?She wouldn't let anybody throw anything away'

By Ed Brock

When Janey Hyder was growing up her mother, Dorothy Rutledge, was very neat even cleaning other people's houses professionally.

But Rutledge, 74, also had a problem, and when she died in early May in her small apartment in Morrow she was surrounded by a mess most people would have found unbearable.

"I think it just started happening after she got older and her husband died," said Hyder who lives in Inman, S.C. "She wouldn't let anybody throw anything away."

Amid scattered piles of clothes, dolls, stuffed animals and tangled knick-knacks, Rutledge's sister-in-law, Lynn Ayers of Cedartown, was trying to clean up the mess two weeks ago.

"There were 150 pairs of shoes. Three chest of drawers of nothing but blue jeans," Ayers said. "Her comment was they'll always come back in style."

There's a psychological syndrome that causes behavior similar to Rutledge's, but Hyder said she was never diagnosed with or treated for "hoarding." Hoarding is closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, Dunwoody psychologist Dr. Stan Hibbs said.

"It's related to anxiety, people have thoughts that frighten them," Hibbs said. "They're afraid to let go of it – They see a slip of paper and they go through this compulsion of oh, maybe I'll need it one day."

At the same time, hoarders can realize that their behavior is irrational.

"They're not crazy. They're not psychotic," Hibbs said.

Rutledge and other people in messy situations could be simply disorganized, Hibbs said.

In the course of her work as a social service case manager for the Department of Family and Child Services Adult Protective Services Division, Angie Tompkins said she rarely encounters actual hoarders.

"You'll find the elderly will just keep stuff," Tompkins said. "You really need to clean but they won't let you."

The way to separate the hoarders from the cluttered is by judging the degree to which the build up interferes with their day to day life, said Professor of Psychology Donna McCarty, coordinator for the Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and human services at Clayton College and State University.

"A lot of people collect things," McCarty said.

A case in point may be 48-year-old Larry Schaff, a Stockbridge man recently charged with 57 counts of animal cruelty after more than 100 cats were taken from his trailer. Some people have described that as a case of hoarding.

"It wasn't just animals, he had a lot of stuff," said Robin Rawls, vice president of the Clayton County Humane Society.

According to Roswell veterinarian Dr. Melinda Merck many of the cats taken from Schaff's home suffered from stress related conditions and ear mites, but Schaff said previously that he took good care of his cats and they were in good condition when they left his trailer.

Schaff said he started collecting the cats to give them shelter and the situation got out of hand.

"Really all I ever wanted was for them to find good homes and that's what happened," Schaff said.

Collecting animals is included in the definition of hoarding, McCarty said, but that doesn't mean everyone who keeps more animals than they can care for have the syndrome. Again, the way to determine if the animal collector is a hoarder would be the motive.

For example, a hoarder might collect the animals out of loneliness and a need to have those animals love them. Once the animals are taken away, McCarty said, the hoarder's reaction would probably be far more extreme than Schaff's.

"(Schaff)'s probably someone who would like to start a shelter," McCarty said. "I don't think you would really call that a true case of hoarding."

Schaff, who said he has not heard yet about a future court date on the charges, said he misses his cats but he's getting his life back together and has no intention of ending up in the same situation again.

True hoarders can be treated by medication such as Prozac and anti-depressants or by "cognitive behavioral treatment," being coached on how to get rid of things, Hibbs said.

"Both approaches work and in many cases both are needed," Hibbs said.

Hyder said her mother had never been diagnosed with or treated for hoarding.

"I think she just learned it from her mother," Hyder said.

Ayers said she wouldn't throw away Rutledge's possessions, either. Instead she plans to take the mostly usable items back to Cedartown and donate them to the needy, just as members of that community helped her when a fire destroyed her house.