Junk from one flat fills five large trash containers
They knew they were there to help a hoarder clear all the junk from his four-room flat.
But the volunteers were not prepared for what greeted them.
The four-room flat was packed to the brim with so much junk that owner Tony Seah had to climb over little "hills" of items just to get to the kitchen.
One volunteer, Madam Sophia Goh, 40, found a neat stack of food plastic containers in the kitchen.
That sounds harmless enough until you hear her description.
"There were so many of them, they almost reached the ceiling," she said.
The volunteers included five others from the Rivervale Horizon Residents' Committee, led by Dr Koh Poh Koonof the PAP's Punggol East branch.
Seven foreign workers also helped compact the rubbish into containers.
Dr Koh, a colorectal surgeon who came across Mr Seah's case through residents' complaints about a year ago, said: "It wasn't easy to convince him, and I had to build rapport with him and befriend him before he was open to having us remove the items."
They rolled up their sleeves and started work at 9am on Sunday, but as the work seemed unending, they decided on only a 30-minute break for lunch and a 15-minute rest period.
Clearing the mountain of rubbish was not their only problem.
Madam Yatie Amin, 39, for example, found more than 10 standing fans and wanted to remove them, but Mr Seah was not too happy about it.
Ms Yatie, who works in the food and beverage industry, had to manually test every fan to show him they were junk. Only then could he be persuaded to let them go.
"We tried to be nice, but we had to be firm," she said.
At one point, to lessen Mr Seah's pain of watching his painstakingly collected items being placed into trash bags, Dr Koh had to "lure him" away for coffee nearby, Ms Yatie added.
Madam Goh, a part-time administrative assistant, said she had to brace herself for cockroaches, her biggest fear.
"They would suddenly jump out while we were clearing the things. It was quite frightening. Fortunately, there weren't any rats.
"I didn't see this, but some of them said there were cockroaches that have already rotted in the pile," she said.
Ms Yatie said: "We used so many trash bags that we lost count. We just kept on packing things in.
"It may sound simple just bringing the trash bags downstairs, but the heavier things like fans took a lot more effort to carry and we did it continuously for so many hours."
By the time they finished nearly 10 hours later, at 7.30pm, they had filled five big trash containers.
Madam Goh said everyone was relieved - and very tired.
"It was a great workout. Our muscles were all aching so badly that night, we couldn't sleep well. One of the volunteers even had to call in sick the next day," she said with a laugh.
'Heart pain, lah, so many things gone'
Mr Tony Seah. PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO
It's an obsession he has difficulty controlling.
Mr Tony Seah, 55, would collect just about anything - plastic food containers, mattresses, standing fans, umbrellas, suitcases and even test papers.
His habit of hoarding started two years ago with newspapers and magazines, which he sold for some cash.
His mother, now 87, tried to keep their home clutter-free, until she moved to a nursing home last year after a stroke.
That was when Mr Seah's condition took a turn for the worse.
Shaking his head slowly, he told The New Paper: "I just felt this urge to pick up something whenever I see it in good condition.
"I don't know why, but picking things up just made me feel better," he said.
The result is a four-room flat packed with so much junk, he had to climb over little "hills" of items just to get to the kitchen.
Within a year, he filled the storeroom and three bedrooms.
Mr Seah then started putting things in the living room.
Space became so tight in recent months he could no longer walk freely around his flat.
"No big deal. I just had to climb over the clutter to get to the kitchen," he said, with a shrug of the shoulders.
He insisted the piles of junk were kept clean.
"When they cleared everything, there were only a few cockroaches running about. Not very dirty, what," Mr Seah said.
But neighbours, like Ms Emily Tan, 55, felt otherwise.
She said a foul smell wafted along the corridor whenever he opened his door.
"A group of us brought this matter up to the town council when he started putting his things out on the corridor. We had to walk sideways past his junk to get to our flats," said the saleswoman.
She recalled an incident when she called for an ambulance for her husband.
"There was not enough space for the paramedics to push the wheelchair through the clutter," she said.
On Sunday, six volunteers from the Rivervale Horizon Residents' Committee, led by Dr Koh Poh Koon of the PAP's Punggol East branch, helped to clear the items.
Seven foreign workers were also roped in to help compress the trash into debris containers.
It took them nearly 10 hours.
When The New Paper visited Mr Seah on Monday at his flat along Rivervale Drive, it was clean and spacious, a far cry from the clutter he used to live with.
But all the unemployed man could say was: "Heart pain, lah, so many things gone."
With his flat now cleared, Mr Seah is determined to kick his hoarding obsession.
"I try to tell myself not to think so much. I can't retrieve what has been thrown away anyway. Now, when I have newspapers lying around at home, I quickly pick it up and throw it away so I won't be tempted to hoard," he said.
As if to start afresh now that the junk has been cleared, Mr Seah, who is on financial assistance and monthly food subsidy packages, hopes to give his flat a facelift after living there for 15 years.
He is unemployed and relies on his younger brother to help him with the utilities and other miscellaneous expenditure.
Pointing to the walls in his flat, which have remnants of ripped paper and chipped paint, he added with a toothy grin: "My younger brother said he will pay for a fresh coat of paint on my walls."
Important to treat underlying condition: Expert
When dealing with hoarders, the work does not end with clearing out the junk in their homes.
It is important to treat the underlying condition to prevent the problem from recurring, said Dr Rajesh Jacob.
"Families and community agencies may spend many hours and thousands of dollars clearing a home, only to find that the problem recurs - often within just a few months," said the consultant at the Institute of Mental Health's general psychiatry department.
Hoarding behaviour can occur in two ways, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at the Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness.
As a standalone illness, it is considered a type of obsessive compulsive disorder. It can also develop as a symptom of a psychiatric condition like schizophrenia.
"It is sometimes a misunderstanding that hoarders keep things because they are more sentimental. But it is an insidious illness," he said.
Evidence points to a "multi-modal treatment" involving health-care professionals, social workers and other relevant community agencies to treat hoarding, said Dr Jacob.
"It involves mainly four steps: discarding, organising, preventing incoming clutter and introducing alternative behaviours so that they spend less time hoarding.
"The person who hoards should be actively involved in the process along with the relevant community agencies," he added.