Hoarded into my Heart

I was about twelve when I walked into an alcove that branched off into three arteries leading you to various parts of the house. It was a Labyrinth that homed a rounder goblin than David Bowie. This strange man had a vague connection to my mother, so we visited. We walked into the home of someone whom I know to be a compulsive hoarder.

He could not get to his bedroom for the extent of clutter. He had garbage collecting dust. He had fifty copper jello molds nailed to the wall above the sink. He had Swastika hat pins. He had 19th century vibrators designed to cure a lady of hysteria.

His son could only make periodic day visits because there was no room for the boy’s bed. When my mother brought along an antiques appraiser, this good goblin man could part with not a single item. He would meditate on the object in his hand and then seem to ingest all of its psychic love. He’d return, unable give up the little thoughtless friend in his palm.

A&E is a freak show for the modern melodramatic age.

One of the very basic social lessons babies learn as they begin to communicate is that you have to clean up. You have to take “control” of your environment. In a lot of ways it’s an illusion that we instill in our children, the harnessing of nature and the organization of the present. But it’s an illusion that provides the required simplicity for our small little steps toward being functional human beings.

Now, I’ll introduce you to the television series, Hoarders.  It features people who compulsively hoard things and sometimes animals (there are other shows specifically dedicated to animal hoarding.) A&E gives us explicit examples of how those first lessons of childhood can get derailed or ripped apart entirely.

Now, the definition of hoarding from a physical perspective is generally up front. People compulsively hoard things. They collect any number of items as much as possible and retain those possessions as long as possible. Each individual episode is a gross simplification of a very big problem. However, when taking multiple seasons’ worth of episodes and analyzing them, you get to see a few themes and peculiarities that suggest the presence of archetypes, symbolism, socio-economic commentary, and melodramatic insanity.

Hoarding is a coping mechanism. That seems pretty clear. Where it gets interesting is how and why it functions. Different trauma can cause a ripple of ontological insecurity. A person in that state of instability needs a way to cope. Hoarding is an incredibly efficient method to poorly cope with trauma. You just hunt and gather. Hunt and gather. Hunt and gather. You’re like a Capitalist squirrel.

Commodity Fetishism has shown itself to transcend the theoretical and can actually become a disorder. When we purchase something we haven’t made, we’re alienated from it. I would suggest that we then impose our own memory, or sense, on to that object in order to make it familiar. It becomes a fetish. There is a bond between person and object. Objects don’t have personalities. But they can represent any personality you want to invent. People do something similar (though it is not inherently self destructive, and can supposedly be part of an enriched life) that’s called objectum sexuality. But that’s another post altogether.

I like this show for character research. But it’s not just from the people afflicted with this compulsion.

Cleaning is a catharsis and a symbol. To cleanse oneself is often religious, something one can do for ones soul. Psychologically, to cleanse is to process an emotion, a neurosis, or trauma into something we consider manageable. We human beings are not in control of ourselves. We’re driven by the unconscious, and whether or not the pre-conscious gets on board and our ego controls our id, we’re guaranteed to lose control of the wheel and spin off in donuts of confusion and misguidance. One thing we can do is attempt to clear away the wreckage of a psychic trauma so as to begin functioning in a more “reasonable” manner and participate in relationships — grab the wheel, as it were.

Hoarding is maybe a crisis of “soul,” the strange concoction of neurological chemicals and the buzz of directed electricity that gives us self awareness.

Like body dysmorphia, hoarding can lead to severe denial that seems to leave sufferers unable to see the sheer scale of their “collecting” and destruction of their homes and relationships. They’re “seeing” something completely different from what their family and friends see.

Season 1, episode 7: A man named Paul cannot give away the scrap metal and trash that covers his property because in his mind they represent money for his grandchildren’s futures. However, threats to send him to jail and take away those kids drive him to seek help from Hoarders to clean up what cleaner Matt Paxton calls his “401 K.”

There’s a Marxist psychic crisis here that is reflected by a number of hoarders on this show. They see “value” in most of the things they have. By hoarding valuables they derive a sense of control over their future. This particular brand of commodity fetishism reminds me of Max Weber’s arguments about the Protestant Ethic. Such an ethic revolves around securing the family legacy and its wealth. It’s about hoarding money and not spending it.

But that ethic and fetishism is also thrown out of control as many hoarders on this show also have a shopping addiction. Alienation from commodities and perceived obsolescence can make their buzz last only a short time. A shopping addiction is an addiction to that buzz and a sensitivity to that perceived obsolescence. Further, when hoarders seem to be project-oriented they continue to start new projects repeatedly until scores of unfinished opportunities are scattered around their homes in piles like shoveled snow.

I have some trouble with OCD and mania. It’s not extreme (anymore), but they’re things  that can at times make me put off a project. The issue is that sometimes I don’t feel like dedicating the time it would take to satisfy my OCD, or I started it in a wave of mania that’s passed. So the project gets shelved. Then when a new idea surfaces, I get excited, pursue it, and then abandon it because of how demanding it is.

This does not happen much anymore. I tend to just come up with ideas, write them down, and then commit to buying the materials when I’m sure I will dedicate the proper amount of time and effort. I have learned that this is a healthier way to be creative and productive. This is via long-term therapy and treatment that hoarders on this show will hopefully begin with the after-care funds they’re provided.

Hoarding animals I think functions similarly, but with the note that animals provide companionship. People anthropomorphize animals to the extreme (lolcats). It seems to me that a person inclined to hoard does it not just for a need to control and evade real issues, it seems that they do it because they’re lonely. It seems like the people on this show feel very alone and alienated from other people out of fear and ontological insecurity.

