've made your whole house into a closet."

"My goal is to get a handle on it, to change my quality of life," she said.

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