My husband and I have always been fascinated by the show Hoarders and it has been somewhat of a “guilty” pleasure for us. One of the big drawing points of the show was watching how Matt Paxton deals with the insurmountable hoards and the people that create and feed them. Imperfect Women reached out to Matt and asked if he would share some of his life lessons with us and we were very pleased when he agreed! Hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
IW: Hi and Good Morning Matt! I just wanted to start out by telling you that my husband and I watch Hoarders all the time and you are our favorite Extreme Cleaning Specialist so I was thrilled when you agreed to do this interview. I was just wondering how you got into this and what makes you an Extreme Cleaning Specialist?
MP: Well thank you! I appreciate that. Someone just asked me that question the other day. I made that title up. I just thought it sounded cool. How I got into it is really the important part. I was actually at probably the lowest point in my life. I had lost a job, my dad had died and my stepfather had died all in the same year, and I kind of went on a bender. I had a pretty bad gambling problem and an alcohol problem as well and I just went on a two year bender. I just disappeared. I went to Hawaii and went to Tahoe and I got into a lot of trouble. When I got out of it I got involved in a camp called the Comfort Zone Camp. It is a grief camp for kids. I was getting sober at the time and some volunteering took place and long story short, I did get sober, and I got re-addicted to helping these kids.
As I got sober, I started looking for work. I really liked working with older ladies and I thought I would get into “Senior Move Management” which is basically helping seniors downsize and helping them move. I really seemed to like working with the seniors with the messiest houses, and one day it just clicked. I realized that these women with the messiest houses were grieving and sad just like I was. So, I started talking to them about what they were sad about. I had learned that from working at the camp and getting them to talk about their feelings.
As far as the title, Extreme Cleaning Specialist, I had never done TV before and they wanted to know my title, and I did not have one. So I just made one up. Now, everyone uses it and it just cracks me up.
IW: Well I like it! And what makes you an Extreme Cleaning Specialist?
MP: What are my credentials….time. I have cleaned more stage four to five homes that anyone. I spent the last seven years cleaning 30 to 50 hours a week side by side with hoarders. I am the only one on the show that is not a doctor or a professional organizer. They have the very best experienced, professional organizers in the country on our team on Hoarders and I am the only one without a degree. Although I don’t have a degree, I have a lot of experience dealing with hoarders and I also have my own personal life experience. That is my angle. I have been down before and screwed up and I have been able to pull myself up. I think that is one reason for my popularity on the show. I am not trying to be anything special. I am just a regular dude that screwed up. People and hoarders relate to that.
IW: Do you participate in the actual selection of the hoarders at all?
MP: We don’t. There is a massive production company behind us called Screaming Flea Productions that do the selection. I was doing a podcast with some of the camera men this past weekend and we realized that they actually have spent more time in hoarder houses than most professional organizers. When I am off for a week, they are still filming another episode. We film 80 hours for a show and it gets cut down to 21 minutes.
IW: 80 hours for a show?
MP: That is probably why I am successful on the show. If you saw me for the whole 80 hours you might say, “Wow, I don’t know if I like this guy that much!” You cut me down to 21 minutes and I am great.
IW: I know sometimes you like to push it a little bit more than the other people do and I like that about you. I understand the emotional component behind hoarding, but sometimes it seems that some of others on the show are just a little too nice. Sometimes it seems that they just need a little more shoving.
MP: I think you can shove very politely. I only push the ones that can be pushed and I ease into. It is not something I start on the first day. If the therapist tells me to back off, I do. The therapist always trumps organizer. I work quite a bit with Dr. Shabo and sometimes I will have an idea but if she tells me no, then it is no. We definitely work together. You have to. There is not just one way to help a hoarder.
IW: We just recently moved my parents into an apartment from a house that they had lived in since the 1950s. Although they were not hoarders like the people we see on your show, it was a clean organized four story house full of things my parents had saved for over fifty years. They never got rid of anything. They just packed it away. So we kind of went through that a bit because my parents had a difficult time deciding what to keep and what to let go.
MP: Nothing was trash…
IW: No, everything was a treasure.
MP: Those are the hardest: where it is just the factor of time. You have 60 years in a home and they are all just really good memories. Like, those are the worst. I love a house full of dead animals and poop. That is easy; that is all trash. The worst thing is when you get a nice old lady that has lost her spouse and the kids are all grown and moved on. She is in a four story house like you are describing, and it is all good memories. That is so hard to get rid of those things and that is all they have left. They are good people. No hoarder is a bad person. They have all been touched by some type of tragedy and that is why they do it.
