What to do about a friend living in an unhealthy situation? A friend lives in a house that is unclean to the point of being hazardous, and I don't know how I can help.
November 28, 2011 1:59 PM   Subscribe

What to do about a friend living in an unhealthy situation? A friend lives in a house that is unclean to the point of being hazardous, and I don't know how I can help.

I have a friend that I do not see all that often. Let's call her Tanya. We share a best friend - let's call her Leah.

Tanya and her boyfriend have never been great housekeepers. In the past there have been dirty dishes overflowing in the sink, half-eaten pizzas on the counter, bags of trash on the porch. Definitely on the messier side of things, but nothing worth freaking out about. Well, it's been about six months since I've been to her place, and I've been hearing things from Leah about it.

Apparently Tanya and her boyfriend have just stopped cleaning. They rent the top floor of a duplex - three bedrooms. One of the bedrooms is now full of black hefty bags full of trash: kitchen as well as other household trash. They have two cats who have punctured some of the bags to get at the food, and the smell is atrocious. The refrigerator hasn't been emptied in ages and not only does it reek, but a colony of fruit flies has moved in. Leah made the mistake of opening the fridge and said it was like the Amityville Horror. Ashtrays are overflowing and there are empty-but-not-clean cans of cat food everywhere. Spilled food stays where it lands on the floor. The cat boxes are overflowing and one of the cats is elderly and just pees everywhere. Months-worth of take-out containers and pizza boxes are piled everywhere. Leah refuses to go over there anymore because the smell makes her nauseated. I asked Leah if she'd talked to Tanya about it, but Leah isn't comfortable with doing so yet. I am not really good enough friends with Tanya to just go over there by myself - I usually go over with Leah or other friends.

Leah and some of my other friends kind of joke around about it. I, however, am concerned. I should point out that I have no reason to think that Leah is "making it up" or exaggerating about the condition of Tanya's house. When she describes the situation, I believe her.

Tanya and her boyfriend are both professionals in their early 30's - good jobs and make decent cash, so it is not a can't-afford-trash-pickup situation. I consider Tanya a friend, and worry about her. I don't want her to live in an unhealthy situation. I know that it's possible there's a reason why the house has deteriorated so much - perhaps there's mental issues at play? I have hung out with Tanya a few times in the last six months (at Leah's house) and it doesn't seem like she's any different - but if she and her boyfriend were having trouble, I might not pick up on it...they're both rather private people. I'm worried that living like this is bad for their health (and their cats health, too).

How should I approach this? SHOULD I approach this? I don't feel like I can talk to her about it because I haven't actually been in the house recently myself (but, like I said above, I have no doubt that it is as bad as reported). One of my friends suggested making an anonymous call to the Health Department, but I don't know...
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I sounds like hoarding to me. That link should have loads of resources for concerned family and friends.
posted by two lights above the sea at 2:05 PM on November 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

For the good of the people living on the first floor, contact the landlord.
posted by tomswift at 2:07 PM on November 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

First of all, telling a person with a gross house that their house is gross is useless. They know its gross. They know it better than you do. Back in the day, when our roommate with the cat disappeared and the other roommate and I didn't empty the catbox out for weeks, it was obvious. The bathroom reeked of cat shit. We didn't need to be told. But we still didn't empty it out for stupid reasons that in retrospect are even stupider. Maybe they're lazy, maybe they have psychological issues, maybe its a combination -- in case of serious grossness like you describe, it is probably the latter. But you? You can't do anything about it unless you're willing to go in there and clean up after them.

If you want to be an awesome friend, get them a gift certificate for maid service for the holidays. If they make decent money, they can probably afford someone to come in once a month and straighten up, and maybe your taking the initiative for them will let them realize that. Either way, it can't exacerbate matters much.
posted by griphus at 2:09 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

My only experience with hoarders comes from the TV show, but the definition they use is that rooms and items (tables, fridges, stoves, etc) become so cluttered that they can no longer be used for their original purpose. I think that's a good definition, and it seems to fit here.

A call to the health department and/or landlord is a good idea.
posted by sbutler at 2:10 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would tell the friend you are worried that someone will tell the landlord (and you should be - I'm sure cat pee rolls downhill.) if they do nothing and someone calls the landlord, well, you did something.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:13 PM on November 28, 2011

Do you know anyone who can help them? Ie, could you organize a brigade to come and get things back to non-filth again? I know that everyone says that hoarding is this terrible pathological disorder, no one recovers without intense therapy, etc etc, but I have known someone who tends to get hoard-y when freaked out or depressed, gets overwhelmed by the mess and just blocks it out. This person has been able to get back to stability several times through really big bouts of cleaning - once the sink is clean enough to do dishes and the fridge can store food and so on, they can get their issues back to a manageable level.

