'Adele' a compulsive hoarding case study

For the past few weeks I have been supporting a customer here in North Staffordshire. ‘Adele’ (the name she has chosen for my articles) compulsively hoards and has struggled with being able to talk about her issues and her feelings. Adele was under threat of eviction because her treasures and belongings were taking over the house. I was asked to pop along and see if I could, ‘work my magic’ which basically boils down to my listening and not judging the customer, with some added extras... Some people have views on what ‘compulsive hoarding’ means and they can then judge, criticize or blame Adele for her decisions. She’s been told her house is a ‘death trap,’ and that she’ll ‘burn to death.’ She’s been informed that her things will be ‘thrown away for her own good.’ Imagine how you’d feel if I rocked up to your house, flashed my ‘specialist badge’ and said, ‘I’m here to chuck your things in a skip.’

One of the problems that Adele faces is that order and decisions making was something her husband was in charge of doing. Her husband, ‘Alex’ died suddenly in 2014 and it was that sudden wrench that sparked off Adele’s need to collect and surround herself with ‘things.’ Alex paid the bills, understood direct debits, knew what the council tax was, etc. Adele had her role in the family and that involved, booking foreign holidays, ‘we’ve been everywhere Steve, everywhere.’ Adele would cook, bake, she worked full time up until her retirement and she and Alex had dreams of touring Europe in a caravan. It was only a few short months after his retirement that he had a heart attack and died.

Adele and Alex have two children and since Alex’s death, Adele has been estranged from her daughters. There are many factors involved here, finances, the house, Alex’s sudden death etc. The older of the two daughters has spoken with me and described her Mum as being, ‘mental since Dad died…she just keeps buying stuff and that money could be used for better things.’ This lack of understanding has meant that the falling-out had escalated to name calling and back and forth anger over the telephone.

Adele’s home is relatively clean, there is some semblance of order to the disorder around her. ‘I can’t dust everywhere, I try and keep on top of it.’ She knows where certain things are and likes to keep her belongings close to her. These special things include albums and albums of photographs of both Adele and Alex and their children and grandchildren. She can just about get into the kitchen and fights with support workers who point out that she can no longer get to her fridge without pushing things out of her way.

Adele has a compulsion to buy new things, when this compulsive acquisition takes over, she snatches the iPad from the small table in the (very full) living room and starts to order things. ‘Anything, I’m not bothered, I just buy stuff when I feel empty.’ I often find that this is s common trait and of course support workers have tried time and time again to persuade Adele that what she is doing is wrong. Adele is an expert in her own life – she understands what she is doing, she just doesn’t necessary understand the cost of her actions. She has alienated herself from friends and relatives. She has spent far more money than she has to spend. She has allowed parts of her house and garden to fall into disrepair and she has become exceptionally lonely.

Adele told me that she bought things because they made her feel special, that the orders arriving gave her a giddy thrill. The idea that a day would go by without Amazon Prime emblazoned on the side of a cardboard box was anathema to Adele.

Now, the reason I’m sharing this story with you and the reason Adele is happy for me to do so, is because she has recently taken stock and had an epiphany of sorts. When she told me about her loneliness and feelings of being ‘empty’ and ‘useless’ I reflected back that Adele was using things, objects, nice gifts etc to give her the feeling that Alex gave her. She looked at me and she paused, she dipped her head, thought about it and said, ‘lets go for a walk.’ When we wandered away from the house and the chaos of a seemingly insurmountable number of objects to go through, Adele started to open up to me and discussed the feelings of safety and security that having things around her gave to her. ‘Alex was my rock, we did everything together and I was always so anxious.’ This disclosure of anxiety came as a shock to Adele’s support worker who said, and I’m paraphrasing here, something akin to, ‘but she’s always so in your face.’ Because of course, resistance can lead to denial, mistrust and conflict.

I am continuing to work with Adele and what was so lovely was the fact that the last time I said ‘cheerio’ to Adele, she handed me some of her cardboard boxes and asked if I would crush them for the recycling. I’d been at Adele’s house, on an earlier visit when her worker had asked about ‘chucking the cardboard in the bin’ and this had enraged Adele. I don’t believe it was lip service that Adele was offering me as she has kept in touch and so has one of her support workers. Both of whom have stated that Adele has continued to work through the boxes and flattened them herself and then put them out for recycling.

Adele is continuing to buy new things, though nowhere near as many. She has still not agreed to see her daughters at the house, although she has met them at Costa in Hanley. This is a long path and yet this is the beginning of hope and optimism. There is now a clear path from the front door to the living room with no boxes in the passage way, the kitchen is accessible and there are no longer boxes in front of the fridge. Small steps, and Adele is getting there. I’ll continue to offer my support to Adele and I’m pretty hopeful that (minor lapses) aside, Adele will retain her tenancy and start to venture out into the world.