Indiana Hoarders: FOX59 investigates the disorder endangering lives, communities

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Feb. 23, 2015)-- By some estimates, one in fifty Americans is an extreme hoarder. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added hoarding disorder to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The disorder causes people to collect trinkets, clothes, animals, even trash, among other things.

It is a lifestyle filled with danger for both the hoarder and the community around them, and it happens right here in Indiana.

A&E's hit show "Hoarders" opened our eyes to people made prisoners in their own homes.

One man FOX59 found, Andy, called himself a collector, despite his stuff overtaking his house and forcing him to live in a trailer. He saw the show once and realized he had a problem.

"These are hoarders, and they're sick, and I said, 'hell. I ain't no collector, I'm a hoarder,'" he said.

Another woman, Lin, started hoarding to cope with the deaths of her mother and her husband. A stash stockpiled for twelve years engulfed her home and her life.

"People don't choose to live like this. You don't want to live like this. It's just something that happens to you, you just lose control of your space," she said.

It is a scenario Heidi Lamkin sees. It's part of her job.

"The most heartbreaking thing is that these people have felt so alone in whatever struggle they're dealing with," said Heidi Lamkin, Owner of Absolute Bio-Recovery Service East.

Lamkin's cleaned up nearly five dozen hoards across the Midwest, including here in Indiana. She said some cases call for personal protective equipment, even respirators with vapor cartridges. A full suit's most common in a trash or animal hoard, when cleanup can be toxic.

In one case a woman amassed so many cats, it put the hoarder in intensive care.

"She had so many cats in there and so much feces and so much cat urine and ammonia from the feces and urine that she got a very unusual and rare respiratory infection," said Lamkin.

Lamkin said she usually gets a call from a family member or concerned friend, rarely is it the hoarder themselves.

"People are ashamed, and I think will go to any length to hide it," she said.

Hiding it works until danger strikes, like a hoarder's home catching fire.

"It's a risk to anyone that lives close by," said Captain Michael Pruitt, with Wayne Township Fire Department.

Pruitt said fires inside hoarded homes can be hotter and more intense. Five years ago, his crews found a fire burning through the door of a hoarded home. They got it out before it turned deadly.

"You add the weight of what the person had collected," he said, "There very well could have been a floor collapse, if that fire had continued to burn for much longer."

So how do you help a hoarder?

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Greg Sipes admits it is not easy.

"It kind of is an addiction," he said, "People can try to stop this, but they'll go right back to it, just like people do with drinking and drugs."

He said counselors use cognitive behavioral therapy. It's an active and directed therapy, where practitioners challenge the hoarder to change their thoughts and offer coping strategies. A support system is key too, he said.

"Sometimes you can break through if there's a kind of loving intervention," said Sipes.

Experts agree a hoarder must want help.

"They have to be ready and willing," said Lamkin.

Otherwise, they'll continue to live defined by their possessions.

"Either you're going to die among all this stuff, or you're going to get it taken care of," said Lin.

Dr. Sipes said likely in the next decade there will be new methods of treatment, since Hoarding Disorder was added to the DSM. The addition of specified disorders leads to more research and study, he said.

Lamkin said as part of the cleanup process, which can run into the thousands of dollars, she does offer an aftercare visit. Often clients do not take her up on the offer.

You can find information on hoarding from the International OCD Foundation by clicking  here.

Psychology Today explores the addition of hoarding disorder to the DSM-5 in an article found here.