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Secret World Of Hoarding

Updated 09/28/10 09:23 a.m.

NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- It may be hard to imagine, living in clutter to the point where it may threaten health and safety.

But between 3 million and 6 million Americans have a disorder that causes them to hoard.

One Bronx man recently decided to tell his story of extreme hoarding to CBS 2's Chris Wragge, and transformed his very life right before the cameras.

It looked like a bomb went off, but it was someone's home -- every inch, stuffed to near bursting. There were clothes, plastic bottles and bags, piles and piles of what seems to be junk. The door wouldn't even open and the man who lived there hadn't seen the floor in years.

"You almost get used to it. My vision of my life is I'm in a hole and there's quicksand and I'm sinking in there," the man told Wragge.

Incredibly, we saw where the man sleeps. He lived like this -- amid  this clutter -- for more than two decades.

"It's been years cause it builds up over the years. You know, you don't even think it's gonna happen," the man said.

But it does, and worse, the clutter and piles of debris continued to grow. He was so ashamed of his life he did not want to reveal his identity, but he wanted to share his story with because he thinks it could help others.

"It's almost like you can't believe you got there. It's crazy," the man said.

He is attached to the clutter in a way that most of us would never understand.

"I have a lot of stuff and I have to let go of some things and that part is hard," he said.

It is next to impossible for him because he has a psychological disorder that won't let him throw things away. He is a hoarder and fears the worst if he doesn't change.

"I'll be buried alive in there, literally buried alive in there," he said.

But then he got the help he needed. A cleaning team, led by professional organizer Kristin Bergfeld, arrived on the scene.

"He deserves to live comfortably, cleanly, safely," Bergfeld said.

"This is not sanitary. This is not safe. You can see on the floor, we discovered underath all this evidence of infestation."

Together they made a list of what would be tossed and what would stay. They began by moving out large items.

Despite the list, there was some back and forth. It's a grueling process, with Bergfeld urging him to give up more.

"You got kitty litter in here. You don't even have a cat," she said.

For anyone, it's tough to see your belongings being carted away, but for a hoarder, it can be devastating.

"It was challenging, hard to watch," the man said.

Bergfeld makes sure the clients are coping because it can be so emotional.

"Sometimes people can become so accustomed to living in a barricade or living in squalor that change is really rocks the equilibrium," she said.

Therapist Ruth Lippin, who counsels hoarders, said for them, the thought of parting with possessions is simply unbearable.

"It is a true sense of terror," Lippin said. "They become anxious or afraid or sad or angry and in order not to have those feelings, they will not throw things out."

In the Bronx, hundreds of bags were thrown out after two full days of cleaning. The  apartment had been transformed. It was a stunning difference from when the team started and Bergfeld said she is optimistic about her client's future.

"I think he will do unusually well. Will he back slide? Of course, of course. To the extent that got him into trouble all these years? No," Bergfeld said.

He was emotionally drained, but happy and grateful for a chance at a normal life.

"It's amazing. I wish there was a better word. The whole thing, I mean every step, was amazing," he said.

Hoarding is often set off by a loss, such as a death in the family or a divorce. Bergfeld has started a group to help hoarders who can't afford cleanups. Monday night's story was the first such cleanup and all of the services were donated.

For more information, please visit the following Web sites:

Bergfeld's Estate Clearance
Part Of The Solution: The Bronx

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