True Story Number One: Back in law school, I spent a summer working in legal services. I had one case that involved an elderly client who was set to be evicted from his nursing home because he was a hoarder. He had the most disgusting room I’ve ever witnessed in my life — covered with food, newspapers, and whatever junk he could find out of the nearest dumpster. He had a very small pathway toward a small, human-sized clear space on his bed, but otherwise, everything in that room was stacked, waist-high, in junk. And of course, as many hoarders seem to be, this man was a smoker. Naturally, the nursing home wanted to evict him because his room was not only uninhabitable, but a fire hazard, to boot.
Through a lot of work, a little counseling, and a clean-up service, we were able, fortunately, to contain the mess. The man avoided eviction, and I celebrated a small victory.
A few months later, his room caught fire, and an entire floor of the nursing room was damaged.
True Story Number Two: Thanks (or no thanks, rather) to a few recommendations in Pajiba After Dark, I sat down to watch A&E’s television program on hoarders about three hours before the time of this writing. Within minutes, I was shaking. A few minutes later, and I was rocking in my chair. Nevertheless, I willed myself to finish the episode. And after the unsatisfying ending, I raced to a nearby closet in my home and began cleaning it out. Then I found a pantry that needed some organization. Two hours, several trash bags, and something of a massive panic attack later, I was vacuuming my basement floor. My basement floor, people. It was only a massive triumph of will and an impending deadline that prevented me removing half the contents of my home and spending the afternoon at the city landfill (the only compulsion stronger than my fear of clutter is my obsession with deadlines, most of which are arbitrary and of my own making).
The point is: If you are uncomfortable around clutter, then I would never, ever watch “Hoarders,” unless you’re trying to psych yourself up for a day of housecleaning and psychological turmoil. I hate clutter — I was raised in filth, and I’m not about to return to it. My wife and I don’t argue very often, but it seems that 98 percent of our arguments revolve around my fear of clutter, which extends to the purchasing of stuff. I don’t like decorative items. I don’t understand the need to own 25 pairs of shoes, five bags, six coats, and 12 sets of note cards (seriously? Note cards? That’s what email is for, amiright?). And I firmly believe that Target and TJMax are the work of Satan, providing constant excuses to buy inexpensive and unnecessary crap. The only thing I hate more are yard sales and flea markets, because the only thing worse than junk is other people’s junk.
But about that show? I’ve only seen the one episode (and unless I’m craving a series of panic attacks followed by a massive coronary brought upon by Scrubbing Bubbles and exhaustion, it’ll be the only one), but I assume the setup is the same in each. Over the course of the hour-long show, A&E’s cameras follow the lives of two sets of hoarders, and explore the effect that the mental disorder has on the hoarders and their families. In this episode, one hoarder was facing eviction, while the other had been removed from her home after the city declared it uninhabitable. Her schizophrenic, alcoholic husband (who, of course, was a smoker) wasn’t allowed to return until the woman had cleaned up her house. Counselors were brought in in both cases to help the hoarders deal with the process, and family and friends came along to provide moral support.
The problem, of course, is that despite all the evidence to the contrary, hoarders will rarely acknowledge their disorder. in their own minds, at least, they have ample justification for every single piece of shit they own, and in the case of hoarders, that extends to decades-old newspapers, broken mirrors, dead batteries, useless furniture, and countless inoperable appliances. If it doesn’t work, that’s no reason to bin it. It can be fixed! And sold on eBay or at a yard sale, where another hoarder can take possession of it. Of course, repairs will never be made — hoarders simply need more justification to hold on to their possessions, worthless as they may be.
From a television standpoint, that makes “Hoarders” one of the most unsatisfying reality shows on TV. You can’t talk sense with a hoarder, and you can’t throw a hoarder’s belongings away against her will, not without provoking a nervous breakdown. I suspect that the end of the episode I watched is typical: There’s no miraculous clean-up (like on that British show with the two cleaning ladies); there’s no huge transformation; no amazing before and after. The best you can usually hope for is to get rid of a small percentage of the mess, and contain the rest just enough to stave off eviction notices or the wrath of local authorities. Hoarders will very often put their obsession with crap above everything else — their friends, their families, their spouses, and even their own health and ability to cook, shower, sleep, or move around. A daughter might be able to provide love and support, but that will never compete with six broken sewing machines in a hoarder’s mind. The stuff — the piles and piles of useless junk — is tied to a hoarder’s own sense of well being. You can’t trump that. You can only hope to contain it long enough to avoid burning down the nursing home.