Why isn’t hoarding always hoarding?

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Okay, so I confess I have a fascination with hoarders. On tv that is. I watch Hoarders on A&E, Hoarding: Buried Alive on The Learning Channel and Confessions: Animal Hoarding on Animal Planet.

Sometimes I have to turn away from the screen, I’m too squeamish for the diapers with human waste stacked up in the bathrooms with no working plumbing, the cat feces and dog vomit crusted in ankle-deep layers on the linoleum, the maggots crawling through the green slime left in the vegetable drawers in the dying refrigerators.

It’s not the disgusting parts I’m drawn to. What i’m really obsessed with is why we see this form of what we consider mental illness in our culture.

And the class implications. That’s the really fascinating part. Let me walk you through it.

Pretty near all the people featured on these shows are low income. In many cases, very low income. Some have become homeless because their hoard has taken all the room in their home. In more than a few cases, the hoard has actually destroyed their houses as it has rotted or broken supports, beams and even foundations. Usually, their hoard endangers their health and even lives, either because the air quality is made hazardous by mold, fungus, ammonia, etc. or by the fact that there’s no way they could escape in case of fire. Or that some of their hoard could just flat out topple over and crush them.

Often their families put up with the smell and the uninhabitable conditions to a stunning degree. Even when there’s not even enough space left to sleep in a prone position. Or a single chair left to sit in. One guy with extreme scoliosis had to sleep in the car every night because his wife had utterly filled the house. As soon as they can, the children often escape and keep their distance, not knowing what to do, feeling helpless and resentful that their parent cares more about their stuff than their family members.

The psychologists on the shows diagnose hoarders with obsessive-compulsive disorder and trace it back to some traumatic event in their lives…often some kind of loss. Their failure to deal with the emotional trauma of the loss drives them to acquire stuff they use to wall off the rest of the world. With that protective layer around them, they don’t have to feel, so they can’t get hurt again. Their attachment to their stuff becomes a substitute for relationships with people. Or something like that.

But here’s the deal. There’s also a show called Extreme Couponing, where usually women spend hours of their days collecting coupons from circulars, newspapers, magazines, web sites, etc. etc. They take their collected clipped coupons in complex portable organization systems to supermarkets where they buy multiples upon multiples of an assortment of random crap, often more than a medium sized metropolis could possibly use in a lifetime, and store them on rows and rows of shelves in what looks like a supermarket in their basements.

But these people are not diagnosed as hoarders. Rather, they are celebrated as thrifty housewives and attract a crowd of admirers at the checkstand where the poor checker has to process $897.64 worth of goods for a grand total of 27 cents while all the other customers unlucky enough to choose that day to buy their weekly groceries wait for hours.

I don’t hear anybody diagnosing them with OCD. But in some ways, these couponers seem more obsessive compulsive to me – the way their hoard is all lined up in straight rows, they way they spend the better part of their lives looking for coupons, setting up their coupon organization systems, reorganizing their organization systems, planning their shopping excursions, nervously checking the readout when the items get scanned, etc. People labeled hoarders are pretty much slackers after they get their stuff home, and it stays piled up exactly where they dropped it.

Then the other night there was this show Selling Spelling Manor. When Widow Spelling decided to downsize from her mansion of something like 80,000 square feet with I-am-not-making-this-up 27 bathrooms to a paltry 20,000 sq ft or so, she had to part with some stuff. And I promise you, it was way way way more stuff than all the hoarders on all the hoarder shows put together. There were Beanie Babies, dolls, and so many other forms of tasteful crap, it’s all a bloated blur.  Pretty much more than one of everything ever made. Way way more than she could ever use, I’m guessing even she couldn’t remember most of it. So much stuff, in fact, she had to hire people to inventory it. In the most OCD way possible: you should have seen how much time and effort went into photographing each item, researching its value, creating pages and pages and notebooks and notebooks and catalogs and catalogs of the stuff… it just went on and on and on…

Why isn’t this labelled obsessive compulsive behavior? Why wasn’t Widow Spelling featured on Hoarders? Why isn’t she charged with Hoarding: Buried Alive? Because her hoard is clean and she has such a ginormous house that it fits without blocking the exits?

