I have a guilty pleasure I’d like to talk about. I like watching the reality TV shows where experts waltz into somebody’s horrifically filthy, packed to the ceiling with crap, full of trash house and throw it all away. I used to love Clean Sweep and a BBC show, How Clean Is Your House?. But my current favorite is Hoarders. Did you know that A&E run lots of full episodes online? I put on an episode and drag the computer around with me as I do laundry or dishes. I throw lots of stuff away. I feel a little superior and that feels nice. Like I said, it’s a guilty pleasure.
But there’s something I’ve learned about the hoarders and the people who love and try to help them. There are two qualities that I feel the people on the show could use an infinite amount of.
The first is personal responsibility. The people afflicted with symptoms of hoarding often refuse to take responsibility, instead blaming anyone and everyone for the state of their home. It was their parent’s, or an illness, or how no one offers to help them that is at fault for the hoarding. They act as if they could never be expected to change their ways even if their current lifestyle could result in losing their home, their health, or even their children. The change is too painful.
These folks are in a tough spot. They usually show obvious signs of suffering from depression or anxiety disorders and many are elderly or otherwise suffering from physical disabilities. They are vulnerable. They, and their mess, are on national television. They know that the stakes are high and that the television show allows them access to professional and material help that might not otherwise be available. Even by appearing on the show they are making a truly heroic attempt to correct their dangerous habits. But when it comes down to throwing or giving away truly insignificant things: empty medicine containers, broken dishes, or clothes bought five years ago with the tags still on they balk. “I couldn’t be expected to take on the pain or anxiety of disposing of these things,” they say, “I’m shocked and hurt that you even asked.” Taking responsibility means accepting the consequences of your actions. In this case the consequence is the pain caused by parting with these objects.
They need the ability to look at the mess and say to themselves, “I made this mess. The pain it causes me is no one else’s fault. Whatever it takes, I must change.” Basically, they need a 12 step program. The more responsibility someone on the show takes for their own problems the better the outcomes are. You can see it in their demeanors as well as in the state of their homes. People who refuse to take responsibility are dejected and humiliated and they often get very angry with the people there to help and support them. Folks who recognize their problem and grit their teeth through the painful process look relaxed and joyful and spend the wrap-up time of the show talking about the future.
The second necessary quality is compassion. The folks who are trying to deal with the messes and their creators need a truly infinite amount of compassion. It’s hard, frustrating, and often disgusting work to clean up these messes. For family members and long time friends there is often a lot of frustration that has built up for years. Children can be resentful. Spouses can feel abandoned. Parents can be bewildered by their children’s behavior. They plead, cajole, and threaten trying to get the hoarder to change their ways without success. It can be pretty intense.
Compassion for the hoarders means: understanding the difficulties that have made it hard for them to clean up their act; valuing them as people regardless of the mess; and helping them make positive changes in their emotional lives. Compassion means not enabling or excusing their hoarding. Compassion requires families to find a way to begin to forgive the past hurts so they can can begin repairing their relationships. Basically families and friends need a hoarder’s version of Al-Anon.
Have you ever had to deal with a hoarding situation? Do you think personal responsibility or compassion is important in these situations? What other personal qualities might be vital to success?