Thinkable

I don’t have a TV- oddly enough this is something that people comment on when they visit my home. “Where’s your TV?” They say. When I tell them I don’t have one, I feel obligated to confess that I still waste plenty of time watching TV shows, I just do it on my computer. It works out pretty well for me. I generally watch one episode a night, commercial free. And when there is a cliffhanger I can just start the next episode right away. It’s very nice.

Last week I finished watching the Life of Birds and didn’t know what to watch next. I tried Cake Boss, and thought it was silly. The next night I decided to try out Hoarders. That show has turned out to be a brain worm. I just can’t quit thinking about it. (Hence this post).

The whole thing made me really uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Upfront there is the voyeurism. It feels wrong to use people who are obviously ill for entertainment. You can kind of mitigate that by saying that in exchange for appearing on the show they actually do get help, but that doesn’t really make it morally neutral. I also found it uncomfortable for what I noticed in my reactions to it. For example, I found myself feeling surprised at how attractive some of the people were. This is something that still bothers me; am I really that judgmental of appearances? It looks like the answer is yes. For some reason it isn’t surprising when ‘ugly’ people have bad habits. But attractive people with bad habits? That’s shocking- even though it shouldn’t be.

The thing that really got in my brain though, was how reasonable the people all sounded to me. I found myself nodding along with the declarations of “I could clean that up and sell it at a yard sale for 10 bucks.” “I kept that because I could make something out of it.” “I thought I might be useful someday.” I felt myself getting physically uncomfortable at the workers throwing away things, valuable things. Certainly I could see they had too much stuff. Get rid of some of it, yes. Sell it. Recycle it. But throw it away? Really?

Watching several episodes in rapid succession helped me notice some patterns, some of which were worrying to me. I heard “My mom’s house was like this.” and “My dad was always saving things.” I’ve written before about my Grandma, and how her stuff is ruining her life. My Mom is similar, but not so bad. I also am similar, but not as bad. That said, I have a sister who is actually worse than our Grandma about her attachment to stuff.

Another thing I picked out was the connection to depression- something I’ve inherited from my Dad’s side of the family along with crippling perfectionism (it has to be perfect or it isn’t worth doing at all). And the last thing that worried me the most was this sentence and the variations of it: “I wasn’t like this until [X]” Where [X] is the death of a loved one, lost job, marital troubles and so on.

While talking over all this with my husband he was kind of frustrated. In his mind I am obviously not a hoarder. Obviously. Why are we even talking about this. Don’t be silly. Then I told him about the empty ketchup bottle that I washed which has been sitting on the shelf in our pantry for a little over four months. Why? Because I could use it for something. Someday. Sitting next to it was the empty laundry detergent bottle that I washed out for the same reason.

Suddenly the conversation was a little less silly than it had been.

Here’s the thing I realized. I am not a level five hoarder. I’m not even really a level one hoarder. But it is not inconceivable that I could get that way. Nobody gets that way all at once, and ignoring the signs of it doesn’t help. Telling yourself that it is unthinkable is what creates the denial necessary to start down the long slide to living in a truly dangerous house. Knowing that about myself, admitting it, keeping an eye out for it, fighting it, isn’t being silly or paranoid. It may be all that stands between me and living out my retirement just like my grandma is- torn between the life she wants to live and holding on to all of her stuff.

There are a lot of things that we think of as unthinkable. “I would never do that” we say. I would suggest taking a moment and admitting that many of those things are, in fact, thinkable. It is possible for you to do those things you say you would never do, because you are not necessarily fundamentally different from those people that do. Admitting that risk, and keeping your eye on the temptations is far safer than sticking your head in the sand and pretending it won’t happen.

Starfoxy

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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12 Responses

  1. Corktree says:

    Fantastic post! I remember, back when I used to watch Oprah on occasion, a show about hoarders and people that never clean (especially gross with pets). I haven’t watched any of the new shows, but it’s shocking to see that this has become such a big thing. My husband tells me there is another show similar where it truly is just voyeurism and no real genuine help is given. Sad.

