Edmonton woman gets help for hoarding

Part of the problem with treating hoarding behaviour is the stigma and shame attached to it, which make it difficult for people to ask for help.

Hamdi Issawi 5 minute read October 17, 2021

Jaime Lauren Kyle, an Edmonton woman with hoarding tendencies/behaviour, finally sought help for her condition earlier this year. Greg Southam / Postmedia

In 2009, Jaime Lauren Kyle was preparing to move in with her girlfriend at the time, until a secret threatened to blow up the arrangement, and the relationship along with it.

For about as long as she can remember, Kyle, who lives in Edmonton, has had a habit of collecting stuff. Art supplies such as paints, paper and even old camera parts make up most of the cache, as well as pieces of nostalgia and symbols of loss, like empty recipe cards that belonged to her late mother.

As the collecting continued, her world kept getting smaller — the living space in particular because she couldn’t let things go. In retrospect, Kyle said, those were some of the earlier signs of a hoarding habit.

“She didn’t know the extent of my problem and we nearly broke up the night before I was to move in,” Kyle said of her former girlfriend. “After that I subsequently got rid of like two dumpsters worth of stuff.”

On Friday, Kyle, 42, shared her experience with attendees at the 2021 Hoarding Interventions Conference hosted by the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition. It’s a journey, she said, that started with a pack of crayons when she was about five years old and reached a milestone during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she finally reached out for help.

Colleen Derksen chairs the coalition, an alliance of community groups working to promote an integrated response to those struggling with the habit. Also a social work manager at Sage Seniors Association, she coordinates a program that helps seniors declutter their dwellings.

Part of the problem with treating hoarding behaviour is the stigma and shame attached to it, which make it difficult for people to ask for help, Derksen said. Contrary to popular misconceptions that associate hoarding with laziness, people with hoarding tendencies often have heightened sense of creativity, she said.

“That can sometimes be part of the reason they hold on to items. Their creativity sees value and uses for items that the average person doesn’t see.”

For Kyle, the impulse to acquire objects is rooted in her identity as an artist. Besides occupying space in her life, these collections furnish her imagination with ideas.

“Objects always meant more to me than just what they were,” she said. “It was always something deeper.”

But that same value attachment means Kyle can’t bear to part with many of the items she collects, like a stash of assorted camera parts — a pending project she plans to turn into miniature robotic sculptures one day.

“If I got rid of them, then I won’t have the materials to create something, and if I’m not creating something, then I’m not an artist,” she said. “I know, obviously, the logic behind it isn’t completely true, but that’s kind of the thought process I go through.”

Complex factors behind habit

It’s not uncommon for the complicated thoughts and feelings behind hoarding behaviour to reflect the environment that’s created, said Christiana Bratiotis, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work.

“In my clinical work, people have said to me, ‘If you see the messiness in my house, that’s what goes on in my brain,’” Bratiotis said.

And the causes behind it aren’t clear cut either, she said, but a complex interplay of factors including evolution (thanks to our hunter-gatherer ancestors), as well as genetics and neurobiology.

As the author of a book on how different sectors and disciplines collaborate in response to hoarding, Bratiotis also spoke at the conference.

For those who hoard, she said, even the thought of offloading their possessions can cause great emotional distress.

“For some people, they are a safety,” she said. “Their primary relationships are with objects and not with people, and so the thought of getting rid of those things is almost intolerable to them.”

An extreme form of the condition, known as hoarding disorder, is a mental illness recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, although some people can exhibit hoarding behaviour without meeting the diagnostic criteria, Bratiotis said.

Either way, the effects of hoarding go beyond cluttered spaces, and if left unchecked, can lead to health, safety, and housing problems — from tripping and falling to eviction.

Filling the void from loss

While Kyle said she’s never been diagnosed, self-reflection has taught her to recognize her triggers, and the role hoarding has played in her life. Her own habit ramped up in 2014 after the death of her mother and again after losing her job a few years later.

“When you lose something, there’s that void there and you want to fill it because it hurts too much,” she said. “So you often fill it with stuff, or with that dream of being an artist and having everything at my disposal to make an art piece.”

However, that habit can also cause rifts in relationships, Derksen said.

“We get a lot of calls on our intake line from family members at their wit’s end,” she said. “They don’t understand the nature of the mental illness, they don’t understand the attachment to the items, and the frustration level is such that they find it easier just to cut off the relationship.”

Kyle was quick to note that hoarding wasn’t the reason that she and her ex-girlfriend parted ways. However, the prospect of a new kind of relationship prompted her to get help.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the pair decided to try living together again, but as platonic roommates this time, Kyle said. These days, she belongs to a hoarding support group, and is making more of an active effort to keep her space organized and the habit under control.

It’s a daily struggle, she admitted, and there are lapses, but dealing with the problem openly and head-on helps her breathe easier. That, and the promise of a space that isn’t overrun by stuff.

“You don’t want to be relaxing and creating something in that suffocating space,” she said. “I want to have room for other parts of my life to grow.”