So who can explain why all these things aren’t considered hoarding. Why only the ones with poor people?

And I want to know if hoarding exists in other cultures? Are there hoarders on other continents? In Mongolia? Chinese villages? Among the Kalahari Bushmen? Inside the Inuit? Or is it a particular manifestation of our culture of consumption? Is it some kind of twisted consequence of the constant barrage of advertising we are subjected to throughout most of our lives, that we pretty much measure our worth through acquisition?

My inquiring mind really wants to know. Won’t someone please tell me?

P. S. Today I discovered this poster on the MoveOn website. Much more eloquent version of what I was trying to say:

Hoarding poster

Hoarding poster from MoveOn website

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6 responses »

  1. Hoarding isn’t always that extreme. I hoard clothing, but nothing is maggot ridden and dirty, it’s clothing. What makes it hoarding is that I am TERRIFIED that if I get rid of these things, I’ll need them someday.

    TLC chooses the most extreme cases they can find to make good TV. It’s that simple. Arguably millions of people have hoarding problems ranging from saving receipts, saving trash, saving paper, to saving emails, voicemails, and texts. Nobody would want to watch a show of going through someone’s inbox and deleting the emails for 2000.

    What makes hoarding is what makes OCD. Obsessions and compulsions. Compulsions come about to beutralize the anxiety caused by the obsessions. The obsession in hoarding is usually something along the lines of keeping memories associated with an item, attaching emotions to it, or saving it “just in case”. The idea of getting rid of it causes a huge amount of fear and anxiety, so in order to avoid facing that hoarders just hold on to everything. It works in the same way someone with a “germophobia” OCD washes their hands.

    So, no, I would not call Spelling a hoarder simply because she was getting rid of everything and moving. Granted, it’s impossible to know exactly what was going on. And if all of the items were worth a lot of money, keeping records of it all can help save a lot of trouble if people try to say they were sold something at a different price etc.

    Extreme couponers might have OCD, but they might also just be bored housewives with nothing else to do all day. Not all people fall under umbrella categories because they do certain things. It’s if it’s an OBSESSION that makes the difference. So it varies person to person.

    I would like to address this: “People labeled hoarders are pretty much slackers after they get their stuff home, and it stays piled up exactly where they dropped it.”
    Really? Just slackers? I can assure you that a “slacker” who just wants to avoid, say, going to work because they’re lazy doesn’t feel the crushing amounts of fear that hoarders feel when they’re faced with trying to throw something away. If they were “slackers” would they have such emotional reactions to someone trying to get them to clear out their stuff?

    • Thank you for your interesting insights. Yes, I’m sure you’re right that the extreme cases are what makes for dramatic viewing on television.

      Oh, the slacker comment (probably not the right word, but the only one I could think of at the moment) referred to the fact that most of the hoarders on the shows buy stuff but it never leaves the bag, the price tags are still on, and often it’s just dropped onto a pile on the floor and never really put away. When compared to the extreme coupon people, who cart everything to the basement and spend hours neatly lining it up on display shelves, hoarders’ level of effort once they get stuff home seems “slacker” (making far less effort). No offense meant about the fear and emotional reaction.

      I guess when a person is so wealthy they live in a huge mansion, they wouldn’t be called a hoarder for a whole lot longer than someone who is poor because it would take a whole lot longer for stuff to start clogging the aisles. And I wonder what kind of emotional reaction an extreme couponer would have if someone started to take their stuff away from them. Could be interesting! I kinda think they might get upset.

  2. A person is not OCD unless their behavior causes problems for them or for someone else, or if it distresses them or someone else. The woman in the mansion apparently was functioning fine, as are the extreme couponers. People can walk around crazy, and they do. As long as they are functioning and not causing problems for themselves or others, they are not considered ill.

    • Yes, that is true, that’s a good definition. It’s just interesting to me that when you are poor, it becomes a problem much more quickly than when you are wealthy. It takes a lot longer to clog the aisles in an 80,000-square-foot abode. And I wonder to what degree extreme couponing might be causing problems in families but not covered on the show? I seriously wonder…

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