A few months later than it was aired, I watched a very moving documentary about an extreme hoarder, Richard Wallace. His condition was so grave, the country’s ‘leading expert’ on hoarding seemed visibly shocked after visiting his home.
Richard was living in such cramped and dangerous conditions amongst all that he collected (largely newspapers), his physical well-being was in jeopardy. His bathroom was almost unworkable from the hoarding (Richard admitted to not having had a bath or shower for years) and the simple act of cooking his daily diet of two boiled eggs and toast, and returning to a tiny space amongst to eat them took 45 minutes of climbing and scrambling over mess. He looked painfully thin – “I probably burn more calories trying to eat them than what they give me”.
We see Richard’s visit by a psychologist (one of the country’s leading experts on hoarding we are told), who assesses the situation and asks Richard if he’s up for psychological work. Richard seems to think his problems would be solved if he were given more storage space, and the psychologist seems to close the case there and then (I know, we know, that television simplifies things – it probably took more than this). If Richard couldn’t begin to see his problem as one of psychology rather than storage, he couldn’t be helped. We werent’ told much about his upbringing – apart from a nod toward a very strict father who, when he died, left a mother behind who Richard lived with, and allowed him to indulge in his passions (including a small collection of Jaguar cars).
But help does then emerge from a non-clinical intervention – Andy the local gardener. Andy helps out the villagers each year with their annual entry to the ‘village in bloom’ competition, and immediately strikes you as an open and kind-hearted man. He takes time to talk to Richard (rather than avoid him like the other villagers seem to do) and gently persuades him to, at least begin, to clear up. He then persuades other villagers to help out and we soon see a collaborative operation in Richard’s front garden – tons and tons and tons of rubbish are removed. Neighbours realise he’s not all ‘mad’ or obstructive but an interesting and likeable man with a serious problem. They cook meals for him and someone even cuts his hair.
Richard also begins to understand that his problem is a psychological one after all. There is a very moving part of the film where he berates himself for ‘getting into this mess’ and it seems that his new way of thinking – reflectively and with a new insight – springs from the compassion and kindness of Andy that he has had the benefit of experiencing. Andy spent time with Richard with interest and care, Richard could then begin to do the same with himself.
Compassion for others can offer a model for self-compassion, which in turn can help us on our way to health.