Reversing a Tide of Clutter
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.
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.
“If you can decide what is really important to you and give up the rest, you’ll be able to use and enjoy what you love most,” Breininger adds, delivering what will become a mantra over the weeks ahead. “It’s about setting priorities.”
Experts say that’s a very big if. Hoarders, who tend to be perfectionists, often can’t decide what is important and fear tossing something they might need later.
“I agree that I need help getting organized,” Drum says, glancing around. “Somewhere in here I sincerely hope is my high school yearbook.” (White Plains, N.Y., Class of 1946. He was class valedictorian.)
They move to the “bike room,” a back bedroom piled to its missing ceiling with frames, wheels and gears. Out in the backyard are more bikes, more parts -- maybe 5,000 altogether, Drum estimates.
Like many hoarders, Drum has a specialty. He has loved bikes as long as he can remember. Years ago, he built a bicycle for two, and he and his bride (from whom he is long divorced) pedaled around San Diego on it on their honeymoon.
Until arthritis and a bum knee forced him onto public transportation, Drum biked everywhere. He still uses a ladies'-style cruiser (because it’s easier to get on) for short trips, including appearances at the Airport Courthouse. He repairs them, for free or at cost, for neighborhood children. If Social Security someday no longer can sustain him, he figures he can expand his repair business to make ends meet.
“What percentage of this do you think you could give away?” Breininger asks.
Drum thinks long and hard: “I’d say 50%. If you can guarantee that someone will make use of it.”
In coming weeks, Breininger and Drum will seek out charities, bike manufacturers and shops. A church in Manhattan Beach takes some for its bike giveaway program. The fat-tire models are welcomed by a group in Africa.
None, Breininger promises him, will land in the trash heap.
Six Weeks to Go
Drum has just come from Clutterers Anonymous, one of three meetings he attends each week, when he joins Breininger at a Hawthorne restaurant to plan. She says that the big push will come Oct. 13 -- Day of Overhaul on her memo -- and that she has arranged for an enormous dumpster.
Drum winces. “That’s a dirty, dirty word!” But he smiles gamely when he says it.
“Excuse me,” laughs Breininger, “I mean a large, wheeled receptacle.” Then she gets serious.
“I promise you, again. Nothing will be thrown out without your approval. You’re going to have the final say before anything goes into the, uh, the receptacle.”
It’s clear that Drum has come to trust the 40-year-old businesswoman, a self-described “type-A personality” who has written books and counted CEOs and celebrities among her clients.
“I help my clients simplify their lives,” Breininger says.
She says her work has brought her a growing awareness of Americans’ problems with clutter.
“She was just what I was looking for,” recalled Steel, the county attorney. “A professional with a big heart.”
Breininger attended the University of Wisconsin on a gymnastics scholarship but dropped out after two years. After secretarial school, she discovered her talent for organizing. After several years working as an executive assistant to deans at Northeastern University and UCLA, she established her own company.
Drum grew up on the East Coast, the only child of a mother who he said was loving but overprotective and a father whom he described as emotionally distant. Drum studied engineering at MIT but dropped out, moved west and eventually earned a degree in psychology from UCLA.
He married a teacher, and they bought the house in Lennox in 1964. Its breakfast nook, dining room and master bedroom all opened onto a back patio and a large, tree-shaded yard. Drum mostly worked with computers, but did not stay at any one job long enough to earn a pension.
After he and his wife separated, Drum worked on his bicycles, read voraciously, watched TV documentaries and attended the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica. Nine years ago, he opened his door to a homeless veteran, allowing the man to live rent free. The stuff, both Drum’s and the roommate’s, just kept piling up.
Over lunch, Drum talks at length about his fascination with a magazine article challenging the existence of God; he quotes it from memory.
“I’m telling you all this,” he says when his listener tries to steer the topic back to his house, “so you’ll know I am not just somebody who collects junk.”
Breininger gives him a hug.
Three Weeks to Go
A crew from Labor Ready in Inglewood arrives in the morning, along with Breininger and some of her staff. All are wearing masks, gloves and name tags and holding brooms and shovels as they assemble for Breininger’s instructions.
Drum, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat tied under his chin, will supervise from a chair near the garage. Breininger is jazzed. Drum has kept his promise not to bring anything back into the two rooms the crew cleared out a week ago.
Drum is nervous. He frets about the broken windows and rotting flooring, things that must be fixed to put him back on the right side of the law. And he wants shelves so he can have his books, now boxed, around him.
