Hoarding can inhibit life, experts say

HOUSTON Leah Lester is a school teacher who is currently taking on the toughest assignment of her life -- to clear out the clutter that's made her home almost unlivable.

"I am embarrassed by it," she said. "So, doing this interview is kind of hard."

Lester is a recovering hoarder. Her home in Spring is filled with items she does not use.

"My laundry is in my dining area," she said. "That's where it ends up. It's been piled there, and it's going to be there until I get rid of more of my clothes."

But if you ask Lester if she can throw any of the stuff away and the answer is almost always, "No."

The single mom is in therapy, and is working with certified professional organizer Ellen Delap. Lester said she is embarrassed by her condition, but she chose to reveal it, hoping to help other hoarders.

"We have a few people who have come over and know the situation," Lester said, "but probably it's been 6-7 years."

Experts estimate hoarders make up anywhere from 2-3 percent of the population, and most of them do so in total secrecy, hiding their habit even from their closest friends.

"They have a feeling of shame and guilt because they know that this environment that they have in their homes -- it's not right," said therapist Deborah Olson.

It can affect the rich, the poor and everybody in between. Last year, a wealthy neurosurgeon and his wife died from hoarding, trapped inside their burning home in Houston's ritzy River Oaks neighborhood. There was so much clutter in the house, the fire department couldn't reach them.

Why would people hoard so much stuff? Experts said hoarding is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder, often associated with a tragic loss.

"Hoarders very often have had a death of a very close family member -- a loved one -- that starts them to start to hoard and collect things that remind them of that person," Olson said.

Anti-depressants, along with therapy, have been shown to help. When hoarders release the pain inside, they often let go of the clutter. That's exactly what's happening to Jane Cole.

"It's very hard," the recovering hoarder said. "It grew worse when my husband died, and then I started filling rooms in California."

Cole's hoarding started during childhood with the death of her grandparents, and with every death in her family, the hoarding grew worse.

"I have things that belonged to my mother -- some things that my father made that are totally useless," she said. "I suppose it is a way of holding onto them."

Cole filled a garage, three storage units and almost her entire house with "stuff."

"I was ashamed to have people in, it's a big shame issue," she said. "I always had rooms that were shut off."

Cole started therapy after she realized she was hurting herself and her family, including her son. She has been working with Delap for about five years, and she says she has come a long way.

"First we decide what's leaving, what we're eliminating," Delap said. "Then we decide where do things 'have a home,' we call it."

Delap said to take baby steps and warns loved ones they can't take things from a hoarder.

"It brings them to tears if you take it from them," Delap said. "It's no different than taking a stuffed animal from a 5 year old."

Cole still has two cluttered rooms she's not ready to show us. But she also knows change is possible because the rooms she has cleaned out are filled not with junk, but with peace and hope.

"I do feel hopeful," she said. "I can have you into this room and not be humiliated. There's hope. It's never too late."

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