Bipolar sufferer and hoarder Mike Val Davies, from Exmouth, spends around £500 a month to fuel his obsession with newspapers and books. He spoke to me about the impact it’s had on his life
Mike greets me at the front door to his flat and ushers me inside, apologising that there’s nowhere to sit because of all the newspapers stacked up in any available space, including his chairs.
He tells me his spare room is his main storage space, except, he adds, it’s not exactly “spare” anymore. And I peer into his bedroom and wonder how he manages to get in and out for all the newspapers and other clutter smothering the carpet. “If you think this is bad, you should see my storage units,” the 63-year-old says. We meet there, a bus ride away for Mike, the next day, and he opens the door to one of two units revealing piles of black bin bags full of newspapers, rammed in.
Mike spends around £70 a week on newspapers, £160 a month to store them (in addition to his flat), plus various splurges on books. He’s still paying off thousands of pounds worth of credit card bills from a “serious spend” on vast quantities of audio and video tapes, which he also used to hoard, 12 years ago.
“I’d be in jail for stealing newspapers if it wasn’t for Disability Living Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance,” he admits. “It’s taken over my life – I spend more on newspapers every week than some people have to live on. A neighbour wrote me a note the other day and said, ‘you’re a very weird person’. I wrote back to her and said, ‘I am a weird person – you’re not the first person to call me that’. She apologised afterwards. I’m a complicated person, but I feel misunderstood,” he adds.
It is the misunderstanding surrounding his condition which is why he is speaking out about how hoarding has affected his life, in the hope of raising awareness of mental health issues such as bipolar, for which hoarding or over spending is a common characteristic, in order to tackle the stigma and prejudice too often associated with it.
Mike has been hoarding newspapers and books for five decades, since he was 13. Untypically, he is aware of his “problem”. He finally sought help 12 years ago – a condition set by his late mother in order for him to live under her roof.
Initially, he was diagnosed with Monocausal Grandiose Delusional Disorder and prescribed a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs. He has since received ongoing therapy and regular meetings with a psychiatric social worker. He describes his experience with adult mental health providers, the Devon NHS Partnership Trust as a “Rolls-Royce service”. His diagnosis was changed to bipolar disorder, or manic depression, just four years ago, but rather than suffer the extreme depressive lows characteristic of the disorder, Mike says he’s only ever experienced the euphoric highs.
Mike informs me that hoarding often manifests in adolescence but, as in his case, typically isn’t diagnosed until people are in their 40s or 50s. Mike was a founding member of peer support group Bipolar UK Exmouth in 2014, which meets once a month.
“I have a feeling I’m diagnosed as bipolar because that’s the closest to what I am,” he explains. “Actually, what I was first diagnosed with is closer to what I am. I refer to myself as having an obsessive personality.”
Mike’s hoarding is fuelled by his fascination and obsession with current affairs and history. He assures me his hoarding is purposeful: he has plans to write a book one day using all the information he has acquired.
“I hoard newspapers because, as the cliché goes, they’re the first draft of history,” he tells me. “I realised as a young boy, that within my grandparents’ lifetime, Britain had gone from being the most powerful country in the world, to falling into a crisis state, and I wanted to find out why.”
Our meeting times are determined by the timing of Theresa May’s Tory Party Conference key note speech, and his visits to book fairs and stores. And throughout our conversation, Mike frequently asks me if I’ve heard of this author or that writer, or an excerpt of a political programme on the radio, or if am aware of different obscure dates in British history. He remembers so many snippets of information, and their corresponding dates, that most of us would have long forgotten.
It appears that Mike likely has the mind of an intellect, but that sadly, this has been overshadowed by his obsession and subsequent hoarding problem, blocking him from actually being able to use his intellect in the workforce: at 17, while a sixth former at Exeter School, he deliberately missed his entrance test into Cambridge to give a talk about the very complex problems in Northern Ireland, had to retake his A-Levels and then came out with a D and an E, because he was too busy with his newspapers to study. He went on to work in a book shop for a number of years and then for the Labour Party before starting, but not finishing a degree in politics and economics, and then being forced to accept benefits for the rest of his life after a succession of unsuccessful job applications.
“As a child, my mother and grandparents, who we lived with, continually had to bug me to get rid of the papers,” he tells me. “For us to be able to continue to live with them, I had to promise not to hoard the Telegraph. And the only reason I agreed was because my grandfather offered to buy me a Times every day, which he did until he died.
“But I broke that promise, and I’ve broken every promise I’ve ever made about hoarding.”
It is clear that Mike’s hoarding problem has had a massive adverse impact on his life, financially, practically and socially: Mike says he’s had a series of “disastrous” relationships, which he puts down to being misunderstood, stopping short of confirming that their failures were due to his hoarding. And his mother, not trusting him with her inheritance, left him nothing, instead asking his sister to make sure he is OK.
Mike doesn’t get around to reading all of his papers, though the intention is there
Before I leave, I ask him if, hypothetically, he’d let me tidy up his flat and take all his papers to the recycling centre for him. “I wouldn’t let you,” he says. “I want to put them in the right order, and then go through them. And I need to fulfil my life’s work, which is to write my book finding a solution to the world’s problems.
Members of the Bipolar UK Exmouth group are hosting a fundraising and information event on Saturday, October 15, at the Tower Street Methodist Church in Exmouth from noon.
For more advice visit helpforhoarders.co.uk or bipolaruk.org or phone, 0333 323 3880.