Everybody has seen stories about people who are human pack rats, unable to throw anything away and filling their houses with mountains of things that to them are treasures and to others are garbage and junk. But what do you do if the person living in that house is your own mother?
This is the dilemma faced by filmmaker Cynthia Lester, whose mother, Eugenia, had hoarded so much stuff in her California home there was no room left in it even for her.
“She had a makeshift bed in the garden,” Lester told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in New York Wednesday.
Lester made a documentary film about her mother’s problem and how Lester and her three brothers dealt with it. Called “My Mother’s Garden,” the film will air at 10 p.m. (ET) Sunday on MSNBC.
The film includes scenes of Eugenia Lester snuggling happily under blankets on a chaise lounge in her backyard. “She has a very beautiful philosophy toward life and feels very connected to nature, and she said that she felt more comfortable living in God’s house, among his things, instead of being trapped and isolated in her home,” Cynthia Lester said.
It is not a pretty story, nor is it finished. Eugenia Lester is still battling her mental illness and her children are battling with a system that offers little help for people whose medical problem is viewed by society as just laziness or sloppiness.
But the biggest issue originally for the children was keeping their mother in the home they all had fled as soon as they could because of their mother’s obsession. With local officials threatening to declare the home unfit for occupation, they sent her to New York and told her they would clean things up.
‘You robbed me!’
It was a monumental undertaking and not for the faint of heart. The film shows Cynthia crawling through a window to get into the house because the doorways were blocked. The four children had to walk over stacks of trash to navigate in the house. They found dead rats and rat feces as they filled Dumpster after Dumpster with the tons of things their mother had hoarded over the years.
When they were done, the house was stripped and clean. And Eugenia Lester was devastated. They had intended to furnish it before showing it to her, but they sent her an allowance for food and she saved it to buy a ticket home, walking in on them unexpectedly.
Cynthia’s cameras were rolling when Eugenia Lester came home and looked in shock and disbelief at the expanses of clean carpeting and empty walls. The woman broke down in tears.
Dr. David Tolin, who joined Cynthia Lester on TODAY, is the founder of the Anxiety Disorder Center at Hartford Hospital's Institute of Living and the co-author of a book on compulsive hoarding, “Buried in Treasures.”
Tolin told Vieira that Cynthia and her brothers did not handle their mother’s illness in a way recommended by clinicians. On the other hand, he acknowledged, they didn’t feel they had much choice. It was either throw everything away or have the house condemned and their mother evicted.
“Intervening is a delicate process,” Tolin said. “I can appreciate how Cynthia and her family felt that they were pushed to the wall and didn’t have any choice. And yet at the same time, we have to recognize that people have rights, including people with mental illnesses.”
Tolin advised others in a similar situation to first try to get their loved one to understand he or she has an illness and then to get them into treatment. “The trick is getting the person to accept treatment as best they can, and then working with them slowly over a period of time to teach them appropriate decision-making skills. The first step is to get the person into some good-quality mental-health treatment,” he said.
People who have the disorder may also be obsessive-compulsive, bipolar or depressed, he said.
Cynthia Lester fled home at the age of 13 because of her mother's hoarding.
1PfalsefalseCynthia Lester hopes that her film will help raise awareness of people afflicted with compulsive hoarding and inspire communities to provide help for them.
“We need more help in the communities,” she said. “There’s research about hoarding disorder, there are treatment programs. We’re trying to get that information to local psychologists who can spread it in their community.”
Compulsion impacted her family
Growing up, Cynthia Lester and her brothers didn’t know that their mother was afflicted with a disorder that affects an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans. They just knew that their friends at school told of seeing Eugenia Lester rummaging through Dumpsters for imagined treasures to take home and keep. Newspapers, books, scraps of paper, boxes, discarded clothing — all that and more were precious things that needed to be saved.
Their mother’s compulsion affected all of them. Cynthia Lester’s oldest brother left home as soon as he could to get away from the chaos. Her second brother got involved with gangs as a teenager, and her youngest brother turned to alcohol. All her brothers came to grips with their own problems and are productive and supportive now, she said. Cynthia herself fled home at the age of 13, eventually making her way to New York, where she attended film school and got the idea of making a documentary about her mother’s compulsion.
Cynthia Lester did not try to sugarcoat the story.
“That was a very difficult process because a lot of times when someone’s struggling with bipolar disorder, they don’t want to let go of their things,” she told Vieira. Her mother “did want the help, but it was hard for her to let us in. I tried to turn to the community to see if there was anybody out there to help me, and I couldn’t find any help. It was only through making the film that I learned about hoarding disorder and about treatment programs. I’m still looking for the right treatment for my mom.”