Mike is a very sick woman, and it has affected her animals. Negligence causes a few deaths, so if this is something you can’t deal with, you might want to move ahead to Bonnie’s story. Progress is made with both stories, however.
(Edited at 12:35 CST with links to resources from Dr. Tompkins.)
There are two great questions raised this week: for Mike, how can the family not know? With Bonnie, what do you do when you have no resources, can barely pay your bills, and to keep from losing your property and children you’ll have to pay for extensive repairs?
MIKE, WESTMINSTER, MD
Michelle, or “Mike” as she likes to be called, “has a tendency to collect different items.” Beenie Babies, Breyer model horses (which are expensive) Hallmark Christmas ornaments, you name it, she’s keeping it. No, really, name it – she probably has a few of them lying around. Everything is lying around, tables are upended, chairs look like they’ve been tossed into a corner, and everything is covered in hair, dust, dirt, and cat feces.
Among all of these collections, Mike also has collected a few cats, she says – after thinking for a moment – that she has seven. The camera shows her on the dirty stairs where there are a few bowls lying on each step, a cat coming to the sound of her opening a can of wet food. She tells us that the litter boxes are where she can’t get them. (The camera finds them behind a bedraggled sofa, with a wall of garbage blocking them.)
A few weeks ago the show featured a man with over 30 cats in his home. He made attempts to clean out the kiddie pools of litter. This house only has seven cats, and it’s far worse. There are literally (ha) piles of excrement on every available service. They urinate wherever they can.
Judy, Mike’s sister, says the smell is unbelievable, especially the mountain of diapers in the back bathroom.
The mountain of diapers.
Mike tells the camera, “I have a bladder control problem.” As awful as this is, can you take a moment to imagine what it must be like to say this on national television? She’s an older woman, in poor health, and one of the more embarrassing things that can happen to an adult is now out there for anyone to know. That couldn’t have been easy. In said bathroom, the entire back 1/3 of the room is piled up to three feet with used, soiled adult diapers.
Her nephew, Russell, is a retired firefighter after serving 20 years on the force. He says that he has never smelled anything like it, and he has gone into homes where people have died and gone unattended. Judy just doesn’t know how she can live like this, and doesn’t know how the cats are still alive.
In fact, she can’t live there. Six months ago, Mike became almost terminally ill. Her kidneys shut down and she came close to dying. The doctors were clear: her house was the cause of her illness. She couldn’t go back home, so she and a few of the cats moved in with Judy. And the piles are beginning to pick up there, as well. Judy’s son, Bryan, has seen the stress in his mother as this has continued. It’s time for Mike’s house to be her home again.
Mike’s hoarding escalated after her sister, whom she lived with, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. They were hoarding partners, it seems. Once Joanie died, Mike was left alone with their combined hoard.
Dr. Green (new to me!) who looks like a living kewpie doll, appears with a head wrap and protective gloves. She immediately comments on the feces on the floor and the smell, that it’s overwhelmingly urine and fecal matter. Mike can’t smell anything. Dr. Green believes her avoidance of the conditions in the home have moved on to seriously deep denial. “She’s lost in the abyss.” Mike has never dealt with her grief over losing her sister and is stuck in time.
Before they go further in the house, Dr. Green puts on a protective suit and mask – the house really is toxic, and it’s riddled with fleas. When Dr. Green sees the bathroom, she realizes quickly that this is beyond what was expected. She asks if there might be something dead in there; the smell is more than just hundreds of soiled diapers.
“How are you living like this?” Dr. Green asks, her voice almost breaking. “I don’t want to give you any impression that I think you’re a bad person. You’re not well. Can we agree to that?”
Matt Paxton arrives with a large crew. He reminds everyone that the air is dangerous – so dangerous that Mike almost died, not to mention the house is crawling with fleas. “I don’t want a flea landing on me that’s been living in someone’s poop for the last five years,” he tells the camera.
