Obsessive hoarding: “It’s the biggest nightmare”

By Denise Crosby

October 25, 2012 5:54PM

Dave Skeberdis sorts through some of his belongings on the front porch of his Aurora home on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. The city of Aurora has deemed the residence unsuitable for habitation after discovering it had mold spore counts twice to 15 times normal levels. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media


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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:44AM

At first, Dave Skeberdis seemed eager to put a face on the condition called compulsive hoarding.

He even described himself as “a hoarder” to the media after the city of Aurora deemed his property unfit for habitation upon discovering hundreds of birds in his garbage-filled home.

“I am obsessed,” the 57-year-old IT technician admitted, after indicating he’d cooperate with the city in its efforts to clean up his townhome on Shadybrook Lane. But after meeting with officials, he changed his mind because of the almost $14,000 bill he’d be stuck with — forcing the city on Wednesday to seek an emergency court order to clean the place up because of the health threat it posed to the community.

Skeberdis also back-pedaled on the description of himself as a hoarder, saying the term — like the number of birds in his home — had been greatly exaggerated. Instead, he said, “I just let things get out of control.”

Bill Scheibe Jr., who’s been following the Aurora headlines closely from his Joliet home, isn’t surprised at this response. The former sports columnist and editor for The Herald-News had warned his intensely proud mother that someday she’d be found dead under piles of rubbish in her Worth home — with TV cameras planted outside her door when they removed her body. But his scare tactics did little to convince the 72-year-old woman, who also had more 40 cats in her home, that she needed help.

In February, his prediction — TV cameras and screamy headlines included — came true.

Yet, “If you would have called her a hoarder, she would have spit on you,” said Scheibe, who would meet his mother in the driveway when visiting because of the conditions inside her home.

Despite the popularity of reality shows about the compulsive hoarding, experts say relatively little is known about the disorder. According to Dr. David Leader, head of Dreyer Medical Center’s Psychiatry Department, “there’s not a huge amount of literature out there,” in part “because so many hoarders hide from us” due to the shame involved.

Although it has long been considered a dimension of obsessive compulsive disorder, Leader says that attitude has begun to shift in the past couple years. Obsessive hoarding is currently being considered as a diagnosis all its own in the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the official book of the American Psychiatric Association.

Hoarding knows no social or economic boundaries, say experts. It can start in childhood but doesn’t become severe until adulthood. It runs in families and frequently accompanies depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder or impulse control. At its center is not so much collecting or saving things, Leader says, as it is the fear of throwing something away.

“Think about how you don’t want to throw out old checkbooks or income tax statements because you think you might need them someday,” he said, “then manifest that a hundred or a thousand times.”

Animal hoarders, Leader added, truly love the creatures they collect and don’t realize the harm they are doing. Those who struggle with OH rarely have insight into the reality of their problem, which makes them much harder to treat than OCD.

The city of Aurora deals with hoarding cases infrequently, maybe one every couple of years, said spokesman Kevin Stahr. The Property Standards Division is in charge of getting the property cleaned up for the safety and well-being of the neighborhood. In extreme cases, officials also reach out to health service experts for assistance.

Animal hoarders are treated differently from standard hoarders because there are ordinances related to the care and treatment of animals, he said. If the city comes across a case, the homeowner is referred to a mental health expert. That’s particularly important if animals are involved because there is such an emotional attachment.

“It is a balance when these situations occur for several factors,” Stahr added. “We have to work with the homeowner to see how we can assist them, check the safety of any animals in the home, and to ensure the well-being of the impacted neighborhood.”

A couple years before his mother’s death, Scheibe said the village of Worth tried to work with Margareta after neighbors complained about the garbage in her yard. But nothing ever changed, he said, and his mom even changed her will “because she thought I was the one who turned her in.”

Scheibe said he watched his mother, who grew up in impoverished post-World War II Germany, gradually develop more hoarding tendencies as he became a teen. But it wasn’t until his father suffered a stroke in the mid-’90s and eventually developed dementia that the problem spiraled out of control. His father died on Christmas Eve 2010; and after Margareta’s body was found a couple months later, Scheibe said he had a difficult time searching for his father’s urn under the mounds of rubbish.

These are not pleasant memories for the Joliet man. But he’s more than willing to talk about his personal hell because of the need to put more faces on this problem.

“It’s the biggest nightmare you can imagine,” said Scheibe. “I feel bad for anyone who has to deal with it, including neighbors and the city of Aurora, who are left to clean up the mess.”

Scheibe compares the problem to heroin and meth: It spirals so quickly out of control with a dismal success rate even after the problem is addressed. And like those two deadly drugs, “we are just now starting to talk about how bad it is.”

While Kane County “is years ahead” of other places because of its mental health court, Leader agrees more can be done to facilitate training of mental health, social services, public health and housing, police and fire officials.

“It’s hard to get them help,” he said. “There is more acceptance, but we are not there yet.”