Hoarding mental disorder gets prime-time treatment


Associated Press

Posted on December 8, 2009 at 10:46 PM

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (AP) — For years, no one on Crest Drive paid much attention to the little white house with pink trim.

The front yard was overgrown with shrubs and three cars sat motionless in the driveway. Neighbors on the quiet street knew that the owner, a retired psychologist named Carina DeOcampo, was an odd, private person; even her family would leave bags of food on the front steps, then quickly drive away.

Folks in Jacksonville were shocked in early October, however, at the reports that police had forced their way into the home and discovered the 72-year-old DeOcampo dead, surrounded by six feet (2 meters) of garbage that packed the house.

DeOcampo was a hoarder.

"She had trails throughout the house, from her chair to the kitchen to her bedroom," said neighbor David Collins, who peered in the front door after DeOcampo's body was removed. "It was unbelievable."

This year, compulsive hoarders are in the spotlight in the United States. Books, movies and cable televison's "Harer"— a opla raltyshw n heA& cbl tleisionsttion that begins its second season Nov. 30 — have brought the disorder out of its shame-filled past.

Some hoarding experts worry that the media sensationalizes the problem while making solutions seem tidier than they really are. Still, they concede that any attention may entice people who suffer from the disorder to get help.

Stories like DeOcampo's spring up around the United States with regularity; some hoarders are fined tens of thousands of dollars by local authorities for zoning or health code violations, while others are arrested on animal abuse charges after collecting dogs or cats. Hoarders' family and friends often give up in frustration, unable to help clean out a dangerous living space.

On the "Hoarders" TV show, people with the disorder recognize they have a problem, then work with psychiatrists and organization experts to help clean up. Viewers are fascinated; the show is the number one "freshman" nonfiction series on cable for people ages 25-54.

"There's just a core relate-ability that people feel for this subject," said Robert Sharenow, A&E's senior vice president of programming. "People look at this show and see themselves to a degree, or see people they know."

An estimated 2 million Americans suffer from compulsive hoarding, according to several mental health groups that treat the afflicted. Hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive mental health disorder defined as the acquisition of things and the inability to discard them. Sometimes those things are new; in many cases, it is literally garbage, as n hecae f ity ews,anOkahmaCiy woanwhsedeomosng boy was found in her mold- and cat-infested home in May.

Some, like Paula Kotakis of San Francisco, California, do not have problems accumulating.

"I'm what is called a passive hoarder — most hoarders have a compulsive acquisition problem, buying or getting stuff," she said. "For me, stuff comes in the normal way, with papers, mail and subscriptions. My problem is, it never went out."

Kotakis, 51, feared throwing things away.

"If I get rid of this, I may need this sometime," she would think.

Kotakis, who was treated for obsessive-compulsive hand washing years ago, has used many of the same behavioral and cognitive therapy tools to treat the hoarding. She says her house is under control, and an online support group she founded helps.

Few resources were available when Kotakis realized she was a hoarder in 1998. There is more help now, in part because everyone from TV star Oprah Winfrey to best-selling writer E.L. Doctorow has tackled the topic.

"The publicity is definitely a double-edged sword," Kotakis said. "I get very upset about the sensationalism. It's a long treatment process; it takes a long time to clear a house."

Jeremie Barber of the South Florida-based Clutterbusters has received more calls this year because of the media attention. Many are from people who think they are hoarders because their houses are messy.

"A lot really aren't," he said. "I ask them questions like, 'Does your plumbing work? Can you cook? Use the shower? Do you normally keep all of your blinds closed?'"

Barbe'sclens ncud awoanwh ws emve fomhe hme bcaseof th filth. It took Barber and his wife 140 hours to clear 84,000 pounds (38,100 kilograms) of stuff from the structure, all the while wearing protective clothing.

Psychologist Michael Tompkins, who recently published a book to help hoarders' families, said those with the affliction make for good television because the situations are often "high drama." He hopes people see hoarding as a mental health problem.

"These people aren't any different than you and I," he said. "There are people with this problem you may work with. You think their desk is a little messy but you would never guess their home looks the way it looks. It's not about a character flaw. They're not people who don't care."

Hoarding experts and family members say the situations portrayed in the media often show an unrealistic version of a hoarder's life: after the cleanup, homes are sparkling clean, and the problem is gone.

Cynthia Lester made the documentary film, "My Mother's Garden," about her mother's struggle with the disorder. Lester filmed the painful and quick cleanup of the packed house — which was falling apart and ready to be condemned by authorities.

Although Lester's mother is now living in a group home and getting some treatment for her problem, it has been difficult to obtain the intense therapy she needs because she has no insurance.

And, said Lester, "the hoarding continues to be a problem. She's collecting again, she's out all night."

In Jacksonville, Carina DeOcampo's family did not want to talk about her problems. The countys edca eamne sidsh dedof 'naurl aues"

ealy two months after DeOcampo's body was found, the remnants of her disorder are still evident. Red tape with the words "DANGER-DO NOT ENTER" is stretched across the property's chain-link fence and a notice of condemnation is stapled to the door. While the shrubs and the cars have been cleared from the front yard, a giant red trash bin sits in the driveway.

The home, neighbors say, has yet to be emptied.


On the Net:

Obsessive-Compuslive Foundation: http://www.ocfoundation.info/hoarding/

My Mother's Garden: http://www.mymothersgardenmovie.com/

A&E's Hoarders: http://www.aetv.com/hoarders/