(WXTX) - On the outside, the homes may look perfect, but there's a dirty secret inside impacting 15 million Americans.
As many as one in 20 people suffer from compulsive hoarding. The disorder has been in the spotlight, thanks to reality TV shows like "Hoarders."
We talked to a Columbus woman who lived in that kind of clutter for years. Tonight, we show you the before and after of her mess. Experts and organizers also describe how to dig out from the "Hoarding Headaches."
Cynthia Kuhn can now easily walk around in her bedroom, but months ago, that wasn't the case because of piles of stuff taking over where she lived.
"For me, it just built up over my life," said Kuhn. "I got to the point where I couldn't find anything, I couldn't move around. At least two-thirds of the floor space was covered... I couldn't get to the blind to lower it or raise it, so it just stayed in the same position, really silly things like that."
But there is hope and solutions. Kuhn, lost and not knowing how to de-clutter, called Brandi Payne a professional organizer in the Chattahoochee Valley and owner of Neat Home Solutions.
In hoarder homes, she's seen extreme cases of mold, roof leaks, and mounds of garbage.
"You're going to let somebody come in behind closed doors, it is so hard," Payne said. "I get cried on a lot when people get very upset, very emotional. I never make anyone get rid of anything."
This anonymous school teacher's bug-infested home had rubbish up to your knees, including bottles full of urine and large piles of used toilet paper.
Separating them from pack rats, Hoarders excessively collect often-useless items and have great difficulty getting rid of them. The average age is about 50 years old.
Up to five percent of people in the world are clinical hoarders - with common traits like being anxious, indecisive, perfectionist, impulsive, depressed, and self-conscious.
"Hoarding is actually a disease by the American psychiatric association, falls into the category of OCD," said Steve Morgan, President of Service Master.
"I think it (hoarding) has always been around, probably since the Depression, when people saved things because it might be useful later," Payne said.
"Something you'd say has no value, they don't want to throw out," Morgan added.
If you can believe it, instead of taking out the trash, some people actually collect it and don't ever get rid of it. They have pizza boxes, empty ones, piled up all around their house...and newspapers, about 20 years' worth.
"We'll go into a hoard with tons of unopened packages that they've ordered off the shopping networks," Morgan explained.
"I started referring to myself as a Hoarder-in-training, because I wasn't a hoarder, but I know that it was possible to become one," Kuhn said.
Morgan has helped clean up many homes worse than Kuhn's. He says with hoarders, there are warning signs - someone moving items just from one pile to another, keeping random items like napkins from a restaurant, difficulty managing daily activities, and isolating themselves.
"They won't let the family come to their home, they suggest meeting their family somewhere other than on site," Morgan said.
"There were many, many people I know who never saw that room when it was a mess," Kuhn said. "If I had to, I would barricade one of the doors or lock it or something."
Hoarders are often ashamed and embarrassed, hiding their dirty secret from most everyone.
But what causes someone to hoard?
"At some point, they had a traumatic event that caused them to want to hold onto everything," Morgan explained.
"I had to learn to think very differently about possessions," Kuhn said.
Kuhn used to have 15 hobbies or crafts, now she's down to two or three... still with containers piled up, but they're labeled and organized.
"There were some things I really loved and maybe I had just too many," Kuhn said.
"They have learned how to look at something objectively and to sever emotional ties to it," Payne said.
If they don't change, the hoard could cause water damage and become a fire hazard.
"When things are piled up in a corner, you may find you've got a big mold issue over there that's been covered for years," Morgan said.
Personal organizers say catch it before it becomes a hazardous health threat by getting the hoarder to admit they have a problem and accept help. The next step is to determine what they can part with and help haul it away!
"I provide the motivation and any additional physical labor they need to get started," Payne explained. "I try to make it as pleasant as possible."
"It's the family members that maybe can recognize someone in the family has an issue and get them some help," Morgan said.
Kuhn's sister encouraged her to hire the organizer.
"She (her sister) was thrilled when I was downsizing," Kuhn said. "And it's been a long process."
Cynthia started collecting clutter four years ago. If you or a loved one has symptoms of hoarding, talk to a doctor or mental health provider soon.
To treat compulsive hoarding, experts have these tips: go out without buying items, get rid of and recycle clutter, and develop a plan to prevent future clutter.