Hoarder from Hackney on BBC documentary Britain’s Biggest Hoarders with her daughter Jasmine Harman talks about her “house being overtaken by stuff”
For those who don’t know any better, hoarders could be written off as messy individuals whose homes are cluttered up to the brim with piles and piles of junk. But a moving and brave documentary aired on BBC1 last week starring TV presenter Jasmine Harman and her mum from Lower Clapton, tells otherwise.
Britain’s Biggest Hoarders lifts the lid on the burden inflicted on both sufferers and their families by this obsessive illness, which is thought to affect as many as five per cent of the population.
“You can come into this room now, but at the height of my hoarding it was barricaded right up to the door,” said 57-year old Vasoulla Savvidou, as she welcomed me into her home.
“You couldn’t even come in the front door without having to put your hand in and move stuff, and then move it back, it was very very difficult to get in.
“I’ve still got a problem with hoarding, you can just see a little bit of it there,” she added, pointing towards the boxes piled either side of the adjoining room, which form a corridor leading through to the kitchen.
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The house now has the air of one which has just been tenanted with boxes waiting to be unpacked.
But at the height of Vasoulla’s illness, she was sleeping in a little space in the hallway because every single room of the five-bedroom house was piled sky high with her possessions.
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Even the bathroom was inaccessible and when the postman called Vasoulla would shout down and ask him to leave the package outside because it took her such a long time to make her way safely down the cluttered stairway.
Despite this, she was still compulsively buying more and more on ebay, working up a massive debt.
“I’d given up work, I still had some money and I used it all up buying stuff, I just spent everything,” said Vasoulla.
Her youngest child of five, Cameron, who is now 14, had moved in with her daughter Maria because the house was declared a liability, with the clutter constituting a fire risk and trip hazard.
“I have fallen down the stairs in the past, but in a way I had so much stuff there I didn’t hurt myself,” she smiled.
But looking back Vasoulla feels “devastated” to have been in that situation.
“I don’t know how it happened, it’s as if I was in a kind of coma, that the whole house got taken over by stuff,” she said.
“How it happened that I was sleeping on the floor in the doorway of a five bedroom house, I’m still puzzled how did I get like that, so the depression must have been a lot more severe than I was aware at the time.
“I’d asked for help from the doctors before but they said, “You’re fine you’re just eccentric,” it was not recognised as a condition.”
Officially the disorder does not exist in its own right, and is regarded as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and is also often linked to depression.
But hoarders are not always affected by the intrusive thoughts, obsessions or repetitive behaviours which categorise OCD, and campaigners want it to be recognised so sufferers can access appropriate treatment.
Once Vasoulla realised she had a problem four years ago she sought psychological help.
Then last year her daughter Jasmine, of Channel 4’s A Place in the Sun fame, stepped in to convince her mum to try and bring some order to her house for Cameron’s sake, who by that point had moved back in.
Perhaps not so ironically, Jasmine is now the presenter of a show in which she hunts for ideal homes, and she was keen her brother didn’t go through what she did as a teenager.
“As a child you feel ashamed, embarrassed, you can’t have friends over, I wanted to keep it a secret,” said Jasmine in My Hoarder Mum, which was aired last year.
The programme documented Vasoulla’s journey as she painstakingly went through the entire contents of two rooms and the hallways which had been emptied into a warehouse, to try and decide what to keep and what could be sold or discarded.
But even things she decided to get rid of at a car boot sale like Christmas cards, she had second thoughts once she was there.
It’s apparent how difficult it is for Vasoulla to let go of the objects, and admits to often finding comfort in things rather than relationships.
“Nobody understands this disease, you can’t understand it unless it’s your reality, I know if my mum had a choice she wouldn’t want to live like this,” said Jasmine.
“I can’t throw anything away because she feels violated, she needs to work through every single item to throw it away and she needs to have control over it.
“I’ve offered her money for her stuff before, I’ve said I’ll give you this amount of money and you give me everything in your house but she wouldn’t agree to that because she’s worried I’d get rid of things she loves.”
In the end, the house was de-cluttered by several truckloads of belongings, but Vasoulla doesn’t feel she had been ready to let go of many of them.
“Jasmine tried to get the programme going because she wanted me to get some serious help, but it just gave me more stress to be honest,” she said.
“I needed more time to go through it, I felt pressurised to get rid of stuff, in my opinion if I’d had time to sort through it I could have got rid of more
“It was really traumatic, I had to take time off work sick because I couldn’t cope, it made me feel really under pressure.
“I still wasn’t’ ready this time around,” she added, referring to Britain’s Biggest Hoarders, which was screened on the BBC last week.
