My crew of a dozen workers and I zip ourselves into hazmat suits and slip Darth Vader-style respirators over our faces. We know what's coming — and we know it's going to be horrendous.
With shovels and pickaxes, we look like a search and rescue squad entering a residence after an earthquake. I wedge a crowbar through the front door frame, the brittle wood creaking until the door cracks open in a crescendo of pops and screams.
The stink knocks us back on our heels. The home reeks of equal parts over-soaked cat litter boxes, decaying rat carcasses, rodent feces, rancid meat, mold, mildew and misery. Our masks can only filter out so much. Our eyes water. Our stomachs churn. Vomit rises in our throats.
We stagger through the doorway, our feet squishing into the muck. Mounds of loose, wet slop rise from the floor almost to the ceiling. We prod the murky spaces ahead with our shovels and axes. Will anything slither out, or bite? Will the floor collapse beneath us?
We start shoveling, tipping clods of black rot into 16-gallon plastic bins, then relay the full buckets, man to man, to a 20-foot-long, five-and-a-half-foot-tall metal dumpster outside.
I glance up through my already sweat-hazed safety goggles and detect a human form.
This is "Rachel" (not her real name), the homeowner. She has entered the house through the back porch and garbage-lined passageways deeply familiar to her and that only she can see. She wears no protective gear.
Rachel is a genteel, educated, middle-aged woman who wears a suit to work every day. She has hired our company to pack her "treasures" into a 16-foot-long Pack Rat storage pod sitting near the dumpster. She is moving to another state. If need be, she said, we can throw away a "few" things.
I glance through a window at the tragically inadequate pod and dumpster. They're no match for this house. Nobody is speaking yet, and tension hangs in the air. Something, or someone, is going to have to give.
My client is one of an estimated 19 million Americans who fall victim to a life-destroying impulse that one day causes many of them to require the service that my crew provides: digging them out of the nest of rubble they have gathered around themselves. Like everyone else I meet with hoarding disorder, Rachel seems to be two people at once: there is the sweet, engaging, considerate, and mentally agile Rachel. And there's the side of the compulsion.
We bonded quickly at our first meeting two weeks earlier. She told me her life story, the way people often do when they meet me to talk about what has caused them to need my help. We talked about our careers: Rachel has dedicated hers to the law, to make life better for others. She told me about a painful divorce, about her beloved mother who died and whose possessions still account for part of the tonnage inside.
Rachel has no children or living pets, but she pulled out actual paper photographs to proudly show off something else — the new red brick house with a stately front lawn in another state that will be her new home.
I find that I am also two people in a way. The regular me likes Rachel, a down-to-earth, selfless woman I could easily be friends with under other circumstances. The second me is revolted by the disorder that has overtaken her life, filling it with mountains of trash. I know it's not her fault – that hoarding attacks without prejudice people of every education and income level, age, race and religion. It's the physical and mental fatigue of these jobs that sometimes scrambles my thoughts, jumbling my hatred for hoarding and anger at the misery it inflicts on people with hostility toward the people themselves. In the junk-covered recesses of my mind, I hate my own anger that inevitably and almost imperceptibly heats to a full boil as a hoarder project unfolds. When will the work end? Why can't the hoarder or I defeat the disorder?
This one is worse than usual. Because it's Rachel.
We're about to hack away at our first tower of petrified junk mail. (Hoarders love junk mail; it's free stuff.) Our pickaxes slam into it, sometimes getting stuck like a blade wedging deep inside a tree trunk.
Rachel is not speaking, nor is she smiling anymore. She is clenching herself into a knot. She flinches when she hears the first clang of metal meeting hardened pulp, and again when the contents of the first full tub of trash tumble into the dumpster. Rachel springs forward a second later.
"No, no," she says. "Put that in the pod!"
She's talking about half-used shampoo bottles, torn shards of cardboard, random piles of filthy towels, and more assorted garbage.
I estimate that we will have to remove 650 pounds of detritus every hour from her home to get it empty in the two 12-hour shifts she has hired us for before the bulldozers come to knock down the house. The new owner has plans to rebuild.
I wanted, at that first meeting, to advise Rachel not to hire us. Save the money. Spend it on therapy, and let the heavy machinery grind up everything else. But I lost my nerve, fearing what might happen if I blurted out the truth of her condition. You're just a service provider, I told myself. Not a psychologist. I also feared for what might happen to my business if I suggested to a client that she had a mental disorder. These jobs, not coincidentally, happen to pay exceptionally well.
What a cop-out.
My moral compass was as rickety as the piles of trash in which I stood. This one is not going to end well for you, the voice in my head says as I bend and dig and throw.
I spend the vast majority of ordinary, more or less hygienic days liquidating estates and buying and selling all manner of antiques and collectibles. About nine years ago, pretty much by accident, the company that my wife and I operate began tackling homes like these. We didn't know what hoarding was until the day we met an exasperated daughter at her mother's home. She said she had to remove her mother from her house and empty it so that she could sell it. She had contacted 10 other companies that turned her away. Maybe we could gather and sell at least some of her mother's belongings to get them out of the house? Please?
