Matt Paxton, star of A&E's hit show "Hoarders", has helped dozens of people struggling with the disorder. In his new book "The Secret Life of Hoarders" he gives readers an in-depth look at some of the most extreme cases he's seen and he explains why this happens.
It was the summer of 2006 and I was desperate for work. I was living in Richmond, Virginia, and sleeping on a buddy's couch after a few adventures with jobs that went bad and an attempt to start my own business that failed. I consider myself to be a hard worker and usually have great ideas, but this time I just didn't know what to do. I decided to try to pick up a few cleaning jobs to earn enough money to help my buddy pay rent. I printed up some flyers and stuck them in mailboxes in an upscale neighborhood, and the next day I got a phone call. An older couple wanted me to empty out their son's house and organize an estate sale. The son, Timothy, had died recently, and they said there was just too much stuff for them to handle. I agreed to a price of a few hundred dollars. If I had had any inkling what I was heading into, I would have charged thousands. I had cleaned houses before, mostly helping my grandmother and aunts, and I wasn't afraid of mess. But this guy had been collecting things for decades. When his parents showed me into the house, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of clutter. Every room had stacks of dustcovered boxes, bags, and cartons piled up to six feet high. Narrow, dark corridors snaked between the walls of stuff—I had to turn sideways to get through some of the tight spots. On my second day of trying to pull items out of the house to sort and price for the sale, I realized I was in over my head. I called my buddy's brother, Colin, and asked him to help. We needed a truck, so he grabbed another friend who had one. Both of them were still in high school so we were only working late afternoons and weekends. It took us three weeks to finally empty out that house.
Although Timothy had the most cluttered house I had ever seen, the stuff that he'd collected showed that he had a lot of interests, ranging from music to German toy trains to antique furniture. Evidently he went through periods of collecting each one of those, which we could tell by the layers of stuff and the dates on the letters and magazines in the layers. It was like being on an archaeological dig. We could tell that from 1975 to 1980 he was into high-end stereo equipment and vinyl recordings. Then, from 1980 to 1984, he slowed down and was mainly hanging on to mail and magazines. He started saving musical instruments around 1985, and then a few years later added the trains. He collected board games too.
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.
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.