For most of us, hoarding is something that’s difficult to fathom. Why would someone fill their house with meaningless items like plastic bottles, rotten food, old magazines, even human excrement?
It’s easy to judge from the outside, but observational documentary series Hoarders digs deep to allow an understanding of hoarding disorder, an often devastating and debilitating condition.
While some of the hoarders on the show admit they’ve always been messy, the disorder, an obsessive compulsion to acquire and keep things, can be associated with deep-seated emotional attachments or life events.
“Compulsive hoarding is a very complex behaviour. It’s much more than just having a disorganised house,” explains one of the show’s experts, Dr Renae Reinardy, a psychologist who specialises in compulsive hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders. “It’s a multifaceted problem, lots of pattern of thought, lots of pattern of behaviour. There’s oftentimes co-morbid conditions, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, attention deficit problems, addiction difficulties, trauma histories [that] can all be contributing factors that lead to a hoarding symptom or compulsive acquisition symptom.”
For Jake, who also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, every item strewn around his townhouse – from food wrappers to plastic bottles and dog hair – has meaning.
“Say my mum buys me a water bottle. I feel like if I throw the water bottle away, I’m saying I don’t love my mother,” Jake explains. And he can’t bear to remove the hair shed by his dog because he feels he’s “killing her” by speeding up the aging process.
For Kerrylea, every item she collects is a part of her, “a memory, an experience, a part of my history of who I am, where I’ve been,” she says. “If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. I need that visual, otherwise it’s gone.”
Hoarders depicts the contrary nature of the disorder. As much as the items clogging up their homes offer a sense of security, many of the hoarders featured in the show are desperate for change, not wanting to live in clutter.
Their hoarding has had far-reaching consequences. Jake, at just 21, says if things don’t improve he’ll take his own life, and Kerrylea and her husband are facing financial ruin, mortgaged to the hilt after buying a second house to store her items.
Meanwhile, Patty won’t regain custody of her two children unless she can rectify the unsafe and unsanitary state of her home, and Linda’s thrift shopping addiction, which soothes her loneliness, is the very thing that has ultimately led to the estrangement of her husband and children.
At his Massachusetts home, Bill’s long-term partner Lorelei was seriously injured after tripping over his clutter, while Paul spent five days in jail for failing to clean up his yard strewn with scrap metal.
For some of the hoarders, it’s a condition that’s been handed down the generations – seven-year-old Alex is developing the habit, much to the dismay of his hoarding mum Missy.
Some cases on the show act as a metaphor. Hoarders may appear completely normal on the outside, much like their houses. But inside their abodes, and inside themselves, they’re in disarray. They’re overwhelmed by their hoarding, ashamed at the state of their homes, feeling hopelessness and dismay at how things could get so bad.
All of this becomes acutely apparent as the practical component of Hoarders kicks in to gear. Clean-up crews have two to three days to help sort and clean the properties, with hoarding disorder experts and professional organisers on hand to guide and help each hoarder through the process.
Some people cope better with the clean-up and sorting intervention than others, but all experience some level of anxiety (often extreme), their struggle palpable to decide what to keep and what to toss.
The show’s experts take a compassionate, pragmatic approach (some more challenging than others), to help reveal the psychological and emotional underpinnings of each person’s problem, and give them tools to manage and change their behaviour.
What’s paramount is that the anxiety levels of each hoarder are carefully monitored, and that they have ownership of the sorting process.
“I would say almost always when the person who hoards is not involved, the house is going to get cluttered again, and usually cluttered pretty quickly,” says Dr Reinardy.
On hand to not only lead the clean-up but also be an emotional support, is warm-hearted Dorothy Breininger, self-coined as “America’s Most Innovative Professional Organiser”. She takes a therapeutic approach, gently encouraging hoarders to confront their problem.
With 48-year-old Steven, who is facing eviction, Dorothy encourages him to shovel some of the rubbish away, and halts the clean-up so he can sit quietly and reflect on the effect his clutter is having on his life.
Hoarders is undoubtedly challenging viewing, the often shocking state of each person’s living conditions demonstrating just how strong the stranglehold of the disorder can be.
Animal hoarder Shirley, 71, has always welcomed feline strays into her New Mexico home to look after them. But she’s accrued so many that it’s difficult to tell how many cats are living in the boxes and piles of clutter around the house, now in a dire, unsanitary state.
Despite her best intentions, Shirley is now facing criminal prosecution for animal cruelty. “Feeding animals is just something I have to do, even if you put me in prison,” she tells authorities as they come in to remove over 75 cats, almost half of them deceased. As the clean-up rolls out, the body count rises as a devastated Shirley looks on. For her, the cats are like her children.
“Hoarding kind of becomes a replacement for reality,” says Matt Paxton, a hoarding specialist and “extreme cleaning expert”. “This is her addiction, this is her life. She’s literally spent the last 20 years avoiding reality by caring for these animals.”
But in its interventionist approach, Hoarders offers hope and help to its subjects. There are success stories, but for others the devastating consequences of their hoarding can’t be stemmed.
“I think people view hoarding as a behaviour that’s easier to control than it actually is, of well, 'just clean it up' or 'just throw it away', or 'just stop shopping',” explains Dr Reinardy. “It’s a pattern of behaviour.”
For Patty, her piles of possessions are like “prison walls”, her hoarding “a dirty little secret” of which she’s ashamed. “It’s not something that people flaunt by any means, because it’s very embarrassing and it’s very humiliating… It’s like living a double life.”
Hoarders airs on Sunday nights at 7.35pm on SBS VICELAND, or stream season 1 of the series at SBS On Demand.