Monday, December 21, 2009

Obsessed with a show about obsessions

I'm currently obsessed with the A&E show Hoarders. The show documents individuals and families with the obsessive-compulsive behavior to collect and hoard objects. These are often items of little or no value, sometimes trash or even hazardous materials. Each week I'm flabbergasted to see how people can cram their homes full of junk, trash, garbage, or worse. Sometimes they collect food, sometimes it's new items from the store that never get taken out of the shopping bags, sometimes they take in too many stray pets. Some of the people on the show are elderly, some are my age, and some aren't even out of grade school yet. I realize that the producers of the show must select the worst cases to capture the interest of the television audience and not everyone who hoards is as bad as the people presented on the show. The tortured souls presented each week represent some of the worst cases of compulsive hoarding because watching a show about someone's extensive stamp collection simply wouldn't be as fascinating as the featured elderly couple who had over 70 cats removed from their house, many of them long-dead and mummified. However, under certain conditions the stamp collector may be just as much of a compulsive hoarder as the cat lovers if the philately gets out of hand.

I'm certainly not an expert on compulsive hoarding or OCD behaviors in general, but I do know what an obsession that gets out of hand looks like. I know people who have whole rooms in their house filled with "stuff" to the point that the room is merely a storage area and unusable for any other purpose and there's only a narrow path to walk along among all the stuff. Piles of papers and books stacked on the table, boxes of children's items stacked on the spare bed, and stacks of laundry that never got put away in the dresser or closet. Fabric for a quilt, Christmas decorations from the basement, items for donation to Goodwill. Paperwork and books from the office that don't really have a place in the house, halfway finished craft projects from a month or two back, and pictures that never got hung on the wall. Things piled up on any available horizontal surface. Most of it was put in the room with the intention of doing something with it later, but then older items get buried by newer items and then eventually forgotten at the bottom of the pile.

Oh wait....I just described the guest room in my own house.

I don't think I have compulsive hoarding behavior. I am somewhat unorganized right now with a lot of ongoing projects, limited storage options, a toddler with generous grandparents, Christmas preparations, and an upcoming move next month. I do have a lot of stuff set aside for a moving sale in late winter, and this pile keeps growing as I sort, clean, and organize each room. I do have collections of pottery dishes and glassware, several nice pieces of Native American crafts, and I'm a bibliophile with overburdened bookshelves. But I don't think I'm a hoarder.

I do actually know some hoarders. Pack rat behavior runs deep in my family, and some family members seem to be edging closer and closer to the degree of hoarding shown on Hoarders. I won't discuss those members of my family or what they collect here, but over the years I've seen them go from a benign "merely eccentric person" level to full-fledged "crazy cat lady" status. (And no, my use of "crazy cat lady" does not denote gender or obsession here.)

Maybe part of my fascination with the show is the recognition of how easy it is to start collecting something, become obsessed with it, then slip into full-blown hoarding without any real sense that this behavior is unusual in any way. I watch the show with a little lump of fear deep down inside that there might be a genetic trait to hoarding behavior and I probably hold those genes. There's a little bit of schadenfreude mixed in there, too. I want to grab those people on the show and ask them how could they have possibly let it get to that level where you need to use a shovel in the house to clean out the layers of debris? Why couldn't you just put the trash in the trash can? How could you not know that some of the cats were missing? Or why did you buy all that stuff from Target and never take it out of the bag when you got it home? I don't understand it, but I worry that I could do the same thing without realizing it.

By the end of each show I'm shuddering with revulsion and flooded with the urge to straighten up the house, clean out the closets, and get the floors vacuumed. At least this way the guest bedroom is slowly getting organized again.

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