Judy breaks down at the morning meeting, feeling guilty for not doing anything sooner. Dr. Green tells her that she’s here now, she’s doing something now, so they shouldn’t dwell on all of the past, let’s move forward.
But first, a vet is going in to retrieve the remaining cats. (Which means they’ve been there by themselves for 5 months? I’ve asked Matt to clarify.) The vet has found three living cats, removed in crates, caterwauling. And then they find two dead ones. The first is in the living room, covered by fleas and maggots. It’s removed, and you can see how pained the vets are by this. The second one… They find it behind the diapers in the bathroom. I couldn’t bear to watch more closely to see if it was looking for a window or other form of escape.
Mike says that one was her favorite. She pets the body, says how sorry she is to the body and Dr. Green gets the impression that she’s saying these things to show the others that she cares. “But I’m not sure what her definition of caring is in her current state.”
Now the clean up can begin – she brooks no argument with wanting to keep things at this point. The snow shovels come out at the start of the clean up. Matt takes Russell upstairs with Mike to address the diapers. He stands on the mountain, and Russell is absolutely horrified. Matt asks, “What is going on with this house?”
He’s not talking about the mess, the entire house begins shaking – the camera wobbles and you see the doorway go right as the people cant left. “Let’s get out. Out. GET OUT,” Matt shouts to everyone as they make their way outside. Everyone clears the house when the news hits: an earthquake, 5.8 in magnitude, has just struck the area (remember the earthquake this summer on the Eastern Seaboard?) They have to clear out for the rest of the day because of aftershocks. No one wants to be buried in a house like that.
Day Two begins with an urgent need to make up for lost time. And they find a few more awful things. It’s another dead cat, “Zack.” He’s been “missing” for four years. Judy is shocked beyond words. She had heard he was missing, she just didn’t realize it was in the house. Matt finds a second dead cat. Judy begins to sob. There isn’t any reaction from Mike, and it isn’t clear if it’s because she’s incapable, or that she’s just numb.
The family tackles Joanie’s old room, which has been undisturbed for the four years since her death. Bags of brand new, untouched things fill the room. Everyone gets frustrated, as it seems Joanie had financial troubles, but she found money to buy all of this stuff. There’s thousands of dollars worth of items in the room. Russell (who I’m assuming is Joanie’s son) gets the maddest. “I would take a bomb to this house, I don’t care about any god damn trinkets, nothing. It’s all been shit on!”
He turns his anger to Judy, who he believes knew this was happening and said nothing to the family about it. Matt tells him that he’ll but Bryan and Judy in the bathroom to clean that out and make this real to them. No more hiding.
No one talks as they dig through the mess. Dr. Green tells them to speak, to talk about how they’re feeling, but Judy doesn’t want to “beat up on her.”
Dr. Green says, “She know you love her! This is the situation that you’re in.”
Judy turns to her sister and says, “I’m angry with you!”
“Well, I’m angry with me, too!” Mike replies. “I don’t know why I did this, how it got out of hand.”
“Out of hand?!” Judy shouts. “It was out of hand five years ago!” [Aha, so she did know about this.]
Mike says, “I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to trash the house.’”
No, you woke up a thousand mornings and just did it, Mike.
The carpeting is ripped out, everything is gone, the house is gutted. Over 8000 pounds of fecal matter is removed from the home. That is four tons. Matt comments, “We see a lot here that the only thing worse than [the houses] full, is them empty. This house is disgusting. It’s not a home anymore, it’s a disgusting storage facility.”
Judy says Mike can’t come back to the house, she either will come back with Judy, or they’ll find her a facility to live in. Mike admits that she needs help.
Mike plans on using the funds provided by the show to work with a therapist. She is still living with Judy as they make attempts to clean the house.
All five of her cats that survived are in foster care, waiting to be adopted.
