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Lessons I Learned from A&E’s Hoarders
As a chronic struggler with clutter, I was drawn to A&E’s Hoarders. Premiering in 2009, Hoarders spans thirteen seasons and has released 128 episodes. The show mainly focuses on extreme, or level five, hoards. Every episode illustrates the challenges of one or two hoarders while living with the disorder untreated.
Though the show has yet to be renewed for a 2023 season, the lessons within the archived programs, available for streaming on several platforms, remain relevant and valuable to viewers. Hoarders was one of the first programs to delve into this unique problem facing so many Americans within the twenty-first century.
Hoarding is more than just excessive clutter and poor living conditions. In actuality, hoarding disorder is a mental illness similar to OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” (link)
Hoarders on A&E documents different forms of hoards, illuminating the many nuances found within the spectrum of those afflicted. Some episodes show cleaner hoards, where many of the items kept are new, with tags, or are in fairly good condition. Other episodes dive into the more graphic side of hoarding disorder, showing the heartbreaking cases of animal abuse, when one keeps excessive animals in poor living conditions, often making them sick and causing premature death. In these instances, the hoarder views the animals as things rather than individuals, possessions rather than pets, and is often convinced the animals don’t need medical treatment for their ailments. The dirtier hoarders may not keep animals, but may instead accumulate excessive piles of trash, rotten food, rusted metal, and/or feces. This type of accumulation leads to infestations, condemns homes, and causes serious health consequences for those disordered and their neighbors.
What’s clear, from tuning in to this program regularly for over a decade, is that hoarding is a response seen in those suffering abandonment or loss. Many are elderly, but there’s no age limit on who can become a hoarder. According to the Mayo Clinic, people at risk to become hoarders tend to have indecisive personalities, a family history of hoarding, and a stressful event that triggers the behavior, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, or other traumatic life event. Overwhelmingly within the scope of the series, viewers learn the likely trigger for the disorder is unresolved trauma from the past. It appears that hoarding is a nonfunctional, often self-sabotaging, approach to coping with or processing unresolved grief and loss of attachment.
The show’s producers took an expert approach when creating the structure for the episodes by involving psychiatrists or therapists that specialize in OCD and hoarding disorder. Within every episode, most participants reveal some of the wounds or traumatic events that preceded the hoarding behavior. For many, this is the first time they’ve voiced these unresolved pieces of their personal history in several years. Addressing the negative emotions is a crucial step in their health and recovery. It’s brave of the hoarders to grapple with the shame associated with their conditions, air their baggage to a new doctor and the audience, and face their reality in a new light.
Anyone watching Hoarders who has been through abuse, loss, or hardship, can relate to the struggles of those featured on the program. As viewers, we benefit from the insights given by the doctors, friends, and family members. Any of us who have forayed into the fringes of hoarding when suffering loss, are able to see how the behavior negates any ability to cope with trauma or difficulties. Those who speak freely about their struggles aren’t excused for their behavior, but their openness helps to humanize the disorder. From this, we’re better able to empathize with the hoarders in our own lives, be they friends, family, or members of the community.
In hoarding, sufferers get attached to items instead of people. The disordered become more comfortable relating to what an item could do or bring, instead of connecting with the people in their life. It’s not the hoarder’s fault they think like this, but rather a result of an irregular response within the brain.
Hoarding is a negative feedback loop and pattern of behavior, one that can only be changed by disruption and the integration of new actions based on healthy decisions. There are problems with mental cognition both resultant from and caused by hoarding.
The teams that help the individuals featured on A&E’s Hoarders involves the aforementioned mental health professionals, friends and family, an organizing expert, and an extreme cleaning and junk removal company, comprised of several hard workers who do the heavy lifting, and clean some of the most disgusting portions of the hoard.
Without a doubt, everyone in the process is important, but in my opinion, the extreme cleaners experience the worst parts and the most dramatic aspects of the conditions in which hoarders live. These are the people who find dead cats beneath piles of junk, don hazmat suits and shovel out piles of dirty diapers, pull out broken furniture infested with rats, and remove leaking refrigerators that have sat with rotting food in them for decades.
Cleaning up a hoard, or part of a hoard, is just one step on the road to health for those afflicted. Hoarders on A&E made the wise decision to offer aftercare for those who participate, including both therapy and work with a professional organizer. Not all those who participate follow up with the aftercare, and many who don’t take advantage of this offering unfortunately relapse.
I personally had dealings with a hoarder in my life that escalated to the extreme. A member of my community, who lived in her own front yard, as her house was entirely filled with hoarded items, stalked, harassed, and threatened me. I was unable to get her the help she needed on my own, and as her behavior turned more hostile and violent, I got a restraining order through my state’s legal system.
Eventually, she was remitted into state care, as her living conditions were uninhabitable, her mental health was evaluated as being incompetent, and her family did nothing to help or prevent her decline. If not for the program Hoarders, I wouldn’t have been able to approach the situation with empathy and humanity, even though the hoarder in my life was the instigator of unfounded harassment and abuse. I was able to see her illness through her actions and, luckily, the state was able to step up and provide her a better living situation.