CUYAHOGA COUNTY, OH (WOIO) - It's no longer the little secret that no one talks about because of the embarrassment or shame.
Hoarding is a serious problem, an illness that affects as many as 15 million people in the U.S.
In Cuyahoga County alone more than 60,000 people are "severe hoarders."
"I never thought my life would be like this," says one woman, a former social worker who asked not to be identified.
She is sharing her story anonymously in the hopes that it will help others.
The Cleveland woman started hoarding after several major losses in her life.
"I lost my brother, my mom, my dad, my family home, my dog, my job," she explains.
Those events sent her into a depression. She kept the memories from her loved ones and packed them into her home. The "things" became a sense of comfort until the clutter got out of control.
Facing eviction if she didn't clean up, she hired a professional organizer who did not understand the mental health needs of a hoarder.
She says the organizer broke her trust by taking valuables and never returned to finish cleaning. That set her back even further.
"It's like a living in hell in a sense cause you've got so much stuff around you and you don't want it to be this way. you want to change but you don't know how to."
So she found out about Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging in Cleveland, a non-profit that provides services, research and advocacy for older adults.
In 2008, the institute established a task force called "Hoarding Connection of Cuyahoga County."
"People who suffer from this disorder did not ask to be ill. But they are ill. They need treatment and there is hope," says Bert Rahl, Director of Mental Health at Benjamin Rose Institute On Aging.
How and why do people become hoarders? Experts say a majority of those people suffered from some type of trauma which triggered the condition.
It's easy to judge hoarders by asking why they don't just throw things away and clean up.
But it's not that simple. It is a sensitive situation. Experts say you have to handle a hoarder with care and patience, which for those looking from the outside in can be difficult to understand.
Psychologist Deborah Koricke counsels hoarders.
"You support them and you don't, can't be hard on them if they didn't reach goals that they make. You break through by helping them understand
how much better they're going to feel when their house is more under control. then their life is more under control," says Dr. Koricke.
"There was a lot of debris around her," says Captain Jamison Norris of the Elyria Fire Department.
Last January crews responded to a fire in Elyria at the home of a hoarder. The victim's cars and home were packed with belongings. There was so much clutter that firefighters had a tough time tackling the blaze.
Sadly the woman died among the piles of collectibles inside.
"We went in through the front door, crawled up and over debris pile, lowered ourselves and drug our pack across the door frame into the family room, six feet or so up the ground," explains Captain Norris.
The fire in Elyria is used as a case study for first responders' safety tactics, set up by another firefighter who nearly lost several of his comrades in a hoarder's home.
Now departments across the country are learning how to deal with these types of situations.
"Things that I need to go through. Shoes," says our anonymous hoarder.
The Cleveland woman has been working with a therapist and social worker for several months to declutter her home.
"This bag is items that we're going to keep. This bag are items that we're going to donate. This bag of items we're going to throw out, and part of the exercise is her deciding not me deciding," explains Herb Williams with the Benjamin Rose Institute.
The woman is taking it one day, one box at a time, hoping that she can put her hoarding behind her and live a life free of the clutter and pain.
"It didn't happen like this overnight, and it's not going to get done overnight, but, if you keep step by step eventually this place is going to be the way I want it to be."
Click here for more information on getting help for a hoarding disorder in Cuyahoga County.