BONNIE, PALMDALE, CA
Bonnie is a single mother of two teen daughters. “Every time I walk in my house, I get a sick feeling.” There is clutter everywhere. Clothing tossed around, boxes of food, random books and movies and stuff. There are paths beaten through the mess, but there is no visible floor. The camera shows her coming home and wading through the muck to her bedroom, where she flops on the bed, arm thrown over her face.
Her oldest daughter, Paige, complains about how doors can’t be shut. Including the bathroom door. Blair, the other daughter, mentions that they eat by using the microwave in the garage, which is a drag because you can barely get into the garage. There is no fresh food in the house, it’s all food that can be put in a freezer and heated up.
Paige fights with everyone, angry about how they’re living, angry that she’s always trying to clean but it does no good, angry that she’s the only one doing anything. Blair is scared of the fights, which sometimes get physical. Bonnie admits to taking a swing at Paige, but usually she’ll just get in her car and leave them for hours.
Bonnie is scared to let workers in to repair things, so there hasn’t been heat in the house for 8 years. Only one tap generates hot water – the bathtub. They do their dishes in it as well as use it for personal cleaning. [I did at least think how great it was that they wash the dishes in hot, soapy water, dry them immediately, and then put them away. That’s better than most of the situations we’ve seen.]
CPS had been called out many times in the past, but Bonnie had managed to keep the house clean enough to keep them from taking the girls. But it’s been a while. If she doesn’t get the house in order, she will lose the girls to the system, something that terrifies the kids, understandably.
Her divorce was final six years ago, and Bonnie was hit with a major depression. She started hanging on to stuff and couldn’t stop. “I want to have a happy ending,” she cries. She’s fearful and ashamed of how things are, but she is just in over her head – she has no idea how to help herself, or her girls.
Dr. Michael Tompkins will be here during her clean up. He comments on how it’s not normal to live like this, and how it’s difficult for anyone to have any “me” time in this house.
“The girls aren’t learning self-care skills. When is it appropriate to change bed sheets? To mop a floor? They’ve never seen the floor.”
There isn’t any private time for the most intimate of matters (and I want to interject with how much I adore Dr. Tompkins, he’s so soft-spoken and thoughtful, just the right mix of personality and attitude for teen girls who could use a little of that, you know?) The only time anyone gets alone time is after a fight when they’re wanting to escape.
Bonnie sits with an iPhone on the front porch as the Got Junk trucks arrive. Geralyn Thomas has a crew with her, and she’s a whip-crack at not just organizing houses, but helping the homeowners to organize their thoughts. She asks Bonnie how she’s feeling.
“Seems like everything will be leaving, some memories might be leaving, too,” she says as she wrings her hands.
Paige says her goal is to have a lot less anger in her life so she can focus and eventually go to college. Oh, Paige, I hope for that, too. Geralyn points out movies. There are literally thousands of them. It seems that because they have no internet or cable, the girls go buy bargain-bin DVDs as they all like to watch movies – it’s the family activity they can all agree on.
And what’s the harm? They’re only, what, five dollars a piece? Multiply that by 2,000 and you have $10,000 that could have gone to repairing the heating in the house, that’s the harm.
Uncle Warren shows up; he’s the ex-husband’s brother that has remained close to Bonnie. He’s never been in the house, and he’s blown away. “They’ve kept this hidden very well. How have I not known?” Bonnie is absolutely scared, now. Her secret it out, and what if Warren tells his wife, who might tell her ex?
Even with all of this, Bonnie is still not letting things go. Geralyn steps in and has them address the girls’ bedroom. They start to sort it out and it becomes clear that there is black mold under the initial layer of junk. Paige gets a face full of it and immediately feels ill. Dr. Tompkins leads her outside and lets her work through her anger and feeling frightened. But he is bound by ethics (and law) to report it to CPS. If it’s deemed unsafe to live in, they’ll all have to leave the home. He has to call them for a consult.
Bonnie feels sick, both physically and emotionally. They have no money to fix this. Paige begins to have a mini-panic attack. The doctor steps in and soothes, “We’ll pull up the carpets and see how bad it is, okay? We’ll find out what to do.” He wants to be honest about the situation, but you can see that he doesn’t want them to jump to conclusions.
