Garbage, garbage everywhere, and not a drop to drink!
April 7, 2005 10:18 AM   Subscribe

The Garbage House is a bizarre but all-too-common phenomenon. Garbage houses often seem to be a product of a particular type of obsessive-compulsive disorder called compulsive hoarding. The hoarding [wmv, direct] may be of garbage, animals, (the neighborhood "cat lady") or perhaps even "collectibles" from eBay. The most compulsive hoarders seem to be the Collyer Brothers[*], even prompting a book.
posted by afiler (29 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Didn't everyone's neighborhood have a cat lady? The one in my neighborhood was Mrs. Odie, who lived just down the road.
posted by afiler at 10:19 AM on April 7, 2005

Just looking at some of the pictures on the site made me a little nauseous.

I'm not the most strictly organized person myself, but if things at my place got to even 10% of the clutter seen in those pictures I'd literally freak out and not be able to rest until I could at least see the floor.
posted by clevershark at 10:24 AM on April 7, 2005

Similar thread here.
posted by greasy_skillet at 10:26 AM on April 7, 2005

See also the docu Grey Gardens, a film by the Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter):
    The Maysles brothers pay visits to Edith Bouvier Beale, nearing 80, and her daughter Edie. Reclusive, the pair live with cats and raccoons in Grey Gardens, a crumbling mansion in East Hampton.
posted by asparagus_berlin at 10:27 AM on April 7, 2005

Sounds like a job for the crew from Clean Sweep. Here's how to get on national tv having all your stuff thrown away!
posted by ilsa at 10:56 AM on April 7, 2005

I second Grey Gardens...just watched it (from Netflix) last week. Check out the Grey Gardens website.
posted by ericb at 11:00 AM on April 7, 2005

thank you for posting these links. my mother-in-law is in the early stages of this disease. she refuses to see the collection of catalogues, junk mail, unworn clothing, and plastic grocery bags that are starting to overwhelm her condo as a problem. the root of her problem is chronic depression, which she also refuses to acknowledge. I am hoping that we will be able to address this situation before it gets too far out of hand.

shows like Clean Sweep are entertaining, but I really want to see follow-ups with these people. will they revert to their old ways in a few months? I would think that if the underlying problem is not addressed, regression is almost inevitable. The Life Laundry on BBC America does a little better job in that department.
posted by killy willy at 11:19 AM on April 7, 2005

killy willy, it appears that it's important to address this sort of problem sooner rather than later. The video linked above and this USNews page talk about how it's harder to treat people with compulsive hoarding problems than with other OCD patients. They apparently don't respond as well to drugs and behavioral therapy due to differences in the brain.
posted by afiler at 11:25 AM on April 7, 2005

More garbage in my fair city.
posted by afiler at 11:30 AM on April 7, 2005

Sweet post; as a semi-hoarder myself it's comforting to realize that as much as I keep around a lot of stuff I may never use/no one else cares about it isn't at a compulsive level.

Another show similar to Clean Sweep is Clean House. I generally don't watch TV (and only get the ~10 channels that aren't blocked w/ my internet) but I happen to find that show quite amusing.
posted by nTeleKy at 12:33 PM on April 7, 2005

shows like Clean Sweep are entertaining, but I really want to see follow-ups with these people.

Yes, Clean Sweep is reasonably benign but you have to wonder how much human misery is going to be exploited for the sake of 'reality' entertainment. I remember one guy had something like 70 pairs of shoes and his wife was getting crowded out of their home by all his stuff. They had to put it to him like this: what do you care more about, your wife or your stuff? The thing is he seemed pretty much oblivious her problems and the whole situation even when confronted with it. He went along with reducing the shoe pile for the show but I suspected he'd just build it back up again.
posted by scheptech at 12:46 PM on April 7, 2005

This article afiler linked to is really excellent — the best thing I've read about this phenomenon so far.
posted by taz at 12:49 PM on April 7, 2005

thanks for the link afiler. looks like I have some research to do.
posted by killy willy at 12:52 PM on April 7, 2005

Another link: Squalor Survivors.
posted by cleverevans at 1:28 PM on April 7, 2005

Interesting all around, especially that City Pages article. I'm fascinated with such neuroses b/c I deal with a (very mild) case of OCD and collected any good magazines I could get my hands on for a while (I worked as an abstracter, which was a bad idea).