Ambitiously, the entire contents of the house were laid out in a giant warehouse, enabling her son Andy to paint the house and lay a new floor.
“They filmed us eating in these rooms, then the next day they brought the stuff back and it was full up again,” said Vasoulla.
The fact her possessions are scattered across London, at several different locations doesn’t make it any easier.
“If I open a box and I have an incomplete set of china or a peg and hammer toy with one peg missing it’s probably in a box in storage, so I’m loathe to throw that away because I want to put it together to make it usable,” she said.
Hoarders find security in hanging on to objects, and Vasoulla feels as though childhood trauma sparked the condition in her.
When she was three her father was killed in the civil war in her native Cyprus, and a year later she moved to Islington with her mother.
“There were lots of things we couldn’t take and they’d be lost, it’s possible losing your precious little toys when you are a child makes you feel vulnerable,” she said.
“Islington was full of derelict buildings bombed in the war, they were a playground for children and I found comfort in things I found in those buildings, maybe a doll’s house and teacup and saucer, or tiny little vases that had been left behind.”
She would take them home and treasure them, but they too were lost when she returned to Cyprus to live with her grandparents.
“I left them in a shelter outside in a box, I was traumatised again, I was looking forward to seeing those things.
“They weren’t replacing my father or anything, but it was just another knock to a child.”
As she grew older she began collecting weekly encyclopedias, which she has kept and stored in a whole room full of books, along with others full of craft things, clothes, fabric and her own children’s toys she found it hard to part with.
She describes how there are lots of things in the attic she hasn’t seen for 12 years, and lots of crockery in the coal cellar – although she’s forgotten what.
“One of the things with hoarding is you have all these things and you can’t even look at them because they are piled up high in boxes or bags and you can’t see the things. “It’s a vicious circle, you just buy more things.”
The house, which she moved into 25 years ago, was not always so cluttered, but always had one room “full of tat.”
“That’s ok because then it’s under control really, but my problem is that I never went through the stuff to choose what I still wanted.
“I didn’t really decide to stick things in that room, it was more a case of, “Oh someone’s coming, I’ve got to put all this stuff away somewhere,” and it would all go in the room and it wouldn’t come out for a long time.
“Then slowly as each of my children moved out I would gradually start putting my own possessions into their rooms because they weren’t being used as much.”
Vasoulla often keeps things because she thinks they might be useful, and not just for sentimental reasons.
“If there was a dress I didn’t wear any more I could use the dress to make a smaller dress for a child or appliqu�, or if it’s a T-shirt you could use it to do cleaning.
“Like a lot of people that were children during the war it was important to save the stuff, don’t waste, reuse, never waste things if you can make use of them or give them to somebody else.
“It wasn’t so much sentimental value as a “waste not, want not” kind of attitude.
“What I’ve found and been saying to myself recently is, “Do I need this more than I need the space it gives me?” she said, fixing her eye on a set of picture postcards laid on the table.
“Actually they’re nice postcards,” she said laughing, obviously keen to keep them.
“Probably this isn’t the right thing to look at. That’s amazing, Scarborough Lights by Grimshaw, it’s nice isn’t it,” she enthused.
Looking around the house, a certain kind of order has been restored since the show, with rooms arranged on themes like books and toys, with random things poking out like a violin case, a mannequin, a doll’s house and several lampshades
But every single room is still stacked high with boxes, and the stairs are once again lined with bin bags.
“We got rid of about three or four truckloads of stuff that was in this house, every room was this high,” said Vasoulla as she conducted the tour.
“At one point the bath was full of stuff but I could still get to the loo.
“The other thing which is apparent for hoarders, is that a leak, or if the central heating stops working you can’t get them fixed because people physically can’t get into your house.”
Vasoulla had to live without central heating for two years, but compensated by putting on more clothes.
Cooking also suffers, and Vasoulla’s cooker was inaccessible for a long time, blocked by objects.
“I have cheap sandwiches from Tesco, and my son likes kebabs and pizza,” she said.
“Some people might want to continue to be hoarders because that’s how they want to live and that should be allowed so long as they are not in danger and surviving well.
“I’m trying my hardest, I’m still a hoarder, but it’s quite handy not having any money, pay day isn’t until next week,” added Vasoulla who works as a carer for severely disabled children.
“But I found being a hoarder it’s impossible to live a life and by emptying the house out of items has allowed more love to flow into my house.
“This is precisely what I’m trying to achieve, I’m trying to get rid of possessions and get love and my family to come in here instead.”
If hoarding affects your life, visit www.helpforhoarders.co.uk, the website set up by Jasmine Harman.
Britain’s Biggest Hoarders can still be viewed on BBC iplayer.