Thursday, May 27, 2010

Awareness or Voyeurism: Hoarders

image I have been watching “Hoarders” on A&E. Each week it shows two people that are compulsive hoarders.  Some of the homes are over run by the things that people have collected, and others are filled with every kind of garbage that you can imagine.  Though the audience is made aware each episode that we are actually watching someone deal with a terrible illness, the shows still tend to give off a voyeuristic feel by focusing on the worst examples of hoarding.  Though the hoarders involved are given help to clean their home and money to pay for after care, the fact that their illness has become a form of entertainment is indeed problematic.

The homes of hoarders become so packed that there are rooms that they cannot enter.  One family featured on the show was sleeping in their backyard even though they had home.  Their house had been over-run by bed bugs, thus making it impossible for them to sleep in their own beds. One man had lost a loaded gun in his home and mouse droppings covered the counter tops and the floors.  In many cases, their houses become health hazards -- and just living in the space is risking their health.  

While “Hoarders” has certainly raised the profile of the illness, it does not do so in a way that engenders sympathy.  The viewer is encouraged to gawk at their lives  and because there is never any in-depth conversation regarding what leads to this illness, or the emotions behind it, hoarders can be understood as simply lazy people who don’t have the good sense to clean up.  That their lifestyle actually presents a health risk and not simply and annoyance to the communities that they live in is also not clearly explained.

Jesse Gaston, 76, and his wife Thelma Gaston, 79 were discovered buried alive in their home.  Thelma originally became trapped and when Jesse tried to help her, he also succumbed to the mess that had become their home.

Fortunately for the Gaston’s, they were found after a neighbour decided to call for a well being check after not seeing them for three weeks.  In some cases eating rotting and spoiled food, or living in an environment where they are infested with various vermin and even rotting and dead animals, means that each day they awake is a miracle.  Because hoarding is most often seen through the eyes of those that they inconvenience, the  self destructive nature of it is ignored. The people most harmed by hoarding are not the neighbours or even family and friends, they are the hoarders themselves.

"Essentially, hoarding is a particular manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder," Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, told FoxNews.com. "People feel compelled to collect and keep seemingly useless things, and would become highly and irrationally anxious if these things were taken from them."

Ablow said the root of this disorder is partly biological and partly due to early life events.

"Particularly those involving sudden changes or catastrophic losses," he said. "Hoarding can also be a kind of psychological defense against bigger threats since hoarders reduce their sense of well-being to whether they can keep the things they have collected." [source]

Watching the news story on this poor couple, we are again presented with a group of hoarders that we are expected to feel disdain for rather than sympathy.  The cameras repeatedly pan over the garbage and the mess, thus making the manifestation of the illness larger than the illness itself.   The house itself has been condemned, meaning that this couple, like many disabled people, will not be able to negotiate their illness on their own terms.

It is normally state or family intervention that forces the hoarder to deal with their illness.  In the case of family, it is often perceived that the hoarder is choosing  junk, over interacting with family.  Those who have never struggled with the disease have a hard time attaching the same value to these seemingly worthless items that the hoarder does.  The state only cares about the inconvenience it causes society and has been known to threaten imprisonment, thus once again criminalizing a mental illness.

From the outside hoarding may cause revulsion but until it is actually recognized as a sickness, those that suffer with it cannot be helped.  If we as a society simply move in and clean the area, it accomplishes nothing in the long run because the root of the problem has not been dealt with.  A hoarder must actively decide to seek treatment and to keep their house clean and clutter free to achieve permanent change.

Hoarding is just one form of disability among many that is easily ridiculed.  A lack of understanding is no excuse to treat these people as though they are a spectacle -- and the public shaming does nothing but increase the tendency to hoard.  Hoarders already feel enough shame; they isolate themselves from others in the fear that their sickness will become public. There are certainly no easy answers when a disability extends to the point where others are negatively effected, but I fail to see the point of shaming those who are clearly in pain for the sake of entertainment.