As the host of A&E's "Hoarders," Matt Paxton and his iron-stomached clutter crew dare to enter the physical and emotional lives of hoarders who have spent years, even decades, burying their emotional pain by filling their homes with obsolete electronics, QVC jewelry, periodicals, unworn clothing, dead pets — and even their own bodily waste.
In his first book, "The Secret Lives of Hoarders: True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter," Paxton shares the journey as he and his Richmond, Va.-based Clutter Cleaners encounter a giant "rat's nest" that contained more than $13,000 in cash, a home with two rooms buried in Blondie memorabilia, a vast cache of mermaid pornography and the unfathomable sight of 25 years of unopened mail.
Paxton, a recovering gambling addict, has becoming something of a catcher in the rye to those who may be headed down a similar path. "I was at a book signing the other day and a lady came up with a stack of five books, and I had to make her put four away," he says. "I totally called her out on it."
We spoke with Paxton about the culture of clutter and the financial damage that often lies beneath.
CreditCards.com: Why do hoarders fascinate us so?
Matt Paxton: It's a train wreck, an American train wreck. Watching our show makes you feel better about your own life. A lot of us struggle with stufff, but ironically, hoarding is never about the stuff; it's the emotions behind the stuff.
CreditCards.com: What makes people hoard?
Paxton: There's always a trigger; no one wants to act like this. Something bad has happened, usually something tragic: they've lost a spouse, lost a job, gotten cancer and often multiple combinations of these things. That's followed by anxiety and depression, which trigger the hoarding because they want to feel good about themselves.
Three or four years down the road, it gets worse and worse. They wake up with full intent to get something done but their mind won't let them. They go through this whole long internal dialog about getting breakfast and by that time, it's lunch. Their mind just cranks and they've literally asked themselves four or five questions all day, never actually done anything, but they're exhausted because they've been thinking about it.
CreditCards.com: We were surprised to learn that hoarders secretly care a great deal about how others perceive them.
Paxton: Absolutely. If I had to break it down to its essence, it's actually a quest for happiness, a quest for self-value.
CreditCards.com: You went through a similar quest in your own life, right?
Paxton: Yeah, I had a pretty bad gambling addiction. I was trying to find myself. My dad had died, I had lost my fiancee, my life had fallen downhill, and I was looking for self-worth. So I went to easy, destructive behaviors because it was easier than doing the hard work of going to therapy and getting my life back together. Hoarding is often the same thing.
CreditCards.com: What's it like to walk into a hard-core hoarder's home?
Paxton: Oh my gosh, the first couple times, I was just blown away. I couldn't believe that people lived like that. The smell is always interesting. The textures are what get me now, like a fridge that has been off for 15 years and just the textures of these foods from the decay. Compost piles in the middle of a living room really start to change and evolve over time. I always say it's like a fine wine. A new house that is freshly hoarded with a bunch of QVC boxes doesn't interest me. I like the really disgusting things.
CreditCards.com: Sounds like you're hooked.
Paxton: Yeah, that fits my addiction. I've never recovered from being an addict; I've just rechanneled it. My high is walking into a disgusting home. Most of my Clutter Cleaner guys are recovering addicts, and a lot of them have turned to exercise and that's how they got clean. But they're addicted to exercise, work and exercise. They're not over addiction; they're just addicted to something else.
CreditCards.com: The sobering side of hoarding is its financial toll.
Paxton: Absolutely. The finance side of this is the one that is ignored the most, and it's often the biggest hole. I mean, you can rebuild a house or family relationships; it's a lot harder to rebuild your credit, man. They tend to let four things go, in order: mental health, then their home, then their health and diet, and fourth is the finances.
CreditCards.com: Where do they rack up the biggest debt?
Paxton: Most of them are TV shoppers. They've stopped going out, and if they do, they go to the dollar store. It's so similar to a heroin addict; they just have to have the fix for 10 minutes. It only makes them feel good for about an hour and then they have to go and buy something else that makes them feel good for about an hour. It's not the item; it's the act of consumption that makes them feel good. A lot of our hoarders don't even open up their credit card bills anymore because they don't even want to know how much they owe.
Paxton: I'm trying to work with the home shopping networks, and I'd like to get in touch with banks because there needs to be a responsible buying program nationally. Because hoarders are trying, but they're not able to quit. The problem is, you try to cut off a hoarder? Good lord, you go to the local Goodwill store, they'll tell you every single hoarder in town, and I'll guarantee you they make up 50 percent of their margins for the year. Thrift stores would be out of business if it wasn't for hoarders.
CreditCards.com: Do hoarders ever try to dig out of debt?
Paxton: A lot of them don't; they don't even have the ability to follow through with bankruptcy or even get a structured payment plan. They don't have the focus in life at all. They've just given up.
CreditCard.com: And the damage doesn't stop with their credit score.
Paxton: Oh, they destroy families; they destroy generations beyond. That's the part we're just seeing now. You're teaching a learned behavior, so a child of a hoarder, when she goes to college, she's never learned how to put anything away, never learned how to clean her house and doesn't know how to budget. The kids can't handle financial responsibilities because they never learned the basic skills of putting things away. And it spirals very quickly. They get to college, they don't know how to budget. They get a job, they don't know how to show up on time. They don't know the basic life skills that you and I were taught.
CreditCard.com: Hoarders are often treated humorously in pop culture. Is there humor in the real-life version?
Paxton: I think there's humor in everything. Like mermaid porn. I didn't even know that existed. This book is written so that we identify it at an early stage, before you get to the late-stage conditions that we feature on the show. Because at that level, you've got to laugh because if you can't laugh, you're never going to get out.
My personal style in the cleaning process is pretty blunt, pretty awful humor. Because you're sitting there and there is clearly six feet of poop in this lady's living room and everyone has avoided it, physically and verbally, for the last 10 years. And I'll say, 'Wow! You've been s***ing a lot in the living room! What's up with that?'
CreditCards.com: While she's sitting there?
Paxton: Oh yeah; I would never clean a house unless they were right next to me. And everyone laughs. And they'll even start to laugh, because brutal honesty at that level is respectful, it has to be respectful. It's better than yelling and screaming. It's that equality; that respect and the nonjudgment that makes that humor work. If it's mean and biting, it never works. But we're saying, "Hey, we're right here with you."
CreditCards.com: Can we as neighbors help?
Paxton: No, it's way out of our league. Just check in on them, let them know you're worried about them, and if it continues to go down, you need to call social services, Adult Protective Services. Most people think social services is a bad thing? Social services is a great thing! When they get involved, they turn lives around. They know how to help them; you and me and Joe Neighbor don't. And they have resources. They discovered that one lady even had a pension she didn't even know about and it paid for her to have a life again, paid for her to get her house not only cleaned but rebuilt. She actually got her life back together because social services got involved.
CreditCards.com: We would be remiss if we didn't ask — how neat is your home?
Paxton: Well, I used to be on the other side where it was OCD-clean, but then I got married and had a kid, so we've got an 18-month-old baby (laughs). I have to be very careful not to teach my over-cleanliness to a child because you teach them the wrong thing and they keep on with it forever. We have the Barney cleanup song that we sing every night, we put our books in the proper places and that's about it. I've had to learn to live with clutter again and that's been hard for me, but family is more important than cleanliness for me.
I often try to express that to the hoarders. At the end of the day, you have to replace the stuff with family. If you don't, you're never going to get over this. If you're looking for love from stuff, you're never going to be happy.