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Update: How I Helped My Friend Who Hoards Cats

It took a tragedy to open the window for an intervention -- but things are looking up now.

 |  Jan 31st 2014  |   10 Contributions


This is a follow-up on the post my friend Ana wrote a few weeks ago, in which she talked about a friend's struggles with hoarding. Here, she talks about how she found a way to help her friend, and save some cats in the process.

It's 6 a.m. when the phone illuminates my dark bedroom. Patty's text message slaps me from the sleep haze. "It's Jim, he's hung himself, he's dead." I sit up and stare at the screen, unable to formulate a response. Jim is her 28-year-old son. He has (had, it's had now) four small children, all from different women. Having made no provisions, having acted on the spur of the moment, Jim's children are left in their pajamas on the frozen lawn while the police go over the scene. 

The police are stunned, and respectful; this doesn't happen in their tiny town, and the sight of the shell-shocked children is heartbreaking. They want to tell Patty she mustn't take items from the house, that probate and other considerations must be respected, but they can't bring themselves to do it. "I'm not looking, ladies," a policeman says before walking back to his car.

Silently, miserably, we marched through the snow with the accumulations of Jim's life heaped into boxes, garbage bags, laundry baskets, and anything else we could find. We loaded it into a truck and drove it to the only possible place; the hoard. There simply weren't any other options.

A hoarder navigates through stacks of boxes. Photo: Star Tribune

Now, even for Patty, the hoard had become unmanageable. Her narrow pathways and trails through the mess were stacked tight to the ceiling with Jim's life. We sorted for two days, doling out boxes of clothing and personal items for the children, who were living with their aunt temporarily. It's still impossible to move between rooms; everything is in utter chaos.

I knew she was in shock. I knew she was grief struck. I made the decision to take advantage of it. I felt, and still feel, there were no other options available. She had taken three days off from work, days she could ill afford, she had to get back.

"Patty, there is so much more to do here, I know you need to get back. Let me stay and keep organizing, just for a few days." Patty barely registers what I've said. Her face is slack and vacant. "Sure, that sounds great. Sure." She shuffles through the mess like a ghost for another hour before I suggest she lie down for a bit, to try and rest before her double shift, and she obliges. As soon as her bedroom door closed, I got on the phone, securing a truck and two strong men for the next day. While poor Patty was at work, I intended to empty the hoard.

That morning I saw her off, and began the work the instant she pulled out of the driveway. Her son's belongings I could not throw away, moving them instead to the garage to be addressed at a later date; for now, we would strictly handle the hoard.

We stacked the bed of a friend's pickup truck dozens of times that day with every imaginable type of trash. We opened every window and door to run an industrial exhaust fan borrowed for this purpose, and sighed with relief as the fresh cold air came through. As we cleared, mice scurried under the remaining boxes until finally they were forced into the kitchen cupboards; there were no boxes left to hide under.

I looked at the huge emptiness and felt the first pangs of real dread. I had absolutely no idea what Patty's reaction would be. The entire contents of the hoard were delivered straight to the landfill; there would be no opportunity for her to reclaim anything.

We finished two rooms before she came home from work. My stomach was in knots when her car pulled into the driveway, but I had been right; she was so muted by her grief that she sat on the couch and cried. I sat down and put my arm around her. She didn't thank me for what I'd done, but she didn't attack me, either. We sat on her newly visible couch that way a long time.

Over the course of the next two weeks I continued to throw things away and, eventually, clean the house itself. During the process I was able to achieve a headcount on the cats: 22.

Of the 22, I removed six surreptitiously, three for euthanasia, two for adoption, and one male, very weak with anemia, whom I brought home for treatment. James Theon has made a remarkable recovery (thanks for the ringworm, buddy), and spends his time terrorizing my long-suffering girls.

I've never been confronted about the cats I took; I'm not sure she knows even now.

I continue to monitor the situation monthly, under the guise of flea treatment, always ready to sneak over while she works and snatch up another should the need arise. Now that our relationship has become more intimate, I plan to push her toward letting me take the brood to the low-cost sterilization clinic this spring. It's going to be difficult and expensive, but it's nevertheless the top priority.

The difficult part for me has been to keep up the visits once the work was done. I've caught her cleaning and organizing on several occasions, and while she is still a devastated, mentally unstable person, the drastic measures also helped to pull her out of the comfortable complacency of the hoard. This year, for the first time ever, Patty hosted Thanksgiving dinner for her entire family.

What she and most hoarders need most is friendship and company. They are often so desperate to fill their deep void of loneliness they create hostages out of innocent animals, who pay the ultimate price for an out-of-touch society, which is both unwilling and unable to address the rapidly increasing community of the mentally ill. If you know someone who is displaying hoarding behaviors, there are things you can do, but the most effective measures are likely to be your friendship, your understanding, and your time.

Here is some related reading on hoarding, hoarders, and what you can do to help:

Read stories of rescue on Catster:

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