The home, located in a high-income neighborhood, looked beautiful from the outside. But when the daughter opened the door for us and squeezed sideways through it, we realized we were entering an alien and mind-numbing world. We fell dizzy and disoriented, like we were trapped in a house turned upside down by a tornado. Some beds stood vertically, pinned to the walls by debris.
"Where did your mother sleep?" I asked. The daughter pointed to a four-foot-tall mound of magazines. "Where did she cook?" She shook her head sideways and then nodded in the direction of what at one point in time had been a kitchen. Only ants and roaches used it then.
The rest of the place? The sinks, bathtubs and showers were full of trash. Cookie tins were buried like landmines throughout the house, each filled with everything from balls of pantyhose and socks to family photos no one knew still existed.
My heart sank.
My wife and I looked at each other in stunned silence. We had only been in business a short time at that point and were literally in over our heads at that house, but we wanted to help a person in need. When the daughter told us she couldn't afford the massive labor charge it would take to empty the place, she asked if we would consider doing it on trade in exchange for keeping all revenues from whatever objects we could pull out and sell. The idea seemed fraught with financial risk at the time and absolutely ludicrous now, but back then, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
My wife and I, along with our crew, spent the next four weeks excavating that house. We filled up a dozen large metal dumpsters while trying to keep thoughts of the horror of how someone lived in that environment at bay. No one should have to live like that.
Our client collapsed into our arms before we were even done. She said she couldn't believe that we were rescuing the house and, by extension, her mother. The sale of the home would enable her to take care of her mom for many years.
Purge completed, the junk gods blessed our effort and generated enough money to make it sufficiently rewarding for us. My sense of personal satisfaction, though, was enriched beyond measure. I had spent my previous stints in journalism and the nonprofit sector trying to make a difference in the world. The business coach I consulted when starting my company told me that I would find my greatest reward if I could make its values match mine as a human being. Our first "hoarder house" did precisely that.
Little did we know at the time that the universe would keep sending homes like that our way and that we would get used to the labor and the stink.
Each one has taken its psychic toll but the end results have been worthy of the bruising. Clearing homes for families enables them to sell the houses and generate much-needed funds to take care of their loved ones, or provide inheritance money in cases when the homeowners have already died. It turns up long-lost family mementos, uncovers truckloads of still-usable objects that go to charities or can be sold, giving them second lives instead of death by dumpster. We move mountains, bring order to chaos and defeat our bastard enemy — hoarding — and then move on.
I wanted to help Rachel like that, too.
For hours we crawl through catacombs, over piles of broken furniture, and — not weirdly to us — a box containing hundreds of pairs of scissors, many with only one blade or broken handles. ("I'm going to fix those one day," a hoarder will defensively say to strangers like me.) My feet slip on an oil slick of plastic combs, almost causing an avalanche when I crash into a wall of rubble.
In the beginning, after the small outburst, Rachel does surprisingly well. We get away with dumpsterizing without protest two or three out of every four bins of slush. She continues to flinch, though, at the rhythmic sound of her goods, as she understands them, landing to their doom. We try to work quieter.
I approach Rachel, turning over in my hand a shard of broken I-don't-know-what. She wants me to put it in the pod. "No," I tell her. I pick up another unidentifiable fragment. In the pod, she says. "No," I tell her again. Suddenly she collapses into my arms, where she spends the next five minutes wrenched by some agony that only she can know.
I will work like this for two days. Shovel, then hold Rachel. Shovel, hold Rachel. "You're doing great!" I tell her. "I didn't think you were going to be able to let any of this go." I cheer her on, at times effectively.
The truth is, I'm trying to psych myself up as much as I am her. How can I be so patient and understanding with hoarders when I have no real patience for most people in my everyday life? These ghastly excavations manage to bring out a compassion in me that I can't otherwise muster.
Rachel has to go to the bathroom but she can no longer use her own. Her facilities are clogged with a brown, lumpy tar of rust, excrement, and soiled water. She drives to McDonald's in a sedan jammed to the windows with old magazines and newspapers. While she's gone, we heave rubbish into the dumpster like it's an Olympic sport. This, too, becomes routine, and we're fortunate that she usually brings back with her a large Diet Coke on each trip. Each restroom and refreshment run, though, brings a relapse. Rachel freaks out about what may have been tossed that she didn't see. She investigates the dumpster, crawling around on her hands and knees. Once, she pulls out a single, broken earring. "I can't believe you threw this away! We might be able to find the other one!"
As the hours pass, every muscle in my body aches. I'm screaming inside — from pain and fatigue, but also self-loathing. I should have skipped this one, told her to use the money on professional help. Isn't my duty as a human being greater than my obligation as a business owner? I keep asking myself. Who knows, comes the reply. I'm not qualified to diagnose a mental disorder. Keep shoveling.