A brigade of ten and I cleaned an incredibly filthy house in about four hours once - in that situation, it was pretty much "toss things out and scrub the underlying surfaces" and it wasnt' as bad as it sounds.
posted by Frowner at 2:17 PM on November 28, 2011 [27 favorites]

Seconding Frowner's advice. Report less, help more. Big help. From many cheerful, un-blamey people.

At that stage, you are way past maid service. Then you get the maid service.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:19 PM on November 28, 2011 [27 favorites]

Yeah, Hoarders has done a lot to pathologize people with above-averagely shitty cleaning habits. If "cluttered surfaces" was an indicater of an actual mental illness, every college student who grew up having their parents clean up after them and simultaneously possessed a higher than normal tolerance for filth would fit in that category.
posted by griphus at 2:22 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

What is it you're going to talk to them about? You're not just going to tell them their house is dirty, are you? They know.

Obviously there's mental health issues at play; people don't live like that because its awesome. And you can't just get them a maid. I assisted someone in a bad situation dig out of a one-bedroom apartment not too long ago; it took 6-8 people three 6-8 hour days (reread that: around 110 man-hours, and I think I'm underestimating by a day) and that was just assembly-line bagging up and throwing away almost everything, and then a day cleaning.

If you want to help, they will need to want help. If you want to force their hands by calling an authority, do that knowing that that's a sort of resolution but not help. (Going in and throwing away all their stuff isn't help either, see my example above, but this person needed to move so this was resolution-not-help that had to happen. It didn't solve the actual problem, just the emergency.)

If you speak to them and happen to be really lucky with your timing, they will desire the assistance so they can get help but be too afraid to ask for the assistance and refuse to get help until the situation is less bad. That would be a great thing to happen.

If that doesn't happen, it's maybe worth saying something because it will take 5 times or 10 or 20 times hearing it for them to be ready to get help. You may instead lose the friendship, though, because they weren't ready to hear it.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:25 PM on November 28, 2011

We're not talking about "cluttered surfaces" here. These people have a whole bedroom full of trash bags. To me that crosses from just messy to psychological problem.
posted by sbutler at 2:26 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

There are numerous mental and physical health issues that could be involved here beyond hoarding, including ADHD, depression, OCD, substance abuse...hoarding overlaps with and is a symptom of multiple disorders.

Can you help them? I'm not sure that you can if you're not even at the point where you'd be comfortable visiting them.

First of all, telling a person with a gross house that their house is gross is useless. They know its gross.

Actually, for some hoarders this isn't true--they literally can't "see" the mess. If they're inviting people over, I suspect that this might be true of them.

However, the reality distortion going on in their heads is not going to go away just by you saying "that's gross". Even if they do realize the place is gross, it won't fix the underlying mental disorder.

Sorry, OP.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:26 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Hoarders has done a lot to pathologize people with above-averagely shitty cleaning habits. If "cluttered surfaces" was an indicater of an actual mental illness, every college student who grew up having their parents clean up after them and simultaneously possessed a higher than normal tolerance for filth would fit in that category.

The issue here is one of terminology--there are disorders of which this kind of hoarding and filth is a symptom, and then there is compulsive hoarding which is its own disorder. Recent research indicates that it might not be on the OCD spectrum as previously though, but instead might be an impulse control disorder, like compulsive gambling or kleptomania.

I certainly got my dorm room to Hoarders-level filth multiple times during my college years, but I'm not a compulsive hoarder--I have ADHD. This kind of overlap is why it's impossible for us to diagnose OP's friend.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:36 PM on November 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Stuff is a good book about hoarding by an academic who studies it. It might help you understand what could be going on with your friend.

You or another friend should talk to Tanya before bringing in authorities or the landlord. If they can get it cleaned up themselves without the threat of losing their home, that would be ideal. As for the clean-up itself (should they be willing to do it), are you and your friends willing to help? If not, try to find local companies that do this sort of clean-up. NYC has several companies that specialize in this. They are expensive, but it can be worth every penny. I've had similar experiences as Frowner. Some people are able to manage once the overwhelming mess has been removed.
posted by Mavri at 2:43 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would advise against sending in people to help them clean. I see all kinds of problems with what is essentially rummaging through someone's home and throwing away things that someone else interprets as trash.

On the other hand, if someone has access to a pickup, you could offer to make a dump run for them, where they set bags of their choosing outside, and those get hauled away for them.

As a landlord, I would want to know about anything that affects my property or tenants.
posted by sageleaf at 3:02 PM on November 28, 2011

I second the pick up truck offer. If you want to allow them to save face (I would) I'd say I was renting the truck with a friend to do a little hauling for the day, and did they want us to add their stuff to a dump run while we're at it?
posted by small_ruminant at 3:35 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Were I a landlord, I also would want to know about anything that affects my property.

