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Hoarders learn to unload their stuff - and the stigma

06/06/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/05/2016 05:59 EDT
"Jesus, Lord!" exclaims Bridgette as she stumbles into her bedroom, tripping over mounds of clothing piled on every surface.

She picks a path across her room and says, "I don't think anyone would live like this if they had a choice."

The Toronto resident is trying to kick a hoarding disorder.

Since hoarding was added two years ago to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the psychiatric bible, the condition has been getting a lot more attention.

Hoarding support groups are now available in many Canadian communities. In Toronto the Visiting Homemakers Association, a not-for profit 90-year-old group, is running a pilot project that recruits volunteers to work with diagnosed hoarders to help them sort and discard unwanted stuff.

"There has been a real need for this type of outreach," says Trudy Huet, who does home assessments after the VHA receives a call for help. "The program has really taken off this year," says Huet, a supervisor for hoarding support programs.

"I also assess their readiness to get help," Huet says. "Anxiety and trepidation often set in for clients with hoarding disorders. There's a serious stigma in the community and people are sometimes very judgmental. Derogatory terms like slob or lazy causes them to suffer the wrath of society."
 
That's partly why Bridgette prefers not to use her real name or show her face in the video.

Her obsession with collecting started off innocently enough. "I love clothes, I have always loved clothes and I like things but then when I see how much I have I don't like it ... I hate it!" she says.

Anyone could find themselves battling a hoarding disorder. Bridgette says, "You do feel shame but you have to remember you didn't get there because you wanted to."

Bridgette lives with her cat in a one-bedroom apartment. For years she was afraid to have visitors over.

Nowadays, Bridgette gets a visit from a volunteer de-clutterer every week. "Once you let that person in and they don't judge you, then it's such a wonderful feeling to purge and get rid of things and clear your place and you'll find that your mind is a lot clearer."

"It's not as scary as you think it is."

Bridgette's advice: "Don't let your things control you. Don't be afraid. Just get the courage to reach out and it's not so bad. In the end it's gonna save you, really. "It's more scary living in clutter and hoarding things because  it's a hazard to your health and your life."

Bridgette now feels she is on the road to recovery. "Me reaching out really saved my life from going further and further into depression."

"Who wants to identity themselves as a hoarder?" asks Maddy, another hoarding client who invited us to walk through her Toronto home, which resembles a somewhat chaotic warehouse.

Maddy, who does not want her last name made public, says, "I don't like the term hoarder ... I prefer the term collector." It is clear, though, that her collecting has taken over her life. 

She has also been working with a volunteer from the hoarding support program. "I couldn't do it alone."

She now has most of her belongings sorted into categories.

"Hoarding and clutter has nothing to do with organization," Maddy says.

"It has to do with self-esteem and self-worth and getting help overcoming the traumas and the awful things that have happened in your life ... and for decades I hid my  pain." 

Maddy agreed to have our camera walk through her home on the condition that when her de-cluttering and re-organizing are complete, we come back to see the finished product.

She doesn't believe she will be cured of her collecting obsession, but she does want to learn to live with it, and says she "hopes that people will understand,  and not be judgmental."

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