Mother Nature is mad, too. It's the end of March but we are belted with unseasonal heat on the first day, fogging up our face masks and draining barrels of sweat from us by the hour. On the second day, all hell breaks loose. The temperature drops to bone-chilling cold. Torrents of hail and snow alternate with pelting rain. Almost instantly, the front yard becomes a mud pit into which my boots sink deeper and deeper.
Before anyone can stop her, Rachel summons several more storage pods. A sort of junk parade forms in front of her house. Adamant, she designates worthless items and other chunks of mess for transport. The sealed boxes seep and darken.
This is usually how it goes in the (thankfully rare) cases in which a hoarder is anywhere near us as we work. Our contracts stipulate that the person who owns the mess is not allowed to be on-site. Other family members — the ones typically paying us — are welcome to help or observe as they wish. Sometimes, though, they manage to sneak in for a moment to protest what's happening and grab as much as they can carry until their kin ushers them out.
I watched a son escort his mom out of a home covered six-feet deep in miniature lighthouses. I watched siblings pull their flailing parents away from tangled mountains of once-pristine collections of books, records, and antique toys blighted by time and inattention. I watched a wife order her elderly husband out of a basement so that we could find a resting place for every pair of underwear the man ever owned in his life.
Sometimes I ask the compulsive gatherers questions and try to learn more about what's going on inside their minds. Many started hoarding after a loved one dies unexpectedly; they don't want to let go of a single item the person ever touched, even when the shrines become decomposing piles. Other people find that owning more and more objects fills different kinds of voids. Hoarding often sets in so slowly that the stricken don't sense what's happening. Dodge a heap a few times and it becomes muscle memory. They don't see or think about it anymore.
I once entered the home of a hoarder who had invited me, as they commonly do, to examine merchandise she hoped to sell. She had long, stringy gray hair, likely not cut in decades. Here the discovery was a mountain range full of unopened bags of cat food and cat litter. "Do you have cats?" I asked, politely.
Nope. Never did.
"How did you, um, end up with all this food and litter?" I ask, immediately wishing I could reel back the question so I wouldn't have to hear the reply.
"On sale!" she said. "I always buy things when there's a good sale."
My mind snaps back to Rachel's house when three of my macho-men crew members scream like little girls in the living room. They're perched unsteadily — they have levitated there, I think, crazily — on top of a three-foot dune of the ubiquitous junk mail, itself piled atop of what could have been the remains of a couch. All three are pointing wildly at something on the ground.
My eyes follow their fingers to the most enormous albino rat I've ever seen. Two feet long, like a Rodent of Unusual Size from "The Princess Bride." Ivory white with devil-red eyes. The rat spots an opening and shoots out the door. It's the first and last laugh we'll have on this job.
Have I mentioned how much I hate kitchens? I once opened a chest freezer in a hoarder house without first thinking through what I knew: the man who had died had lived without electricity for years — and he was a hunter.
The nostril-scalding stench of butchered deer meat knocked me to the floor.
In Rachel's kitchen, I peer into a trash can at an undulating mass of maggots, the entire container crawling with them. They're all over the countertops, too. Thankfully, everything in the kitchen can go.
The rest she defends tooth and nail.
I keep hoping that still-tearful Rachel will abruptly recover and let me do my job. We're nearing the end of the second day in on-off arctic conditions, and I'm reaching the end of my rope. But I can't blow up at the client, of course. She's paying me to be here and to do her bidding.
Rachel and I enter the master bedroom. Please let me trash 100 percent of what I already know is this god-forsaken space, I think. I open a closet. Everything there looks like it came out of the bottom end of hell.
"All of this needs to go," I implore, a broken record. "Will you please just let me get my guys in here and clear this room? Then we'll be done!"
I pull out a long dress that used to be white. Now it's brown and bedazzled with rat shit. The bottom third is shredded by teeth. That albino bastard. I take the dress.
"No! That's Mother's dress!"
I know exactly what she will say next. And she does.
"I can clean that," she says. "I can fix it. I can still wear that dress."
I bury my face in my hands, mute.
The dress goes into a pod, its stiffened fabric landing with a sick thud.
Rachel writes us a handsome check, hugs me, and thanks us for our work, our patience. She's cheerful now. But not as glad as we are to pack up.
In the street stand three pods of trash about to be unloaded into an unsuspecting new house. In another state. I allowed this to happen. I enabled it.
I drive home in silence, the check a sizzling accusation in my pocket. I curse myself and count down the miles until I can do what I must do after every project like this.
In the shower, I scrub so hard that my pale arms turn cherry red. The memory of a hoarder house I can, in most cases, cleanse from my flesh and soul in about two days. This one, like the voice in my head promised, will be different. I turn off the water but still smell my failure as a human being. I reach for a towel, knowing it can't be wiped away.