Ingeborg van Teeseling

One Man’s Trash: Stepping Into the World of a Hoarder

Hoarding is now considered a serious mental disorder, so to better understand what drives it, I met Frank.

 

I can’t stand mess. It reminds me of the inside of my head, which is why I am a neat freak at home. Things have to live where they live and my guilty secret is that I actually like mopping kitchen floors. So, I was a little anxious to take up the offer to go and visit Frank [not his real name], because Frank is a hoarder. Hoarding has become something of a reality television feature, but it is also a serious disorder, recognized for the first time in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013. Two to five percent of people suffer from what is now called Hoarding Disorder.

Frank hasn’t left his house for anything more than a walk to the local supermarket in years. Even that has become difficult lately, because Frank smells a little, and the manager of the supermarket has told Frank’s daughter Moira [name also changed] that her father is driving other customers away. So, now, Moira tries to do the shopping after work, before she goes home to take care of her kids.

Frank lives around 19 miles away and Moira is a shift worker, so, it isn’t always easy. But nor has her relationship with her dad ever been, and Moira’s patience is a well-trained muscle. She will be with me this morning too, because Frank doesn’t trust visitors. They might want to take his prized possessions away, and he isn’t having any of that. It is an interesting way of interviewing somebody; he knows I want to write a story, but he can’t believe it is about his hoarding. Nothing wrong with that, is there? A bit of stuff here and there, that is all. No big deal.

Frank’s front yard is spotless. Not like the images I remember from the infamous “hoarder house” at Bondi, for instance. Moira tells me it has been different in the past. Shit everywhere and enormous fights with the neighbors. But, two years ago, there was a truce: Frank keeps his stuff inside and, in return, the neighbors mow the lawn and prune the trees and shrubs. It was a good deal, because Frank likes the smell of freshly mown grass. And he likes a clear view out, so he can see intruders before they get to the door. “Then he can ambush them,” Moira says with a wry smile, another habit Frank picked up in Vietnam; like the hoarding, the doctor seems to think. Moira doesn’t know; she was born after Frank came back from his tour overseas. She tells me her grandmother, Frank’s mother, is also fairly obsessive, but on the other end of the spectrum. Granny cleans. All day, every day. So, maybe there is something genetic going on and Vietnam was the icing on the cake? Who knows, really, with mental illness.

Once through the front door, Frank’s house is an immediate assault on the senses. And a little prick to my Achilles’ heel, because, like me, Frank has a penchant for books. But where mine are on bookshelves, his are, well, everywhere. There are stacks, and mountains, and broad-flowing rivers of books. On tables, chairs, kitchen benches, the stove, windowsills, the floor. They have fallen over each other, some are disintegrating, or consist of nothing more than a few pages. Besides the books, there are papers. Millions of them. Letters, advertisement brochures, computer print-outs. And there is food, although mostly in boxes and cans. Enough for an army, which is probably why it is there.

There is literally no place to sit and I wouldn’t want to because, frankly, the squalor freaks me out a little. There are traces of unidentified foodstuff, caked-on and smeared over surfaces, everywhere. I am ashamed of myself, because my (very strong) instinct is to get out and run. But I don’t. I pull myself together and take my lead from Moira. I stand, focus on Frank, and let him talk.

 

Frank doesn’t trust visitors. They might want to take his prized possessions away, and he isn’t having any of that.

 

That takes a while because, initially, I get the first degree: who I am, why I am here, what I want. I need to swear (yes, literally) that I have not come to take his possessions away or clean up.

Frank doesn’t think there is much wrong with him or the amount of stuff he has acquired over time. I have to understand, he finally starts, that he needs his belongings. They protect him from all the bad vibes in the world. Did I know he was in a war? That he saw people die and get ripped apart? He could tell me stories, but he is not going to, because then they would get into my head and do damage.

He knows, because he has lived with them for years. He is not going to say anything to anybody. Not to his wife, Moira’s mother, not to the doctor who comes to his house sometimes. He knows the impossibility to communicate is what has got him the divorce in the end, but that is a small price to pay for protecting other people against the insidious nature of the images in his head. The doctor says she wants him to talk, but Frank can’t take that seriously. She is just a girl, the doctor, and doesn’t know anything about people yelling because their leg has been shot out from under them. Sorry, he shouldn’t have said that either.

While Frank talks, there is rustling going on around us. Mice and rats are darting over boxes and across piles of books. Frank doesn’t cook himself, there is no space in the kitchen for that, and hardly room to sit and eat. Once a week, Moira prepares a stack of meals and stores them in the freezer. She knows her father doesn’t heat them up. Sometimes he even forgets to defrost them, and the half-empty plates are everywhere and attract more vermin. There is little she can do about that. When the garden was still a mess, the Department of Housing tried to evict Frank. But he owns the house outright and as long as he keeps his junk where it doesn’t hurt other people, he can do what he wants. Years ago, Moira paid a professional de-clutterer to take her father in hand, but Frank almost killed her. Now, she just leaves him to it and tries to help out on the edges of the problem, not making it worse and knowing there is little she can do to make it better.

I would like to ask Frank if he thinks medication might help him. There are pills available, and often they do some good. But I already know the answer to the question I can’t ask. In Frank’s head, he is fine. The war is a problem in there, but the hoarding is not. He is not a hoarder, he is a collector of fine treasures that keep the demons at bay. Rats or no rats, clutter or no clutter. When I leave, I feel confused and a little scared. There is not a lot of scientific information on the probable causes of hoarding disorder and if trauma can do it, how close are any of us? Are we all, in fact, one uncontrolled step away from living like this? It is a disturbing question that keeps running around in my head for days.

While I shower. And clean. A little more than usual.

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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