'Growing up, my mother was a chronic hoarder'

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Erin O'Dwyer

Erin O'Dwyer looks into the secretive and disturbed world of the hoarder, through the eyes of a child.

Meredith Fuller celebrates her 19th birthday with her mother, Judith.

Meredith Fuller celebrates her 19th birthday with her mother, Judith. Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Fuller

Psychologist Meredith Fuller grew up in a hoarded house. Her mother Judith was a deserted wife who raised two children in the days before pensions and childcare. Plunged into poverty, she started hoarding. A million bits and pieces – books, broken blinds, cardboard boxes, clothes, furniture, plastic bags, sachets of sugar. Nothing was discarded, everything was salvaged.

"She had piles [of stuff] as high as I am," recalls Meredith, 58. "You had to burrow through these traps and mazes."

Hoarding is not a new syndrome. But last year, it was recognised for the first time as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). It affects between two and five per cent of the population and is often triggered by some kind of trauma. It's defined as the persistent difficulty to part with possessions, regardless of their value.

Clutter piled up in the Fuller family home in 1995.

Clutter piled up in the Fuller family home in 1995. Photo: Courtesy of Meredith Fuller

Hoarders are different from collectors. Their homes become so cluttered that living areas and rooms can no longer be used for their intended purposes. Their collections include almost anything – newspapers, kitchenware, hard rubbish, sticks, animals, food and general detritus.

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Meredith Fuller's house in the Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh South was full, in more ways than one. As well as her and her brother, there was her grandmother with dementia and an unmarried great aunt with Down syndrome. Meredith's mother also took in abused women and their children. On any evening, there could be 17 people sleeping on the floor.

"You would only know someone was sleeping on the floor because you could see a tuft of their hair poking out," says Meredith. "No matter what anyone needed, Mum could pull it from a bag or a room. To her it made perfect sense because she was looking after people who were in a similar situation to her."

Sick, not slack: hoarding is now recognised as a mental-health disorder.

Sick, not slack: hoarding is now recognised as a mental-health disorder. Photo: Getty Images

As a girl, Meredith never ate a meal at the table. Dinner was always on her knee, in the lounge room, and she did her homework on her bed.

As with many hoarders, Judith Fuller's problem got worse as she got older. Broken things didn't get fixed and the house became dilapidated. There were mice and dustballs everywhere. The young Meredith was terrified of mice and learnt not to disturb the piles of rubbish in the house. Her brother left home as soon as he could.

"I will never forget the night a mouse tried to run up my sheet and swung on it," says Meredith, who continues to have a healthy paranoia about mice. "It fell into the rubbish bin beside my bed and I quickly put a big book on top of it."

Over the years, her mother became obese and, because she didn't have many clothes, she wore a green raincoat whenever she went out.

"She sewed my clothes and yes, like Scarlett O'Hara, she remade curtains, her old clothes and remnants into works of art for me to wear," says Meredith. "We rarely had school friends come to our house. Children from school were not comfortable about my great-aunt with Down syndrome, and we were teased. Plus without a car, or a man in the house, and Mum's green plastic raincoat, we were considered to be a bit odd."

Still, Meredith remembers her childhood with great generosity. She describes herself as a sensitive, empathetic girl who felt sad for her mother but not ashamed of her. "Mum had a horrific life and she kept her mind functioning. I didn't like living there but I knew it wouldn't be forever. When I grew up I knew I could create my own house."

Psychologist Dr Chris Mogan works with hoarders at The Anxiety Clinic in Melbourne and says the condition remains largely misunderstood. It is usually picked up by community health workers and the fire brigade, who are called in when neighbours complain about the junk piles, vermin and smell. But more education and training for workers is needed.

"It's important to stress that people with a hoarding disorder are not lazy or stupid," Mogan says. "It's also not just people who are struggling - wealthy people hoard, professional people hoard, lawyers hoard, university academics hoard. I see people from all walks of life."

Mental health worker Tania Reid says the most distressing aspect of hoarding is dealing with children and animals. "Children grow up thinking the most important things in the house are the objects," says Reid, who runs a Melbourne-based hoarding training and advocacy service. "Kids get pushed out because there is not enough room for them. They might be inappropriately co-sleeping or sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the lounge room. They might leave home early and join a gang or live rough."

In one extreme case, in 2012, a five-year-old Melbourne boy died days after he cut his foot on an open tin of cat food in his family's squalid and rubbish-filled home. Photographs tendered to the inquest show rubbish, food scraps, dirty bedding and broken furniture piled waist high.

Sudden forced clean-outs are not the answer for hoarders. In the United States, hoarders have committed suicide after clean-ups by well-meaning family members or councils. As parting with possessions causes extreme anxiety, hoarding specialists use a softly-softly approach. Reid helps people prioritise their most precious possessions using a traffic light system: red means an item is kept, green means it can be discarded, and amber means the person is still uncertain. "Over time, it gets easier to do and it takes less time to feel better again," she says.

Not all hoarders live in squalor. Reid worked with one man who collected shopping catalogues and receipts dating back to 1984, all neatly archived in plastic tubs. "He was very interested in economics and standards of living," she says. "But he was socially isolated and would hide in the cupboard when someone knocked on the door."

Other hoarders want to be environmentally responsible. One man collected hard rubbish because he didn't want the objects to go into landfill. One woman did not shower because she was concerned about wasting water.

Reid is working with a woman whose grandchildren are not allowed to visit her. She likes to bake cakes for friends but no one will eat them, because of the state of her home. "She wants to be a good family member and nurturer," says Reid. "But her possessions are taking too much of a toll on her life."

When Judith was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, Meredith and her husband, Brian Walsh, took her into their own home. Within months, Judith's room was jam-packed with junk – empty jars and tubes, sticks and clutter. "I couldn't stay long in her room because I sneezed. I coped by making jokes about the little mohair jumpers that were created from the tumbling dust, used tissues and debris."

When Meredith had to call ambulances for her mother, the officers' jaws dropped. "How are we going to get her out?" they would ask.

It took Meredith six months and 16 skips to clear her mother's house after she died in 2005. She had already spent five years sorting through stuff. She found TV guides dating back 30 years, highlighting shows such as Homicide that Meredith had starred in as a child actress. The home was eventually pulled down and replaced by a block of townhouses.

Meredith Fuller's great-grandmother was also a hoarder, which may be no coincidence – experts believe genetics play a role. But one positive consequence was that Meredith inherited boxes of photos and historical papers that allowed her to trace her family line back to the 1500s. "There are always good things that come from bad," she says, adding that education gave her the chance of building a normal life from a dysfunctional childhood.

Meredith describes her own home in Caulfield North, where she and Walsh, a psychologist, run their practice, as "warm and comfortable". The public areas are minimalist and neat and their private spaces are more casual. Meredith is messy and describes her husband as a neat-freak. The two balance each other out.

"It teaches you incredible compassion," says Meredith, reflecting on her childhood experience with her mother. "She knew it was weird and she knew she had a disorder but she couldn't change it. It was how she dealt with stress and anxiety and trauma.

"She had very little money and she had to keep us all going. By keeping things, she believed she could ward off scarcity. Everything was precious. I survived living in the house by reminding myself that people do the best they can."