Matt Paxton Goes Inside 'The Secret Life of Hoarders'

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As my two buddies and I cleaned her house, we talked with Aimee, asking about her life. She admitted that she had rejected everyone because of her hoarding. Although she didn't want us in her home, she was happy to know that someone was interested in her story, and I wanted to find out more about her—and about the phenomenon of hoarding. Since Aimee, I've had hundreds of hoarding clients, ranging from people who just have a cluttered garage that they want to get under control, to those with entire houses overflowing with trash, feces, animals (alive and dead), and vermin.

I didn't set out to be an extreme cleaning specialist. What hooked me was learning that hoarders are people with serious issues, and that only a few of their life decisions or events separate me from them. What if I hadn't been able to pay back my bookie? What if he had broken more than my nose? What if my friend hadn't loaned me his couch for a few months when I was down on my luck? I could have ended up like any of the clients I work with, or worse. I have learned that hoarders don't love the way they live. I see them struggling to clean up but just not having the means or the willpower to get it done. Maybe their families don't understand them, or perhaps they have an untreated mental illness that blocks the path to staying clean. After years of working with hoarders, I've figured out how to make sense of their world because I understand the hard times they've experienced.

I can get them talking about their issues and help them straighten out their houses—and their lives. I'm not a therapist, but I work closely with experienced psychologists like Dr. Suzanne Chabaud, who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and hoarding at her clinic in New Orleans; Dr. Robin Zasio, who runs the Compulsive Hoarding Center in Sacramento, California; Dr. Lisa Hale, who heads the Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment; Dr. Renae Reinardy, head of the Lakeside Center for Behavioral Change in Fargo, North Dakota; and Dr. Elizabeth Moore and other specialists at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. The bottom line is that hoarders are good people who are struggling with difficult issues. To move toward recovery they need love and help, not ridicule. That doesn't mean we don't talk about their issues. Hoarders aren't stupid, and they know that what they are doing is a problem.

But threatening, bullying, and issuing ultimatums aren't going to prod them to clean up. They want to de-clutter, but they can't unless they have encouragement and support. I've worked with hoarders living in houses filled with rotting food and dog feces, and hoarders living with dozens of animals running all over the house. I've helped hoarders let go of their beloved collections of handbags, handguns, and dead rats. The truth is that some recover, and some don't. Hoarding is a serious mental illness, and sometimes "recovery" is a relative term. But I have learned what the challenges are and how to address them. I have seen what the critical elements of success are for any hoarder, and how those elements can combine to give a hoarder the best chance at de-cluttering. I can help families and others working with hoarders maximize the hoarder's chances for getting and staying clean. It's a long and arduous process, and I will explain how to stay patient and positive for the months, and sometimes years, that it takes.

The key is hope. As long as everyone involved believes that the hoarder's life can get better, it truly can.

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