Before we get to the stories, I just want to make another plea to the Powers That Be behind the show to lose the new musical cues. It just cheapens the people you’re highlighting. I promise that the dedicated fans of the show and the work that you do will still watch. The music doesn’t make us care, the people do.
Now about those people….
Kathleen, New Jersey
Kathleen is a retired teacher. She says her house looks like a bomb went off inside a warehouse. Everything is tossed higgledy-piggledy without rhyme or reason. Every room in her four bedroom house is packed with stuff, things she gets at the dollar store, consignment shops, thrift stores and the side of the road. Her daughter Kristen worries about what people will think of some of her mother’s “things.”
You see, some of them are weird. Fun-weird, yes. But some are just plain “weird-weird.” Kathleen calls them her specimens. She has a possum fetus in a jar. Tape worms floating in formaldehyde, baby food jars of ticks (okay, that is weird-weird.) A box of dried birds, another of mice, an owl in the freezer, nope, make that two. And the coup de grace, a pizza box filled with cicada husks.
Kathleen has hoarded herself out of her home and has moved in with her daughter Kristen. After a year and change, she has begun hoarding out Kristen’s home. As expected, Kristen cannot live like that and has essentially kicked her mother out and contacted the show for help. Kathleen is devastated by this, but it’s because she knows. She knows this isn’t the way to behave, she just can’t stop her compulsion.
Next we meet her son Gary, and through him we learn the story of how Kathleen came to be this way. She was once a highly organized professional, a dedicated teacher, mother, and wife. She and her husband loved each other fiercely, and they in turn loved their children with the same passion. A dream family filled with love and humor and intelligence.
In 1987, her husband was hit and killed by a commuter train. In the blink of an eye, the family’s life was changed. Kathleen was beyond devastated, she essentially stopped living. Kristen says that she didn’t just lose her father that day, she was basically orphaned. Gary puts it succinctly: “[Kathleen's] ship just took a hard right in the wrong direction.”
Kathleen tells us about him, but is barely able to speak, even after all of these years. Her love is still so tangible, so strong, that she is overcome with emotion just trying to explain how much he loved her. (And she says that no one will ever love her like that again. Oh, bless your heart.)
Dr. Chabaud arrives on the scene with her smile and tenacious attitude. She realizes that Kathleen is “an explorer” and a naturalist. The specimens make sense. Well, some of them. Let’s talk about the Saran-wrapped owls in the freezer.
Kathleen explains (as she carefully unwraps one and lovingly strokes its feathers – and it’s huge) that she was driving, saw that it had been hit by a semi-truck (red flag) and found it on the side of the road, dead (red flag #2) and that it’s “tragic to see what this once was.” (all of the red flags.) She’s very emotional as she tells the story. And we all can see instantly what the owl represents to her, can’t we? Her husband?
The camera pans to more of her specimens: carefully preserved mice and birds, snake skins laid out to dry, and so on. Dr. Chabaud says that she has stepped out of her grief (for 25 years) to find things to hold on to, things that are dead and should be remembered.
Dorothy Breininger and the Got Junk? trucks arrive on the scene. Dorothy quickly assesses that Kathleen is a hoarder of circumstance and trauma. This is the type of hoarder that we’ve seen make tremendous strides., though The crew immediately starts dragging things out to the front lawn for sorting.
Dorothy takes her straight away to the pizza box of cicada husks. She recognizes that Kathleen sees value in them, even if she does not. And DOrothy won’t do anything to them without Kathleen’s permission. But…let’s maybe think about doing something? Kathleen is going to do something with them, you see: sell them on Ebay!
Her children are dismayed. Who on earth…? Kathleen picks one up, regards it for a moment as she gathers her thoughts, and tells them all that she doesn’t know why she’s like this, she doesn’t know how to not be this way and that she needs to be talked through the process. It has to be difficult for a once organized and intelligent person to now rely on her children to help her function, the doctor says gently.
“I’m tired of being thought of as a lunatic, because to me, [the cicada husks] are marvelous!” Kathleen sobs.
