This Is A Refrigerator For Food
by Eve Livingston
“This is a refrigerator for food. Food only….No cats of any kind go in that refrigerator…okay? This is strictly for food and medicine.”
~ Matt Paxton, on Hoarders (Season 6, Episode 8)
Ok, as I suggested earlier, I will now attempt a post on animal hoarding.
I realized, after beginning it, that in fact it’s actually a post on compassion. Why? Because that quote, up above, was said in a moment of some of the most profound compassion I’ve ever witnessed. Staggering, really.
It was said by Matt Paxton, who is featured in a series called Hoarders, which was aired originally on A&E TV in 2009. Matt Paxton is the guy they call, with his crew, to come and haul stuff away from these homes when the show’s producers decide to feature individuals and/or families in a given episode.
Matt, I love you. I think you are absolutely amazing, and, for what it’s worth, with all due respect to the other very honorable clinicians on the scene, I’ve come to believe you are probably the best psychologist on staff.
Yes, I know you’re not a psychologist by trade, but you have a rare gift of compassion coupled with directness that really does seem to stand out from the crowd. At least from what I’ve seen, in my limited experience with the media.
I realize this might be a tad controversial for me to say, and I hope people who read my writing will understand the spirit in which it is proffered. Matt Paxton and Dorothy Breininger (whom I believe might be one of the original producers of this series) are two very intrepid and laudable individuals. Not that the others who are part of the clean up and psychiatric care teams aren’t. It’s just that these two strike me as having a fortitude and courage that are unusual and absolutely inspirational. I’m not idealizing them. One of the well-done aspects of this series is that every individual involved is shown to have their limits and their imperfections and their messiness.
Anyway, perhaps it comes naturally, Mr. Paxton, but whatever the explanation, you have an ability to face psychological/emotional mess (and we’re talking, folks, not your usual mess) and hold your compassionate ground with quite some stunning presence. Just my humble opinion. Thank you for your good work. And thank you to those who join you in your effort…who are interested enough and courageous enough to help others cope with this particular kind of mess and messiness.
So the episode where these words were spoken is one about a particularly difficult and provocative situation (bland-ish vocabulary chosen purposefully, as really, it’s pretty hard to find adequate words to bring to the table about this). A situation where a single, middle-aged woman, Terry, had been hoarding cats.
Like, lots and lots of cats.
(Warning: this is not for the faint of heart. Do not wander over to the A&E site to view it unless your curiosity and open mindedness are well-toned, rested and ready to be sincerely challenged. It might be one of the most heart-rending, disturbing, sad and provocative examples of human emotional messiness I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot.)
People can be messy, messy creatures.
Our confusion, conflict, depression and mental illness can be utterly, incredibly complex. Quite messily so. Quite painfully so. It can be profoundly unnerving and jarring, to say the least, to struggle with these things, of course, but also intensely difficult just to bear witness to them.
I think we all sort of know this, in a way, really. We see it, or experience it, or hear about it in all sorts of ways. Hell, just watch the news or read the paper. Just live your own life.
I’m reasonably intelligent, and I understand messiness at a lot of levels (my friends are probably rolling their eyes right about now), but I have to admit animal hoarding is something that, while I don’t think about it a lot, I still have a ways to go to fully begin to explain it to myself, let alone others. So, to whatever degree I make any headway here, it will be merely a feeble beginning.
Because I don’t have a lot of time to explain what I think right now (though trust me, there’s plenty more words where these came from), I want to summarize my thinking by saying it seems that at the core of Terry’s problem, like at the core of many psychological and emotional difficulties, I believe there lies unmetabolized grief.
When I heard Matt Paxton sweetly but sternly utter those words to Terry, the woman who had both living and not-so-living cats stored in her domicile, I found myself imagining that this is likely the kind of thing (about a much more elementary matter) she might have heard in some instructive moment, spoken by a caring and educative parent, when she was young.
If things had gone better for her, that is, when she was young.
I have a feeling this was not quite in the cards for her, however. Someone needed to help her understand something (many things) that she on her own could not. For what I’m sure are a lot of contextually understandable reasons in her past, this obviously failed to happen at an earlier point in time.
There are episodes of this show where it is pretty apparent that someone cannot live outside an institutional setting, and you feel relieved that they are finally fished out of an obviously isolated little hell. You find yourself thinking that hopefully they might get the containment and help they need, after the cleaning crew leaves, because they will not make it on their own. This situation with Terry, odd as it may sound, extreme as it may be, is not one of those cases, in my estimation. Sounds weird, I know, but I’ll explain this further some other day, to the best of my ability.
I hope Terry is even just a little bit better now. It seems to me she has to be. She was tolerating a hitting bottom that few people can manage to survive, ongoingly. It seems likely that this dramatic and dream-like exposure she subjected herself to was the beginning of a slow road to recovery.
