Review: Britain's Biggest Hoarders (With Some Reflections on the Pathological Nature of Banking)
There was an interesting programme on the TV recently. It was called Britain’s Biggest Hoarders. In it the presenter, Jasmine Harman, the daughter of hoarding-mother Vasoulla Savvidou, took us around the houses of various chronic hoarders. Aside from her mum, we were also introduced to Alan Burgess, and Richard Pout, both of whom are (or were) badly out-of-control hoarders.
Firstly we have to be clear what we mean here. This is hoarding on an epic scale. It’s not just a case of having a box or a wardrobe or a shed full of stuff which you don’t like to throw away. This is hoarding gone pathological. Hoarding as a compulsion. Hoarding as an illness. Hoarding to the point where the person’s health and well-being is threatened, and which impinges upon their loved-ones and their neighbours and even, in some cases, threatens their life.
It is hoarding which fills up every room in the house, from floor to ceiling. Hoarding which fills up the halls and the bathroom and the bedrooms and which means you have to pick your way through minute passages between overweening mounds of stuff in danger of toppling over. Hoarding which spills out into the garden, which moulders in the damp air; or hoarding in the kitchen, so that out-of-date food falls on the floor and begins to rot, creating a health hazard, as the floors become slimy with composting food and packaging, with disintegrating newspapers and discarded carrier bags.
Hoarding, in fact, which is a form of mental illness, not unlike anorexia or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; only where Obsessive Compulsive Disorder leads to a life of pathological cleanliness, compulsive hoarding leads to clutter and mess and dust and spoors and germs and infestations and filth. Imagine someone with OCD having to live with a compulsive hoarder! It would be like matter and anti-matter coming into contact. It would lead to one mighty big explosion.
I recommend the programme highly, not only because it allows us a peek into the lives of people with this very strange disorder, but also because the presenter, having grown up with a mum with the illness, is deeply compassionate with her subjects, so we are given a real insight into their illness and what it means to them.
It was, indeed, compulsive TV, and, were it only available in box form, I would feel compelled to keep a copy of it in my own hoarding wardrobe. As it is, it is currently available on BBC iPlayer, and I would recommend you go and see it while you can. After that you will have to nag the BBC to show it as a repeat.
But the thing which strikes you the most about the problem is that for those who suffer with it, it is normal.
It is sane.
It makes sense.
Take Richard Pout. He is the one whose life is threatened by his hoarding, as he is recovering from a serious illness, and the state of his house is now a hazard. He has a rat. He understands that his house needs to be cleared: or at least that the floors need to be cleared so that he can walk properly without danger of falling down the stairs. But when the presenter introduces him to someone to help clean up, the work goes painfully slowly because he has to inspect everything as it leaves the house. Boxes and boxes of newspapers pile up to await his inspection. He cannot let them go until he’s looked through them to see if there is anything interesting in them. The theme then becomes persuading him to allow a single box of newspapers to leave the house without his prior inspection.
You see, that is normal. In his head, it is normal. There might be an interesting article in one of those newspapers, who knows? And who hasn’t kept newspapers or magazine articles with the thought that you might want to read them again one day?
The normal description of someone who hoards magazine articles and newspapers and books for future reference is a writer; only these days us writers do most of our work on-line on that vast treasure hoard of information known as the internet.
Or Alan Burgess. He’s a compulsive collector of things. He doesn’t like useful stuff being thrown away. He collects things that other people discard, and which he thinks could come in handy one day. He picks them up out of skips or from charity shops. And meanwhile he has filled up every room in the house, and has now spread out and filled both the front and the back gardens too, and he and his wife Marion only have half a bed to sleep on, and the only place where Marion can sit down to eat her dinner is on the toilet!
Obviously the neighbours have complained about the state of Alan’s gardens, and the local council are threatening to prosecute him, so he is forced to rope in some friends to help clear up the mess. But when Marion shows him a pair of plastic bar-like objects with wheels and asks if she can throw them away, he is unable to let them go.
“You want these?” she says.
“For moving a fridge?”
“You can move anything with them.”
“Oh anything. When are we going to be moving anything,” she says, with more than a touch on irony. It’s obvious that nothing has got moved in this house for many years.
At which point Alan loses his temper. “For God’s sake!” he says, threatening to storm off.
“Don’t go,” says Marion, defeated. “I’ll find somewhere to put them inside if you really want to have them.”
“Put them under the bed then,” he says.
We’d been shown the bed earlier, and there wasn’t even room for them to sleep on it, let alone store yet more things under it.
