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Reversing a Tide of Clutter

Facing jail because his house is filled to the brim, a hoarder finds hope in a woman with a talent for organizing -- and a big heart.

December 04, 2003|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

By the time Dorothy Breininger dropped -- miraculously, it seemed -- into his life, Lloyd Drum, at 75, had pretty much resigned himself to going to jail.

The reasons lay in the odiferous piles of moldering, rodent-infested clothing, furniture, books, expired coupons, bikes and bike parts -- thousands of bike parts -- that crammed his two-bedroom house and flowed over the yards, porches and garage.

Inside the house, a person had to turn sideways to navigate pathways through clutter that, in places, almost reached the ceilings. Unable to eke out space for even a bed, and bothered by the dust, Drum slept in a broken recliner on his front porch.

Drum is intelligent and well educated, a churchgoing vegetarian who likes to help others. He is also a hoarder, a seemingly indiscriminate accumulator and keeper of stuff.

As many fire officials, building inspectors, mental health workers and the families of "pack rats" can attest, Drum's situation is hardly unusual. And many familiar with the case hope that the story of Drum and Breininger, a professional organizer who agreed to help at no cost, will guide officials in developing better ways to handle a problem that mental health experts have only recently begun to understand and treat.

Severe hoarding is often a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which afflicts as many as 3% of Americans at some point in their lives. It can also be a manifestation of depression, delusional disorder, or, in the elderly, of senile dementia. People of all ages and from all walks of life can be hoarders, but the problem often worsens with age.

No one keeps statistics on hoarding, but more and more jurisdictions nationwide are forming special teams to deal with what appears to be a growing problem. In Los Angeles County, officials formed a hoarding task force two years ago and plan to be hosts to a conference on hoarding next year.

News reports give glimpses of extreme hoarding's toll: the fire that kills a man trapped by his jampacked possessions; the widow who dies alone, surrounded by filth and scores of cats, dead and alive. In Orange County, a college professor, after years of court battles over the refuse inside and outside her house, fled the state in early 2000, giving up her job, her home and most of her possessions, to avoid jail.

The threat of jail loomed over Drum. More than eight years of citations, interspersed with short-lived cleanups, eventually led to criminal charges. Last year, Drum pleaded guilty to some of the counts, was put on probation and ordered to fix the problems that posed dangers to himself and his neighbors in the working-class community of Lennox.

Drum joined Clutterers Anonymous, stopped bringing home castoffs and even sent some discarded TV sets to recyclers. But he seemed powerless against the tide of stuff that had filled his home, eating away at floors and drywall as it all slowly sank into dust and decay.

By summer, a frustrated judge had run out of patience, and Drum had resigned himself to jail, or -- even worse, in his view -- being placed under the county's conservatorship.

Looking for a better solution, Sari Steel, an attorney for the county counsel's office, located Breininger, then president of the local chapter of the National Assn. of Professional Organizers. Drum agreed to work with her, so the judge postponed Drum's probation violation hearing and gave him and Breininger until Oct. 24 to get the job done.

Although a proud and private man, Drum allowed The Times to follow their progress.

"I'm grateful for the help, and maybe this will do some good for others," Drum said.

Aug. 28

Eight Weeks To Go

"Tell me about this space, Lloyd," Breininger, clipboard in hand, says evenly as she and assistant Jill Colsch pick their way through the living room.

They have driven down the 405 Freeway from Breininger's Center for Organization and Goal Planning in Canoga Park. Breininger has a seven-page to-do list, complete with supplies needed (commercial vacuum cleaners, trash bags, rat poison) and deadlines. Colsch takes notes and videotapes each room to help plan and create a record for the judge.

First step: Get rid of the mice and rats. Then take everything out of the house, clean it, sort it and replace what is to be kept in labeled, neatly stacked boxes. The original plan is to do this all in one day, but Breininger, after sizing up Drum, decides to do it gradually. When she offers a reporter and photographer surgical masks as shields against air heavy with the smell of mold, decay and rodent excrement, Drum looks embarrassed.

"Is there an odor in here?" he asks anxiously. "I don't notice it."

"Many people's homes have their own unique scents, and they are so used to it they don't notice," Breininger, who is not wearing a mask, says soothingly.

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