I’ve been watching the TV series Buried Alive. For whatever reason they screen the show late at night, not late-late, but late enough. As the clock ticks towards midnight I’m sitting on my sofa, riveted to the screen, jaw dropping, as I survey these obsessive collectors, these world-class hoarders, in their warren-like homes, that are stacked literally floor to ceiling with STUFF.
STUFF takes many forms: new merchandise in unopened boxes; empty packets/plastic bags/boxes; bona fide collections of hats, jewellery, bric-a-brac, stuffed toys, shoes; mountains of garments that obscure sagging couches. Mementoes of dead and long-gone relatives; albums, scrapbooks, piles of loose photographs; tower of Pisa leanings of newspaper clippings; stacks and stacks of books. Oh dear – stacks of books. Moving on.
Saddest of all are the sleeping arrangements, usually a little nest on an old couch, because the bedroom has long been engulfed in STUFF and now serves as a repository and no longer functions as a useable room. The bed, of course, is buried under layers and layers of STUFF. Sad to say there’s often a few small dogs, or a pair of skittish cats, living with the buried hoarders, so there’s also the chaos of food bowls, litter trays and (aaargggh yuck-yuck-yuck) little dried out cigars shaped droppings lurking in corners. Mercifully the cameras never show the bathrooms. They are probably best not seen.
What astonishes me is that the hoarders are willing to expose their disease to the cameras. The hoarders often exhibit shame and embarrassment when the extent of their hoarding is revealed, so I can only suppose the TV channel offers an awful lot of money, plus the services of a psychologist, a professional organiser and a clean-up team. But it doesn’t always work that way. I recently watched a thoroughly bolshy man who grumpily disposed of his STUFF purely to satisfy his three kids, making it abundantly plain he didn’t want to do so; he fought obstinately with the therapist, the professional organiser and everyone within range. But – and all credit to him – he singlehandedly threw out most of his STUFF and was shown in his mopped, sparkling, restored house now functioning as a home again. There he was, sitting at his dining-room table, playing Monopoly with his adult kids, “just like we used to do”.
What sets people off? The death of a close relative, usually a partner; chronic depression; OCD; fear of lack of resources in the future; and sometimes – I suspect – downright laziness. And once in motion, the process escalates until it reaches crisis proportions. Family members are no longer willing – or able – (they can’t get in through the front door) to visit. Frequently they express very reasonable fears that the hoarder, and any brave visitor, will literally be buried alive should the STUFF topple over and fall on them.
Because I live in a Third World country the reverse is often true. Many people in South Africa live with meagre possessions, sometimes not even the bare essentials, in very small spaces. I’m often struck by just how much money these hoarding Americans have spent on STUFF – where does the money come from? and yet they continue to buy more and more STUFF. Another interesting factor is that hoarding seems not to be confined to any economic or racial group. The programme has shown inner city apartments, suburban homes in small towns and large cities.
My viewing of Buried Alive has caused me to throw out some of my own STUFF (yes, even a few books – shudder) and I urge you to do the same. Pop the rejects into a box marked “donations to charity”. A good yardstick is: (1) Is it useful? (2) Do I really love this item? (3) Is it a beautiful object? And if the answer is ‘No’, then there’s the recycle bag, the rubbish bin and the Charity Box. Go for it!