IW: My parents are still living and I think with them it is just a generational thing. Raised in the depression era where you are taught that you just don’t get rid of anything. They are very happy now that it is all over but it was a little rocky at the time. We should have called you. An outsider would have probably brought a different perspective to it all. Even I hated to see some of it go. A lot of memories for all of us.
MP: We do a lot of that. My private business is Clutter Cleaner. You have to be so hands on and so delicate when you work with the seniors.
IW: Is your personal business doing well?
MP: Oh yes, we are swamped. We book up quickly each month. Everything is an emergency. We will get a call where they will say, “I need you here tomorrow. My mom finally got into the nursing home that she has been waiting for.” They will have twenty or thirty years of stuff that they have been avoiding dealing with and now we have to address it.
IW: Are most hoarders clueless? Do they not realize they have a problem?
MP: I think they do. They are aware of it. They are just incredibly good at avoiding it. The more I spend with hoarders the more I realize that they are totally smart, regular people that have had a tragedy and they are just so good at denial. They are professional hoarders. The rest of us have our days broken up into working, eating and playing. Their entire 24 hours a day are devoted to being in denial.
IW: So you would say that there is not a hoarder out there that doesn’t have an emotional problem? It is not just being lazy?
MP: Some can be lazy. But I think that is about five percent. Ninety-five percent have a mental tragedy that is driving them.
IW: The show states that hoarding is a hidden epidemic. Is it really? Are there that many people out there that are hoarders?
MP: I don’t think it is hidden anymore, and it is definitely an epidemic. When we started they were saying 3 million, but now people are realizing that it is closer to 10 million. I think it is one to three percent of the population, but they are not all stage fives like we see on hoarders. There are a lot of stage two, three and four, that if they don’t get a hold of it now, will end up at stage five. We are training as many people as we can to teach them how to communicate with hoarders. The cleaning is easy; it is the communicating that is difficult.
IW: Are you involved in any of the aftercare?
MP: That is really not my strength. I am good at dealing with the crisis, getting it started and get the house clean. You have to really find the right personality for the client for aftercare. They will be with them another three or six months to teach them basic life skills that they have either never learned or lost touch with. My skill set is one to get in there and knock it out. I am not good with working slowly over time. With my background of addiction, I need to fit my needs and my high by coming into a huge nasty mess and knocking it out in a few days. That is how I keep my high going and that is how I get motivated.
IW: I am a bit that way too. I love to clean. My husband calls me the anti-hoarder. If we haven’t used something in a year, it is history. Let me ask you, if I walked into your house – say your garage or your home – what would I see in terms of organization?
MP: We are probably a one or a two. I am a regular 35 year old guy with a wife and two kids. Definitely not clean. It was before we had kids. Family is more important than cleaning. It is hard. I see how things can get away from you.
IW: I know. When I sit and watch the show I think about that. How easy it would be to let things get away from you if you lost a spouse or loved one.
MP: I totally get it. I had all my tragedies really early in life. I lost my dad, my stepdad and my grandfather in a two year period. It was awful and horrible at the time. But ironically I am able to use my past to help hoarders. My past was really my grad school. I was just messing up for so many years and every year I would ask myself, “Can I mess up anymore?” It was really sad. But luckily it turned around and now I do a weekly podcast and talk about it.
IW: I wanted to ask you about the podcasts. I did listen to some of them and they are pretty funny…a lot of music, cursing and poop! Can you tell us a little about them?
MP: They are not for everyone. They can be raunchy. The podcasts are the perfect place for my stories. They are the stories from working with Hoarders and the stories on my life. My website and podcasts are called 5 Decisions Away. The story with how I came up with 5 Decisions Away is that I was actually working on Hoarders and we found a bum living in the hoarder’s yard.
IW: I remember that episode. It was in New York?
MP: Yes, it was a fascinating episode. We were working on this hoard and we found this homeless man living in a shack on this hoarder’s property and the hoarder didn’t even know it. We were cleaning up the shack and there was this big pile of poop and bucket full of pee and I asked this homeless man how he had ended up there. He said he had been a broker in downtown New York and a girl broke his heart. I said to him, “You are telling me that you live in a shack in some guy’s yard because a girl broke your heart?” Well, then he went on to say that he had gotten hooked on crack, and I told him that crack might have had something to do with it. He started making excuses, and I looked at the camera and I said, “Man, we really are all just five decisions away from shitting in a bucket.”
