“Choking Room:” Edmonton Lady Will get Assist With Hoarding Throughout COVID-19 Pandemic

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Hamdi Issawi Jaime Lauren Kyle, an Edmonton woman with hoarding tendencies / behavior, finally sought help for her condition earlier this year. Jaime Lauren Kyle, an Edmonton woman with hoarding tendencies / behavior, finally sought help for her condition earlier this year. Photo by Greg Southam /Postal media

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In 2009, Jaime Lauren Kyle was preparing to move in with her then-girlfriend until a secret threatened to break up the agreement and thus the relationship.

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Kyle, who lives in Edmonton, has had a habit of collecting things for as long as she can remember. Artistic utensils such as paint, paper and even old camera parts make up most of the cache, but also symbols of nostalgia and loss such as blank recipe cards that belonged to her late mother.

In the course of collecting, her world became smaller and smaller – especially the living space, because she couldn’t let go of things. In hindsight, Kyle said, these were some of the earlier signs of a hoarding habit.

“She didn’t know the extent of my problem and we almost broke up the night before I moved in,” said Kyle of her ex-girlfriend. “Then I got rid of things worth two dumpsters.”

On Friday, Kyle, 42, shared her experience with attendees at the 2021 Hoarding Interventions Conference hosted by the Edmonton Hoarding Coalition. It’s a journey, she said, that started with a pack of colored pencils when she was around five and reached a milestone during the COVID-19 pandemic when she finally asked for help.

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Colleen Derksen chairs the Coalition, an alliance of community groups committed to an integrated response to those struggling with the habit. She is also the social work manager for the Sage Seniors Association, coordinating a program that helps seniors clean up their homes.

Part of the problem with treating hoarding behavior is the stigma and shame that comes with it, which makes it difficult for people to ask for help, Derksen said. Contrary to popular misconceptions that hoarding is associated with laziness, people with hoarding tendencies often have an increased sense of creativity, she said.

“That can sometimes be one of the reasons they hold onto objects. Your creativity sees value and uses it for objects that the average person does not see. “

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For Kyle, the impulse to acquire objects is rooted in her identity as an artist. These collections not only take up space in your life, but also provide ideas for your imagination.

“Objects always meant more to me than just what they were,” she says. “It was always something deeper.”

But that value system means that Kyle can’t bear to part with many of the items she collects, like a stash of various camera parts – an upcoming project that she hopes to turn into miniature robot sculptures one day.

“If I get rid of them, I don’t have the materials to create something, and if I don’t create anything, I’m not an artist,” she said. “I know, of course, that the logic behind this is not quite right, but that is the thought process that I go through.”

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Complex factors behind the habit

It’s not uncommon for the intricate thoughts and feelings behind the hoarding behavior to mirror the environment created, said Christiana Bratiotis, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work.

“In my clinical work, people have said to me, ‘When you see the clutter in my house, it’s in my brain,'” Bratiotis said.

And the reasons for this are not clear either, but rather a complex interplay of factors such as evolution (thanks to our hunter-gatherer ancestors) as well as genetics and neurobiology.

As the author of a book on how different sectors and disciplines collaborate in response to hoarding, Bratiotis also spoke at the conference.

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For those who hoard, even the thought of dumping their possessions can cause great emotional distress.

“For some people they are a security,” she said. “Their primary relationships are with objects, not people, and so the thought of getting rid of those things is almost unbearable for them.”

An extreme form of the condition known as hoarding disorder is a mental illness recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, although some people can exhibit hoarding behavior without meeting diagnostic criteria, Bratiotis said.

In any case, the effects of hoarding go beyond crowded spaces and, if not controlled, can lead to health, safety and housing issues – from trips and falls to eviction.

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Fill in the loss gap

While Kyle said she was never diagnosed, self-reflection taught her to recognize her triggers and the role hoarding has played in her life. Her own habit picked up again in 2014 after her mother passed away and after she lost her job a few years later.

“When you lose something there is this void and you want to fill it because it hurts too much,” she said. “So you often fill it with things or with the dream of being an artist and having everything available to make a work of art.”

However, this habit can also lead to breakdowns in relationships, Derksen said.

“We get a lot of calls on our inbound line from family members who are at the end of their wisdom,” she said. “They don’t understand the nature of the mental illness, they don’t understand the attachment to the objects, and the frustration is so great that it is easier for them to just break the relationship.”

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Kyle quickly realized that hoarding wasn’t why she and her ex-girlfriend broke up. However, the prospect of a new kind of relationship caused her to seek help.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the couple decided to try living together again, but this time as platonic roommates, Kyle said. Nowadays she is part of a hoarding support group and tries more actively to keep her space organized and the habit under control.

It’s a daily struggle, she admitted, and there are failures, but dealing openly and directly with the problem helps her breathe easier. That and the promise of a room that won’t be overrun with stuff.

“You don’t want to relax and create something in this suffocating room,” she said. “I want to have space for other areas of my life to grow.”

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