On the other hand, you can see where he is coming from. This is only a few steps away from normal behaviour. Who knows when we might need to move a fridge, or when a pair of dedicated fridge removers might not come in handy? I know quite a few people who would store fridge removers if they came across them. In Alan’s head, everything has a purpose, everything might come in useful one day, and the only problem is lack of space.
Jasmine asks him if he thinks he has a problem with hoarding possessions.
“Hoarding it?” he says, as if not recognising the word. “I know it looks higgledy-piggledy at the moment, but tidied up and put in its place… You see nothing’s in its right place. It’s just lying about.”
In other words, there’s nothing wrong with his things, all he needs is more space to put them in.
It was on watching this programme that I came up with the thought: to an insane person their insanity is perfectly normal.
And the follow up thought: to the insane person, it is sanity which appears abnormal.
To Alan and Richard their behaviour is entirely rational. They are making rational decisions about things they want to keep, which might, at some point, have a purpose.
We all make decisions like this, but for most of us the bounds of what we can cope with in the form of clutter is much more limited. The instinct to keep things is tempered by the ability to live with the mess. There is a boundary line between the accumulation of things and our tolerance of the chaos that too many things can cause. In Alan and Richard’s cases, that boundary-line has disappeared.
However, it would be unfair to describe either of them as insane. They are not insane. What they have, rather, is a form of pathological normality.
It is normality gone off the rails.
And don’t they have a point? Don’t we throw too much away which might come in useful? Someone somewhere made those fridge removers which Alan is reluctant to lose. There are lots of fridges in the world: why get new fridge removers when he has a set already? And, as he points out, they can be used to move other things too: washing machines and cookers and furniture and other heavy items.
Aren’t we just as crazy for throwing everything away?
In other words, Alan’s particular form of insanity throws a light upon our own.
The other thing that the programme highlights is that chronic hoarding has its origins in some kind of trauma. In Alan’s case, it was two redundancies in succession which knocked him off kilter and starting him along this road to compulsive accumulation. It isn’t made explicit in the programme, but it's a fair guess to say that to Alan what he is doing is like a job. It represents his value to the world, his business.
In Jasmine’s mum’s case it was the loss of her father, who was murdered during a period of political unrest in her native Cyprus. The family was forced to emigrate, leaving their whole lives behind. Jasmine’s mum has been filling up the void ever since.
In Richard’s case it was the departure of his father when he was 13, which turned his whole life upside down. Richard was forced into a situation of premature responsibility, seeing himself as the man of the house. Money was tight, his mother got into debt, and Richard had to be conscious of the value of things. He learnt not to throw anything away.
In all of these cases we can see a clear line between the trauma and the hoarding. As Jasmine’s mum’s psychologist said: there is a theme of loss implicated with hoarding.
None of this is particularly surprising. What is surprising is that we don’t see more pathological behaviour than we do, or that we don’t recognise it when we do see it. Because my next point is this: that actually our whole world is insane.
Compulsive accumulation: isn’t this what bankers and hedge-fund managers do? They’re not accumulating things, they’re accumulating wealth, but it has the same compulsive quality. They are accumulating wealth way beyond what they need to live; way beyond, even, what they need to live luxuriously, fulfilling their every possible whim. The richest 1,000 people in Britain– 0.0003% of the population – have accumulated more wealth in the last three years than the entire national deficit. In fact they could pay off the deficit and still have £30 billion to spare. £30 billion is a hell of a lot of money. And that’s only in the last three years.
This is accumulation gone pathological, accumulation gone insane, but whereas Richard and Alan are only hurting themselves and their immediate circle with their compulsive behaviour, our crazy banker friends are hurting the whole damned world.
What is even more mad is that this pathological way of acting is not only considered sane – admirable even – but that as a nation we have legislated to encourage it. We consider banking an “industry”. It contributes to our national wealth… or so we are told. But while the bankers themselves are getting richer, the rest of us are getting poorer. And while it is these self-same bankers who created the crash that lead to the borrowing that lead to the deficit in the first place, it is the rest of us who are expected to pay.
As Michael Meacher MP said, in a recent letter to the Guardian: “77% of the budget deficit is being recouped by public expenditure cuts and benefit cuts, and only 23% is being repaid by tax increases. More than half of the tax increases is accounted for by the VAT rise which hits the poorest hardest. None of the tax increases is specifically aimed at the super-rich.”
In other words, we are encouraging these pathological hoarders in their behaviour.
Richard and Alan are sane by comparison.
© 2012 Christopher James Stone