That really hit me. Four or five things separate that guy from me. I’ve lost my job many times. I’ve lost girls many times. I mean I have lost all the same things he did. I just happen to have the life skills to get out of it.
IW: And probably a much more stable emotional health than some of these people.
MP: Yes, I have been given a good start. Any of the bad things that have happened to me are of my own doing. My point is, we all mess up and we all learn from it. I think that is really what “Five Decisions Away” is about. I just love the stories that I have, and the people I am meeting on the road are just fascinating, and the viewers and the listeners are really enjoying “Five Decisions Away” as a side thing about hoarders. It is not from A&E or by A&E. They let me do it on my own. I am really having fun with it. I am getting more emails from the podcasts than I am from the TV show, which shocks me.
IW: I think the podcasts are pretty fun and you do a great job. They can be a little raunchy at times and I know we are a woman’s site but I think we all have a sense of humor and can appreciate humor and fun.
MP: I am very pro equality. I was raised by a single mom and raised by two very strong grandmothers. I treat everyone exactly the same: equal across the board. That is the only way to be respectful. I was kind of surprised that no one got on me regarding some of the stuff on my podcasts but no one has said anything and again, I think for the most part we are pretty respectful.
IW: On one of the podcasts I remember hearing something about a large collection of dildos that you found. I was wondering, what is the most unusual collection that you have found in one of the hoards?
MP: (laughing) That was definitely one. That poor lady. The couple were swingers and she was dying of cancer and he was dying of Lou Gehrig ’s disease and we were cleaning the house just so the family could come and say goodbye. Their whole house was running off of batteries. They had no power. We get to the bedroom and there were probably a thousand dildos in there. She was so embarrassed and we said to her, “Look, we know what they are…it’s cool.” She starts breaking down and telling me how they met at a swinger’s club in the 70s and she just breaks down and tells me her whole personal story. I said to her, “Who cares how you met? You love each other. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” She had been holding this whole guilty feeling in for a long time.
IW: Was that on the show?
MP: No, that was a private job. The show is wonderful but it is highly edited. The things that I find fascinating never make the show. That is ok. You have to edit down but that is why I really like my podcasts because I don’t edit. I just let it roll. If you’re my fan you will listen and if not you won’t. But the really fascinating things never make it in Hoarders and that is why I have my podcasts.
Probably my most fascinating collection from the show was “Randyland”. He was the guy who had thousands pinball machines and all types of games from the 70s and 80s from arcades.
IW: I saw that show. Didn’t you get hurt on that show?
MP: I did. I broke my hand on that one. It hurt so bad. That show hit me the closest. My dad left when I was young but reconnected when I was in middle school. We became close by going to arcades and we played a lot of those games together before he died. Randy’s collection was the first collection that I found positive value in because it brought me back to my dad. That was actually Randy’s point with his collection or his hoard. Although he was an extreme hoarder, his collection had a point. He had lost everything in his life but his collection brought joy to other people. To me that was the first hoard that ever challenged me. Can you have good in hoarding, or is it all bad? I still don’t know the answer to that but that one was a fascinating hoard.
IW: Do you keep in touch with any of the hoarders from the show?
MP: I talk to Randy every week. I don’t talk to all of them. My style is totally different. I get really personal and become a part of their family for the week that I am with them. For some, they can’t wait to get rid of me. But I will stay in touch with others. I get to see these people evolve from very sad people to really awesome people and the audience doesn’t get to see that.
IW: There is a lot of criticism out there on the show capitalizing on the misery of the hoarder. How do you feel about that?
MP: That is a great question and it is a legitimate question. This is a show about a mental disorder. Is it appropriate? I don’t know, at the end of the day I think we are helping more people than we are hurting. For the people that are ready to change or need motivation to change, I think it is an amazing show. I get hundred of emails a week that say, “Ok, I know my grandma is not lazy now.” We are helping more than we are hurting but I think there are a couple once and awhile that it was probably not the best choice to go on the show.
IW: Do any of the hoarders ever have any regrets about going on national television?
