Surviving a Filthy Childhood: Jessie Sholl, Daughter of Hoarder, Comes Clean

PHOTO: Jessie Sholl, as a young girl, poses with her mother, a hoarder whose home Sholl said she once felt compelled to clean."PlayJessie Scholl
WATCH Hoarder's Daughter Kept Shameful Secret

When Jessie Sholl visits her childhood home in Minneapolis, Minn., she doesn't actually go inside. In fact, she never even makes it past the front steps.

"I feel nervous right now," she told "20/20" as she stood by the house's front door recently. "My muscles are a little bit tense, like I need to be prepared to possibly run."

Sholl, 42, was there to visit her mother, who is a hoarder. A psychological disorder, hoarding is characterized by the excessive collection of items paired with the inability to throw things out as well as problems with organization. It is considered both prevalent and difficult to treat. According to Dr. Randy Frost, author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things," there are an estimated 6 million to 15 million hoarders in the U.S.

But it's not only victims of the disorder who are affected, it's their children, too.

Sholl grew up in a home overwhelmed with piles of moth-eaten sweaters, dirty paper plates and other junk.

PHOTOS: Children of Hoarders: Living in Filth

"By the time I was 10, I just, I really couldn't take it anymore," Sholl said. Sholl, whose parents are divorced, moved in with her father, but could not stop her growing fixation with helping her mother dig out of the hoard.

"I would still go to my mom's house, and I would organize the pantry, or do some cleaning while I was there," she said. "I was basically as obsessed with fixing her hoarding as she was with hoarding."

Sholl's attempts to help her mother not only put a strain on their relationship, but also her health: During clean-ups at her mother's house, Sholl contracted scabies, a parasite that lives under the skin, twice.

"The itch that comes from scabies, it's just unreal," she said. "It was at that point that I just said, 'I'm done. I'm not helping you anymore.'"

Dr. Suzanne Chabaud, a licensed psychologist who studies children of hoarders and has appeared on the A&E show "Hoarders," explained the effects of hoarding to "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas.

"It's extremely stressful," Chabaud said. "And the more severe the hoard and the earlier it starts in the child's life, the more distress they're going to suffer."

Though some, like Sholl, are able to leave their parents' hoarded homes, they might still not be able to distance themselves from hoarding. According to experts, there is mounting evidence that compulsive hoarding has a genetic component. Fortunately for Sholl, she has escaped that legacy.

"I toss things out, and I get kind of a high from it," Sholl said. "When I get to the bottom of a shampoo bottle, I'm excited."

Help for hoarders available online -- click here.

But Sholl, who lives in New York, has taken her desire to avoid clutter to the extreme.

"I've thrown some things away that I regret," she said. "I threw away all my journals from high school. I can't find my diploma from graduate school, and I'm pretty sure I tossed that out."

Separating herself from her mother's lifestyle led to a desire to understand her mother better. Sholl recently published "Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding," the first memoir ever written by the child of a hoarder.

"I wanted to understand my mother, wanted to understand the disease," she said.

It was also an opportunity to release the shame she felt growing up. Sholl soon realized she wasn't alone when she discovered, a website where people who grew up in constant clutter try to make sense of their parents' illness.

"I noticed how much shame we all had about our parents' hoarding, and it's not us doing the hoarding, yet we are carrying the shame," she said.

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Dr. Chabaud said those feelings are common in children of hoarders.

"It's not just shame, it's a feeling that, 'I carry the burden of what happened in my house,'" she said.

Sholl says she and her mother now have a closer relationship because she no longer tries to clean up her mother's hoard.

"Now our relationship is much better, because it's not me trying to fix her," she said.

Watch the full story on the latest episode of "20/20" online.