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Cleanup Week is a tempting time for hoarders trying to curb addiction

By Tu-Uyen TraN

Forum News Service

FARGO -- For Todd Christlieb, Cleanup Week is an opportunity. But for some, it's a temptation.

Christlieb spent his Monday morning in front of a stranger's house with a pair of pliers, trying to strip the faux leather off an abandoned couch. He said he's hoping to turn the trash into new furniture as part of a new business.

Most people Christlieb runs into while scavenging curbs are doing it as a business or a hobby, he said. The old furniture, broken appliances and other unwanted stuff residents leave out for garbage crews during Cleanup Week is a bonanza for them.

But Christlieb knows a few who he thinks may have a hoarding problem. He said they seem to acquire stuff as a way to stay grounded.

Cleanup Week can be a struggle for those with hoarding disorders, a local psychologist says. It's like being an alcoholic and seeing streets lined with half-full liquor bottles, said Renae Reinardy, who practices at Lakeside Center for Behavioral Change in south Fargo.

"It can be very tempting for people with that particular type of compulsive acquisition," she said.

City officials said they are aware Cleanup Week can be difficult for hoarders, but it's difficult to tell how common a problem it is.

Neighbors will complain about homeowners with too much junk in the yard, but it seems like compulsive hoarders are only revealed when relatives seek help, said Grant Larson, Fargo's director of environmental health.

The high of hoarding

Like alcoholism, hoarding has a genetic basis. Brain scans have shown that the act of acquiring things releases chemicals in the brain of a sufferer that makes him or her feel good, Reinardy said.

"For a lot of hoarders who order off of QVC or Amazon, they never even open the boxes, and that's why when you go into hoarders' houses, a lot of times items are still in their bags, they still have the tags on, they never get used, because the high is gone," she said. "But they go shopping the next day, or they go dumpster diving."

But a predisposition to hoard doesn't make a compulsive hoarder, just like a predisposition to alcoholism doesn't make an alcoholic, Reinardy said. Hoarding, like drinking, is usually a coping mechanism triggered by some other mental condition, such as trauma, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder, she said. She once had a patient who began to hoard after a sexual assault, she said.

The hoarding is usually based on natural impulses that everyone has, such as thinking something might be useful or that it looks too nice to go to waste, Reinardy said. She herself saw a cute blue chair for a small child left out for Cleanup Week that her daughter could use, she said, but decided it was probably broken. It was easy for her to dismiss the impulse to take a free item, as it would be for most people, she said. Hoarders might have a much harder time, she said.

Not all hoarders are susceptible to the temptations of spring cleanup week, however.

There are two general kinds of hoarders, said Fiana England, a hoarding specialist at the Knowlton, O'Neill & Associates clinic in West Fargo. About 70 percent actively search for things to bring home, but the rest simply allow belongings to accumulate.

Some hoarders have attention deficit disorder and lack the focus to clean up, Reinardy said.

Many hoarders don't want junk, preferring to look for bargains in stores or online or at yard sales, Reinardy said. She once had a patient who hoarded purchases from Neiman Marcus.

Breaking the pattern

As troubling as Cleanup Week can be for some hoarders, it can also serve as an aid to therapy.

"We'll go on a non-acquiring spree," Reinardy said. "I'd jump in the truck or the vehicle with them and we drive around and we practice the skills of non-acquiring. It's like a compulsive gambler where we sit in the parking lot of a casino and not go in."

She's skipping cruising during Cleanup Week this year because she doesn't have patients who hoard junk, she said. Instead, she said, she's going on "non-shopping sprees" with hoarders who shop.

While Reinardy is a hoarding specialist -- she used to be a regular on the A&E show "Hoarders" and has appeared on Dateline NBC -- she said it doesn't take a specialist to treat a hoarder. Most would benefit from a cognitive behavior therapist who can teach them to break out of thought patterns and behaviors that lead to hoarding, she said.

"We're all just trying to find happiness, right?" she said. "For hoarders, happiness temporarily comes through acquisition. But unfortunately it creates a bigger problem for them in the end."

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