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Seminar targets collectors, clutterbugs, hoarders

Someone who hoards usually doesn't see the problem.

After nine years as a specialist certified to help people who hoard, local woman Ann Gale knows well how a hoarder's mind typically works. Deep down they know there's a problem but usually they remain in denial.

Gale offers a free seminar on hoarding at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 29, at the public library. She says the program will benefit "collectors, clutterbugs and hoarders" as well as their loved ones.

The seminar will last about two hours. It will not include any refreshments but will include time for questions. Gale advises attendees to bring paper and pen.

"What you see is not what they see," said Gale about hoarder messes.

She says hoarding behavior is classified into a category 1-5, with the low end of the scale being slight and the high end being severe. Gale said she's certified to help levels one through four.

A licensed psychiatrist must help treat level 5.

Gale has pictures of homes so crammed with things the habitant can barely move through -- sometimes parts of a home are blocked and completely inaccessible.

After growing up here, Gale earned a degree, got married, moved to Memphis and became an interior designer. A coworker asked her to help redo their mother's house that was a "little cluttered."

Gale said about the home, "I walked through that door and almost had a stroke."

She worked with a hoarding specialist on that home, became interested in the problem and eventually obtained her certification. Gale said after returning to Wisconsin, she went back and forth about whether to do the consulting work here.

As she planned the upcoming seminar, she sought information about where in this area hoarders could get help. She found practically nothing, which helped her decide she'd make herself available for those who may need a trained specialist.

Gale, a Prairie Farm native who moved to River Falls about a year ago, has not found any public program or other kind of assistance to help hoarders. She says there are more than three million known hoarders and no telling how many not known.

Gale taught 2009 classes at the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond and will do so again this year. She's been looking for a place in River Falls to hold them.

She says though the work can be tough and gut-wrenching, it is gratifying to help people. The specialist feels compassion and likes seeing hoarders make it "out."

Real reality

Gale urges people to keep in mind that TV shows like "Clean Sweep" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive" are scripted. The people in them have applied and been through a lot of therapy before they get to the point of being on TV.

She said it's usually some traumatic event that triggers hoarding behavior. Sometimes people had food withheld from them for some reason, lost everything in a fire, had an abusive parent, experienced death or bad relationship...

Often the person keeps an object because they want to relive its memory.

Some hoarders engage in shopping therapy. They get the highest of highs from finding that perfect little something. As soon as they get home, the high is gone.

Generally hoarders have high anxiety and a lot of fear. Gale says the work with them goes painstakingly slow. She must ask permission to touch anything.

"You cannot invade their space," she said, adding that hoarders typically don't want anyone touching their stuff.

Many people's compulsion is to just clear away the clutter, but Gale says that is a mistake. Without the proper therapy, a hoarder's behavior will just recur.

She says most hoarders have a system of organization and a story behind every "thing" in their home. Some people keep paper, others hoard animals.

They may collect food or awake each day fixated on a new number. Sometimes hoarding behavior stems from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Gale says she works to break the "loop" running in a hoarder's brain, which must happen before they can change their behavior. She focuses on working toward whatever is their life's "dream."

Often she works with individuals one-on-one, then gets them into group therapy where they usually open up, share and identify.

She says breaking the loop can often be done in about four days' time. Cleaning out the stuff can take much, much longer.

"When I work with a hoarder, it's all about self discovery," she says.

Gale confirms that hoarding behavior can be dangerous. One man died in a fire because firefighters couldn't reach him through the clutter. Another story ends with two brothers dead because they couldn't reach each other through the stuff.

She says people often seek from her quick answers about hoarding: "I have this friend..." but admonishes there are no such things. The problem takes time and infinite patience to work through and is a bit different for each client.

The specialist suggests a few "tests" to determine if someone might have a problem: 1) If a person can't walk through a garage sale without buying something, 2) Can't get rid of things they haven't used in the last year, or 3) Has brand new things they don't use but can't give away.

The International OC Foundation has tests in the IOCDF's hoarding center. Go to

She says it is important for hoarders to know there is a way out.

Gale has helped a few people in this area already -- many through the classes she taught.

It gratifies her to hear that a level 4 paper hoarder has nearly cleaned out their whole house now; another couple returned to her beaming from progress.

"In some situations, I know I've impacted their life forever," said Gale.