Stuff It

It’s almost like a secret shame but I’m ready to admit it to the world. I’m addicted to those “hoarding” TV shows.

First it was Hoarders on A&E, and now Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC. Yes, I know TLC is often totally exploitative – both hoarding shows are, to be fair, but I can’t stop watching. It’s like rubbernecking while driving past a car crash.

I think my fascination with the shows is that they terrify me so much. Especially the ones where people who were formerly neat and tidy suffer some huge emotional loss and then are inclined to surround themselves with stuff – and not just good stuff, but piles of old newspapers and soft drink cups. The people who were already happy to live in clutter – you expect that they’ll live in their own sloth – but when the neatfreaks have their brains snap, that’s some scary shit.

The whole thing scares me even more because I am a purger. I cannot abide clutter, am happy to throw things out or give them away when they’ve outlived their usefulness, and tend to not buy things in the first place unless I am really going to use them.

Having lived with a series of partners and roommates who tend on the verge of clutter collectors if not outright hoarders, I also understand the frustration of the families and partners of many of the people featured on these shows. My brain can’t comprehend the need to save things like old plastic water bottles because there’s a memory attached to them, and it’s obvious that these poor folks can’t either. I’m also not sure I buy the excuses. “I don’t know where to start!” comes up on every single episode. You start where you’re standing and work through it a bit at a time. I can’t jive “mental illness” with “I creep down my basement stairs because there’s an old comforter on them and I can’t bring myself to pick the thing up.” PICK IT UP!!! Oh my god.

As can probably be surmised, I’m not a fan of the coddling techniques the psychologists use in the US shows. The whole “going at their pace, let them check every bag of garbage” kind of deal doesn’t strike me as being beneficial to someone who is trying to get the clutter cleared out because Child Protective Services has deemed their house unsafe and taken their kids away. I want some progress at the end of the hour; clean surfaces and tidy closets like they manage to do on the UK series How Clean Is Your House. HCIYH is more geared towards cleaning techniques and germs as opposed to the mental illness of hoarding and obsessive compulsive disorder, but it’s certainly much more satisfying for the viewer.

Another aspect of the clutter collector though, is the bona fide collectors. A recent documentary on CBC’s The Passionate Eye looked at people who collect everything from clothes to dolls to tea bag tags. Their homes, while full of cool and funky stuff, are still an asthmatic’s nightmare. They are not hoarders in the traditional sense – their precious things are well-taken care of, are organized and carefully arranged, and may even be catalogued. But they certainly do live with lots of stuff. It may not appeal to everyone – is two dozen 70s-era McDonald’s coffee stir sticks a “collection” or a pile of junk? – but there are a lot of people out there who dig the kitsch.

I’ve never managed to be a very good collector. I tend to lose interest after a while, or I find myself being overwhelmed by all the things. At one point I started collecting chicken stuff and got gifted with so much that it freaked me out. My grandmother has/had a thing for ladybugs, and for years it was an easy out at Christmas and other gift-buying occasions. Now the poor woman has so much ladybug stuff that she doesn’t know what to do with it all and admitted to me recently that she doesn’t really want any more.

In fact, my main collection of sentimental keepsakes fits entirely in an old mason jar. Old bits of jewelry, the butterfly off my Halloween costume the year I was the Garden of Eden, some marbles, an acorn, some seashells, an string of sandalwood beads, and a plastic capital I. Most of these things have some memory attached; given to me by so-and-so, bought on this trip. But when I went through the jar recently, I couldn’t remember why I was keeping a lot of the stuff at all. Half of the jewelry was broken or out of style, some of the memories attached to the things were not actually good ones. It was freeing to let a lot of the stuff go.

I know it’s probably wrong of me to get entertainment value out of someone’s genuine mental illness. I know it’s wrong of me to write these people off as purely lazy or slothful – although I think it does play a role – after all, it is what makes the difference between a person with bits of paper all over their floor (hoarder) and a person who has the same amount of papers filed and catalogued (collector). And I really know that the sense of superiority I feel when watching these shows is not a good thing. But still, I watch. And at the end of every show, I turn off the TV, and then wander around the house, looking for something I can throw away.