I hope she’s sitting in a warm house with a single cat on her lap and a constant flow of people who are making sure she’s not so desperately lonely and upset that she spins inexorably out of control with her depression. I don’t care if the house is untidy, even sometimes disastrously so. Sure, it’d be nice if overall things were more in order, but the important thing is that her particular way of losing touch with reality and drifting in nightmarish isolation is noticed and assisted.
Trust me, I haven’t overlooked the paradox in using the word “isolated” to describe her. I guess some people will take for granted that the lack of human interaction, even if surrounded by kitties, could be thought of as isolated. Other people might count the kitties as greatly offsetting isolation.*
*(Animal hoarders, or potential animal hoarders, if you’re wondering whether you fit in the latter crowd, line up your animals, find a non-biased individual to gift you with a reality check as together you count them for disease. If there’s more than one injury, illness or disease among your pets (yes, count the runny noses), and you haven’t done so yet, seek consultation.)
Bottom line is Terry had one kind of company at the expense of being isolated from the other.
Maybe it seemed like a fair deal to her in the beginning, but, clearly somewhere along the line, she changed her mind.
The important thing, now, is that her horrifically disturbing manifestation of denial (denial of loss and grief, among other things), is dealt with. That she is helped with her profoundly disturbing confusion about many things (not the least of which is what care is and isn’t). That she is helped with her heartbreaking confusion about the limits of what she could expect, what she could control, and what she could expect to control. Sounds like we’re going around in circles but we are not.
Terry needs help with her confusion about what she could keep and not keep, about what she should keep or not keep. What she could rescue and what she could not. What could be resuscitated and what was beyond repair. What living company she could hope to remain stable. What she had to tolerate, in the way of loneliness, and what she did not.
The important thing is that these confusions–all of which were expressed through animal hoarding–are noticed and addressed. Aided, assisted, clarified. The important thing is that she receives the assistance she needs to help her better understand her terribly tangling and paralyzing conundrums.
I really hope people are talking to her about this in a way that she can begin to understand it. Yes, she has a long road ahead of her. She cannot be alone the way she was before. The cats, no matter how many of them she tried to surround herself with, simply did not deliver what she needed. Clearly she was ambivalent about people, and tried her best to imagine she could do without them if she only had a lot of…(cats). You can kind of fill in the blank here, by the way. There is, at the core of addiction, in my opinion, an effort to do just this, with a variety of things. I guarantee you’ll hear me elaborate on this later.
I think if Terry can get enough help wrapping her mind around the nature of her problem (and there are some things we simply cannot do on our own), she has hope of being one day much less profoundly depressed.
I could be wrong about this…about the possibility of Terry’s recovery; I never purport to really understand someone unless I know them. And I almost never watch television, so it’s not like I’m pretending that TV episode world is remotely similar to my immediate, personal interactions with human beings whom I see and hear and experience directly. Still, I have a hunch that as disturbing as Terry’s emotional and psychological damage was, and despite the profoundly intense way it was demonstrated, with the right help she very well may be able to survive in the wild (in the social world among her own species).
So yes, this is a post about animal hoarding, but in the end, it’s a post about human compassion. Perhaps a lack of one has a relationship to an abundance of the other. I tip my hat to people like Matt Paxton and Dorothy Breininger. They literally and metaphorically clean shit up, and do their best to encourage others to see it is reasonable to ask for help in facing that the shit really is, in fact, as shitty as it sometimes seems to be. They help people figure out where this shit is supposed to go, and where it isn’t. And, perhaps most importantly, their aim is to help people face that in facing this messy reality, they don’t have to figure out what to do with it all by themselves. These are quite heroic and compassionate deeds.
I guess I was struck by this television episode, even if it was, after all, only television. I really noticed the way this man, Matt Paxton, looked another human being in the eye (a human being who was living in a way that quite directly discouraged people from wanting to look her in the eye), and more or less said, ‘You are not alone. I will help you. We will help you.’
He more or less said, ‘Yes. I will face what others are afraid to face in you; what you yourself are afraid to face. I will stay with you while we look at what is awful, what is confusing, horrifying and shame-inducing. I am willing to touch what is decaying, decomposing, rotting, and help you distinguish it from that which is not. I am here to suggest it is ok for you to let your losses go. Let go of the ones you had no choice but to lose, and let us help you see that there are others you will choose to let go of if you want to be happier. Either way, there is inescapable sadness to be felt, but it doesn’t have to crowd you out of your own life.’
And this: ‘I am open to imagining you have been profoundly misunderstood, and deeply confused, yourself, about why you do things the way that you do. There are people who are willing to help you sort this out.’
It’s extreme, this show, and sure, many could argue it’s sensationalistic, but it’s real enough, and this kind of courage deserves noticing.
Sometimes the people who help us the most are the ones who show up, unafraid to handle the mess, the garbage, and take it somewhere far enough away so that there is left a space to begin to think. Sometimes they are the ones who look us in the eye, being with us, as we sift through our most terrifying, decaying nightmares. Sometimes they are the ones who simply do their best to keep compassion at the forefront and kindly take a little time to begin at the beginning: “…This is a refrigerator for food…”