This past Thanksgiving, Kevin and I became ensnared into a Hoarders marathon. Fans of the Emmy-nominated A&E reality show will understand how we found ourselves in a trance, watching episode after episode of people who have accumulated such a massive assortment of personal belongings that their homes and their lives became dysfunctional. The stories are presented in a powerful, compelling way, showing detailed interviews with the hoarders, their families, and the counselors brought in to facilitate a resolution. The images of their rooms are shocking, as are the attempts of the people to navigate through the piles of accumulated objects, trash, food and –disturbingly-pets, alive and dead.
Often the featured hoarders suffer from serious mental illness, most notably obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many of them have experienced traumatic loss, such as the death of a child or spouse, and the items they cram into their spaces are an attempt to fill the holes in their hearts. Still others seem to just have some serious housekeeping issues, like the mother of two with the house full of toys who spent her time moving items from one room to another, mistakenly assuming she was actually doing something productive. The mountainous collections often leak out into the yards and storage sheds, and the functionality of appliances fall by the wayside, leaving the residents to find other ways to cook or tend to their personal hygiene.
Sometimes I wonder why we love to watch this show, or why it is so successful, outside of the obvious perverse fascination with people living in extreme situations. We become mesmerized, wondering how the hoarders can adapt to such revolting habitats. I’m sure it comes down to the adage about how a person can get used to just about anything. What started out as a few stacks on the dining room table, evolved into a few stacks on the rest of the furniture in the house, which morphed into stacks on every spare foot of space on the floor, which mutated into gargantuan amalgamations of debris filled with petrified food and dusty rodent carcasses.
The power of show, however, is the power of transformation. We love to see the gag-inducing “before” footage, but we also cheer for the hoarders with their charming and carcass-free “after” footage. What appeared to be inhumane living conditions are converted into homey, comfortable spaces. Most of these hoarders have some really nice furnishings, they just have too many of them. With a little guidance, a lot of psychology and a well-organized cleaning crew, the atrocious abodes receive the ultimate make-over. The final challenge is the make-over which is done to the person behind the hoarding: has the counselor been able to address the root of the flawed behavior? There is generally a 6-month follow-up comment at the end of each segment, reporting on the hoarder’s improvement, or lack thereof. For the most part, the process seems to be successful, but the results may be presented with a positive spin. The show would be just too depressing otherwise.
We tend to compare ourselves to others, so some viewers may feel better about their own organizational skills while watching the show. Some viewers may feel inspired towards a little extra house-cleaning after watching an episode or two of these bizarre profiles. My fascination is with Dr. Robin Zasio, the most frequent psychologist brought in to help the hoarding patients. I find myself wondering how I would fare in her shoes: could I handle the over-dramatic, irrational behaviors? Dr. Z manages these extreme personalities with grace on the set; I have never seen her get rattled.
I am pleased to see that the A&E show’s website has an extensive listing of treatment centers (including Dr. Z’s), as well as professional organizers and animal rescue resources. So despite the fact that we all have different motivations for watching the show, at least we are all left with a sense of hope that some value is coming from the entire endeavor. At the end of our marathon, Kev and I can switch channels and know that at least some of the hoarders were truly helped, and their families can enjoy an improved quality of life. The next logical step for A&E would be to film an episode featuring the reformed hoarders, who have been recruited to help clean-up and give advice to other hoarders homes, as a way to “pay it forward”. Now that is a show I would watch.