Maybe I'm showing early signs of hoarding - Macleans.ca

Maybe I’m showing early signs of hoarding

Compulsive hoarding by humans is this decade’s mental illness of choice

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My dogs hoard. There isn’t a bone too chewed or too new to be ineligible for hoarding, and by now there must be at least a hundred of these disgusting decayed chewies, tucked under the dug-up and re-laid expensive grass that makes the lawn that covers the sand that disguises the swamps that comprise the state that would be Florida. Honestly, it would be cheaper just to spray paint the sand green each night, but I’m sure there is a bylaw against that in Palm Beach, which has bylaws against pretty much anything that is cheaper. (Though I noted in the mini-documentary about the designer Valentino, titled The Perfect Life, that he had his lawn spray painted green for a big bash at his French château, and whatever you say about Valentino, who also put sisal over the Aubusson so that the high heels of Joan Collins et al. wouldn’t damage it, he is definitely not cheap.)

I had six dogs staying with me this past weekend and haven’t had so much fun since The Nightmare started in 2003. We took them out on Worth Avenue where they exhibited model canine manners as they trotted past Van Cleef & Arpels, though shoppers armed with teeny dogs that fit in handbags, like the newly fashionable Havanese with its gene pool of 11 dogs, seemed apprehensive when 600-plus lb. of Asiatic dogdom wagged toward them. “Get a real dog, get a kuvasz” is my motto.

Dogs hoard. Humans hoard. Compulsive hoarding by humans is this decade’s mental illness of choice, replacing last decade’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and is said to affect up to five per cent of Americans and 4.9 per cent of Germans. I expect the Germans are thrown in just in case you think this is one of those sissy American problems like sex addiction, which you will never convince me is an actual mental disorder—in men anyway. Adding up the number of Americans who have ADHD or OCD, which includes just about every neurosis from overeating to Imelda Marcos shoe syndrome, leaves approximately four human beings in the United States who are not mentally disordered. That makes sense to me: watching America these days is rather like the cliché of the lunatic asylum being run by the inmates.

Once upon a time (perhaps before 1995 when Disney acquired an interest in the A&E Network), you could find some genuine arts programming on American stations. If I had to bet, I’d say A&E now stands for Aphasia & Emesis television. Last Monday, after another episode of the excruciating show Intervention, we had Hoarders. These hoarders are not exotic collectors but sad people who fill their homes with junk until cockroaches infest, floors crack under the weight of garbage, families split, and the city comes and takes away tons of old fridges, not to mention sacks of human waste. This is reality television scraping the bottom of the barrel, except this barrel is bottomless.

Actually, saving up one’s own urine and feces is probably the most interesting aspect: this fascination is found throughout history, and includes the concept of divine excrement in ancient Mexico as well as the bedpot fixation of the ancien régime. I spend time analyzing my dogs’ waste in case they have worms, and on occasion I quite forget the bags of it in my pockets. I don’t find the odour off-putting. I don’t know where the clinical dividing line is for compulsive hoarding and I suspect I am still on the right side of it, but it may be that I am showing early signs based on my emotional attachment to my dogs.

Author George Jonas told me about a friend of his in Budapest who used his body for hoarding. The friend was a journalist who at one time was the Hungarian cultural attaché in Rome. He was convinced he was going to starve to death. In order to postpone this dreadful fate he stuffed himself with everything available when food was scarce and when available would eat until he nearly burst. The epitome of this syndrome came around 1950 when he rushed to his friends’ homes to tell them that a new restaurant opening at midnight had received a shipment of fish heads. His friends were coerced into accompanying him to its huge cauldrons to watch him eat not only the soup but every available fish head. Not a pretty picture, I grant you, but an interesting example of compulsive hoarding. Dickens created a marvellous compulsive hoarder in Bleak House named Krook who had so much junk around him and gin within him that he self-combusted.

Our petty bourgeois society takes its rules very seriously, unlike older more aristocratic ones that tolerated eccentrics. L.A.’s Lloyd Drum, 78, hoarder of 5,000 bicycles and 10 years’ worth of newspapers, wouldn’t have faced jail in earlier times. There is an upside and a downside to such tolerance, and since I dislike the diseases unsanitary conditions may cause, I prefer the downside. But I can’t help lamenting a world where grandmothers sitting in homes with rooms stuffed to ceiling with newspapers and broken lampshades could be left alone rather than turned in by relatives to be filmed for the moral delectation of viewers of A&E.

One day I expect to face some horrible thirtysomething female professor of behavioral sciences brightly telling me that “we” can find a way out of my rooms filled with dogs, old magazines, outdated computers and cartons of clothes in sizes I can never again wear. Of course that depends on how you look at “hoarding.” I might also get a medal from an environmental group for socially sensitive indoor waste management: one man’s ant, after all, can be another’s grasshopper.

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