Hoarding Disorder, ADHD and Building a Team

I was only ever grounded for one thing. My room!! It was a complete disaster. You could pretty much only see the floor in a narrow pathway from the door to my bed. Otherwise, there were piles of clothes, books, and whatever else can fill a room everywhere. If it was important though, I could almost always find an item. My mom tried everything she could to get me to clean my room and keep it that way. First it was grounding. At some point, even the fear of no social life wasn’t enough and she ultimately decided the only way for her to keep her sanity was to keep my bedroom door closed and enter at her own peril. The humor is not lost on me that my oldest daughter Gillian’s room makes me just as crazy, and my mess seems like nothing compared to hers. (Details will be spared in the interest of keeping us on speaking terms ;). 

It wasn’t until I started dating that I realized if I wanted someone to marry me, I better figure out a way to hold it together.

When I got engaged, long before autopay, my ex husband insisted on taking over the bill paying to avoid the late charges I continued to accrue.

When we were married and raising children, I would beg my husband to help me set up systems to more efficiently run the household because I was flying by the seat of my pants and it was affecting our children. Thankfully our dual incomes afforded us weekly house cleaning but as the mother of three girls, I found it very difficult to maintain a schedule which made it hard for me to help them. When Gillian insisted she had ADHD, I didn’t believe her. She’d been reading since age three – where I could not sit still long enough to learn until the second grade. It was during her evaluation that I asked the psychiatrist if it was possible I also had ADHD since I answered more “yeses” for myself than for her.

Like many middle aged women, I have undiagnosed ADHD. Growing up in a different era with more time outside and because ADHD presents differently in girls than in boys, I flew under the radar. I had the ability to sit still, so I was not a behavioral problem the school needed to address. My report card always indicated I talked too much in class though. I remember knowing exactly who the hyperactive kids were including my half brother but didn’t realize I had it too. Looking back, I was easily distracted. I was as surprised as everyone else at things that came out of my mouth. My notes had doodles all over them. My homework was completed on the bus on the way to school or in the class before it was due. I completely blacked out on the SATs.

Ironically, from the time my middle daughter, Ali, was born, she had to be on a schedule and the only place she could sleep was her crib. Where Gillian’s room looked like a bomb went off, Ali’s room was always organized and tidy.  

When I began Silver Linings Transitions, a move management and organizing company, I went on every job but I never went on the sorting jobs helping clients downsize their belongings. It was while training a new employee watching her pack boxes and put things away like a game of Tetris, I realized I did not see the space the same way.

In our work, we see grown up versions of these messy rooms. In a talk I give “Do you own your stuff or does your stuff OWN you?” I joke about the “types*” of hoarding – Costco, Craft and Border Hoarder though calling someone a hoarder is not the correct terminology. The clinical term is “Hoarding Disorder.” It affects about 5% of the US population. Usually there’s a coexisting condition like ADHD and because I understand it, I am able to empathize with our clients and prepare them for what will feel very difficult for them. It becomes a bigger problem as people age as it becomes more difficult to take on physical tasks and eyesight becomes worse. This is compounded in the Greatest Generation clients who are known to be savers due to the scarcity mentality caused by growing up during the Great Depression. Often there’s a situation which has exaggerated the problem like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or an illness. As the problem becomes bigger, they find excuses to keep people out of their homes meeting other places. When help is finally called in, it’s almost always bigger than they can manage.

Yesterday, I received a call from an adult daughter who’s 94 year old mother was living in an unsafe apartment in her independent senior community. Her community gave the family our name and explained if the room didn’t get cleaned up, she’d have to move to memory care. After a Facetime conversation with “Ms. D” who was as sharp as a tack, I knew she did not belong in memory care. I explained to her that I understood her problem. I understood her throwing something out that would cause anxiety and a visceral reaction in her body. For someone with hoarding disorder, throwing something away is like asking someone with a fear of roller coasters to get on and ride.

I learned from training through UCSD’s Crest Program (email link is provided as of 6/30/20 the program may not be funded). Treatment normally takes about 12-18 months and involves exposure therapy. “Ms. D” doesn’t have the luxury of time, so we agreed she would leave the room and we would make it safe for her. 

Through the years, we’ve worked with many clients with “Hoarding Disorder.” As someone who works with these clients and as an adult child with these tendencies, understanding it and speaking about it allows me to support my loved ones and our clients.  

If you or your loved one has hoarding tendencies, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. When possible, give them as much control of the situation. Allow them to make decisions.
  2. Respect their belongings. Refer to items as compromised rather than junk or trash.
  3. Remember, part of the problem is the physical discomfort they have from throwing things away.
  4. There’s usually a method to the chaos- often they want to dispose of items but want to do it properly mindful of the environment. 
  5. With a daunting task, they become immobilized. Start with the easier tasks first.
  6. Don’t make them feel badly about the situation. Almost always they are also suffering from another mental disorder and a triggering event has made the problem worse.
  7. I’ve never met anyone with hoarding disorder who wasn’t incredibly bright and creative.
  8. Someone with ADHD or hoarding disorder does not see space the same way as someone without these conditions. Just like I could not pack a box as effectively or organize a closet as well as others on my team.

Knowing where our talents lie and as managers, the strengths and weaknesses of our teams make us better organizations and better leaders. Finding the right butts for the right seats is as important as the product you are selling. My middle daughter Ali’s OCD make her a perfect team member to work with clients who need to be organized or unpacked. She is loved by clients and her team leads. When I go on the job, they send me to get coffee.

Click here to learn more about Hoarding Disorder and the Crest Program. 

*The “Craft Hoarder” is organized but keeps craft supplies and broken items for the promise of some day making a craft or repurposing the broken items. The photo in this blog is actually my personal one.  

The “Costco Hoarder” is one who has stockpiled items from Costco which will take them years to use.

The “Border Hoarder” is someone who isn’t going to star in their own television show but is living in unsafe conditions that have likely become to hard to manage.