One day while channel surfing, I stumbled across a TV show about hoarding. Just as many gravitate toward gawking at fires and traffic accidents despite the tragedy and gruesome images, I found it impossible not to continue watching. It felt voyeuristic and invasive, but captivating nonetheless, to see inside the homes of people who were clearly suffering.
As repugnant as the visuals were (and one could only imagine the smells), it was fascinating to me to see what people collect. But then again, collect isn’t the right word. I collect books. I collect vases. The people profiled hoard things of little or no value, have an abnormal attachment to objects, and feel acute pain at the thought of letting things go.
Quite often there is some emotional, psychological, or physiological event that triggers the behaviour. It may be the birth of a stillborn baby, a divorce, the death of a significant person, a stroke or brain injury, or even the trauma of September 11. Hoarding may also be a symptom of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and mental or addiction disorders.
According to TLC, which runs the TV series Hoarding: Buried Alive, about 30 per cent of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder are hoarders, and twice as many men are afflicted as women. It is not a small problem. There are an estimated 3 to 6 million Americans whose lives are impacted by this behaviour. Eighty-four per cent of compulsive hoarders report similar behaviour in at least one close relative. And while the average age of hoarders taking part in studies is 50, the onset of the behaviour can begin in people as young as 12.
The costs of this problem are astronomical if you count the human suffering, health consequences, structural damage to and condemning of property, cleanup, and treatment modalities. There are cases where people haven’t used their kitchen or stove for years. Or where there is no functioning toilet. I remember an episode in which an old man slept on the floor near the door because there was no other space clear enough, and he wanted to be able to get out if fire hit.
Some cases include animal hoarding with as many as 250,000 animals affected in a single year. And That’s not counting the raccoons, rats, and other vermin who take up residence.
The shame, concern, embarrassment, and damaged relationships exact their own huge toll on spouses and children.
Quite often it is some ?hitting bottom? scenario that drives people to seek help. It may be the threat of losing custody of their children or being evicted, or a marital breakup. A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive each feature two stories per episode. There are ?before? scenes of the mess, an explanation of the background or triggering event, intervention or concern by family members, arrival of counsellors and professional organizers, and hopefully some great ?after? shots. The work of cleanup and treatment is emotional, mind-boggling to observe and understand, painstakingly slow, and not always successful.
I hope this TV exposure is leading to greater awareness, more treatment options, and less stigma, from where I sit.