Hoarding 101, by Matt Paxton

The one with 300 cats, that was the worst job for Matt Paxton. The level of methane gas inside the 1,200-square-foot home was so off the charts firefighters couldn’t even measure it with their sensors.

No, the one with an estimated 40,000 gallons of urine stored in jugs, that was the worst. Each jug had to be emptied by hand into barrels and then syphoned into a septic truck and hauled away for disposal.

Check that, the one with 60 dead cats jammed into a refrigerator, that was his worst job ever. The carcasses were actually liquefying, kind of like lettuce does.

“It was horrific,” Paxton said. “It was as gross as you’re thinking.”

His definitions of horrific and gross are different than yours and mine. I literally gag at the mere sight of a green dot of mold in a pint of sour cream, which seems so petty after hearing the grisly details of what he sees in his line of work.

Paxton, an extreme cleaning specialist famous for his role on the TV show “Hoarders,” recently gave a three-hour presentation at ServiceMaster of Salem that was as much an eye-opener as a stomach-churner.

Studies have shown, according to an April 11 article in the Washington Post, that compulsive hoarding affects up to 6 percent of the population, or 19 million Americans. Paxton noted that there are 8 million more hoarders than undocumented immigrants, yet hoarding is rarely talked about.

He is bringing the subject to the forefront through a partnership with ServiceMaster, and providing specialized hands-on training to 62 of the company’s franchises, including the one in Salem.

ServiceMaster of Salem, owned by Brian Greer, is certified for hoarding cleanups. His employees have been trained by Paxton and assisted on jobs featured in two episodes of “Hoarders.”

“They’re actually one of our better crews,” Paxton said before the June 16 class.

Invited to attend were local professionals such as insurance agents, property managers, real estate agents and senior caregivers who might have to deal with the challenges and costs of a hoarding cleanup. Paxton explained why hoarders behave a certain way and how to work with them toward a longterm cleaning solution.

“It’s really a class in compassion and communication,” Paxton said. “There’s always a reason. No one would want to live this way.”

Hoarding used to be listed as a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. Now it is recognized as its own mental health disorder.

People with hoarding disorder, according to the manual, excessively save items that others may view as worthless. They have persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living or work spaces. The behavior usually has harmful effects — emotional, physical, social, financial, even legal — for the person suffering from the disorder and for family members.

The disorder often is discovered in isolated older people, but hoarders come in all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. Men and women suffer in equal numbers. Most hoarders are incredibly intelligent. Teachers, nurses and social workers are among the largest groups of hoarders, Paxton said, pointing out that all three are caregivers so focused on helping others they never get around to learning how to take care of themselves.

“The one thing they all have in common is some kind of tragedy happened to them, some kind of loss,” Paxton said. “They’ve lost a loved one, lost their job, gotten divorced, lost a child, and they’re looking for happiness and self-worth in stuff.”

Most of us find a way to deal with loss. We may have pockets of clutter in our lives, even an extreme cleaning specialist does, but we don’t fill rooms in our home with piles of old newspapers, food cartons, mail, clothes, garbage and other debris.

Paxton shared during the class a snapshot of his own closet at his home in Virginia, where he lives with his wife and their three young boys. Shown in the photo are a large number of pants draped over hangars, 90 percent of which he confessed don’t fit.

“We all have the same behaviors,” Paxton said. “We shame hoarders because theirs is bigger and messier.”

He knows what it’s like to struggle with loss and addiction. His father, stepfather and grandfather all died within the same year. While working as an economist for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas — living on the seventh floor of the hotel and casino — he ran up $40,000 in gambling debt that he couldn’t pay.

That was before he was married and had a family. He has been clean for 10 years, and today is one of the foremost experts on hoarding and its ramifications.

More people are aware of the growing epidemic in part because of the reality TV series, which is entering its ninth season.

Paxton described many different types of hoarders, including animal, information, shopaholic, do-it-yourselfer, crafter, food saver, clothing, collector, sale items and QVC/HSN. The difference between a collector and a hoarder is that a collector finds joy and happiness in sharing and showing off his or her items. A hoarder does not.

He also outlined the stages of hoarding, which usually begins slowly, but builds over time. As piles grow, passages through hallways, bedrooms, bathrooms, garages and other living areas become more treacherous. By Stage 4, a hoarder is all but living in a “cockpit” in one room and fully withdrawn.

The shape of piles can tell a lot about a hoarder’s intentions. A volcano suggests the hoarder is leaving space because he or she wants to be able to have access to items. A rolling hill implies the hoarder doesn’t care about items.

Communication is crucial when tackling a hoarding job, and Paxton is a pro. He waits to be invited into the home. He has conversations with a client about anything but hoarding. He finds something to compliment them on. He does whatever he can to alleviate their anxiety and make them feel like they are in control.

“You’re not going to outhustle or outthink a hoarder,” Paxton said. “Giving them an ultimatum is pointless.”

“Hoarding is a temporary thing. It’s not who they are. It’s what they are temporarily dealing with.”

Connecting with clients comes easy for Paxton, and he makes real connections. Eight former clients have invited him to their weddings this summer.

“I don’t know what you get a hoarder for a wedding gift,” he joked.

Hoarders featured on the TV show are offered free, intensive therapy for a year after the cameras stop rolling, which helps Paxton come to terms with the moral dilemma of putting a mental disorder on the air for entertainment.

“If we did not provide that therapy,” he said, “I don’t think it would be right.”

The success rate, with therapy, is about 60 percent. Without it, the success rate is zero.

“Forward This” appears Wednesdays and Sundays and highlights the people, places and organizations of the Mid-Willamette Valley. Contact Capi Lynn at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her the rest of the week on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.