from: 'Memory Trails, Our Desire Lines'
A confession: I can be compulsive when it comes to watching shows related to hoarding / hoarders. If I manage to get a hold of some episodes, I will watch until I can't stand it anymore. Until I've seen too many dried out flattened animals and floor to ceiling death trap piles. At the same time as I watch, I'll often be writing in my paper journal, "I'm not like that!" and explaining how I'm not a hoarder and tangents of various associative thoughts.
Whoever came up with the idea of creating a television program showing the horrific extremes of hoarders lives is a genius. For me, they've created the perfect reality slash horror show. You see things you can't unsee and you learn things you can't unlearn and you can't help but wonder after watching an episode about the apartment unit next to you or that house down the block with the blinds always down.
There was a fire in an apartment that was part of a public housing building (they're hardly up to code as it is with some of the crummiest cheap-ass landlords, entitled because they're so kind as to let people who live on next to nothing social services have a next to not safe residence) well, as I said, there was a fire in one of the buildings and hundreds of residents became homeless. The fire began in the unit of a hoarder, a man who had kept piles of papers and law books and who knows what else. Someone who could have used some therapy over the years with this condition but even if you're put on the slightly better wage of a disability pension, you're rarely given the help needed to get healthier, as you're regarded with about as much potential as the one who's had no choice but to submit to welfare. But back to our hoarder.
So this real life hoarder in this real life building with real life people almost died and probably wished he had after the news jumped all over this one, blaming the man completely although it's not as if the landlord hadn't been aware of the problem and it's not as if the government who, carefully watching each penny doled out, wasn't aware of his condition, and yet at the end of the day the subject of unsafe housing regardless of the hoarding incident or not was never discussed in the media because public housing is one of those things that, unless you live in or near one, you don't want to think about it because it's just not nice, ya know?
I thought of that hoarder in that apartment living that life and then I think of a hoarder I knew in my own life - he was a good friend who, by all appearances one would never suspect it - but his home is a time capsule and in it there are two places one does not go. One is his childhood bedroom that has a locked door and a key that he keeps protectively hidden. I once tried to get in there and this skinny frail man with severe asthma took on superhuman strength in barring me from the door, his body shaking with adrenalin when I would take a turn at the doorknob, both of us knowing it wouldn't actually open but his fear that it might, that it just might, and then what would he do?
He let me see the basement though. I think he felt it was still within reasonable control, the pathways he had like aisles in a goodwill store, the smell - somewhat similar. An exercise bike - "But I use it!" - that being most unlikely as who would sit there in the near dark of a dank basement surrounded by so much stuff pedaling a cobwebbed stationary bike from the '80s? There were clothes hung up (better than piles, I suppose?) and as you walked along you could see them go from year to year. Every thing he kept was a part of a year, a decade, a historical reference only he would get.
He said he'd done some cleaning up down there so that the furnace and central air and whatever filters that were installed for this and that (his asthma was extreme) could be regularly checked and maintained. He'd had to make pathways before for the few people who had to come into his home to do work and it was always a big deal for him. Like the one year the electricity had to be upgraded - that was a horrible time, he said. Stuff had fallen on him when he'd opened up his bedroom and he'd done a clean up then but in the years since, things had got out of hand again. But the basement, didn't I think the basement looked good? I remember standing there, feeling sad. I wondered at the bedroom above that I would never see. He wasn't anything near bad as an episode of one of those hoarding shows, no.
Somehow, it was worse. I had this feeling as though he'd never quite let it get so bad as that. No dead animals. Also, because of his obsessive compulsive way of maintaining the main living areas the way they were when his parents were alive, one would not see those rooms overrun. But there was something about it horrific to me anyway. This man, this good and kind man, making sure the knick-knacks stayed in the same place, not allowing time to move forward, not adding his own personality to the house he solely owned - except by way of the secret room, the basement - seemed to me no way for a man to live.
He said he'd always been this way, even before his parents died fairly young. He didn't know why he was that way, he just was. His family doctor, unfamiliar with new diagnoses such as "hoarding" has never helped him to get treatment for it and overall, in dealing with it on his own, I think my friend had done alright. But I wonder at his parents, back when they were alive. Didn't they know that bringing a streetlight home was not a normal thing to do? Had they any idea it'd be in his basement to this very day?
What makes people turn out this way? What prevents the rest of us from having this particular illness? We live in a society of consume, consume, consume where material things are popularized to mean more than relationships and connections to other human beings, or even a better one with ourselves.
I've seen a grown man almost cry over a cereal box label. "But don't you want to remember the time you had this cereal with me?" And I made him throw it out. I don't remember what cereal it was or even if it was cereal that the label was for. I don't remember when it was exactly or whether it was a good day or not.
Are we really at a loss over that? I can't say. Typing the above, I think of all the little things one tends to forget, to let slip away. These details that this man can recall - lyrics and facts, trivia about this and that - incredible that he can remember all of that. And I wonder what's so wrong about keeping a cereal box label?
Then I think about that locked room. In that room is everything he wants to remember and everything he doesn't want to forget and it's all locked up, protected, hid away.
Another confession: I miss him. I miss his friendship. I hope he's doing okay.
Why can't you let go of that shit, old friend?
I wanted you to see your potential. I wish you knew this was your time to live.
We're both inflicting punishment on ourselves (a thousand lashes daily) in our own very different ways.
/// - adp, November 2011