When Lifetime debuts its Hoarders reboot, Hoarders: Family Secrets, Thursday night, fans of the A&E original will be pleased to see some very familiar faces have returned to the Hoarders fold — including extreme cleaning specialist Matt Paxton.
Paxton says that even though A&E pulled the plug on Hoarders in 2013, reruns on the show’s new Lifetime home have kept the series — and serious discussions about this very real mental disorder — alive. “It’s been pretty surreal to see the response on social media — for me, on social media it never ended,” Paxton says. “New people were finding the show and they were so excited about it — and I wasn’t even doing any new shows. It’s just been really neat to see the response.”
Though Paxton has made a profession of overseeing the physical portion of freeing hoarders from the self-inflicted prison they’ve built up around themselves, it’s the satisfaction of seeing people learn to manage the disorder and move forward with their lives that he relishes most.
“I’d been in it for two years before I knew how common it was,” Paxton says. “People laugh, but I didn’t realize how big hoarding was until the day after my very first episode of Hoarders. That’s when I realized — ‘Oh, this is national! This is everywhere … and it’s a secret.’
“Then I started getting responses from ladies: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not crazy. I saw you on Hoarders last night and I realized I’m not alone. I’m not a crazy person. I can get help,’” he continues. “They were so excited just to know that they weren’t alone. That was when it really hit for me. It’s been great to watch the progression of not only the show, but of the whole mental disorder of hoarding. Now when I give a speech, usually the whole front row is people who struggle with the hoarding disorder. They’re all excited. They raise their hands and say, “I’m a hoarder and I’ve been for 10 years. I need some help.” When we started this show way back when, we couldn’t even get six people to do the first three episodes!”
Paxton, who founded his Clutter Cleaner business after helping his own grief-stricken grandmother in 2006 and also trains employees of ServiceMaster Restore, says the show’s hour-long premiere — which features the franchise’s first-ever live intervention — sets the tone for an intense season.
“With the live show, it’s a little different,” he explains. “I’m really excited that it’s going to show the behind-the-scenes work that we’ve never shown on Hoarders — the deep communication with the hoarder and really getting them to take charge and choose to make a change. There’s almost a pep talk, like before a big game. It’s ‘All right man, we’re going to do this or not? I need to get you onboard.’ It’s watching that hoarder go out through the whole mental decision and struggling with all the tough yeses and nos, finally saying, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to get my life back.’ Which is really cool.”
Paxton says increased awareness of and openness about hoarding has allowed Hoarders: Family Secrets to focus on the severe emotional pain that leads into the disorder and the hard work that goes into rising above it. And to spotlight that hoarding affects people of all ages and incomes.
“In the previous shows, you tended to see people who were just in a lot of trouble and it was gross,” he says. “Now we’re seeing that it’s everybody. Grief goes after everybody, not just one type of person. It’s really great to see more diversity. You’re seeing these people struggle with everyday challenges that you and I might struggle with, but they also have hoarding disorders. It’s a little more normalized, but I think it’s more interesting!”
We asked Paxton to reveal more about the new Hoarding series, the disorder itself and his very personal connection to what has become his life’s work.
Channel Guide Magazine: Do you think the pressure of life today — working 60-80 hour weeks, the pressure to have all the stuff and all the latest stuff — has resulted in more younger people suffering from the disorder? Or are we just talking about it more, so more younger people are coming forward?
Matt Paxton: Both. The awareness is higher. I get calls from ladies — “Oh, my 7-year-old’s a hoarder — she has 100 purses!” That’s obviously a misuse of the word. In fact, that’s actually bad parenting because you don’t know how to say no. [Laughs]
But also, it’s a consumer society. We live in America and our economy is built on stuff. When things are bad and we’re sad, we go out and buy things. When we’re happy, we go out and celebrate and buy things. We have an economy based around sales and consumption. Our livelihood is built around our economics. We make our money by making stuff for other people to buy. It’s a very interesting cycle. Any person that is very focused on the financial structure of their family and providing, you almost feel like you’re a failure if you don’t have stuff. You have pressure to buy stuff and better stuff. There’s absolutely a psychological side of that. But the show has been about the physical stuff.