To collect things is to possess meaning and project memories onto them (making their lives seem tangible and substantial). To collect animals is to collect friends whom are totally dependent on you, thus allowing you the illusion that they love you — the idea of unconditional love. It’s a cultural meme that when people love each other it means they also “need” each other. It’s an objectification. Hoarding is about possessing objects. If everything is an object to be collected, than everything can be arranged by ones own psyche to have the exact meaning they need in order to feel secure. It’s harder to do that with people, but very easy to do with animals and inanimate objects.

Now, in addition to enjoying this show as some sort of Mad Critic watching my little literary rats run and run and run, there are also two recurring helpers for whom I am a SUPERFANGIRL.

Dr. Robin Zasio

Dr. Robin Zasio is a clinical psychologist who started a center in my hometown of Sacramento, California. The first thing I noticed about her was her very soft demeanor. Just looking at this woman is relaxing. I recall laughing and thinking to myself, “Now that’s a therapist.”

I would argue that as she functions on this show, she is an archetype. She speaks with a very soft, even tone; communicates gently and directly; and has very focused eyes.

She’s also pretty, which makes her perfect for TV. One could be put off by that given that it’s yet another example of the aesthetic projection of media today. Her lovely hair, slim build, and nice face is a producer’s dream. The ideal is not just to be smart, but to be attractive, too.

As a critic, I have no problem with beautiful people. That side of her is what makes her an archetype. She’s the ultimate empath. She could be a Betazoid psychologist and holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx.

Dr. Zasio works with hoarders to help them vocalize why exactly they want to keep an item. The question is “can you live without it?” or “Do you need it?” Her job is, in a way, to fight the psychological clutter. She’s wonderfully gentle and clearly provides a safe and welcoming trash can for the rotting gunk in a hoarder’s mind (neurological soul). She seems to express that the objects themselves don’t have the meaning the hoarder seeks. The meaning exists within them already. The intangibility of it makes it seem fragile, but in reality that intangibility makes it eternal and strong. Nobody can take away what exists thoroughly in your own being. A fire, flood, or earthquake may ravage everything, but they cannot destroy the meaning  of pictures, trinkets, and toys. That meaning remains intact as long as the mind agrees to retain it. In essence, that meaning can live on until the moment you die; and even then, someone you love will likely maintain its meaning until they die, and so on.

Matt Paxton

Matt Paxton is a true American Entrepreneur. He started his own company, Clutter Cleaner, “specializing in homes that have been affected by hoarding, addiction, and grief.”

He’s a fascinating character for me because he’s found a way to further make the treatment of “hoarding, addiction, and grief” part of the Capitalist market.

I won’t get into yet another big speech about the dangers of Capitalism. Instead, I will note specifically his inclusion of “grief.”

When my grandmother died, cleaning out her home was a really bizarre experience. I wasn’t that close to her even though my mother, her boyfriend, and I lived with her for 10 months while she succumbed to cancer in her mid 80s. I was 10 at the time.

For a number of reasons, as well as my age, I did not experience grief like my mother did over the loss of her mother. Grief cleaning, however, proved to be a difficult and absorbing task. My mother did it, however, because she at two points in her life cleaned homes professionally. She’s also one tough lady.

Matt Paxton takes those same skills of cleaning and organization and melds them together with a kind of unofficial therapy. He’s not a trained psychologist or counselor, but he’s in a position to provide objective cleaning expertise in a situation where logic and reason are usually clouded by deep, dark emotion.

He works with hoarders to see the ramifications of their own denial,  extreme commodity fetishism, and emotional projection. He regularly says things like, “Do you want the stuff, or your family?” He cuts through the manipulative bullshit that sick people put out in order to fend off criticism with immediate practicality. Practicality requires order. He is the master of practicality.

So, this show, Hoarders, is an act of voyeurism. That’s a plain fact about reality shows dealing with the exposition and recovery process for mental disorders like addiction and hoarding. People refer to these things as Trash TV, as exploitive, as even disgusting. I disagree, however. The reality is that these people get a free therapist, a free organizer, and free crews to take the first hardcore stab at their hoarding problem.

They regularly say on this show that two days is not enough to solve the problem. That’s a real “duh” but I appreciate the honesty of the therapists like Dr. Robin Zasio and cleaners like Matt Paxton. The consistent formula of the show is what provides weirdos like me with a sort of science-experiment-style literary insight into the illness. We get to see how each unique individual reacts to the process of facing their own obsessions and taking the first steps to cleanse their entire lives so they can live on and have healthy relationships.

Every episode is a beautiful play: two stories told in four acts a piece. We meet our hoarder and see their back story. We meet Dr. Robin Zasio or another therapist as they survey the home. We meet Matt Paxton or another organizer to start the first day of cleanup and therapy. Then we get the final day attacking the hoard and see the final results of the radical therapy.

You see good people and bad people. You see people who love animals, but are terrified of people. You see people frozen with grief years after the loss of a parent or child. There was one awful woman whose adult children came to help her even though she used to chain one of them up in his room, and said during the show at one point that she never should have had children. You have people who fight toe-to-toe with the logic of Matt Paxton. And you have sweet and delicate individuals who lean on Dr. Robin Zasio as they make their way through the maze of garbage to the starting line of ontological security.

Hoarders fills me with questions, wonders, and anticipations. I work as an editor and see the cleaning of a hoarded house like I see the revising of a cluttered document littered with sentence fragments and passive voice. I see the hoarders like I see the big point of a document: obscured by fussy and overwrought ideas, unnecessarily big words, too many commas, and paragraphs that are way too long. All it takes to reveal the possibility is an initial big sweep, firmness and love, and two days with a therapist and a cleaning specialist. Just ignore the camera crew.