As a friend, however, I pretty much won't ever narc you out to a landlord.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:36 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

The Squalor Survivors site covers this well; and Stepping Out of Squalor boards would be a place to start to get your mind around what you're dealing with, by reading the posts of people who are mired in it. For some, the process takes years. Knowing more may help you to come to a decision about if, and how to involve yourself.

I've helped a friend, my own father and some relatives with hoarding and squalor issues, and dealt with it when I worked for an auction house and antique dealers that handled estates. I can say that there's a lot to address when you're close to people, or when it's your job - let alone for someone who's only merely friendly with them. Tread carefully.
posted by peagood at 3:42 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Anon, I have been there (not quite whole rooms full of trash, but, well, I've gone up to six months without ever taking any item out of my home except myself and a backpack that always came back more full than it left.)

For me the situation (once it reached the "my kitchen is completely full of trash and it's spilling into the hallway" point) boiled down to a sense of absolute hopelessness and despair. I "coped" by essentially deleting the room from my brain - I didn't have a door to close on it, I just stopped seeing it, even though I had to walk by it to get to my bedroom and bathroom from the front door. By the time I moved out, the entire physical space was filled with full garbage bags, and I had another fifteen or so bags worth (mostly unbagged) everywhere. My immediate family knew, but they didn't know what to do about it.

What I wish had happened was:

1. Someone telling me "this is totally manageable right now, and you can be in a really nice space in just a few days, I swear."
2. Someone sitting there and helping me stay on task with putting things into garbage bags, who would be willing to laugh about the absurdity of it but wouldn't give me a sense that they were laughing at me about it. It would be vital that this person not try to convince me anything was trash: "we should put everything like that in a pile over here, if you want to keep it" is okay, "we should just haul everything out of this room and start over" is not okay.
3. Someone helping cart the stuff out - even if I did 80% of the work, the sense that I was not alone would have been tremendously helpful.
4. Someone dropping by periodically who was empowered to say "things are getting a little out of hand again, do you want some help with that?"
5. Someone helping me arrange to keep things organized, and figure out how to manage the whole maid concept.

(The someones would not need to be super-good friends, just pretty kind, understanding, non-judgmental, and possessed of a can-do spirit. Of the 110 or so people on my Facebook friends list, I can think of at least 15 I would accept such help from, and I have crippling social anxiety and can't accept invitations to brunch without major stress.)

What actually happened is that I lived in a giant pile of trash for a really long time, though I sometimes managed to have moments where I was strong enough to beg family members to come help me take X items away. I worked really hard in therapy for a year, realized I really desperately needed to move out of the apartment I was in, and begged family members to come sit with me and organize stuff and take out the trash and pack and get things into the car. It was still a total disaster area - I'd had open windows (without screens) for over a year, near a busy street, so there was grime and dirt and grease and oh, yeah, bugs and leaves and stuff everywhere. I found some maid service that promised flat rates (I'm pretty sure they'll never ever advertise that again) and they came over and it took them over six hours to scrub about 700 square feet before they gave up in anger. I did some more washing and such, and then abandoned the place. I am still stunned I got my deposit back - I can't imagine how much worse everyone else who moves out there must be. The process from "I really need to get out of this place and I have a plan for it" to "moving out and things are basically clean-ish" was eight months.

Anyway, I lived for about 15 months in a situation that was health-code-violation appalling, and it quite clearly contributed to my depression and anxiety (the whole thing feeds on itself, actually, such that "I took out the trash today" is code for "the meds are working" as far as my treatment team is concerned.) I lacked self-efficacy, motivation, courage, a sense of scale, self-acceptance, hope, any clue on where to start, a belief that I was worthy of living in a nice situation, etc., and no substitutions were forthcoming.

I will point out also that this may never be really solved in the sense of fixing the behaviors that cause it - it depends on what's underneath it, and the fact that they've been storing trash bags on their porch for years is a bad sign. My clutter/cleaning issues have been a constant since I was about six years old, and are one of the reasons cited for my ADHD and OCD diagnoses - I will be reporting with delight the fact that I took out four bags of trash, after struggling for two weeks over it, at my psychiatric appointment tomorrow. You probably can't "fix" them, but you can help them get to a significantly less-awful place. My apartment is far, far from perfectly orderly, but I am so much better off now than I was this time in 2009, and I do not regret the marathon trash-hauling and paying the maid service fees even though things aren't "nice," per se, right now.

MeMail if you want to talk.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 3:51 PM on November 28, 2011 [83 favorites]

Fee Phi, thank you for posting that.

Anon, the next time the issue comes up, can you say, "Yeah, I worry about Tanya and BF. If I arranged a day to help them, does anybody else want to help?" Then you go visit Tanya and BF and say, Guys, you are really terrific, and I'd really like to come over Saturday, and help you get the apartment under control. Would you let me do that? If yes, May I ask a couple friends to help?