What I’m really excited about this season is we are spending more time exploring the actual mental side — what hoarding is, what causes it. Before, we’d see lots of dirty diapers, dead animals in the bedroom. But what happened over 20 years for that to be acceptable in your life? That’s what we’re seeing a lot this season. We’re seeing a little more compassion, we’re seeing a little more understanding. It’s important for me to connect. I don’t think we should just be on the show saying, “Hey, look at gross stuff!”
When Lifetime brought us over — and it’s important for people to know we’re not on A&E anymore, we’re on Lifetime now — Lifetime said, “Go back to helping people, man. Make sure you helping them, make sure you’re helping people.” That’s a really simple message, but that’s why I signed on to come back. Lifetime’s letting us go back and show the really important part. It sounds a little cheesy but it’s true. I think people are really going to like to watch that. You’re going to get the gross stuff because that’s just normal hoarding, but then you’re also going to get the really fascinating part of the journey.
CGM: You have a really personal connection to your line of work and the enormous impact it can have on the quality of life for people who really need the support and the services that you provide. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MP: I lost my dad, my stepdad and both my grandfathers in one year, and I really lost my way. I was looking for happiness and I was in therapy and was also working at a camp for kids that had lost their own loved ones. So I had my own journey of figuring out my own grief and I saw my grandma struggling with her stuff. When I put the two together, it really was an aha moment. The reason this matters is because it didn’t start off this big grandiose plan — “Hey, I’m going to change the world.” It was really I was just trying to make rent money and I happened to see that my grandmother was sad, just like myself and the kids I was working with. When I put that mental connection of, ‘Wait a minute, there’s nothing wrong with her. We all think she’s crazy but she’s awesome. She’s normal, she’s just sad.’ When we realized it was the sadness and the grief [that lead to the hoarding], it clicked.
Then I started seeing her friends and seeing my aunt was a hoarder and she asked if I would clean her house. I realized then that I also enjoyed the very linear part of, “Hey, it’s really messy! Now it’s not!” That’s my mind.
CGM: You’re technically leading the physical process of clearing the hoard, but your heart is clearly in that emotional, psychological reason that people get to that point. Has that kind of kept you in a business where other people would go, “Good God, I would burn out on that in a few weeks!”
MP: Yeah, it’s just my brain — my brain really enjoys the ups and downs and the fascinating growth. I like it all. I couldn’t sit at a desk 9-to-5 and punch in and punch out. That’s not me. I don’t know how to do that. With this, I might be on a plane one day, then the next day I’m catching 300 cats — literally. And then the next day I’m giving this lady a hug and finding out really cool stories about her grandma. It’s a mix of gross and compassion. A lot of people would burn out, absolutely. I’ve been in it 10 years.
There are not many disorders that we’re at the beginning of — there’s not a whole lot of land in America that hasn’t been walked on by somebody. I look at hoarding in that same manner. I like that we’re at the beginning of studying stuff. Although I’m leading the charge in cleaning, with most of the therapy and the mental work, they’re now coming to us and saying, “Hey man, we want to join with you guys because you have access to thousands of families. We need those data points to study it more.” That’s really exciting for me. People that you see me working with on the show now — Dr.Tompkins, Dr. Tolin, Dr. Zasio, Dr. Chabaud — people don’t realize how incredible the therapists on the show are. The experts are the best of the best.
In fact, on the premiere episode you have Dr. Tolin. I read his books in college and this guy’s legit. He invented this stuff. And now we do research together. That would be like someone who heard a Led Zeppelin tape when they were a kid, now they’re getting to play on stage with them. That’s what it’s like for me. I get to work with people who I studied a long time ago and I know the work we’re doing now will normalize the disorder in 20 years. I think that’s so cool!
When I do speeches I say, “Think about how hard it was for someone who was an alcoholic to come out in the ’50s.” It was so new and not understood. Now someone comes to you, “Hey I’m an alcoholic, I’m going to rehab,” you say, “Good for you, man. Good luck. Hope it goes well.” There’s not even really a stigma anymore. I’m anxious to see that happen in hoarding. Twenty or 30 years from now, we could look back and see a TV show had something to do with that. That’s pretty cool.
