Monday, December 14, 2009

The Ripple Effect of Hoarders

A&E's show Hoarders is an intervention-style reality television series that profiles people whose lives have been severely impacted by a hoarding compulsion. My mother turned me on to this show; in turn, I've turned several friends on to it; in turn, these friends have turned several of their friends and family members on to it. In sum, it is the most compelling and gripping reality television show that I have ever encountered. I've only met one person who doesn't like it.

Perhaps "like" is the wrong word. Only a truly pathological individual could experience any sort of pleasure when viewing a television show that exposes a hoarder to the scrutiny and judgment of the world. Hoarders, as a group, are not "bad" people, nor (for the most part) are they suffering from a mental disorder, as most "specialists" would have you believe. Rather, hoarders are people who lack organizational skills and/or people whose judgment has become impaired when it comes to dealing with accumulated clutter. They are a rather diverse group of people, coming from all walks of life, all types of family backgrounds, and all levels of education and income.

It is the extremely rare individual who has never had to deal with any sort of accumulated clutter. Almost as rare is the individual who has always been able to dispatch with clutter in a timely manner. Everyone has had a moment, no matter how brief, where they have been unable to decide whether they should keep something or throw it away. With a hoarder, these moments will all too often stretch out indefinitely, and just as often a hoarder will make bad decisions regarding accumulated clutter - i.e., to keep something that has little or no value, or to keep something of value for which they do not have room and/or probably won't ever actually need or use.

There is no one reason why people make bad decisions regarding accumulated clutter, nor is there any objective standard by which all such decisions can be measured. But the show Hoarders doesn't deal with any of these gray areas. It focuses on people whose judgment regarding accumulated clutter has become so severely impaired as to make their bad decisions clearly irrational to outside observers. Consequently, many people "blame the victims," and the victims respond (quite predictably) with all sorts of cliché excuses and banal explanations for their behavior. Even so, a thoughtful observer will be left with the distinct impression that "but for the grace of God, there go I."

Hoarders does a very good job of exposing the universal psychological dynamics of shame, victim blaming, blame shifting, and co-dependency. To wit, most hoarders know that their behavior is pathological, and they are typically overwhelmed by feelings of shame. Moreover, the friends and family of a hoarder are usually frustrated and angry, perhaps justifiably so, and they usually blame the hoarder for . . . God only knows what, reinforcing the hoarder's feelings of shame. However, contrary to most conventional wisdom, accepting responsibility for a situation does not mean accepting blame. And while assigning blame may sometimes help an innocent party feel better, it seldom helps the hoarder, and it almost always morphs into a co-dependent dynamic of resentment.

Other things being equal, the co-dependents of a hoarder are seldom suffering from any sort of mental disorder. Rather, like most so-called co-dependents, a hoarder's co-dependents are usually people who simply do not have the wherewithal and/or clinical detachment necessary to deal with pathological behavior. This lack of wherewithal typically gives way to feckless attempts to fix the problem, which typically gives way to feelings of frustration, resentment, and guilt. With such dynamics in play, most progress is usually very temporary, and the problem usually becomes much, much worse.

After watching several episodes of Hoarders, I've found it very hard to gauge the success rate of their interventions, but they are seldom completely successful. At the same time, they are seldom complete failures. Most of the really bad situations are improved in some clearly palpable way, leaving the promise of a ripple effect that goes far beyond the individuals profiled by the show. Witness the blog post that you are now reading, which will probably be read by dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of people.

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