Make yourself at home! – Richard Wallace of Westcott.

I’ve just watched two revealing documentaries in successive nights on the topic of hoarding -  Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder on Channel 4 and BBC’s Britain’s Biggest Hoarders.

These are extreme makeover shows where we are afforded the luxury of eavesdropping on the mess of other people’s lives and can thus feel marginally better about ourselves.

What’s clear is that there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding, between being thrifty and stockpiling useless junk.  ‘You never know when it might come in useful’  is probably one thought that initiates the obsession. If you’re not careful this can become a slippery slope where you are reluctant to dispose of anything.

Alan, a hoarder from St Albans on the BBC programme, was reluctant to part with a collection of clothes hangers on the basis that he didn’t want to go out and buy wire if he needed it.

I once knew someone who never threw away old copies of Radio Times, a collection that took up a lot of space in his garage. I myself have a ‘collection’ of cassettes and video tapes I’ll probably never listen to or watch again.

Newspapers and magazines in general appear to be items people like to cling on to but my conscience is relatively clear on this score.

Jasmine Harman the likeable presenter of the BBC documentary says that hoarding is not recognised as a psychiatric disorder;  a statement slightly undermined by her being able to call upon Dr Caroline Weiss (“a psychiatrist trained in treating hoarders”) and Dr Paul Salkovskis (“one of Britain’s few hoarding experts”).

More practical help came in the shape of Heather Matuozzo who is introduced as a “professional declutterer”.

Professional helpers and caring friends or neighbours are seen handling these eccentric individuals with kid gloves. The therapists are trained to remain patient and unfazed at all times. Their range of things that they regard as “normal” or “natural” is wildly at odds with conventional wisdom. None convinces that they have the capacity to provide practical solutions. They are careful not to use words like garbage or rubbish so, while they might be thinking to themselves ‘How can you live with all this shit?’,  they prefer to play the empathy card and ask things like ‘Can you describe you emotions?  or How does this make you feel?

The psychiatrist who visits Richard Wallace, the subject of Channel 4′s documentary, looked well out of his depth and the only concrete thing that came out of his fact-finding mission was that he called the local fire brigade to provide a health and safety check.

Wallace is an intelligent guy and the fact that his congested shit hole  stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise pristine and prissy village in Surrey was a point in his favour. Most of his snooty and smug neighbours were put out by the way he sabotaged their chances of winning the Britain in bloom prize and clearly didn’t a toss about his welfare. The notable exception was landscape gardener, Andy Honey who befriends him and shows him error of his ways in a non patronising fashion.

Jasmine also takes a pragmatic line, looking for ways of changing the behaviour of the hoarders. She has a vested interest in finding a cure for this condition as her mother is a sufferer. Her mom’s common complaint was the lack of storage space and so Jasmine takes the bull by the horns by relocating all the house contents in  a warehouse. Here they are arranged according to category – clothes, utensils, toys etc. Her hope was that her mother would immediately be able to dispose of many items; she is partially successful but the underlying message from both programmes seemed to be ‘ once a hoarder, always a hoarder’.

What comes over is that these lost souls cling to their possessions as though literally filling a void in their lives.  Alan of St Albans says at one point “When it comes to things and family, it’s difficult to draw a line”.  Objects that look useless to the untrained eye are imbedded with emotional significance to the possessor.

If nothing else, these eye-opening programmes should force viewers to take a look around their own homes and assess how much clutter they really need. They certainly gave me the impetus to have a long postponed blitz on my garage this weekend!

Related links:
Suzanne Moore of the TV hoarders (Guardian.co.uk)
Article about Richard Wallace (Daily Mail online)

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