“I grew up with not only hoarding but what we would call ‘squalor’ or ‘squalid conditions’,” says Ceci Garrett when I ask about her childhood. “Rotting food was a regular part of my home environment. In high school we had animals and so we added animal faeces and urine to the mix.”
Ceci grew up in a house outside Washington DC with her mother, who had a pretty serious case of hoarding disorder (HD), along with bi-polar and borderline personality disorder. Ceci’s childhood was tough. She explains that she had to navigate the living and dining rooms in her house via narrow pathways between huge piles of stuff. From her bed, she could see her toy box and desk but the space in between was so cluttered that she couldn’t access them. She had a single square metre of clear space where she could sit and play. When kitchen appliances broke, they weren’t fixed or replaced, which meant the kitchen gradually devolved into a storage area.
“I grew up with the fine cuisine of fast food, sit-down restaurants and drive through,” she explains. “We just didn’t cook at home… Obviously I didn’t have friends over.”
“My earliest memories include clutter,” she continues. “About the same time that little girls are typically starting to be invited to friends houses for birthdays and slumber parties is really when I started to become aware.”
Ceci was aware that her living situation wasn’t ordinary but it took decades to understand and get a language for what she had experienced growing up with a mother who had hoarding disorder. Ceci is now 43 and she’s spent the majority of her life trying to understand hoarding. She’s currently doing her Masters in Clinical Social Work; she has appeared on the TV show Hoarders twice with her mother; and she’s even done a Tedx Talk called Hoarding as a Mental Health Issue.
Hoarding disorder was officially recognised as a mental illness in the DSM-V (Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 2013, which is fairly recent. At its most basic level, hoarding is an inability to throw things away, resulting in a dysfunctional living space. Hoarders aren’t necessarily dirty, in fact sometimes they’re very clean and well presented, but prolonged hoarding can lead to squalor, which is when a house gets unsanitary.
Things got really bad for Ceci when she was a teenager and got glandular fever. She had to stay home from school with her mother in their squalid, cluttered house. She recalls that during that stint at home, she fell down the stairs, then explains that it “was really a masked, veiled attempt at suicide”.
“I had an open stairwell from my attic bedroom and I thought, ‘I can end this, I don’t have to deal with this anymore.’ And I attempted to throw myself over, at the very top, which unfortunately gave me really bad bruised ribs and a trip to the emergency room but did not obviously remedy any of the other situations.”
An ambulance came with a stretcher and Ceci recalls that the medical crew couldn’t clear a large enough path through the clutter. They had to stand the stretcher up vertically in order to get her out of the building. This was in the 90s, long before hoarding disorder was recognised as a mental health disorder, which might help explain why the medical professionals who treated her failed to report her living conditions to Child Protective Services. Ceci now knows that they should have.
Dr. Jan Eppingstall is a Melbourne-based researcher who has been studying hoarding disorder for seven years. She explains that hoarding is on the rise, especially among older people, and between two and five percent of the population are now affected by it.
“It’s a chronic disorder and it just slowly gets worse over time,” says Dr. Eppingstall. “I don’t think necessarily the psychopathology changes over time, I think that’s underlying, but I think the volume of stuff creeps up, creeps up, creeps up.
“They might feel a responsibility to the object,” Dr. Eppingstall continues. “They might feel that they are solely responsible to use the product or the item until it’s ‘worn out’—whenever they feel that it’s worn out. Or to use that bottle of shampoo until they’ve used every last drop, like that’s their responsibility.
I tell Dr. Eppingstall that some of this behaviour sounds relatively normal or at least common, so I’m wondering what the threshold is for clinical hoarding.
“That’s where it gets tricky,” she says. “The threshold is physical, when you can’t move around the home comfortably and safely; when you can’t use the rooms for their intended purpose and you’re missing work, or other people in the home like children or elderly parents can’t do what they need to do in the home.”
Now, more than ever, we live in a consumer society and this affects hoarders more than most. The ease of online shopping platforms like Amazon, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree can be triggers for hoarders.
“Algorithms are clocking onto that,” says Dr. Eppingstall. “They know who’s looking at those sites and they’ll just pop up. The impulse control problem is ramped up. They think, ‘What if I miss out on that special? It’s only that price for the next two days, I better get it.’ Then they’ve got stuff coming from Amazon at the front door.”
Ceci can relate to the psychology of this. She says, “We went shopping almost every day when I was a child and even in my teen years. That’s pretty cultural now. What do we call it? Retail therapy.” But these days she’s very careful not to succumb to shopping as a coping mechanism, saying, “I don't want to be the person who goes shopping every time I’ve had a bad day.”
Ceci’s recovery process has been a long one. She got married and moved out of home at 18, two months after she graduated high school. She later saw a psychotherapist and embarked on her own journey of personal recovery work. Between 2009 and 2012, she studied at university and she says she read just about every academic article that had been published on hoarding disorder. She also got in contact with some other adult children of hoarders, which was an important discovery.
She explains, “My whole life I thought that I was the only child growing up like this and I’m not. And this has been really horrible and painful but what if I can make something good out of that?”
She describes the turning point in her recovery: “Just making the decision: I can’t control my mom, I can’t make my mom get better but I don’t have to let her choices continue to control me. I’m an adult now. I can make extremely hard choices to get me better.”
Ceci is now 43, has a family and works as an office manager at a mental health organisation. I ask if there are residual effects of her upbringing. Does she ever find herself or hoarding, or has she gone the other way and become a hardcore minimalist?
“I wouldn’t say that I’m a hardcore minimalist [but] I definitely think twice about owning things. I’m more likely to get rid of, toss, donate, give away things, than probably most people,” she says. “If my desk is covered, even at work, generally I want neat piles. If it gets disorganised, I have to stop and straighten things up or I can’t function. I start to shut down.”
These days, Ceci is doing what she can to educate agencies and institutions about hoarding disorder and the effects it can have on children who live in homes like the one she grew up in. “My push for the future is to educate child protection agencies about what hoarding is or isn’t and the impacts that it has on the child in the home,” she says.
“We were isolated. Our parents didn’t recognise they had a problem and we were trained from childhood that we were the problem—not the stuff, not our parents.”
Words by Nat Kassel. Follow him on Instagram