Hilary Kacser is Pakrat Patty, the Hoarder, who comes out of the clutter closet during DisordR, The Play. Hilary, who received a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), will perform the one-woman show on July 20, during a gala and fundraiser for the D.C. State Chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness. Showcasing Hilary’s play at such a high profile event is just one indication that hoarding is now considered a serious mental illness.
May was National Mental Health Awareness Month and the American Psychiatric Association chose that time to issue DSM-V, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For mental health professionals, this weighty volume is the universal authority for diagnosing psychiatric disorders and treatment recommendations. Practitioners consider the publication of a new version significant.
Particularly noteworthy this time around is that compulsive hoarding is now categorized as a separate mental disorder rather than solely a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. That designation may help in better diagnosing the illness and obtaining treatment for sufferers.
Hoarding is a pattern of behavior where the individual collects and is unable to toss out large quantities of objects, thus filling up the person’s living space and creating dangerous and unhealthy situations. Two reality shows dramatize the consequences on screen, but last year the risks became frighteningly real when a worker cleaning out a home for TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive, contracted the hantavirus, which can be fatal. There have also been several instances where homes filled with materials that readily combust and burn have presented hazards to first responders.
As an actor and writer, Hilary likes to fictionalize material that may be semi-autobiographical, and she was attracted to hoarding as a theme. “I have a personal experience with the subject matter,” said Hilary. “I’m a hoarder. I have issues with it.” Hoarding becomes a greater issue as people age. “They are less physically able to navigate their paths,” said Hilary. “The older you are, the longer you have been hoarding. It can be very serious.”
For Hilary, DisordR represents both a personal and professional journey. During the 2006 Capital Fringe Festival, she performed In Pursuit of the English: Rose, an adaptation of Doris Lessing’s memoir. As satisfying as that experience was, Hilary recognized that she needed to develop something that was completely original. During a lab that focused on solo performances, Hilary came up with the idea of writing a play about hoarding. “It snowballed from there,” she said. She first performed DisordR during the 2009 Fringe, and again in 2010.
Receiving the DCCAH grant presented Hilary with both an opportunity and a challenge. “The grant project specified a series of four public audience engagements where we gave readings of different iterations of the script, received audience feedback, and then incorporated those ideas into the play,” she said. “It’s my version of the Broadway tryout,” she said with a laugh. “It’s complicated and challenging and stimulating. The play keeps morphing.”
According to Hilary, DCCAH requires public involvement to foster a rich cultural community that can benefit both residents and tourists. “Hopefully people realize that the arts are a great economic engine,” she said. “We have no shortage of tourists wanting to come to D.C. because of the national monuments and the government, but we also have a vibrant arts community here, too, that generates more revenue for the city.”
Hilary said she now has several different versions of the play: a half hour one that she will perform at the D.C. NAMI gala; an hour-long, one act play that she performed at the Fringe; and, a two-hour one that includes the comments she received during the public readings. That flexibility allows her to reach more people with the play’s message, presenting the shorter version during professional gatherings, like D.C. NAMI’s gala, and the longer version for a theater audience.
“Hoarding is very much closeted,” she said. “There’s huge stigma associated with the disorder.” While the TV shows have raised awareness, comments online demonstrate that many people don’t understand that hoarding is an illness. “NAMI works to combat the stigmatization, because it’s much, much harder to address these issues if you are experiencing prejudice or discrimination,” she said.
Calling herself a “versatile actor,” Hilary explains that besides DisordR ’s main character, Pakrat Patty, she also plays many other characters in the show. The purpose is to demonstrate that hoarding not only affects the hoarder, but everyone surrounding the person suffering from the illness. “Relationships suffer,” she said. “Hoarding tends to isolate the person.” And the solution is not as simple as cleaning up the hoarder’s space. “Without followup and ongoing care, the majority of these houses are going to get back into the same condition that they were in before.”
Now with the DSM-V designation, many people struggling with hoarding may be able to get help. “It’s really good timing,” said Hilary. “Hoarding is now going to get more attention.”
For more information, please go to the website for DisordR the Play and the website for the D.C. State Chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Top photo by Tom Kochel
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: It may sound boring to some, but my Favorite Place to Eat is at home with my wonderful partner.
Favorite Place to Shop: I can’t shop! I can’t bring anything more into our home!
Favorite D.C. Sight: I love the fireworks. I have since I was a child. Seeing the beautiful colors light up the sky, the fabulous monument grounds on the Mall, and all those upturned, happy faces of all the beautiful colors that we are in our world on the 4th of July. I should be more mature and professional, and say my equally favorite DC Sight is when we get to see those incredible, uplifting, moving, transporting and transforming theatrical moments created by live actors in plays on stages here in our amazing artistic hometown USA.
Favorite D.C. Moment: I love how you can sit in one of our beautiful National Capital Parks — of course Rock Creek Park, as the song made famous, but any of a huge number, like Battery Kemble or Carderock, and you could imagine yourself to be in the primordial forest, before Europeans settled here, yet you’re actually right in the heart of the seat of power in the Western world. It’s kind of a trip.
What You Love About D.C.: Our fantastic free museums. Not only all the innumerable and fabulous Smithsonian Institution museums, but also the National Gallery of Art. We have incredible world class museums, and you don’t have to have any money to go every day and never run out of wonderful experiences and things to see. No admission charge.
What You Hate About D.C.: Gridlock. In every sense.