Paige, utterly woebegone at this point, cries, “We’re stuck in this house. We have nowhere to go.” (Where is the father in all of this, is my first question. We are never told.)
Everyone is now in face masks and working hard at staying focused. As the doctor helps sort things outside, he finds an un-cashed check for well over $900. He’s surprised she never cashed it, seeing as how strapped for money they’ve been. And this is when we all see that her hoarding is far more than just her despair, she cannot organize her life.
She mentions having $200 in gift certificates for Macy’s, but hasn’t used them because she can’t afford the store. “It’s too expensive for me.” But…you have gift certificates? So you don’t have to afford it? Dr. Tompkins even says this is baffling him.
The carpets are ripped up and they move through the home, checking for mold damage. The sub floor is fine, it was limited to the garbage and carpeting. They only have an hour and change, though, to sort through things and move them back inside. Bonnie isn’t making good decisions about getting rid of more items, so it’s all boxed up, labeled, and moved back.
Dr. Tompkins called CPS – the bathroom, kitchen, and the girls’ bedroom were all cleared and are usable now, so CPS doesn’t have an issue. There’s no need to file a report. Visible relief is on each of the girls’ faces. The doctor is worried, though, that things will creep back in given the few things that were tossed.
The girls give him hugs, grateful for their own space granted.
Bonnie is working with a therapist, soon to be working with an organizer. The house is far more peaceful and the two girls have their own rooms with all the privacy it affords.
I’ve asked Matt about Mike’s family, wanting to find out a little more about what they actually did know about Mike. Which is the big question: if you know, or suspect, what should you do? Now that we’re all becoming more aware (especially of the dangers of living like this) what can we do if we know about a friend or family member living like this?
Matt’s response to my question about the cats left behind and the family:
The cats did have food and water at the house and were cared for, maybe not to the degree that you and I would want, but they are cared for.
the big issue here is that YES the family had some understanding, but didn’t know how bad it was. they had probably dropped her off there, maybe seen the kitchen (which wasn’t as bad as upstairs), but they had no idea how bad it really was.
we see this with lots of our stage 5 hoarders and their families. They want to avoid it just like the hoarder does. Families tend to handle things the same way and I think this family was used to sweeping everything under the rug. once the rug hit the roof, they had to address it and we happened to be there at that time.
families have to identify the problems BEFORE they get bad. when you see someone consuming to deal with grief or tragedy, that is when it’s time to discuss it. Not when me and five 1-800-Got-Junk trucks show up.
(You know how jealous of “once the rug hit the roof” I am, right? Ha! Matt’s great – there’s a link to his company, Clutter Cleaners.)
With Bonnie’s story, the important question to me is, what does someone without resources do? I’m sure that’s far more common a situation. These both tie in together, so if there are resources that just aren’t commonly known, I’ll make a point of listing them here. I’ve also asked Dr. Tompkins about what can be done in this situation, so hopefully we can get some more ideas on how to extend help to people.
Dr. Tompkins’ response to my question:
Yes, finding resources, including appropriate treatment, for those who hoard is a challenge. As for repairs, some communities have organizations to help with this. For example, on the peninsula here in California there is a terrific organization: Rebuilding Together at http://rebuildingtogetherpeninsula.org/ You might check your community for similar resources.
It was a pleasure to assist this family. Bonnie and her girls worked very hard and were lovely.
With Bonnie, I think the “shutting down” and avoiding dealing with life is something a lot of people can identify with – it’s not just for hoarders. I would like to have the show go more into some of the therapies employed to STOP avoiding. If you’ve dealt with this, feel free to share your techniques.
And as mentioned last week: Children of Hoarders is an online support group. If you feel that it might help you or someone you know, feel free to pass that along.
[Hoarders will return on Jan. 2nd with new epsiodes.]