Living Landfill: A portrait of hoarding disorder

Living Landfill: A portrait of hoarding disorder

PORTLAND, Ore. - Angela Price-Corll works at her deceased mother's Portland home, the same home she and her sister grew up in.

But she's not working in the garden. She is pulling garbage out of the house, literally tons of garbage, garbage that her mother accumulated over a decade and never threw away.

There are half-eaten cans of food, buckets with mysterious liquids, cigarette butts, food packaging, gas cans, boxes of all sorts, unopened cleaning supplies, even a wheelbarrow, all inside the home. 

It crunches and creaks under foot as Price-Corll gingerly makes her way through the home, walking on top of the detritus.

The garbage is piled 5-feet deep in places, and not an inch of floor space is visible.

Outside, Price-Corll and her husband load a commercial-sized dropbox full of trash. They will probably fill all of it.

A rat's nest was discovered in the kitchen. There were maggots in a purse Price-Corll's mother carried each day. The smell in the home is so overpowering, Price-Corll must wear a gas mask-style respirator while she chips away at the debris.

Inside the home, Price-Corll points out where her mother slept on top of the trash, wrapped in a blanket near a kerosene heater, an inferno waiting to happen. In the bathroom, also filled with trash, the toilet is covered in mold.

And nobody knew about it.

"We honestly did not have a clue," Debbie Heney, Angela's mother-in-law says, "or we would have done something."

Price-Corll's husband, busy shoveling trash into the drop box, says his wife's mother kept the outside of the home looking normal. Neighbors also say they had no idea what was happening inside the home located on Northeast Thompson Street.

Price-Corll says that after she and her sister moved out 10 years ago, her mother never let her back in her childhood home. There was always an excuse as to why, or she just said she could not come in.

The situation is sadly ironic, since before Price-Corll's mother died of a brain aneurysm in December of 2006, she worked for 30 years in the most sanitary of places: a hospital. She worked in the film library at Oregon Health and Science University. She is pictured below.

Last December, her daughter got desperate and began reaching out to others for help.

"It was rough because I was trying to fight for her life," Price-Corll said.

But everywhere she turned, she said she hit dead ends.

"I contacted the city ... Multnomah County Health and then (Adult Protective Services)," she said. "They just said as long as somebody can pay their own bills, there's nothing they can do. Nothing."

Over the phone, Multnomah County Adult Protective Services told KATU News they would have responded to Price-Corll's call by sending a caseworker out to her mother's home to check on her.

But in person, Supervisor Wendy Hamill said they could not find any record that Price-Corll had called them in December. Later the agency declined a request for an interview.

Price-Corll said a housing inspector with the city of Portland referred her to a private cleanup company called BioClean that gave her an estimate of between $9,000 to $10,000.

That left her and members of her church to do the cleanup during a weekend in April.

"I was very angry because I felt like, you know, 'What are these services for?' " Price-Corll said.

Price-Corll is saddened at the thought of her mother's lifestyle in the last years of her life.

"Why would you want to live in something like that?" Price-Corll asks. "She had to have known every day as she was coming home what condition it was going to be in."

Dr. Johan Rosqvist, an expert on hoarding, says most people who hoard do so for three reasons. They think they might use something later, typically magazines, clothing or appliances, or they hold onto something for the sentimental value.

But people also hold on to items for their "intrinsic value," says Rosqvist. They give something importance because, basically, it is "theirs," and they create an emotional attachment to it. Those things can, and often do, include garbage items.

Hoarding affects more than a million people in America.

Experts said the distinguishing characteristic between a hoarder and a packrat is that hoarding interferes with someone's ability to function normally in life.

Scientists say there may also be a connection to a condition known as "impulse control disorder," which includes addictions like stealing and gambling.

At a weekly support group at Oregon Health and Science University those with obsessive compulsive disorder meet to talk about their conditions. Among them are hoarders. Experts say the two illnesses are highly linked.

"To make me feel better I'll look at my shoes," said one woman. "And I'll look at my clothes and I don't have my clothes in drawers. They are all out on the floor or on bookshelves so I can see my clothes. I know them."

"The things I hoard cause me pain," said MaryBeth Hieronimus. "They do not cause me joy or happiness. It's like they are in control and I am not."

Both women said it was extremely difficult to ask for help.

"What am I going to do? I'm going to ask my husband, 'Will you help me clean out the coffee cups that are so important to me I'm going to cry when we throw them away?' It's shame."

It's a shame that became so clear to Price-Corll last winter when her mother got sick. The excuses for not having her over. Why she would shower at work. The secret her mother guarded so carefully for a decade.

"A lot of families don't know, and it's important that, by telling this story, by sharing this, that other people know, you know, these are the signs to look for," Price-Corll said.