I've had some rooms where I couldn't see the floor and I didn't use the bed for months at a time. No longer, thankfully.

I'll say that having a fire that destroys all your possessions isn't such a bad thing, because you learn how unimportant almost all of them are.

I'll also think that advertising and TV have a role in this somehow (the end of the City Pages article hints at it). How long have these garbage houses been around? (I realize that production of goods skyrocketed in the 20th century.)
posted by mrgrimm at 2:12 PM on April 7, 2005

This lady on "Wife Swap" on ABC (I know, for shame) seemed to be on the track towards some serious hoarding issues. She was obsessed with buying stuff in bulk for cheap even if they didn't need it. One of their bathrooms was unusable because she filled it with stuff. The show's handling of it made me really uncomfortable. Clearly this lady had some sort of, at least, nascent OCD issues, and they basically just did the "whoa, she's weird!" thing.

The hoarding thing is sad and so private that it's hard to know what to do. afiler's link really captures that sort of public helplessness in the face of this illness.
posted by unsweet at 2:15 PM on April 7, 2005

Oops... I mean afiler's citypages link.
posted by unsweet at 2:40 PM on April 7, 2005

My neighborhood doesn't have a cat lady. I mean, I have 23 cats, but - oh, shit.
posted by nicwolff at 3:11 PM on April 7, 2005

I could see how this instinct (genetic or cultural) towards hoarding would actually be a benefit in olden days. Back before the industrial revolution, this kind of scrimping and saving might actually help you get along in life. What was an advantage, when set in an overabundant environment, finally shows off its downsides. Sort of like genes predisposing you to weight gain might have been helped you get through a rough winter during the hunter-gatherer era are now translating into big bucks for weight loss programs and fitness centers.
posted by Mercaptan at 3:35 PM on April 7, 2005

Well I have hoarding issues. Y'know how at some parking garages you get little tickets with a four or five digit number on them? Yeah, I must have thousands of those. Mixed among all those MetroCards I just couldn't toss, boxes of empty markers and dead lighters. Old calendars.

I'm not as bad as some of these folks, though. Probably mainly because I live in an apartment, have to keep it all to one room, and, while clutter feels warm and comfortable to me, unsanitary does not.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 5:21 PM on April 7, 2005

My wife watches Clean Sweep. To me the show is about as much fun as watching people being tortured. And no, our house is not cluttered, the storage units are. Now, if I could keep my wife from buying all that crap off the internets ...
posted by tgyg at 9:10 PM on April 7, 2005

See also this thread.
posted by sophist at 9:26 PM on April 7, 2005

The common thread that seems to run through all of the OCD variants is that the normal mechanism of "braking" for a certain thought pattern has been washed out by overuse. Normally we let things get a little messy, then a little bit messier, at some point however (different for all of us) enough is enough and we buckle down and clean up.

This site has a nice table of the thought patterns and activity associated with it. You know when you get those crazy thoughts such as hurting a random stranger or "what if my car got in an accident right now?" and you kind of picture this happening. It seems to me OCD is an extension of this, that some people entertain those thoughts and they keep recurring and as you may know the more a synapse path is worn down the easier it becomes to travel. Eventually it becomes so worn down that it is nearly impossible NOT to follow the same old worn path. Avoiding this is akin to playing The Game. Is this an accurate represention of OCD?
posted by sophist at 9:40 PM on April 7, 2005

This will stay with me a long time:

"The house I grew up in was full of garbage. When I was 12, my mom and dad moved out. They went off to live somewhere else--her with a new boyfriend, him with a girlfriend. So it was just us kids. I took care of my sisters and my baby brother then. Sometimes my folks would come around and bring us clothes from Goodwill. I guess they just left, and abandoned us to the garbage."