If they say No, you have to respect that, and the best hting to do is be as kind as possible.
posted by theora55 at 4:11 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

With Frowner and Fee Phi here. This stuff just gets away from you at times, and before you know it, you're too ashamed of the whole situation to even acknowledge it.
Keep any cleaning brigade to a small circle of friends, and start to triage the situation by simply tossing out trash first. If there's any hoarded stuff, that should only come after the place itself is clean. Once they get back on top of the situation, then hopefully they'll be able to maintain for a while.
posted by Gilbert at 8:29 PM on November 28, 2011

I think you should narc on them for their own good. Seriously.

I've actually dealt with this as a landlord, and there wasn't a consensus among the owners about what to do. Finally, after a plumbing catastrophe made it too much to ignore, we rented a dumpster and made the tenant pay for that. The tenant threw out 10 years worth of filth like you describe, minus the cat issues. I know he's much better off now, I regret not forcing the issue 5 years ago.

Likewise, besides the health issues, that is quit a fire hazard you are discussing.

Narc these people out for their benefit and the benefit of the other people living there.

Do it anonymously. No one, not them, not anyone else in your friend group,needs to know it was you.

Problem solved.
posted by jbenben at 10:32 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

As Marvi said, Stuff is a very good book on this topic.

Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding (by Frost & Steketee who wrote Stuff, and David Tolin) is the best book to use if you are going to be working with someone to help them with their hoarding. There are worksheets and metrics provided by which you can keep track of your progress.

There is also a companion book that is used by the therapist or person that is helping you, but I can not find a link at the moment.
posted by mlis at 10:53 PM on November 28, 2011

Mavri, sorry.
posted by mlis at 10:54 PM on November 28, 2011

I'd say that your friend who won't go over there any more because of the mess needs to take the first step: the next time she's invited over, she needs to stand up and say "I love you but I will not come over to your house, because you've let it get so filthy and filled with garbage that I cannot stand to be in it. You need to start taking responsibility for your household, otherwise I can't visit."

In fact, all of her friends need to say that. Not "I wont be your friend" but "I won't come to your house." If enough of her friends say it, hopefully she'll realize she has a problem. Perhaps then you and your friends can all come over and help her clean up everything, or pitch in for professional cleaners to do it. Help her get back on her feet with it.

But then, if she just lets it go again, after this (essentially) group intervention, then it may be time to talk to her about seeing a therapist or what-have-you about it. And if that goes nowhere, at some point you just have to give up.

Good luck.
posted by davejay at 10:57 PM on November 28, 2011

I grew up in a hoard house, it wasn't good, and as soon as I could leave, I left.

The pets cannot leave, they can't get away, they can't complain. If they aren't sick already, they will get sick. Hoard house pets are not living a good life.

I hope you do do something, whether it be to help your friend directly (if they'll allow it, if you approach them non-judgmentally, they might..), call the landlord anonymously, or give them a gift certificate to Molly Maid. They need some kind of help, your friends and the cats, trust me on this.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 9:34 AM on November 29, 2011

I'm adding in here:
I've experienced this situation three times with three different people. The reasons these homes were disgusting were as follow:
1. Eating disorder resulting in person too tired and weak and depressed to take trash out, clean, let dog out. Less likely with two people involved.
2. Hoarding compulsion, as others have mentioned. Alternate with same result: living with someone with a hoarding compulsion and having to cater to it.
3. Living with a partner where the relationship has gone to shit and no one is cleaning or taking care of anything out of some combination of: depression, spite, futility.

None of these are readily assessable by your friend going out with you and seeming OK, sadly - all of the people 1-3 that I know could pull it together for public events/work/whatever. No one would have known what was going on inside these homes. Everyone seemed normal-ish, except person 1 was really getting sickly thin.

I would
1. Ask how her personal life is going, if you haven't. If she doesn't answer, ask specifically about her relationship and say that you've heard they're having issues with their house. Say you're free to talk anytime if she still doesn't answer (if you are willing to do this).
2. Offer to organize trash pickup, extreme cleaning service, whatever. They can pay for it, just say you want to make the calls and do the scheduling for them. Making these calls may seem, to your friend, like a huge roadblock.
3. This is all harder because there are two people involved. It is possible that your friend is unable to remove the trash and stuff due to her boyfriend. For example, "someone I know" has a house-sized shed and full basement entirely full of items that they are "not allowed" to touch. Then her options are to break up and 1) move, or 2) get them to move and then get a series of legal orders for them to remove their stuff, until the statute of limitations on saving someone's stuff/trash expires and you are allowed to dispose of it. Or not breakup and do 1 and 2 but cease cohabiting.

This is tough, good luck!
posted by Acer_saccharum at 10:43 AM on November 29, 2011

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