‘Tragic reason I became a hoarder’
AS A small child Judy Nicholas grew up living in an army tent.
Her family would use a kitchen out the back of a factory and bath in a big iron tub.
When she got older, you could almost say Judy's family upgraded, moving into an egg shed next to a chicken farm.
This time there was a bath out the back - but out in the open - and her family made do among the chooks for two years.
When she was 12, conditions might have slightly improved again - this time Judy was sleeping under a dressmaker's bench.
Her parents had separated, her mum had rented a small shop space, and now Judy would use a shower in the garage of the neighbour's place.
"It was incredible, but we didn't know we were poor," the now 75-year-old says.
"I just accepted it. I wasn't embarrassed by it, but when my mother and father separated when I was 12, I was very embarrassed by that and I lied and told my school friends my father had died."
When Judy met her husband later in life they bonded over a similar upbringing - he lived in a galvanised iron shed with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water.
Judy speaks about this because it's the only way she knows how to explain her hoarding - a condition that's plagued her whole life and continues to be a burden on her now, despite being "reformed".
"We didn't realise that our past, and living without, may have something to do with the need to gather things we had never had," she says.
It started when the couple took rubbish to the local tip. They would scavenge and end up heading home with more than they had taken.
The couple thought it was funny. Until it became a problem.
The couple, now separated, were diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder.
But sadly, hoarding wasn't the only thing they suffered through.
Judy was deeply affected by post-natal depression. She'd lost four babies, including twins at 20 weeks.
Through the grief and loss she turned to retail therapy. Her addictive personality meant there were other vices too - smoking, coffee and alcohol.
Judy would go to the second-hand shop and buy five pieces for $20. Her husband hated it.
Her hoarding of clothing took over the home's wardrobes and when she ran out of space in those she'd buy new closets to put them in.
"Excessive acquiring habits extended to garage sales and even better - getting something for nothing at council clean-ups," she says.
"I loved old things that I could paint and make new again."
Judy later realised attachment to "things" soon replaced attachment to her relationship.
The couple had two mentally-ill daughters, who Judy still cares for now. Her husband called her a toxic mother and blamed her for their misfortune.
"How it took me 30 years to recognise that I had become a hoarder as a result of my unhappy marriage is unbelievable," she says.
CAN'T LET GO
Judy has hoarded for 40 years now
She admits she's not very sensible, but then there are good intentions at the heart of her problem.
The former aged care nurse simply does not want to see things go to waste.
"I've been about 15 years in recovery and I still have a problem," she says.
"The main problem is discarding. I've learnt how not to bring stuff in but the tears and emotion come to the surface very quickly when I have to make a decision to throw something out.
"There's something about waste - a really strong desire not to waste and throw stuff to the environment. You're constantly not wanting to waste things."
Judy says clothes are the worst. It used to be books and video tapes but she's since managed to get rid of those.
The other big one is paperwork. In her role supporting other hoarders, Judy goes to a lot of conferences and she keeps all her notes handy in case she might need them again.
"It's about overcoming that strong desire to keep things and throw them out - that's when you make good steps to recovery," she says.
"When you can discern between rubbish and something of value, because you tend to see value in everything - that to me signals a real disorder.
"Clothes are the worst things. I have trouble letting them go because I place too much value on them. You're not very sensible."
THE SUPPORT GROUP
While Judy knows she still has some work to do, she's come a long way.
She regularly meets with other hoarders in Project Uncover: The Collectives and has encouraged others to join.
One of the women who attends is Joanna Dunbar-Poole, who perhaps has one of the most heartbreaking hoarding stories.
Ms Dunbar-Poole shared her story with the ABC, speaking of how she simply started picking up newspapers when things then got out of hand.
"I didn't realise how bad it was until my husband died and there it was staring me in the face," she said.
Ms Dunbar-Poole returned from a week's holiday to find her husband trapped underneath boxes. He went to hospital and was treated for cardiac arrest, but she never got to speak to him.
"I don't know what happened," she said.
"He lay on the floor for a week, I estimated, and three rooms were blocked by fallen stuff.
"However, nothing appeared to have struck him, and I'll never know if he was startled or if somebody was in the house and sent things flying because he couldn't talk and tell me, so I have to live with that mystery.
"I could see that there was an avalanche, it must have had something to do with it but I'm not sure what."
Others who have joined the group have been people Judy has simply come across.
"People know they might be a bit of a hoarder," she says.
"I did a council clean up and as I was putting out I saw my neighbour walking away, and she said, 'I'm a bit of a hoarder'.
"People come out of the closet. Would she have come out had I not called her? I didn't accuse her, I just showed her that's what I am and I inspired her to make that change.
"We're facing with it, bringing it out into the open and destigmatising it."
WHAT THE RESEARCHERS SAY
Dr Melissa Norberg has been studying hoarding at Macquarie University.
Most people might not realise there's actually 1.2 million Australians who meet the criteria for hoarding disorder.
A quarter to a third of Australian residential fire-related deaths are also associated with hoarding disorder.
Dr Norberg, who is deputy director of the Centre for Emotional Health, said for hoarders, possessions reminded them of the past and foreshadowed a potential future.
"They can remember their child wearing that outfit or playing with that toy," she said.
"They are certain that jug will be useful some day, despite having many other jugs they have never used. They are extremely attached to their possessions for one reason or another."
Dr Norberg said their anxiety was similar to what others might feel about giving a speech or finding a spider in their shoe.
"Individuals who hoard items tend to experience interpersonal difficulties, feel insecure in relationships, and believe themselves to be a burden to others," she said.
The university, Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury and UNSW are piloting an enhanced hoarding treatment which addresses core hoarding problems as well as helping to improve impaired social connections.
"The consequences of hoarding escalate as people get older," Dr Norberg said.
"Without treatment, the consequences (such as fire) of hoarding disorder costs Australia an estimated $36,880 per person, per occurrence.
"If we can help people feel valued and loved, they may benefit more from treatment. In turn, they may experience a desperately needed improvement in their quality of life."
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