That is just heartbreaking.

The article was good; there is a story behind every mess that's gotten out of control. Sometimes it's depression, mental illness, and such.

But I cannot fathom abandoning children to live alone in squalor. Just cannot comprehend that.
posted by Savannah at 10:00 PM on April 7, 2005

As bad as the hoarders are....... then, there's normal US society - traceable, among other clues, by plumes of Mercury vapor from burning garbage.
posted by troutfishing at 10:51 PM on April 7, 2005

A hoarder isn't as big a problem as a living with a hoarder, it becomes a self fulfilling thing, your partner doesn't seem to mind living in squalor, you're embarrased to have your friends / family over etc. and after a while you get tired of the BS and start adding to the piles out of frustration.

I wonder if I could use this as grounds for a divorce.
posted by DBAPaul at 5:08 AM on April 8, 2005

Great thoughts/questions, sophist, and I would love to see a much more expanded version of the table you linked to. The "garbage house" phenomenon, for example, seems to me to be possibly linked with agoraphobia as well as (possibly) hoarding, but definitely with surrender, retreat, deep depression, and possible delusion. At any rate, your idea about the carving of neurological pathways sounds to me, somehow "true" or "right" in relation to this.

I think the reason that most of us seem to have such an enduring fascination with this specific mental health subject is that so many of us feel so close to the edge of this particular abyss. Even those of us who are compulsive cleaners are psychically much closer to the "garbage houser", than one who never has to think about cleaning/organizing much, yet, as a matter of course, keeps their spaces pretty clean. And for those of us who have trouble with mess or falling behind, the spectre is always there. If any of you have not answered the door once or twice because the place was just too messy to feel comfortable inviting someone in, then you must wonder what slender thread of will or luck or stroke of fate has spared you this sort of nightmare.

Anyway, I feel quite sure that our hypnotic, horrified mesmerization here is somehow connected to our own secret fears, and to our own minute recognition of our possible selves in the stories of these people.
posted by taz at 6:27 AM on April 8, 2005

My 96-year-old great aunt (who is by no means impoverished) lives in two small apartments in Washington Heights on Manhattan, and is a former psychiatric nurse and self-diagnosed compulsive hoarder. My family visits her and it takes a threat of eviction (recently recieved again) and a spate of severe senile dementia to make her let us clean out even a small fraction of it. Because she grew up in depression-era Germany, it's hard for her to ignore the value of even things like McDonalds cups, spare change, newspapers, leftover food, and any objects she finds discarded on the sidewalk or even the trash - but at the end of the day she forgets what she's saved and leaves her layers of plastic bags on top of the piles lining the narrow squeezing corrider of her apartment. Last time we cleaned there was essentially a record of every day she had lived since the mid-fifties.
I myself seem to accumulate and tolerate clutter easily, and may be headed her direction considering my desire to save recyclables and shopping bags, but at least I'm aware of the danger.
posted by limnrix at 11:20 AM on April 8, 2005

I admit...I'm crazy with the packrat thing. Ok, not as crazy as some of these people. But I do tend to collect stuff as I get fascinated by a topic. Then that stuff tends to molder as I find something new and shiny in a different direction. But I can't get rid of it because, ya know, I might suddenly feel a need to spangle someone with my handy dandy ronco spangler of death.

Recently, I had a question on the green, because I was just getting overwhelmed by stuff, and had no idea even where to start. I got some really great advice and resources, and a few weeks later, I've cleared enough out of the house that it took the local charity a fairly good sized truck, 2 guys and a half an hour to take it away.

So, to my fellow lurking packrats, I say; seek the light, divest, feels so good to shed, it really does. You have no idea how good it feels to see an empty space that was once cluttered with "just stuff". Really, it's freaking amazing.
posted by dejah420 at 9:41 PM on April 8, 2005

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