The Human Side of Hoarding

Virginia Festival of the Book

Matt Paxton

Matt Paxton signs copies of The Secret Life of Hoarders: True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter at the Virginia Festival of the Book. - Photo by Jeanne Siler

“Hoarders are good people who are struggling with difficult issues. To move toward recovery they need love and help, not ridicule,” wrote Matt Paxton in the foreword of his 2011 book The Secret Life of Hoarders, one of the numerous new releases presented to the attendees of this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book.

Paxton, from Richmond, readily admits he didn’t set out to be an extreme cleaning specialist. Nor did he expect to become one of the popular experts on the hit A&E television show Hoarders, much less an author or panelist at a book festival.

Nevertheless the little paperback book he co-authored with Phaedra Hise is packed with empathy, advice, and practical steps for cleaning up homes and healing the hoarder.

Hoarding is not unlike anorexia, he told the audience gathered in the Charlottesville City Hall auditorium on a Saturday morning: “You have to take ‘lazy’ and ‘crazy’ out of your vocabulary. Hoarders are sick.”

Anyone wanting to help a hoarder needs compassion in order to find what traumas or events may lie behind the compulsion to save, plus the recognition that it takes patience and time to make a permanent change.

“You have to treat the trigger first,” declared Paxton, meaning an emotional disturbance quickening the behavior. He compared the futility of cleaning a house of clutter without finding the trigger to taking beer out of the fridge in hopes of stopping an alcoholic from drinking.

Acutely aware that television show producers walk a fine line when showcasing a mental disorder for entertainment, Paxton has stopped the cameras on occasion to protect clients who weren’t emotionally ready for the upheaval that comes with a clean-up. His company, Clutter Cleaner, works in tandem with therapists, and clients who appear on TV also receive professional help.

He did acknowledge that only Stage 5 hoarders—tops on his scale of one to five— typically make it to the show. His book, however, describes traits that suggest just how easily hoarding can begin.

For example, keeping a big sturdy cup from a fast food restaurant with the intention of donating it to a homeless shelter or repurposing it for a second use is admirable. Allowing other similar plastic items to accumulate creates a problem. Saving old electronic parts in case they might be useful “one day”? Saving newspapers for the crossword puzzles, or magazine articles for a friend? Stocking up on cans of food that go on sale? All these point to a potential for hoarding.

Hoarders-in-training, according to Paxton, simply have difficulty processing the “avalanche of stuff” that is part of our lives as consumers. Consider the following excerpts from Paxton’s own guide to the first three stages:

  • Stage 1—clutter isn’t excessive, hoarding isn’t always recognizable; storage is about habits more than about volume; for example, not being able to part with things easily.
  • Stage 2—piles are mounting; junk drawers become junk rooms; residents pay less attention to housekeeping or repairing large broken items.
  • Stage 3—hoarding becomes evident to the outside world; walkways and stairs are difficult to navigate, outside storage areas overflow; physical activity and finances suffer.

The book also lists resources—web sites, support groups, other books, and even needed supplies for a planned clean-up—that can prove invaluable to those wanting to aid a hoarder.

Still the author emphasizes that compassion, patience, respect and hope are even more important.

“You’ve got to find the hope to cope,” he told Festival attendees.

Both Paxton and Sandra Beasley, a Washington D.C. author who wrote about the challenge of growing up with severe food allergies and who was paired with Paxton on the “Memoirs: How We Cope” panel at the Festival, agreed that their books are largely educationally driven, written to help others understand what they have seen first-hand.

Neither affliction—allergies or hoarding—are particularly new, but both play increasingly prominent roles in the 21st century.

By: Jeanne Siler