CGM: You’re also helping families who recognize that they have a loved one who has this disorder by giving them tools, ideas and understanding that their loved one isn’t a gross human being living in a gross situation, but somebody that is absolutely suffering a very real disorder…
CGM: I get hundreds of emails every month from families saying, “You know, I thought my mom was crazy and now I know she’s not crazy. I saw you on your show and I saw how you talked to that lady. So I talked with a little more compassion and understanding with my mom and it’s the first time she every talked to me about her hoarding. Then she told me about when Dad died, and what actually happened.” So it’s pretty awesome to see what happens to those families.
Listen, we’re not dumb. We know 75 percent of our viewers watch it because it’s gross. They say, “Oh well, I’m not that bad!” and they feel better about themselves. It’s great reality TV. Reality TV is reality TV. It is what it is. I don’t watch the Housewives on Bravo to learn family values. I watch it to say, “Hey, I’m doing better! This is awesome! Not so bad!”
But we do get a lot of people on the other side, too. We give them a launchpad. If all it does is let one person go out and ask for help, then we’ve done well. I’ve probably helped — personally cleaned — 1,000 homes in my business since the TV show started. I now have 58 locations around the country that I taught how to go out and properly work with hoarders, how to properly work with family members. I get thank you letters from families that I’ve never met because our process that we created is helping a family. That’s a really amazing thing. And a lot of that is because of the show.
CGM: We’ve all done the After Christmas Sale thing where you go out and buy 10,000 things and go, “Why in the hell did I just do that?” once you get back home. But the part I find so flummoxing is the dead animals, the fast food containers, every single bit of newspaper, rotting food in the fridge — the things when you’re just like, as even if you are suffering the worst traumas, as a human being …
MP: …why are you OK living like that? How did you get there?
MP: I hope that that comes through in this season, and I think it will. The editing’s been very specific and careful this year, which is great. It will all make sense. It’s always made sense if you’re an expert. I’m in the house, I see the 300 cats and it just lets me know what questions to start asking. That didn’t always get shown in Hoarders. Now fans want to see that. They ask for it.
But I will tell ya, it always makes sense. No matter how intense, outlandish or even gross the conditions are, once you hear their story, it totally makes sense. Although I have to say in all fairness to A&E and Lifetime, a lot of times the story is so personal we can’t tell the whole story. It’s just too personal and it’s not appropriate. So we don’t always tell the whole story about the hoarder because they really have had bad things happen and they’ve really allowed us into their home and they trusted us.
But you’re going to see more of those stories this year because they’re families that are a lot more open. The stakes are higher now, too. People are letting their families into secrets — this is Hoarders: Family Secrets now. They’re letting people in and they don’t want to live in the closet anymore. They want to let the secrets out and they’re sharing more. What’s really cool is you see the fear, you see how scared they are.
It’s fine if it’s a bunch of brand-new dolls they got on sale. Who cares about that? But what if you’re trying to keep the secret of 100 dead cats under your bed from your brother? You don’t want your brother to dismiss you. You don’t want your brother to leave you. It’s exciting to see these people taking a chance and really trying to get their life back. I think that’s been a great switch about us coming to Lifetime now. We’re able to show a little more of the emotional side, and not just the gross stuff.
CGM: Tell me a little bit about the importance of having both the hoarder involved in the cleanup process and also their loved ones — having them lead the charge of taking this huge step in the right direction.
MP: Both for the show and in life, it’s good to have the three F’s — family, faith and friends. And you’ve got to have somebody involved to keep the house clean.
There’s three parts to keeping the house clean: You’ve got to have family, you have to have commitment by the hoarder and you need to have a therapist involved. This is a mental disorder. We happen to have the best therapists there on the show, but they want the family being involved because they’re going to hold that person accountable. They’re going to have to stay involved in the person’s life to keep that house clean. If we just come in and throw stuff away, it’s not going to be a major change. We come in, we properly communicate, help them throw things away, teach them the skill set and teach the family the skill set. When they work together, the family and the hoarder while in therapy, that’s how the house stays clean.
