The Disturbing Relatability of “Hoarders”
The other day, I found an accidental time capsule: a plastic folder I used to take back and forth to my former job, where I last worked almost a year ago. It had been sitting on a shelf, unnoticed, since then. The folder was filled with receipts for expenses that were reimbursed a long time ago, an outdated resume, year-old birthday cards, a flier advertising a sublet that was available beginning in December of 2008, and an Amtrak confirmation from last Christmas. I certainly do get attached to things—evidence of trips taken, movies seen, experiences had—but there’s definitely a line between what I care about keeping and what I can easily toss out. It was sort of cool to find all these papers hanging out together, and to see them form a picture of a particular time, but they don’t hold any kind of deep, essential meaning for me. Basically, I can get rid of them without losing what they represent.
If you’ve seen the A&E show “Hoarders,” you know why this distinction matters. (If you haven’t, episodes are online.) At the beginning of each episode—which airs following the similarly bleak reality show “Intervention”—a stark black screen informs us that “Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous or unsanitary.” From there, we visit the rather terrifying homes of two people, where the evidence of compulsive hoarding is staggering and indisputable—we see room after room piled high with clothes, paper and garbage, literally threatening to bury the people who live there. And the stakes are high: These peoples’ homes are falling apart in tandem with their minds, bodies and relationships.
In a sense, “Hoarders” is one of the many reality shows (from “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” to “Obsessed”) that exposes us to someone’s unsettling personal situation, rationalizes the cameras’ intrusion by trying fix the problem that brought them there in the first place, and then lingers, practically leering, over the shiny new surfaces as redemptive music plays. “Hoarders” is, arguably, educational, but it’s also undeniably exploitative. And though that’s hardly remarkable these days, it cuts closer to the bone than most reality TV. We get to sit on our couches and watch—cringing, riveted—as we fight the sudden urge to go clean out our closets. We get to gawk (however uncomfortably) and pity these people, while reassuring ourselves that our own lives are different, better, more secure. There’s some relief in that simple self-diagnosis: Our habits may come nowhere close to the troubling ones exposed on the show, but many (most?) of us can probably empathize with the tiny seed of an impulse that can lead there, given the right circumstances.
We are all, in some way or another, attached to the things we own and surround ourselves with. And though we understand that “stuff” is, in a sense, just stuff, we also know that stuff has meaning. Our stuff can tell us who we are and where we’ve been, and it can ground us on the way to where we’re going. We can also lose ourselves in it. It’s when the meaning and the memories become inextricable from the physical object that the real problems set in, and where “Hoarders” picks up.
On the show, participants are typically given two days to work with a psychologist, a professional organizer, and a team of disposal experts as they clean out as much of their home as they can manage. Though it does have the benefit of putting pressure on people who probably couldn’t take action without it, two days is a really an insanely short amount of time to accomplish something of this scale. Most of these homes—and the minds that live in them—are much too cluttered to be repaired so quickly.
Of course, the timeframe does make for concise, suspenseful television, but it doesn’t necessarily prioritize what’s best for the damaged individual at the center of it all. And time should really be a serious consideration here, since the perception of it is really central to the act of hoarding, and to the way hoarders understand the world (or fail to). Consciously or not, many hoarders are trying to create a cocoon where everything stays the same and there are no choices to make. When you can’t conceive of a livable future, it makes sense to cling to the detritus of the past. The past is reassuring, because it already happened. You can hold it evidence of it in your hands. It’s as real as you can handle things getting.
Even as the two-day plan can seem like a cruel tease, the well-intentioned professionals on the scene try to instill simple criteria for deciding to keep things or throw them away: Is it currently serving a purpose? Has it been used in the past year? Is it likely to be used in the next year? But for people with compulsive hoarding disorder, it’s not about function, it’s about feeling. No matter how useless it seems, the persons’ stuff gives them a sense of security in a way nothing else in their lives can. When feelings guide the way you accumulate things and place value on them, logic doesn’t have much affect. Regardless of the apparent “aftercare funds” supplied by the network (producers obviously know that it would look really, really bad if they just cleared out after taping), prospects for real progress seem grim.
No matter the details of their personal situation (alcoholism, depression, poverty, the death of a spouse…), and regardless of gender or age, what most of the people featured on the show have in common is a near-fanatical attachment to memories, and a fear of forgetting. To them, it’s simple: if you keep an object, you hold on to the memory associated with it. Without it, the memory is gone. As one hoarder, Linda, is being encouraged (and goaded, by her rightfully angry daughter, who believes her mom is more invested in her stuff than her family) to get rid of things, she begins to crumple. “It’s bringing back too many memories,” she says. The organizing expert by her side firmly but kindly asks her if she’s going to focus on memories of the past, or “focus on creating memories in the future.” It’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, but that’s not how Linda sees it.
When Todd (a youngish guy we’re told is only “chronically disorganized,” with the potential to become a compulsive hoarder) seems reluctant to throw away some of his ruined old clothing, his therapist prompts him, “Maybe that’s something you could work on: the shirt doesn’t hold the memory…the memory is within you.” Gail, whose house is literally in danger of collapsing on top of her (there are cracks in the support beams, and it can’t be fixed unless she clears out), explains, “I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved to collect things that meant something to me. I feel like I have a responsibility to keep the history alive.” Years ago, she had a serious house fire that cost her some important personal mementos. Guarding herself against a similar loss, her stuff is now basically holding her hostage. There’s no reverent preservation going on in her mountains of things. History isn’t being kept alive. She’s just stockpiling as if she doesn’t know what else to do.
Meanwhile, a man named Jim has been given an ultimatum by his daughter: clean up his house, or he can forget about his baby granddaughter ever coming inside. Among her reasonable concerns is that Jim long ago misplaced a loaded gun somewhere in the house and hasn’t been able to find it. His kitchen cabinets are full of cobwebs and mouse droppings, and his “office” is populated by precarious stacks of paper. “Part of my life is in memories of things,” he explains. “Things are memory triggers for me.” And yet he doesn’t actually seem to need the objects to spark reminiscences. The professional organizer assigned to his case is a little bowled over by how detailed his memories are, and how easily he can summon them. She asks him if he thinks he could still remember without the “things” to act as triggers, and tells him, “Your whole life can’t be a keepsake box.”
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