    It’s not easy to admit these types of things to ourselves, but I agree that it’s important to view our tendencies as honestly as possible. I have to do this with my OCD to keep it in check. I absolutely used to think “I will never get as bad as so and so” and then something would happen (pregnancy usually) and I would slide so far down the scale that I didn’t even see it coming. And when family would point it out, I would be shocked at how bad I really was. It didn’t always make it easy to change, especially the part that was in my head, but I was able to take steps away from what I was doing.

    And as far as “thinkable” goes, I used to think that if I thought something, the chances of it coming true dropped enough to make it near impossible. That mindset really set me up for a lot of horrific imagining. 😉

  2. Caroline says:

    Wonderful post, Starfoxy.

    I loved your ending point: “I would never do that” we say. I would suggest taking a moment and admitting that many of those things are, in fact, thinkable. It is possible for you to do those things you say you would never do.”

    This makes me think. What are the things I say I would never do? Cheating on my husband pops immediately to mind. But like you point out, people who do fall into that are not all that different from me in a lot of ways. Makes me take a step back and realize that if all sorts of things lined up in certain ways, maybe that could be a possibility. Yikes. Disturbing to think about.

  3. Stephanie2 says:

    Great post. My grandmother sounds like your grandmother. It is really sad and “unthinkable” to the rest of us. And yet I know she uses stuff (and more stuff) to fill an emotional void. Caused by growing up during the depression? An indifferent mother? Being widowed with five young children? Who knows? All I know is that it’s painful to deal with (for her and for the rest of the family).

    I don’t have this particular tendency, but there are other things about my grandmother and mother that I grew up looking down my nose at and am slowly beginning to accept with humility that I share. It makes me embarassed and sorry for being so judgemental of them and hopeful that others will show more kindness and tolerance to me (especially my children!)

  4. Stephanie2 says:

    Oh wow, I just read the link to your other post about your grandmother. She sounds exactly like mine. And they have had similar life experiences. It reminds me of when I read a book about my mother’s personality. The book said that this personality was formed from specific life events like being abandoned by a parent through either separation or death. It then described the child of this personality, and it was like I was reading a perfectly accurate description of myself.

    It does make me wonder how much we are products of our own free will and agency and how much we are just products of what happens to us.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Great post, Starfoxy! I think it’s rather arrogant when people see a divorce happen and say, “How awful…but that would never happen to me/us,” because divorce can happen to anyone. There are just so many life situations that could make one or both partner want to call it quits.

    Nate and I discuss this quite often because we’ve seen divorce in both of our families and among our friends–sometimes, because one person wants to leave, sometimes, because people have simply grown apart. By admitting it could happen to us, talking about how to mitigate potential (or actual) dealbreakers, and going to marriage therapy every couple years, we hope this puts us in a better situation to avoid divorce.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Emily says:

    “For example, I found myself feeling surprised at how attractive some of the people were. This is something that still bothers me; am I really that judgmental of appearances?”

    Fantastic post by the way. I just want to make the point that I don’t think you are judgemental for being surprised at how attractive some of the people were. I imagine it’d be extremely difficult to do basic hygiene or keep your clothes clean when your are drowning in stuff. It’s surprising that thier physical appearance is clean and attractive when everything around them is not.

  7. Mary W says:

    I’ve only watched one Hoarders episode–the first one, with one of the clients being the woman that hoarded food. I was horrified, but at the same time was instantly sucked back into my childhood cluttered home. I remember my mom’s voice demanding that we clean up or else, and wandering through the house holding possessions and thinking to myself, “Where does this go, where does this go…oh! It can go there!” And then I stick the thing somewhere where I’m sure I’ll remember where it goes. I never did remember later, and we were all always searching for stuff. Our floors, dishes, and laundry always had to be clean; but it was a paradox. For example, my parents made us move the stacks of boxes in every room (never unpacked through several moves) to sweep or vacuum underneath, and then push them back into place. Every available surface was full, but we had to clear them off to dust and clean and then replace it all.

