VHA’s Director of New Ventures and Community Programs Cheryl Perera weighs in on hoarding


Dirty secret: Toronto hoarder comes clean


Marie’s apartment looks more like a department store after an earthquake.

At 5-foot-2, she stands in the middle her living room in the rubble. Towering piles of stuff threaten to consume her.

Two loveseats are buried under stacks of linens, ottomans, towels and flipped-over chairs. Board games are heaped up on the floor, nearly hidden by other trinkets, plastic bins, clothing and stuffed animals. Bookcases and chests hold up stacks of picture frames, books and old photographs.

There is a “goat’s path” – a narrow, uncluttered trail – from the entrance to her bedroom and bathroom at the end of the hall. Other than that, there isn’t a speck of vacant carpet space to be found.

And despite her bedroom being piled high with clothes and a bathtub lined with a dozen shampoo and conditioner bottles, these are the rooms that are actually habitable in the one-bedroom Etobicoke rental unit.

If you called Marie a hoarder four years ago, she would have been appalled at that label.

Today, she owns up to being one, and is taking steps to come clean.

“My life was miserable and it got to the point where I recognized I needed some help,” said the 47-year-old former office administrator and marketing director, who agreed to be interviewed on the agreement of anonymity.

“I couldn’t use my kitchen, my dining room, the hallways and it was even tough sometimes getting through the front door,” she said.

Marie said she has been hoarding for the past 20 years as a way to soothe any pain in her life. She grew up in what she calls a dysfunctional family and claims to have never learned healthier coping methods.

So she shopped.

“When I’m experiencing anxiety or pain, I would go out, I would spend money – I call it ‘the treasure hunt’ and bring things back into my apartment with the idea I would use them,” she said. “But clearly, as time went by, it got quite scaled up.”

She watched TV shows such as Hoarders – which has brought the mental health issue to the mainstream – and began to recognize she shared the same tendencies with people profiled on the show.

Self awareness, she said, is the key to change.

In January, she was referred by her family doctor to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s extreme behaviour counselling program. From there, she was introduced to a 12-week hoarding support pilot project at VHA Home Healthcare, run by volunteers with backgrounds in social services.

After six weeks in, she said she has already felt a huge weight lifted off her shoulders.

With the help of a counsellor, she’s gotten rid of “the wall” in the living room once comprised of shoeboxes, bags and clothes that blocked access to most of the apartment.

“Letting go (of belongings) takes practice,” she said. “It has increased my self-esteem. Every week I meet with a volunteer and I’m able to make the decision to let stuff go. It’s still a process. But every time I donate or let something go, I get a bit of a high doing it.”

Like the amount of items they collect, the number of hoarders is growing in the city.

About 5% of the population – which translates to almost 140,000 in Toronto – fit into this category, according to the Toronto Hoarding Coalition (THC).

THC said reasons why people hoard are varied, but generally there are three: sentimental (it means something to them); instrumental (because you need it); and intrinsic (because it’s beautiful), said the group.

“Hoarding does have a definition,” said Cheryl Perera, VHA Home Healthcare director of new ventures and community programs. “It’s about a strong drive to acquire items and difficulty letting go of items, even items you and I would not think are particularly valuable. There is a lot of shame attached to hoarders because they don’t want people over to their house.”

The coalition – comprised of 40 members, mainly agencies – aims to better co-ordinate city services to address hoarding behaviour. In October, it will receive $135,000 from the city for hoarding support strategies.

City council, for its part, approved SPIDER (Specialized Program for Interdivisional Enhanced Responsiveness) in December as a way to make sure all necessary departments, such as Toronto Fire Services, Municipal Licensing and Standards, Toronto Animal Services and Toronto Public Health, are liaising with one another in extreme hoarding cases.

“When I first encountered the problem it was done in a very ad-hoc approach and residents for over a decade complained to the city and each department said there was only so much they could do,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, who spearheaded a motion for SPIDER.

Infestations of vermin and mold are common in hoarding cases and it quickly becomes a health and safety issue.

Matlow said hoarding will continue to be “a vicious cycle” until the province steps in; the fire department, police and ML&S inspectors getting into the house to do cleanup is only the first step. He said the Ontario government has yet to respond to a motion he filed in December to review the Mental Health Act in order to provide resources for those suffering from compulsive hoarding.

“Until you get the hoarder the care he or she needs, you can’t really solve the problem,” he said.

Fire prevention Chief Jim Stoops said one of the most publicized hoarding cases was in 2010 at 200 Wellesley St. E, a tenant’s hoarding caused a six-alarm fire that displaced more than 1,700 tenants for weeks and months.

“The Wellesley fire really did highlight how fire and smoke spread so rapidly,” said Stoops. who oversees Toronto Fire Services’ file on hoarding.

Another Toronto hoarding case that drew media coverage involved 313 Manor Rd.. The house was boarded up by Toronto Fire Services using a Superior Court order in 2012, after more than a year of asking homeowner Dennis Cibulka to reduce the excessive amount of combustible material inside.

For healthcare professionals, hoarding continues to be an anomaly – but with slightly clearer lines.

Dr. Peggy Richter, director of the Clinic for OCD & Related Disorders at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre said, as of last year, hoarding disorder officially has its own diagnosis without being lumped in with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Now, patients can actually receive a mental health diagnosis,” Richter said. “It gives legitimacy to the recognition it is a real condition and that it merits treatment. And until something is diagnosable, none of that is possible.”

Richter said researchers are still trying to understand the reasons why people hoard.

“It has biological roots, it may be familial in some cases,” she said. “People with hoarding (issues) have increased rates of having been affected by trauma compared to those who are not hoarders, but that’s very different than saying trauma causes hoarding.

“Most hoarders will say it started in their teens, however, over the years it’s kept in check in childhood, usually by their parents or perhaps in university by roommates because they have to keep their room a certain standard,” she said.

Methods to treat hoarding include prescribed drug therapy – typically anti-depressants – and a psychological treatment called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which some patients require anywhere from 12 to 20 sessions.

Marie’s advice for a hoarders who want to change their lives is to look at whether keeping material goods is truly making them happy or distressed.

Still, one item she plans to keep is an inspiration sign she bought at Winners for $9.99 that states: “Today is the day. Live your life with abandon.”

“You realize that if you have space to function and be who you are, instead of hiding in your apartment, you have a chance to live your life the way I want to live it,” she said. “Less really is more.”

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