Denise — a well-dressed 40-something from Lower Burrell with perfectly curled blond hair — wants a normal life. She wants to date and her family to visit.
But her hoarding of things such as jewelry and sentimental family items creates “a daily struggle to live.” She’s in between two homes, one of which she referred to as a tornado zone.
“Nobody wants to live like this,” she said.
On Friday morning, Denise, who asked that her last name not be used, attended a symposium in Monroeville providing resources to professionals helping hoarders. She nodded along with speakers who each echoed the same sentiment: Therapy and compassion can help hoarders.
Among the 50-some attendees were code enforcers, disaster response groups, insurers and therapists who participate in a county task force formed in 2012 providing assistance and awareness of hoarding, which was classified as its own condition in 2013.
“If you have a jar of buttons in your house, that does not make you a hoarder. It makes you a Pittsburgher,” said Kihra Kohler, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System task force representative. That’s what grandparents who lived through The Great Depression taught parents who taught their kids -- because you never know when you might need a blue button.
Imagine though, she said, doing that with everything in your life. About 18,950 cases of hoarding exist in Allegheny County involving people 18 or older, she said this summer.
“Most people think they’re old, poor cat ladies,” said Matt Paxton, a self-proclaimed “extreme cleaner” featured on the former A&E show “Hoarders,” who spoke at the session.
Sometimes, they’re doctors and lawyers who pay their bills on time.
Most often, they’re teachers or nurses, who tend to hoard things for other people.
Men and women are just as likely to hoard, though women more often seek help.
They’re “uber-intelligent people” searching for self-worth and happiness, Mr. Paxton said.
With estimates ranging from 2 to 10 percent of the population, there’s at least one in every neighborhood -- often the one you’re aware of and one you’re not.
Usually they have experienced a significant trauma, such as the loss of a child or job, and time took its course, Mr. Paxton said.
“Their brain could have gone to drugs or alcohol, but it turns to stuff,” he said, and that stuff is safe, unlike the real world.
“Piles of clothes don’t fire you, beat you or divorce you,” he said.
He gets 500 requests per month to clean houses, and in nine years, has gotten to about 3,000. His business Clutter Cleaner now partners with ServiceMaster to meet demand. A clean sweep can cost a few hundred dollars to $100,000 but averages about several thousand.
“Your house doesn’t make our top 500,” Mr. Paxton said. “ ... Unless you have 301 cats in there, it’s not that bad.”
Houses can be smeared with human feces or spotless and filled with unopened boxes from Amazon.
What’s the worst thing Mr. Paxton has found? Maybe it was the 8-by-6-foot nest of dog-sized rats. Or the refrigerator full of cats.
Once though, he found $2 million in gold. Another time, he unearthed a purse full of letters a husband wrote to his wife during World War II.
“If we had just gone in and thrown stuff away, that lady wouldn’t have gotten her letters,” he said.
Lexi Belculfine: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc.