For many of us, putting up wallpaper or repainting our walls might mean an afternoon of pulling furniture away from the wall and adding some quick colour to our room. Minimal disruption. Or if you’re not handy, you might be smarter to hire an expert tradesperson to help with a significant project. What if your house is so crowded, the tradespeople have trouble doing their job? What if piles of stuff put these people in jeopardy for falling and injury?
Working in a Hoarder’s House
This is the first in a series of posts told from the perspective of people who have been affected by compulsive hoarder, but who are not relatives. These are the emergency response workers, police, fire fighters, trades people, service people, and case workers who must enter hoarded homes and put themselves at risk. To start us off, I present the insights offered by a skilled house painter. This person (who has requested anonymity in respect for past clients) has an amazing perspective of compulsive hoarding you might never have considered. I was fascinated when this person emailed me and started to share this story. With permission, I present it as a guest post…an inside look into what it’s like to work inside the home of a crowded mind.
A View From the Trades
by Paint N. Brush
While it’s true that many hoarders avoid allowing trade and service people into their homes, quite as many actually do. I’ve worked in the trades for twenty years, primarily doing interior painting and wallpapering. I would estimate that thirty percent of my clients have been hoarders. An additional fifteen percent were clearly on their way. I think that is a huge statistic. My perspective is, I believe, somewhat counter to the usual notions of hoarders. My clients have all been well-to-do, have not yet isolated themselves completely, and are for the most part quite high-functioning individuals. They have not quite arrived at what one can foresee as their inevitable endpoint of total, quiet, desperate chaos. I seem to catch them at the disastrous turning points of their lives.
They share very interesting commonalities: All have been highly intelligent, driven, gifted in one or several of the arts, and began as “collectors” of things. Many of these collections do have actual market value, as opposed to collections of paper cups or plastic margarine tubs. But all have in fact have begun that insidious overlap from collections of dozens of vases never used, to cupboards packed with junk. All are in variant stages of goat trails throughout their homes. All say that if they can just get the house straightened out, if they just had a week to themselves, everything would be fine. If I, the tradesman, could just get that wall cleaned and painted right away, the trajectory of their lives will miraculously self-correct because they then will be able to move all those boxes over there from here and they’ll have something resembling a room. All are in various stages of serious, really severe unhappiness, which they do express via either action or word, more often through actions – compulsive spontaneous shopping, sudden brief spurts of rage, frequent expressions of frustration usually directed at the wrong people. They have an utter inability to experience the feeling of happiness. I’m not talking about “being happy”. (Nebulous phrase.) I’m talking about an actual inability to FEEL happy, to feel even a brief moment of true delight in the course of their day. They will say they’re happy, they’ll use the words, but there’s nothing real behind it. All are causing deep tensions within their families, all have first-degree relatives with addictions in other forms – alcohol, food, drugs – all are successful in their careers, all are constantly frantic. All claim to have had “perfect” childhoods. That is the word they use. (I don’t believe that for a minute.)
My contracts in their homes have all been either long-term or intermittent over long periods of time. Consequently, an interesting result takes place – the tradesman becomes part of the furniture. The household gets so used to your presence that they come, go, and play out their lives without a thought to your presence. I’ve come to believe that it’s a comfort to them to have us there, once they know we are trustworthy. But for us it becomes a window into hoarder worlds which can be distressing, saddening, and hopeless, no matter how much financial comfort or family presence they might enjoy.
Imagine if you’d like to rejuvenate and paint your livingroom. To do it properly, you would like to clean, sand, and paint all your woodwork trim in that room. That’s windows, doors, door casings, baseboard trim, sometimes ceiling trimwork too. You would like a crisp cleanly painted ceiling. You want to clean your walls, patch any defects, and give them new life with a new color of paint, which you will have to hand-cut in with a brush around every window and ceiling edge and doorway, then roll the walls with a roller. TWICE. Walls always, always have to be done twice to be done right. Oftentimes all the trimwork must also be painted twice. You would prefer this room to be empty of objects when you undertake this. You would prefer dropcloths on the floor to take roller spatter. (There is ALWAYS roller spatter, no matter how good you are at this.) This work takes an organized mind. You can’t cut the top walls in while the ceiling paint is wet. You can’t do baseboard tops while the bottom wall is wet. And so on.
Now imagine this same room, same project goals, crammed end to end and top to bottom with valuable antiques, boxes and boxes and boxes of junk, dozens of houseplants, a huge flat-screen T.V., heavy-framed paintings on the walls, enormous dust-laden cobwebs on the ceiling, pet fur, pet paraphernalia, and dirt, dirt, dirt. Normal household dirt, but never addressed because one can’t move within the room to clean, so the dirt is really, really bad. Paint won’t adhere to dirt. Never has, never will. You must clean first. There is no place to move the stuff, nowhere to put it, because the rest of the house is packed too. There is no floor space. You can’t see the floor at all.
My highest injury rate has been in hoarder homes, bar none. There is no room to move or maneuver yourself, your ladders, your paint cans, your wallpaper safely. In twenty years I have had only one breakage of a homeowner item, which seems like a miracle to me, but I myself have experienced significant bruise, breakage and falls for the sake of those blasted items.
I’ve learned that with hoarders the job will never be done. They always want more, and I’m retiring from the trades because of it. I feel for them, it’s very painful stuff to see. My hoarder clients are the personalities I’ve been most fond of in many, many ways. They touch my heart. But they drive me crazy, and I must finally opt out. In some subconscious way they look to me and other tradespeople to be the repairmen of their emotional lives – which they confuse with their physical possessions – and that is not a possible thing to do. Sadly we can’t repair that for them, much as we might wish to.