“First, we get you organized, then we’ll figure out how to take care of the repairs and the beautification,” Breininger reminds him.
Inside the small kitchen, neighbor Pat Gentry is scrubbing at the grease-encrusted stove. She and her husband befriended Drum a decade ago, when he showed up at their yard sale.
“Lloyd is a good man. He helps us, and we help him.,” Gentry says, setting a freshly washed plate in a cabinet long missing its door. “This is nothing to ever make fun of him about.”
Outside, workers sift through shovelfuls of old magazines, tools, bolts and crumbling books, politely holding everything out for Drum’s inspection. If he says, “Keep!” the items are boxed. A “toss,” usually uttered with a sigh, sends the material to a trash bag and the curb.
The mice and rats that scurried as startled workers dug into the piles on the first day are gone now, but someone has playfully propped a plastic rat against the fence. Breininger’s good pay, pep talks and free lunches have kept many, but not all, of the workers coming back.
10 Days to Go
Breininger has been up since 3 a.m. By the time her full crew, 22 strong, arrives at 9, she has her flip charts posted and crammed with instructions. From his recliner on the porch, Drum contemplates the red dumpster parked out front.
The house already has been transformed. The previous weeks’ work has liberated the 1890 “parlor grand” Steinway that belonged to Drum’s grandparents, and it holds center stage in the living room. A china vase and pitcher, hand-painted by Drum’s mother, have somehow survived and now rest on top of the piano. The yearbook hasn’t turned up.
Breininger has brought shades for the windows and fabrics to cover the battered sofa and to loop through exposed beams. She sets a timeworn, ornately carved side table, another antique from Drum’s grandparents’ home, with a cloth and a couple of place settings “to give you some homey touches,” she tells a somewhat amused Drum.
Outside, the crew is making a final push, and more boxes and bikes go tidily into the garage. The workers cleared the space by lifting the long-disabled, mustard yellow 1971 Toyota Corona that once belonged to Drum’s father and setting it in the driveway.
Most experts on hoarding would say Breininger has done things correctly. She gave Drum time to adjust, helped him make decisions and respected his attachment to things that might appear useless to others.
“Many of the professional organizers have an understanding of hoarding, and they are doing some of the things a therapist would do,” said Dr. Sanjaya Saxena, director of research at UCLA’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Research and Treatment Program. But he cautioned that cleaning out a house without treating the underlying problem is rarely successful.
By midday, Drum is upset, red-faced and trying to control the panic rising in his voice. The dumpster is filling, and he has spotted some empty audiotape cases and old coupons that got tossed in without his permission.
Even though the judge’s deadline looms and piles of stuff still cover the yards, Breininger jumps into the dumpster and pulls them out.
“You good?” she asks Drum. “I’m going to go talk to the crew.”
Drum sighs. “I’ll survive. It’s just that nothing was being thrown away before, and now it seems like once something comes out to the curb, it’s gone.”
Drum is calmer now and he thanks the crew “for putting up with all my complaints.”
Time to Celebrate
Dressed in a fresh khaki shirt and pants, white hair tied back in a neat ponytail, Drum is steering his guests toward a goodie-laden table set up in the driveway. Drum and Breininger are celebrating the good news they received a week earlier -- the judge praised their progress and gave Drum another three months to correct the remaining violations. Drum stood up in court and thanked Breininger profusely, moving her nearly to tears. She promised the judge she would visit Drum regularly to help him stay on track.
Breininger, who figures she has spent nearly $10,000 of her own money on the project, is planning to seek donations from clients and charitable organizations to complete the overhaul. She dreams of setting up a program for others like Drum.
Attorney Steel stops by, as do some of Drum’s friends from Clutterers Anonymous. So do a field deputy for county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, and a neighbor or two.
Drum beams as his guests marvel at the transformation. And yet, he admits, he is still sleeping on the porch. The dust inside still bothers him. And, well, the place just doesn’t quite feel quite right.
“I miss my stuff,” Drum says.
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Help for hoarders
A sampling of resources:
* The UCLA Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Research and Treatment Program conducts research on hoarding and offers treatment and referrals. (310) 794-7305.
* The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Genesis program for the elderly has a Web site with a hoarding fact sheet and resource lists: www.la4seniors.com. Follow the “hoarding behavior” link.
* Clutterers Anonymous is one of several 12-step programs: www.clutterersanonymous.net. (310) 281-6064
* Madison (Wis.) Institute of Medicine’s Obsessive-Compulsive Information Center has articles and other materials on hoarding: (608) 827-2470; www.miminc.org.
Los Angeles Times