Hoarders Fill Rooms With Trash, Clutter, Worse

For people who can't throw anything away, homes can turn into trash nightmares.

ByNeal Karlinsky and Eloise Harper
March 01, 2010, 4:33 PM

March 3, 2010 — -- Lloyd Drum's bedroom is a mess. There's a lot of newspaper. There's a half-buried computer.

Drum's South Los Angeles backyard is just as cluttered. He has a huge collection of bicycles piled up in a shed and in the garage. Also in the garage is a car that hasn't seen the light of day in years. The vehicle lies buried under a huge pile of ... stuff.

Such clutter would drive most people crazy. Drum, 82, insists it doesn't bother him.

"That's not as much of a problem as not being able to find stuff I'm looking for," he told ABC News.

The clutter inside and outside Drum's home goes beyond questions of everyday tidiness.

"I tend to save all of the stuff I get from my church," said Drum. "Not necessarily re-reading it."

He said the last time he had cleaned the room was "about a month ago." "I was looking for something," he explained.

We asked him if he'd thought of trying to get rid of some of his stuff.

"I don't have a need to," Drum said. "I've always enjoyed things in quantity. When I have things in quantity I feel wealthy. That's not a conscious thing, it's something I've figured out."

The phenomenon is called "hoarding," and it is a lot more complicated than you might imagine.

It's also a phenomenon just strange enough to have become a hit TV show.

The A&E show "Hoarders," which goes inside the cluttered world of people who can't seem to throw anything away, is a breakout hit and the network's top-rated program.

From Bugs to Beer Cans

It features homes overrun by everything from bugs to beer cans. It shows rooms that look like aftermath scenes from a natural disaster.

In fact, some of the people on the show appear to have turned their homes into garbage dumps.

Dorothy Breininger helped come up with the show's pilot. On the show she enters hoarders' living spaces.

In one scene, Breininger climbs with a flashlight into the cluttered room of a woman's house.

"All right, I'm gonna climb in because I'm kind of set up for it, all right?" she announces. The scene looks more than a little precarious.

'Weird Horror Stories'

Breininger is a professional organizer who spends each and every day working with people trying to overcome what is, in many cases, a debilitating problem.

"We have lots of weird horror stories," Breininger said. "One of the worst things we face [is] when people are caught in situations, and they're stuck and can't get out from their own stuff that has slid on top of them."

Breininger keeps the tools of her trade neatly organized in the trunk of her car.

"There's a lot of stuff," she said, looking into her trunk. "The most important things are the masks, right. So we've got masks and gloves, and I always bring extras for everybody."

The incredible mess in some homes makes the protective gear necessary, Breininger said.

"Because we're going to be touching some things that... It's that bad," she said. "And don't forget, there's the Hantavirus that occurs when you have a lot of rat droppings and things like that. And oftentimes we have animals, so we've got animal food. We carry food. So we want to settle them down and get them happy so that we can meet with the hoarders."

Breininger's friend, James Williams, owns a "1-800-Got-Junk" franchise. He is often brought in to help -- and he has the horror stories to show for it.

"We've seen some stuff that could be rides at Disneyland," said Williams. "But we've actually seen from situations where one lady we worked with had no plumbing in her home for over a year, and we all know the purpose and need for water, and she was able to survive without it for some time.

"We've seen situations where people allow their pets to do their business in the house. ... There are times where we are taken aback by it. I've been called by a crew in one instance where they had to abort the job. They just couldn't do it. ... A couple of them had vomited, they had gotten sick on the job site, there was human feces there, it was just literally a mess."

Everyone knows someone who keeps too much old junk around or has a hard time clearing away life's accumulated clutter. But hoarding is different, say those who've studied it.

Dr. Jamie Feusner of the University of California-Los Angeles studies hoarding and offers therapy for people trying to overcome it.

"Hoarding, or compulsive hoarding syndrome as some people call it, is a condition that is thought to be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder," said Feusner. "And this is a really severe problem that actually affects quite a bit of the population. It's probably about 2-5 percent of the population have this problem."

Feusner said simply helping hoarders clean up isn't the answer.

"This is something where these people really have no ability to get rid of [things], and when you talk to them, you'll find that it's not so easy as, 'Oh, they just haven't had the time or they've been putting it off or they just got busy and these things piled up,'" he said. "They really have difficulty throwing away every little thing that most people would consider trash."

'I Felt Really Helpless'

Janet Lamping, who, with Breininger's help, cleared the overwhelming mess that filled her house, insists hoarding is not a mental disorder. Lamping said she did not consider herself a hoarder, and the problem is manageable.

"I can hear [Breininger] saying, 'Do it now, put it in a box, get rid of it, get it out of here,'" said Lamping.

Lamping's house still has rooms that aren't clutter-free, but she says she's working on it.

In Lamping's case, as in many hoarding cases, a loved one called for help.

Lamping's daughter Amy was desperate.

"I felt really helpless, and kind of like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion every time I came home," Amy Lamping said. "It was very painful, and I think I dealt with it just by leaving, staying away as much as I could."

She said she doesn't share her mom's optimism that all the work done cleaning up her mom's house has solved the problem still buried underneath.

"I don't know that I could say that my mom is completely better yet," Amy Lamping said. "I don't think you can just jump right out of something like this because it's taken years and years to get to where it was. It's going to take years to get out of it, I think."

Lloyd Drum is also working on his problem, with Dorothy's tireless help.

As a young man, Drum was a tidy MIT student. He understands his problem better than most.

We asked him about the possible connection between hoarding and mental illness.

"I think there's probably a mental component to it, but I don't think it's that severe in my case," Drum said. "So there's the possibility that maybe I'm lonely and want stuff around to keep me company. ... I think that's part of it."

But for Lloyd, the clutter is no bother at all.

Like so many others in his shoes, when he looks around his house he says he doesn't find garbage, but some of life's most important and treasured possessions.

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