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‘It’s like living in a storage facility’

Jasmine Harman loves her mother – but for quite a while, she didn’t go to visit her. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see her,” she says. “It was that I literally couldn’t get into her house. There was so much stuff in the hall that the front door wouldn’t open properly and then, if you did manage to squeeze yourself in through the tiny gap, the whole place was piled high with junk. You could barely stand upright and most of the rooms were completely inaccessible.”

Vasoulla, Jasmine’s mother, is a hoarder of pathological proportions. Her five-bedroomed house in north London is crammed with belongings and furniture; clothes, toys, books, pictures, family memorabilia, bric-a-brac of all kinds cover every surface; some of the rooms are stacked floor to ceiling, like an unkempt corner of a warehouse. “It’s like living in a storage facility,” says Jasmine, 36. “And that’s no life at all.”

Vasoulla, 57, was always a hoarder. Jasmine remembers all too clearly the heart-stopping fear when she was growing up that her friends would find out how messy her house was. “I remember a boyfriend taking me home and asking if he could come in and use the loo, and me thinking, oh my God, of course he can’t use the loo … he won’t even be able to get into the loo.”

When they were younger, she and her sister and three brothers occasionally tried to clear everything out. “We’d spend hours trying to sort things out and cleaning because we would be desperate for our house to be like our friends’ houses,” she says.

Other mothers might have been thrilled with their teenagers’ efforts, but not Vasoulla. “When she came home and found what we’d done, she’d scream at us,” says Jasmine. “It was a weird way to grow up.”

As the children grew older, Vasoulla’s hoarding worsened. “It dominated our lives. It was the only topic of conversation between me and my siblings. Meanwhile, the house was piled higher and higher with stuff because, as well as never throwing anything away, my mum was always at the shops buying more,” she says. “My youngest brother Cameron [now 14] was much younger than the rest of us, and eventually three years ago things got so bad he couldn’t carry on living there and had to move out – he went to live with my sister. Like most teenagers he was pretty messy, but my mum was way out of his league.”

Jasmine was perplexed by her mother’s hoarding habit and desperate to get professional recognition – one of her bugbears is that hoarding disorder is not officially classified as a mental illness, which means research into its causes and treatments has been scant. A television presenter who fronts the Channel 4 property show A Place in the Sun, she made a documentary about her motherlast year. “I had thought it was a pretty rare problem – you feel so alone, like yours is the only family affected by it,” she says. “But after the programme went out, I got about 2,000 emails and messages, many of them from people saying, ‘I know what it’s like – we’ve got a hoarder in our family too.'”

She set up helpforhoarders.co.uk, a website to offer mutual support. It brought more stories (one woman posted to say that her dad is such a hoarder that her mum has had to move out; another says her brother’s house is so full of belongings that he is living in squalor). Now Jasmine has made a second documentary, which deals less with the overwhelming symptoms of hoarding and more with the fundamental question of why people become hoarders.

According to Paul Salkovskis, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Bath and an expert in obsessional problems, about 1% of the population have hoarding issues so great that they are life-dominating; and many more have problems with holding on to stuff. So how do you judge how severely affected a family member is?

“What you have to ask yourself is, does the acquisition and retention of items render the living space in the house unusable?” he explains. “Typically, the hoarder isn’t the person who complains about the problem – it’s the people who live with the hoarder. It’s not that the hoarder doesn’t think there’s an issue: it’s that the issue is something they don’t want to have to confront.”

Put crudely, says Salkovskis, hoarders fall into one of three categories. The first group, around 25% of the total, are people with what might be termed “obsessive compulsive hoarding”: their problem is harm avoidance, because they fear things could be contaminated and worry about contaminating others if they get rid of them. The second group, who make up about half of all those affected, are deprivation hoarders: they have been through a period of massive deprivation (for example, war, displacement or another sort of loss) and they hoard because, having lost so much once, they feel a need to hold on to possessions in case catastrophe strikes again. The third group – and these people, says Salkovskis, are the hardest to treat – are sentimental hoarders. They have been damaged by unpredictability and possibly even neglect during childhood: for them, possessions have become more reliable than people and they invest in them accordingly.

For Vasoulla, says Jasmine, hoarding has been closely linked to various experiences of loss. “My mum was born in Cyprus, and her father died there, at a time of political unrest, when she was four. After that my grandmother brought her children to live in England: and for my mother that meant losing her grandparents, her friends and all her treasured possessions. She went back to Cyprus when she was about eight: but then, after a while, the family decided to return to England, so my mother lost everything yet again. I think the fact that she kept losing loved ones and friends meant she started to lavish her love on possessions instead.”

There is some evidence, says Jasmine, that hoarding runs in families – and her grandmother was also a hoarder, though she was not as bad as Vasoulla. “Maybe my mum had a tendency to hoarding, and it was made worse by her suffering all these losses,” says Jasmine. When her parents’ relationship broke up, and again when Jasmine and her older siblings left home, Vasoulla’s hoarding increased. “The biggest irony is that by collecting so much stuff, my mother is literally shutting us out – the people she really loves, and longs to be closer to – because we can’t get into her life because of all these possessions,” says Jasmine. “That’s what makes the condition so heartbreaking.”

One thing that is certain, says Jasmine, is that simply chucking a hoarder’s stuff out doesn’t solve the problem. “People so often say, why don’t you just get a skip and get rid of everything,” she says. “Don’t they think we’ve tried that? It’s not the answer. Unless you address the deeper issues, the hoarder just goes out and buys a whole lot more stuff to replace what has gone.”

The good news – though Jasmine says she is loth to hope for too much, too soon – is that Vasoulla is currently undergoing a form of therapy called emotional freedom technique to help her face up to, and deal with, her difficult memories. So far, the results are encouraging. “About an hour after one session, Mum turned to me and said: ‘The books can go.’

“That was a huge breakthrough: she has thousands of books, enough to run a bookshop. But whatever had happened in that session, she felt she could move on from the books, and that was a big turning point,” says Jasmine.

Hoarder in the Family will be screened on BBC1 soon