Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Watching Hoarders

Like many TV viewers, I am fascinated by programs that show people coping with clutter and disorganization. I loved Mission: Organization and Clean Sweep, and tried to apply some of their organizing principals in my own cluttered life, with some success. Lately it seems that shows that depict the merely messy have given way to shows that depict the extreme end of the spectrum of disorganization: Hoarders, on A&E, and Hoarding: Buried Alive on TLC. The formats for both shows are similar, with the viewer first being given a look at the crammed-full homes of the featured hoarders, a session with a psychologist (on TLC, it's a family therapy session), the attempts to clean up the hoard with the help of professional organizers, a clean-up team, and psychologists, and a look at the finished product. 

While I am not the neatest and most organized person, I am certainly not a hoarder. You can walk on my floors, and not just on narrow, pre-established paths. There may not be a place for everything and everything in its place, but for the most part, there is a distinction made between storage areas (shelves, cupboards, drawers, desk tops) and non-storage areas (floors, tables, the stove top), although hubby is less finicky about this distinction than I am. I have to be careful to put the ironing board up as soon as I'm done with it if I don't want to find the mail there. Right now, there is a stack of boxes in the den holding books that hubby brought home from his office when he retired, but I have a plan for those in the form of a low bookcase/window seat made with stock cabinets from the hardware store. I just haven't sprung it on - I mean, discussed it with him yet.

When I watch the behavior of the hoarders on these shows, though, I can see our kinship. They all seem to have trouble making the connection between parts and whole. Many of these people are in desperate circumstances, facing loss of children, loss of homes, possibly even jail time if they don't clean up their surroundings. At the very least, they can't live comfortably or entertain family and friends. When we first meet them, most of them are eager for change and grateful for help.

All that changes when it is actually time to deal with the mess. "I'm keeping that" is the response to almost every item. Often the hoarder insists on going through every bag of trash  before it goes on the truck, and if by chance a useful item gets in there by mistake, cleaning will grind to a halt. The forest may be dark, dank, cheerless and filled with scary things, but each tree, shrub, and snake, live, dead, or poisonous, is precious. 

And I can relate to that. When I try to go through my closets, drawers, desk organizers, mail and shelves, I can see at a glance that there is clutter and I realize I don't know what most of that stuff is and wouldn't know where to put my hands on any particular item if I needed it. Once I start going through items one by one, however, I can think of a reason to hang onto most of them. That's a perfectly good sample size tube of toothpaste. True, we use regular size tubes of toothpaste that we buy at the grocery, and I get two of the sample size every six months at the dentist's office so even with all the travel hubby and I do, I'm not likely to use them all up, ever, but it's a perfectly good sample size tube of toothpaste! And yes, that T-shirt is showing signs of fraying at the neck and armholes, but what if I decide to paint something? I can't wear my good clothes for painting (gardening, cleaning). The last time I painted anything was 5 years ago, because hubby prefers to do it himself,  but you never know. And true, I never use aprons, but that apron was a gift. Maybe I should use aprons, so I don't get grease on my clothes. I'm going to use aprons from now on. (Okay, stranger things have happened. The Saints won a Superbowl, after all.)

The effect that watching hoarding programs on my life has been to interrupt all that self-talk with common sense. Michelangelo himself wouldn't have been able to use that many old T-shirts in his entire career. I'm not going to wear the aprons because I never remember I have aprons, except when the kitchen drawer gets stuck because an apron is jammed in it. Anything that's in that catalogue is also shown on the website online. And instead of worrying that I will forget to pay the insurance bill that's due next month if I don't leave it sitting in plain sight, maybe I should pay it now. The money for it is already in the savings account anyway.

So bit by bit and fraying T-shirt by fraying T-shirt, I'm getting a grip on the clutter. I have a box ready to go to the local thrift store right now.

I wonder if they take toothpaste samples?


  1. I have a box ready to go to the local thrift store right now.

    I wonder if they take toothpaste samples?

    We donated ours to a homeless shelter. Eventually the floss* will build up to the point where it's time to find a new Canadian place to donate them.

    *I actually use the toothbrushes they give (mine's usually getting a bit worn by the time the nine months between checkups is up), but I find floss that doesn't come in individual sticks** unfeasibly awkward. I put the last one in my utility belt for use as string, but I don't think I use enough string to run out in nine months.

    **Lovely things. If the dental assistant hadn't told me about them I still wouldn't be flossing at all. (Apparently the next checkup there was noticeable improvement in my gums.)

  2. This is so difficult for me. I don't consider myself a hoarder, because it's not that I want to keep all the stuff I have, it's that I don't want to throw it away. (Important distinction, to me.) Yeah, we don't have a VCR and will never have a chance to buy one, but old electronics are toxic and I don't want those VHSs decomposing in a landfill. Yeah, that entertainment center is missing pieces, so it's not an entertainment center anymore, but now there's a bunch of perfectly good boards. I can't use them, but surely someone can? And these books are falling apart too much to give them to the library, but I can read them to my kids. They won't be in that age group for at least ten years (as they don't exist yet), but...

  3. Brin, thanks for the suggestion about the homeless shelter. I'll take the toothpaste samples to ours.

    Hate Hurts Us All

    I understand the distinction you are making. That's part of my problem with the T-shirts that are too ratty to give to the thrift shop. I don't want to add them to the local landfill.

    This comes up again and again on both these shows, too. The people being featured don't want usable items to be thrown away. Unfortunately, they often create such a chaotic mess that once usable items become mildewed or even have pet or pest feces on them and have to be treated as trash (not saying your house is that way). And creating a landfill in your house, as many of these people seem to have done, is not a good solution to avoiding taking your unwanted items to one.

    We are fortunate to have good recycling options in our city. We can put a wide range of paper, cardboard and metal recyclables in one big bin, and there are businesses that accept used electronics to recycle. I realize not everyone has these options. However, if you put things like the VHS or entertainment center out on the street, they will often be picked up by people who can use them before the garbage collectors get there. If your trash pickup is not at an unreasonably early hour of the AM, you can put the stuff out and then if no one else takes it, remove it before the garbage truck goes by. Also, you can offer free items on freecycle or Craigslist.

  4. I wonder, if this problem is something that partly comes to exist because we are always getting far, far more items than we need... toothpaste samples we will never use, aprons we don't need.... We have become a culture where, even if you're not a consumer, you can't help being given things, and when you have them, it's hard to make the effort to get rid of them in a safe way (and, there is a stigma against some things being second hand, like toothpaste tubes, even if they are not opened, so, once you have them you can't really do anything but use them or throw them away).

    I think, hoarding is probably a natural response to the problematic state of our society. We are designed to hang on to resources, but, we are getting so many resources that are only useful in a trivial way, but still useful, that it overwhelms us....