It’s been five years since Sara allowed anyone to enter her Seattle home, until today. Sara isn’t her real name, she wanted to remain anonymous, since no one, except the daughter she lives with, knows that she’s a hoarder.
Her rental house is wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor packed with trash and belongings. There’s absolutely nowhere to sit, barely anywhere to walk, and it smells sour and stale.
“Food products, papers, soda cans, snack foods that have been ground into the carpet, piled over the couch. You can’t tell for sure which furniture is under. We’re starting to find a coffee table now,” says Lisa Martinez, project manager at BioClean, a hard-core professional cleaning company.
“Cleaning up after homicides, suicides, unattended deaths. We do drug contaminated jobs, mold, rodent jobs, hoarding. Anything that nobody else wants to, pretty much.”
Today, Lisa and two of her coworkers started to chip away at the five years worth of garbage and stuff acquired by Sara and her adult daughter. They use shovels to scoop it up into big black garbage bags that will make their way to the dump.
“She had a rodent issue as well, so the rodents have gotten in through the cupboards and stuff. So we’re going to clean out all of the cupboards and just get rid of all that stuff.”
Sara says she is OCD and actually used to be obsessively neat. But then her life dramatically changed.
“Lost my husband, my house, my car, my job in one year,” Sara says through tears. “I spent that year laying on the couch doing nothing and slowly came back to something of a life. But this, I guess, is a result of major losses. I don’t really know how those two connect, how loss manifests itself like this.”
Therapist Jennifer Sampson is executive director of The Hoarding Project, a Tacoma based non-profit that provides resources and counseling to hoarders.
“As of May of last year, hoarding is a mental health diagnosis,” she says.
Jennifer says hoarding is complex and manifests itself as the perfect storm of psychological and biological issues.
“We know that hoarding is genetic, it runs in families similar to other types of mental health issues, like depression. We also know that the brains in people who hoard tend to look different. The front part of the brain that’s responsible for executive functioning; those just don’t tend to work as well in brains of people who hoard. So, like, decision making, categorization, organization.”
The fact that it’s a mental health issue is important when it comes to attempting to erase the stigma that surrounds hoarders.
“I don’t think of myself as a slob, as a person with no ambition or drive or passions, goals in life. I’m a professional woman, career wise. But this is something different. This is a mental health issue and I think people who have mental health issues are stereotyped as just being weak, not very intelligent, and it’s not that. It’s something else.”
Sara’s mental illness has isolated her for many years.
“It’s one of those embarrassing, shameful secrets that you keep. It’s like I live a double life. And it has definitely impacted my socializing with people.”
For the BioClean workers, this isn’t just a cleaning job. They refer clients to therapists and add an element of compassion and trust.
“You become their friend instantly because you’re not judging them,” Lisa says. “You go in, you help them, and it’s hard to keep yourself separate. It’s really rewarding to know that you did something, you’re making their life better. You’re making a safer, healthier environment for them to live in.”
For Sara, that’s finally what she wants for herself. If she wasn’t ready, and didn’t seek help on her own, she’d most likely relapse into her old ways.
“To get rid of it is very cleansing,” Sara says. “To shed that thinking, literally. I want open, free, unencumbered. I don’t want to be tethered to this anymore.”