MP: Usually during the process, yes. But once the show airs, not really. I have been on fifty shows now and I have not had a single one that was disappointed. They think everyone is going to hate them but then they get to see the hundreds of positive emails. But sometimes it is not the best choice. I would probably put it at 90/10.
We have helped progress the understanding of hoarding. Business is up three-fold for professional organizers. People are reaching out and getting the help they need. The show motivates people. Hoarders need to reach out to the professionals, both therapists and organizers out there for help.
IW: Have you ever turned a client down?
MP: Yes, we turn down clients all the time. If they are not ready and are not at rock bottom, our solution is not going to work with them.
IW: Given that we are all imperfect, and thankfully so, what is your biggest imperfection?
MP: My biggest challenge in life right now is being present for my wife and family right now. I focus so much on the providing role in our family that I forget to just play with my child and just be there for my wife. I focus so much on the financial support that I forget everything else. I need to put my cell phone down when I am home and stop worrying about cash, and just be with my family.
IW: I think a lot of men your age struggle with that.
MP: I am a new husband and a new father. I have only been married 3 years.
IW: Wow, and you have two kids, a two year old and a 12 week old.
MP: We have been hustling. I am learning a lot. I had been by myself most of my life. I had never seen my parents as a couple. They were separated my whole life. So I am really learning to be a husband. I get wrapped up in that whole helping others thing and I have to remember that I need to put my family ahead of that. I struggle with that but the good thing is, my wife doesn’t let it go very far. She is a true partner. I am very lucky. We met at that Comfort Zone Camp. She met me when I was totally broke and she has helped me find myself and get my confidence. She met me at my lowest point.
IW: That is pretty cool, actually.
MP: Very cool. When we met, she was a successful banker and I was a recovering addict cleaning old ladies houses. I was just a trash man until I went on TV. Most people felt sorry for me. My wife saw my potential. I am very lucky. I don’t really struggle anymore with my former addictions. Those are in the past. I still struggle with addiction but my new addiction is being a dad and getting too wrapped up in helping other people and putting them before my family.
I was raised by very strong women. One of the positives that came out of the men in my life dying when I was young is that it left a wide open hole for some really cool women to raise me.
IW: It is really nice to hear that.
MP: I went to a pretty much all girl’s college. It had just switched over to allowing men. That was a good experience. It forced the men on campus to be friends with women at a young age. Fifteen years later, my 10 buddies from college and I talk about how we all married strong, successful women. I think one of the reasons for that is because we attended a college where the women were in charge and everything around us was female driven. I thank God that I went to that college. Ironically, twenty years later, I think that helps me deal with the hoarders.
IW: You have a book out also called The Secret Lives of Hoarders.
MP: Yes, if you want to truly understand hoarding at a base level, I think it is a great intro book. If you need deeper questions answered, go somewhere else.
IW: I have enjoyed talking to you.
MP: I could talk to you all day. You are a good interviewer by the way. This was a great interview. I just really want people to know that I am a very lucky man. My life took a very good turn. My wife, my mom and my grandmas – I can’t say it enough. I am very fortunate to have these great women in my life.
IW: Are your grandmothers still living?
MP: Yes they are and they all just live down the street. It is so cool to watch them all with my kids and my boys to get the kind of attention that I got. I don’t get to see them as much as they do. So now my mom and my wife are so close.
IW: Well that is good because there is another show on TV called “Monster-in-Law”, I think.
MP: (laughing) I tried to watch that and it was so hard.
IW: I tried to watch that once or twice but I think it is staged. Your show isn’t staged at all, is it?
MP: No, this is as real as you get. You can’t make that stuff up. It is so intense. The thing about hoarding is that drama is a natural part of it. There is no fake drama. And drama makes good TV. Someone suffering should not be entertainment, but it is. Welcome to the real world.
IW: I know, I have a real interest in the show and I look forward to watching it and I should probably be embarrassed to say that.
MP: No, I think 90 percent of our viewers watch it because it makes them feel better about their own lives. And that is fine because people are getting help from our show. So many people have been hoarding for so long that it is not a dirty little secret anymore. I think we have helped initiate that conversation in some families.
IW: The follow-ups – where they revisit – are pretty interesting too.
MP: Yes, they are my favorites and we don’t do enough. Also, this season you are going to see some real messes. Every show you will see the worst you have ever seen.
IW: Ok and again, thank you for your time.
MP: My pleasure and thanks for watching the show.