Matt Paxton Goes Inside 'The Secret Life of Hoarders'

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Timothy wasn't there to tell us anything about himself, but we were able to learn a little bit of his story. His parents shared with us that Timothy had killed himself, which made me wonder whether he was one unhappy guy who'd collected all this stuff in an attempt to find some joy in life, or whether his collection had finally overwhelmed him and driven him to despair. Timothy was a mystery that I wanted to unravel. On the day of the estate sale, I noticed an attractive woman and a companion walking through the house. She kept pointing things out to her friend and explaining what they were. I realized that she knew her way around the rooms, and she recognized everything there. I pulled her aside and asked if she was familiar with the house. She said that she was, and in fact had lived there off and on with Timothy.

It turned out that she and Timothy had been in love for years, but Timothy had never introduced her to his parents because he feared their judgment about being in an interracial relationship. Instead, he guarded a secret life that hid not only his relationship but his ever-expanding collection of stuff. While I didn't press Timothy's friends or parents for much information, the story I pieced together was moving. I saw a grown man, desperately unhappy because he was keeping his life a secret, who had turned to collecting to comfort himself. Then things got out of hand.

That struck a chord with me because I knew a little bit about unhappiness, tragedy, and addiction. I had spent a few months working for a large casino in Lake Tahoe in 1999, and while I was there I fell in love with gambling. It became a full-blown addiction, so bad that at one point I found myself $40,000 in debt. When I couldn't pay my bookie, he broke my nose and I had to leave town. I eventually paid back my debt and I haven't gambled since, but I know what it feels like to be lonely and miserable, and to turn to something that feels good at the moment but is ultimately destructive. Timothy's situation felt more than a little familiar to me and I found myself wishing I could have met the guy and talked with him about it. With the estate sale completed and after a final cleanup of what was left behind, I started looking for another messy house to clean.

The second job was referred to me by a social worker in a nearby county. She had a case in which a woman in her mid-forties, Aimee, was living in a terrible state of squalor. She was all but confined to her bed, where she slept, ate, and went to the bathroom by leaning off the side of the mattress. The place had been officially condemned by the county, and since there was some funding to clean it up, the social worker, who had seen a copy of my flyer that said no case was too extreme, called us in. She did give us fair warning that it would really test the limits of our claim. And she was right: The whole place stank from rotting food, urine, and feces. During our first visit to Aimee's house, the social worker gave us the background on this case—and it was the first time I heard the word "hoarder."

I went home and started researching hoarding. The disorder was fascinating because I could relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences that a hoarder goes through. I knew I could really help these people in need.

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