Okay . . . I’m ready to admit it to the world . . . I am addicted to A & E’s show Hoarders. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I compare watching Hoarders to driving by an accident on the freeway. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to slow down and look, but you just can’t help checking to see if there are any dead bodies lying by the side of the road.
Hoarders is full of dead bodies . . . cats, rats, possums, birds . . . and the lives of people buried under mounds and mounds of stuff.
In case you haven’t seen the show, the premise is basically the same in each episode. First we’re taken on a tour of an anonymous person’s home, which is always an awe-inspiring train wreck. From basement to attic, people have spent years accumulating junk, (I mean “treasures”) until they have narrow pathways leading from one room to the next. Every surface from floor to ceiling is inevitably piled with an odd assortment of every possible thing you can imagine being in a house—times twenty. Sad-faced family members are interviewed and they tearfully try to explain what it’s like to life with and love a hoarder.
The hoarder herself (most of them are women) sits in the one foot by one foot space she’s carved out for herself in front of the TV on the couch and talks about her “collections.” Most of the time, these people are in extreme denial about the condition of their home. I remember one woman being interviewed and as she was laughing off the situation some of the stuff behind her started to fall on top of her. Another woman had to go to a local gas station to use the toilet and wash up because she couldn’t get into her bathroom.
We usually discover that there has been some traumatic event in the person’s life that triggered the hoarding or caused it to worsen—a death of a loved one, a disability, a sick spouse, children leaving home and moving far, far away. Sometimes the hoarders are men, but usually they are women and part of their problem is compulsive shopping. Clothes and shoes and purses are piled in heaps everywhere, much of it with tags still attached. Many of these women pride themselves on being able to find bargains that they just can’t pass up at thrift stores. And the men are often junk collectors, buying broken things so they can be fixed.
After we get a good look at the miserable situation these poor people are in, the experts come in to help. Usually a crisis has brought them there. Maybe someone’s called Child Protective Services to remove children from the home. Maybe the city has ordered them to clean up their property or face enormous fines and jail time. Someone called for help (and called A & E), and now there’s a psychiatrist who specializes in compulsive behaviors and a professional organizer with a team of people ready to help remove all the crap and get this person’s life back in order.
And so they begin. Usually there’s a struggle. The hoarder may move so slowly, pouring over every tiny scrap of paper or broken toaster to decide whether it should be tossed or donated or SAVED! Well-meaning family members watch on the sidelines with incredible frustration. Or they rant and rave and throw their hands up in despair. You know that they would just like to take a giant shovel and just start scooping and tossing everything into the 1-800-GOT-JUNK? trucks that are standing by. But the hoarders just can’t let go. “Save, save, save . . . okay, toss . . wait, wait, wait . . . let me look at that again” they say about a boxed Christmas decoration covered with rat urine and feces. EEK! And that’s not the worst of it. This show is not for the squeamish . . . believe me!
But 80% of the time, by the end of the show, yards and houses have been cleaned and the hoarders have looks of stunned relief on their faces. A postscript at the end of the show will tell us whether they are using after-care funds to continue working with a therapist or professional organizer or has refused help. Either way, you can’t help but wonder whether it’s going to last.
One of the recurring mantras you hear from family members on the show is that they just can’t believe that their mother/father/spouse has chosen stuff over them. It’s like these people spend their lives building walls around themselves as a challenge – - come in and find me if you love me enough.
So why do I watch such a depressing show? Well, I take it like medicine because I can see a tiny little piece of myself in these people. I’m sure my mother was a hoarder, especially when it came to clothes. Having lived through the Depression, she had a really hard time throwing stained, torn and out-dated clothing away, even if she hadn’t worn it for years.
One of the most vivid episodes of Hoarders was about a woman in her seventies who hoarded food. Her refrigerator was a disgusting sight. The psychologist was trying to get her to throw expired food items away, but she felt like if the package wasn’t swollen it would be fine to eat.
On her floor was a black, moldy, rotting pumpkin. A worker was trying to scrape it off the floor with a shovel. “Wait, wait,” she cried. She bent over that shovel and talked to that melting pumpkin. “You were so lovely,” she said. Then she reached her hand inside the darkened pulp and pulled out some seeds! “I can plant these,” she said. It just breaks your heart.
Now I’m not saying that I am a hoarder, but I can definitely see the possibility of falling over to The Dark Side. And I watch the show to keep myself in check and also so I can say to myself, “I may be bad, but I’m not THAT bad!” My “treasures” have been contained to one semi-well-organized room . . . okay, and part of the garage. Oh . . . and the bookshelves in the living room. But you can’t count the books . . . I don’t think.
Still, you can imagine my dismay when last Monday’s episode featured Julie from Englewood, Colorado who considers herself a . . . wait for it . . . an Altered Artist! What?? Now that really is hitting a little too close to home!
Here’s Julie, looking through boxes and boxes of stuff and she’s looking at every little broken thing as a potential piece for an art project. She pulls out a lovely duck decoy with a broken beak from a box and says, “I could use this for something.” And I’m thinking, well it’s a little big, but it does have possibilities.
The psychologist in his infinite wisdom says, “You know, when you’re an artist, and you do altered art, everything looks valuable. It’s very hard to throw anything away.”
Don’t I know it.