All the experts, we wouldn’t do this show if the networks were not committed to the aftercare. The networks provide counsel for our hoarders. That’s really the most important part. Without the therapy, we’d be taking advantage of the hoarders. The therapy is the key — for all of us.
CGM: Can you tell me a little bit about creating your hoarding scale?
MP: The hoarding scale is a scale of 1 to 5. Everyone is on the hoarding scale. You and I are hopefully a 1 or a 2. Most journalists are about a 2 because books and papers are so important to them. I have a 1, 3, and 5-year-old son and so my house is easily a 2. A 5 is what you see on TV. There’s a lot of different hoarding scales around, but what I did to mine was to add a mental side. All the other scales just show physically what does the inside of the house look like.
Hoarding is a mental disorder so I added the second number — a .1 through .5 — and that .5 is where you are mentally. Are you ready for therapy? Are you not ready for therapy? Are you still in full denial? Are you accepting help from family? Unfortunately, most of the people we get on the show are a 5.5. The only way to help them is to properly clean and then get them involved with short-term and long-term therapy to help that mental part.
CGM: How important is it that both the hoarder and their support network realize that there will be what you call the “hoarder hangover”?
MP: Very. I invented the hoarding hangover, which is a situation where these hoarders are going through a lot of emotions and they’ve been decreasing in mental happiness really since whatever caused their hoarding. Because there’s always a trigger, something causes it. So it goes down, it goes down, it goes down and when you hit rock bottom is usually when we’re cleaning your house. Then through all of our communication techniques that we’ve developed, we’ve learned to help them learn to trust people, to open up and ask for help. As they do that, they feel better and better, and they’re rewarded.
Then all the sudden, on the last day of the cleanup, they start to think, “Oh my gosh, not only is my stuff gone, but the people are leaving, too!” They start to get really sad — and we let them know that will happen. We say, “In two days, you’re gonna be really sad, but guess what? That sadness is going to stop.” Because if they don’t know that that sadness is short-term, they’re going to think it’s going to last 20 years just like their last depression lasted.
So that hoarder hangover is something we developed so that people would understand that during the process it’s okay to go up and down a little bit with your emotions. You’ve got to stick with your therapy, you’ve got to stick with your family, because if you do that it will get better real fast — even though the last time it got bad it didn’t get better for 20 years.
We need them to understand — you’re going to have a little anxiety and that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. You hear me say that a lot on the show with all hoarders: “Hey you’re mad at me, you’re screaming, you’re yelling and that’s okay. That’s normal. That means you’re taking it seriously. You’re in the now.”
CGM: What do you think is the biggest mistake that loved ones make in communicating with a hoarder, both before the process has begun and afterward when they are facing that hangover?
MP: The worst thing that family members say is, “If you loved us, you would clean up.” That’s like telling a guy with dyslexia, “If you loved your kids, you would read more to them.” The brain can’t function that way. It has nothing to do with love. But families say that.
Physically, the worst thing they could do is come in and make it a surprise clean up. They say, “Well, she says she’s stuck, so we’re just going to clean up when she’s not here.” To be honest, for a hoarder that’s death. A lot of my private jobs are going in and cleaning up after families have done that. They’ve made the hoarder more upset by stealing all their stuff. It’s a very dangerous thing.
Ask for a professional, always. If you broke your leg, you wouldn’t have your buddy’s cousin try to fix the leg because he dabbles in “doctoring” on the side, right? You’d go to a doctor and get the right help. Same thing with hoarding. This is a legit mental disorder. It’s now a part of the recognized DSM-5. It is a protected mental disorder — you need to get the proper help. That includes proper cleaning from an expert like myself or someone else —something called ServiceMaster Restore. We have 58 locations. Get the proper cleaning and get the proper therapy!
Hoarders: Family Secrets premieres Thursday, May 28 at 9/8CT on Lifetime.
Photos courtesy of Lifetime.