Special Hoarding Feature: 'Collector' shares his story in the hope of helping others

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“I think I have more faith in ‘things’, than I do in people”

It takes a brave person to talk about their hoarding behaviours. But one pensioner is keen to help others by opening up about his own experiences.

Robert has amassed various ‘collections’ during the 40 years he has lived at his home near Peterborough. But with support from various organisations in recent years to cope with setbacks in his life, the 77 year-old says he is now “heading in the right direction”.

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Following our report about National Hoarding Awareness Week last month, Robert got in touch to share his own story - although he doesn’t like to use the term ‘hoarder’.

A man clears out belongings from his mother's hoarder home. Image for illustration only.  (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images for YOU Magazine)A man clears out belongings from his mother's hoarder home. Image for illustration only.  (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images for YOU Magazine)
A man clears out belongings from his mother's hoarder home. Image for illustration only. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images for YOU Magazine)

“I think of myself more as a ‘collector’ as I don’t have things stacked up to the ceiling and I can still get around my house,” he said. “But there are boxes all over my home which cover a lot of floor space.”

Robert’s three-bedroom house is where he stores most of his ‘collections‘. These include a vast number of old car parts, souvenir china mugs, and thousands of books and magazines - including every edition of VW Safer Motoring dating back to 1962. He is also has a separate workshop, which is filled with cars he is working on.

Describing how his home became more cluttered when cleared out his loft in order for solar panels to be installed, Robert said: “Unlike a lot of people, my loft is empty. I had to clear it out so they could access the roof, I’ve just not put any of it back yet. That was 15 years ago.”

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But Robert has no plans to put any of it back: “I need to keep it out so I can deal with it,” he said. “If it goes back in the loft, it will stay there forever and I’ll never get rid.”

Photos Robert shared of his kitchen and living room shortly after the break-in.Photos Robert shared of his kitchen and living room shortly after the break-in.
Photos Robert shared of his kitchen and living room shortly after the break-in.

For many people who exhibit hoarding tendencies, the behaviour can often be traced back to past trauma or a personal loss - and Robert has had more than his fair share of that.

After his second marriage suddenly broke down 20 years ago, things started to go downhill at his home.

“I've since vegetated as there is only me to consider, so things have slipped somewhat,” he admits.

“I think I have more faith in things, than I do in people.”

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Photos Robert took of his living room shortly after the break-in.Photos Robert took of his living room shortly after the break-in.
Photos Robert took of his living room shortly after the break-in.

Robert says he comes from a poor background “where nowt was thrown away because it might come in handy” – and describes his upbringing as strict and religious, where he was permitted very few possessions of his own.

“I think this is also part and parcel of my situation now,” he said. “I never remembered being cuddled as a child or anything like that.”

Robert went on to talk about people he had helped in the past betraying his trust, and of a terrifying raid on his home while he slept.

“Any work I'd been doing to declutter came to a sudden stop last year when my downstairs was trashed in a home invasion, which has put my resolve to improve my surroundings somewhat on the back burner, as after that encounter I suffered a stroke, for which I'm still being treated.”

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Robert recounts how he was slashed across the legs as he disturbed the intruders, and hit over the head before they made their escape.

“I was treated in hospital for the cuts to my legs, but a few days later I felt unwell and a GP told me I needed to go straight to A&E where they found out I’d had a stroke and a mini heart attack,” he says.

Physiotherapy and speech therapy have been helping him to recover - but it is the mental scars that have had the greatest impact.

“It leaves you feeling very vulnerable in your own home,” he says. “It’s affected my confidence and I’ve become a bit of a recluse now. The raiders were never caught, so I worry they will come back one day.”

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Thankfully Robert now has new locks on his doors and CCTV to help protect his home.

“I’ve been getting support from talking therapies, which has also been a big help,” he says. ”We’ve been covering all sorts of things, and have also recently got onto the subject of my collection - which has helped me to reduce things a bit.

“I’ve also had a lot of support from Cross Keys Homes housing association - I can’t praise them enough. They’ve really looked after me.”

Robert says that through the housing association’s support he has been able to attend a course called ‘Buried in Treasures’.

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“The course has been invaluable. It is all confidential but it gives you step-by-step advice, such as breaking your possessions down by tackling one square foot at a time. This is one of the best pieces of advice I have had. It also tells us we need to put our belongings into categories, of ‘keep’, ‘sell’, ‘give to charity’ or ‘bin’ - and that’s great advice. I am now gradually selling bits off.”

A home visit by Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service offering fire safety advice, was also very useful to him.

Robert has no close friends or relatives nearby who could help him to clear some of the clutter – but he says he wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting that kind of help.

“I wouldn't want anyone else to have to clear it up,” he says. “I made the mess, so I should fix it.”

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While Robert has been able to get rid of some of the collection, by selling off some of his motoring possessions, it hasn’t been easy for him.

“I can remember feeling a great loss when I chose to sell a 1966 VW Beetle I’d had for many years,” he says. “I kept thinking ‘I really ought to sell it’ - so I did. But I felt really awful afterwards.

“My mum passed away aged 103 recently, and I honestly felt more loss from selling that car,” he admits.

Robert speaks very openly about his personal experiences, and is able to reflect on the possible catalysts for his ‘collecting’.

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“Something I’ve noticed while taking this Buried in Treasures course and listening to others is that everybody has something in their life that’s gone wrong,” he explains. “You can almost put a pin in it. We all seem to have this thing where we have become dissociated from our surroundings and no longer notice them.”

But he feels the course, and the support, has been helping him to make some noticeable improvements.

“A couple of years ago I was buying lots of things I didn’t need, and now I have really stopped doing that, he says. “It’s a very slow process for me, but things are heading in the right direction now.”

“For other people in my position, I just wanted to let them know that there is help out there if you look for it.”

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Claire Higgins, Chief Executive of Cross Keys Homes, commented: “Hoarding is a complex problem that can have a big impact on quality of life as well as the health and safety of a home. We are here to help and our residents can access a range of free mental health and tenancy sustainment support services year-round, and we run our specialist Making Space hoarding support group several times a year. This support is based on the ‘Buried in Treasures’ programme which aims to help participants understand their behaviour and discard unneeded items. We talk about the emotional factors that fuel hoarding in a safe, non-judgemental setting. The Making Space group is open to everyone, not just those living in our homes, just visit our website.”

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