Elvis Impersonator's Hoarding Hell

By Will Godfrey 07/06/12

Cary, the compulsive hoarder who stars in Sunday's season premiere of Hoarding: Buried Alive, tells The Fix about his progress.

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Cary has been an Elvis impersonator
for 17 years.

Cary, a 51-year-old Elvis impersonator from Brooklyn, has led a double life for years: living every moment in front of the crowd, then returning home to an apartment crammed with Elvis memorablia, stacks of yellowed newspapers, and insects crawling across piles of rotting food. This Sunday, in the harrowing Season Four opener of TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive, attempts to clear his accumulated mess lead to rage, tears and sheer panic. The episode was filmed in March. When The Fix speaks with Cary, months after this "very distressing" experience, he's in Myrtle Beach, SC, where he's just appeared in an Elvis impersonators' contest.

"It went well," he says. "I came ninth out of 21 Elvises. The crowd gave me a very good reception." Cary shared his devotion to The King with his mother, whom he lost to cancer in 1992; it was after he took over her apartment that his compulsive hoarding began. Diagnosed with manic depression and an anxiety disorder, he survived on disability money and his slim Elvis earnings, while filling his home to the point where he could hardly move around it. He talks during the show about his fear that he'll "run out of stuff," which causes him to gather more. "I'm a poor man!" he yells. "I need more stuff in the house that makes me feel rich!" 

This attachment made his appearance on Hoarding a hard decision. "I needed a lot of persuading," he tells us. "I really didn't want to do it." Although he admits the publicity "might give [my career] a little boost," and that he's had "some great reactions" after TLC aired its trailers, he insists, "That's not the reason I did Hoarding; I did it because I needed help." Watching the episode makes it easy to believe him. But despite the ongoing support he's received since March—therapy, plus mood stabilizers and SSRIs, prescribed by a new psychiatrist—there's no silver bullet. Cary sounds calm but subdued when he says, "Things have improved, they're a little bit better than they were. But I'm not cured yet." He misses his discarded possessions less than he did, and his apartment remains "way much better than it was." 

Dr. Beccy Beaton, the psychologist who worked with Cary during filming, has stayed in touch: "I wanted to be sure we didn't hurt him," she tells The Fix. She says that Cary's additional mental health problems made his hoarding particularly hard to address. "He was distraught over the idea of losing his things," she recalls. "We were worried it would have a detrimental effect on his overall mental health." When her efforts hit a wall, she decided to apply a harm reduction strategy—something more commonly associated with substance addictions. This involved introducing compromises, like clearing pathways through Cary's possessions to the fire escape or the window, so he wouldn't have to give up everything. Beaton, who has worked with many hoarders, notes that compulsive hoarding is classified as an anxiety disorder, rather than an addiction. But she believes there's "a very addictive component to it." Which means, she says, that many strategies used to help addicts, such as interventions or 12-step groups (like Clutterers Anonymous), can help hoarders, too. 

Beaton is outspoken in her criticism of some of Cary's friends, who are seen berating him during the episode [below]. "I feel like those friends are abusive to him," she tells us. "But people who are abused often prefer to have those relationships, rather than nobody." For now, Cary chooses to keep these friends—they're currently with him in Myrtle Beach. "He has another friend in his life who's actually very nice," says Beaton. "Hopefully other people in his life will help keep him on track." But she isn't over-optimistic in her assessment of Cary's long-term outlook: "Where it is now is probably how it will stay." Compulsive hoarding is a condition that professionals usually have to seek to manage, she says, rather than cure. Cary, meanwhile, plans to continue impersonating Elvis: his favorite songs to perform are "Viva Las Vegas," "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Suspicious Minds." 

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.