For three weeks, Jesse and Thelma Gaston were buried alive in their own house, pinned beneath piles of festering trash, old clothing and leftover food. When the Chicago fire department finally arrived to rescue the couple earlier this week, the firemen had to wear special hazardous materials suits just to deal with the horrible stench emanating from inside. After pushing past containers of rotten milk and oil cans, and carefully maneuvering through flimsy towers of debris, the firemen managed to pull the elderly couple out. The Gastons left their bloated home looking as frail as skeletons and remain in critical condition.
How did this couple manage to transform their home sweet home into a foul death trap? According to reports, the Gastons were extreme hoarders. One of their neighbors told the Chicago Sun Times that Mr. Gaston “was always collecting junk” and “wouldn’t let anyone in” the house. Neighbors had complained to authorities several times over the years about the couple’s unseemliness, but there is nothing illegal about hoarding junk. Ultimately, it took a near tragedy to pry open the Gastons’ home and let the world peer inside.
Every household has someone who could qualify as a collector, or at the very least, someone who stubbornly refuses to let go of specific possessions, usually because of sentimental value. In fact, chances are that the latter is true of each and every one of us. But it takes much more than that to be classified as a true compulsive hoarder.
“The major distinction has to do with the extent to which the behavior or the clutter causes significant distress or interferes with your ability to live,” said Randy Frost, a psychology professor and co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and The Meaning of Things. “If they can’t sit on their couch or sleep in their bed or eat at the kitchen table, that interferes with their ability to live and that’s what changes it from an eccentricity into a threat.”
Many argue that Americans have become a more materialistic culture in the past few decades, focused on buying up the newest gadgets and fashions. The rise of mega stores like Wal-Mart and CostCo has turned us into shopaholics and fueled our ability to spend less while buying more than we need. According to Frost, this has also arguably made it easier for hoarders to acquire more junk. Yet, while most of us are quick to throw away those purchases (perhaps too quick) in favor of the next new thing, hoarders don’t have it in them to let go.