    I hadn’t learn the skills that I needed yet to have a minimalistic and organized home. I started learning in college, from neat freak roommates and other roommates who were downright disgusting. Then I lived with virtually no possessions in South America for a few years, and learned how to do without.

    I learned much from all these extremes, and became a professional organizer when I grew up. (I was very displeased with the organizers’ methods on the show; and felt that they were aiming for sensationalism and finger-pointing more than helping their clients. They didn’t treat them like real people with real feelings. And they didn’t even TRY to teach them any skills!) But no matter how skilled and talented I am now at helping people go through the same learning process that I did, I will never forget the little girl I was and my deep-seated anxiety and emotional attachment to stuff. I STILL have a hard time with wanton waste (I like to donate and sell the items to the benefit of the owners). I understand what these people are feeling, even if we never got to that level (level 5 as you say).

    I’m not comfortable going back there, to the way it was. After I watched that first episode, I went into my office and stared at the very small pile of things on my desk that needed to be placed in their homes. I couldn’t stop staring. “I’m a hoarder!” I thought. I felt sick and a little panicky. I decided not to cave to the compulsion of cleaning the pile while I still felt like that, so I went to bed. The next morning when I put the pile away, I was glad I had waited, and everything seemed normal again.

    It is “thinkable”. You are absolutely right. We should not judge others for the trap they have gotten into one step at a time, because we could very easily end up in the same place; all we need is one life crisis for things to get out of hand and be in the same situation ourselves. Or maybe level 2 instead of level 5, but who’s counting? I won’t be watching any more Hoarders.

  8. Kmillecam says:

    “For example, I found myself feeling surprised at how attractive some of the people were. This is something that still bothers me; am I really that judgmental of appearances?”

    So many good points in here. It’s always interesting to discover a new part of ourselves we didn’t realize was judgmental. I think the power we can harness in the face of divorce or a tendency for compulsion is found in our self-awareness. I like what EmilyCC said above too, it can happen to anyone.

  9. Lovelyn says:

    Great post! I too don’t have a television and choose to watch my favorite shows online. I haven’t seen hoarders, but after reading this post I’ll check it out. I live in the UK and I’m fascinated by a show called “How Clean is Your House?” I just can’t believe how filthy the homes are on the show and that the people that live in them are often clean neat looking professionals. I guess I’m a bit judgemental too.

  10. TopHat says:

    Yes, everything is “line upon line,” not just our testimonies. 🙂

    Thanks for this! I’ve been “hoarding” in some ways lately. I’ve also been actually putting things in their places: I just hung up our diplomas!

  11. Conifer says:

    Great post. My husband and I both struggle with the hoarding tendency, so every now and then I have to detach myself and purge. It’s always hard but very positive when I’m done.

    I like where you took the idea, too. What things do we think we would never do? What might trigger those things to actually happen? It makes me think about how my sister was able to quit smoking when she was pregnant with her first child but then started up again, years later, when our mother died. It’s been 9 years and she’s still trying to kick the habit again.

  12. Lacy says:

    Starfoxy, I’m like you: no TV, but I more than make up for it by watching online to decompress at night. I have a love-hate relationship with the Hoarders show. Lots of the same voyeur guilt you’ve described. But it also throws me back to all sorts of cleaning issues in my childhood, which I think is a good thing. It acts as a trigger for a bit of self-evaluation/therapy.

    Whenever I meet someone who exemplifies the worst qualities that I myself have, I usually can’t stand them. It’s because I see myself in them. The worst of my characteristics magnified. And if I can identify that connection, it really helps me to reflect on myself. To change. That’s sort of what the Hoarders show does for me.

    Thanks for this post!

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