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A&E's 'Hoarders' Inspires Inventory of Amassed—and Treasured—Trash

by on March 03, 2011 6:18 AM

It started with plastic bags.

As my husband and I were waiting for the teen carpool pick-up to begin last Saturday evening, we found ourselves watching a TV marathon of the A&E reality series "Hoarders." Each week, "Hoarders" features individuals whose hoarding behaviors have reached the point of either damaging their interpersonal relationships or of putting them at risk for physical harm.

The marathon featured back-to-back episodes about people who refuse to let anything go and who, for the most part, were living in filth. The cameras filmed rooms filled to the rafters with clothes, mail, boxes, junk, collectibles, animals, animal droppings, dead animals and rotting food and garbage. In many cases, the occupants of the house must walk through pathways or, if it’s really bad, climb on and over the stuff that has amassed. Sometimes, the bathrooms, kitchens and other living areas of the homes are so full of junk that the rooms are unusable. Most were psychologically unable to throw things out.

One guy’s wife was so bad that he was forced to sleep in his car at night because there was no way to reach the bed (which was covered with stuff, anyway).

The show brings in a psychologist and team of organizing “experts” to help the individual reorganize and overcome the anxiety related to throwing out cherished trash. Sometimes the show ends with the homes brought back to reasonable standards of order. Other times, the featured hoarder becomes so distressed with the reorganization or the psychological dysfunction is so significant that the intervention is unsuccessful.

In between episode No. 2 and No. 3 in the marathon, I got up from the couch and walked quietly over to our pantry. I pulled out the 637-plus plastic grocery bags that I had been saving and immediately took them out to the car so that I would remember to take them for recycling. My husband watched, eyebrows raised, and said: “Did you notice that a lot of these people start with recycling?”

Oh, boy. I’ve been known to reach my hand in the garbage can to pull out an empty shampoo bottle that someone forgot to put in our recycling bin. 

The American Psychiatric Association is considering adding “hoarding disorder” to the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – a manual that sets diagnostic criteria for just about any mental or emotional dysfunction. The signs and symptoms of hoarding are similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder and can include “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions” and "strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding.”

In almost all of the cases on TV, the individuals had suffered significant loss or neglect at some point in their lives, at which time they began gathering and keeping stuff. One woman had turned the “recycle-reuse” of post-World War II into 30 years of accumulated stuff. Another couple had 22 rabbits running around, doing their business all over the house (without the owners ever cleaning up the mess or any other stuff in their house). Apparently animal hoarding is a topic (and another TV show). 

We humans seem to have a tendency to keep, treasure, save and amass things that we really don’t need.

After watching the "Hoarders" marathon, I was motivated to spend the next day reorganizing. I am by no means a hoarder, but the house definitely needed a “thinning out” of stuff. I started a pile for donation. (Editor's note: The picture to the right is not Patty's house.)

I pulled out 13 assorted sport water bottles, plastic cups from Penn State football games and the travel cups with lids that we got at Disney in 1998. 

Given that the kids are now young adults, I thinned out the “I-will-save-these-art-supplies-for-school-projects” cabinet. That darn grass in a bottle that we used to help the girls build their castles in fourth grade just makes a mess anyhow. Coloring books, paints, markers that no longer write and glue bottles from 2001 are now history.

I also pulled out the “Make your own spaghetti” maker, the “Make your own snow cone” maker and the “Make your own cotton candy” maker. By the time grandchildren start to come around, none of these would probably work, anyway. Ditto with the rock tumbler.

We burn up coffee makers about once every two to three years. I’ve kept the last three extra pots “just in case” the new one breaks. I’ve never, ever broken a coffee pot.

I have saved every vase from every flower delivery that I have received in my adult life. I’ll keep the cool ones that might look nice with cut flowers, but have a box ready to go back to a friend who owns a floral shop. I’ll bet buying those vases in bulk costs some money. I’ll return mine for free.

What do I do with all of the baskets? Baskets used to be a big part of entertaining, but for some reason I don’t use them much anymore. While I’m at it, I’ll make sure I’m keeping only those food-storage items that actually have lids that fit. 

When my grandmother passed away, I ended up with some of her things. I love that her handwriting is still on some of the pill bottles she labeled for safety pins and needles in her sewing kit. I don’t think that I need 14 of her pie plates, though – handy if I owned a bakery, but otherwise not very practical. I’ll keep her silverware for extras if I have a party, but her empty canisters which were pushed to the back of one of my shelves are going to Goodwill.

I’ll remember this year at Easter not to buy another egg-dying kit because I already have four. The cell phones from the '90s, with their chargers and cases, are collected and will be dropped off for recycling. Ditto with the inkjet cartridges (all 27 of them). I wonder what I can do with all of the extra coffee mugs that feature business advertising on them.

The crayon drawings, school reports, homemade holiday cards and letters to the tooth fairy are staying. I’ve organized them in big plastic boxes with one for each kid. Clothes, shoes and the junk in the basement will be a task for spring break.

When I returned from the garage on Saturday night, empty handed, the 637-plus bags now out of the house and ready for recycling, my husband asked: “Feeling anxious?”

I’m not ready for TV yet. 

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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