If I may. When I was growing up, we had a giant mulberry tree that would be covered in cicada shells every summer. Hundreds, if not thousands. And we would take huge handfuls of them and smash them in each other’s hair. Ah, youth. We did not, however, think to keep them. We did collect live cicadas and keep them in glass jars, along with “lightning bugs” and ladybugs and so on. I completely understand what Kathleen means by them being marvelous. Who hasn’t been awe-struck by a display of preserved butterflies? That she’s holding onto something brown and “gross” shouldn’t matter: nature is wonderful.
But there are mouse turds with the husks, so let’s wait until next summer and get three or four, hmm? No, she doesn’t want them thrown away as if they never mattered. (Aha.) Kristen, her kind and loving daughter, says, “This is clogging the arteries of this family.”
“Okay,” Kathleen says quietly, and allows them to be boxed up and carted out.
During all of this, Dorothy has had a team working on clearing out the living room. She takes the family in to see it, and it’s totally empty but for a few basic pieces of furniture. Kathleen begins to cry again and throws her arms around Dorothy. She says it looks like it did when they first moved in and were a happy family. Memories of her former lovely life start flooding back and she wants to hold on to that now, not just anything.
Gary says, “The more progress you see, the more you want to keep going.” Kristen uses this momentum to get her mother to address the owl. It needs to go. No more preserved animals in the freezer. Kathleen’s plans were to send it to a university for study. But…she hasn’t.
Dr Chabaud says, “Why would they want it? It’s not a way to honor nature, wrapping it up and hiding it away.” It makes the death meaningless to put it into cold storage (boy, the metaphors are just right there, gang!). As Kathleen explains why it’s not meaningless, she begins to cry and says how it was awful that something in the prime of its life was hit and killed.
Dr. Chabaud smiles at her, waiting. Kathleen cries anew (she has been waiting to properly grieve for years, poor woman.) The doctor tells the camera that if she can really get at the core of her grief and come to accept that life can’t be wrapped up and protected, she’ll make great strides.
Speaking of wrapping, inside the house her “treasure” is found: her husband’s ashtray with a cigarette still in it, wrapped in plastic. “That’s all I have!” she sobs. She then has her light bulb moment as she knuckles away some tears. “I guess it was nuts.” (Guys, I really like Kathleen.)
It’s okay, it’s normal for people to do crazy things in their grief. It’s the keeping it for 25 years that isn’t normal. Dr. Chabaud asks her if her husband is in that ashtray.
And now the clean up begins. She just lets so much go after this point; she and her children work together and start to connect again. It’s so lovely to watch. Meanwhile, Dorothy has had a “secret project” underway and takes Kathleen to one of the cleared-out bedrooms. She’s turned it into a “nature center” for her.
In the room are two tables with the specimens floating in formaldehyde, tools and implements, boxes of dried birds, boards to mount and preserve things, an amazing mud daubber (a type of hornet) nest that is easily the size of a bowling ball, mounted on a large stick and hanging off the wall. Birds nests. Antlers. It’s wonderful, it really is. It looks like a science teacher’s lab, and it doesn’t seem weird or odd, just utterly fascinating. She’s so happy and thanks Dorothy for it. Now she doesn’t have to be embarrassed.
Merry Maids are on the job cleaning and sterilizing the house. It’s a four bedroom house that was completely emptied and cleaned. Dorothy says it’s the fastest clean up she has ever seen. Way to go, Kathleen!
Kathleen took a break after filming (I bet she was worn out!) She is highly motivated to take advantage of the services provided by the show, both for a mental health specialist and an organizer.
(More about Kathleen in the Show Discussion section.)
Scott, Cedar, Michigan
“I’m Scott, the…collector.”
Scott just likes things. And he doesn’t like to have just one of something, he wants them all. Lighters? He has a few. Try 42,000 of them. Baseball cards? Oh, sure! About a quarter of a million. They’re all valuable, of course. “You name it, I’ve got it.” And he has everything in a multitude of places. As in ‘loaves and fishes’ multitudes. Over 500 properties, truck trailers, sheds, barns, storage facilities, all his and all are filled. Over 500 properties, gang.
How does he even have this much? He’s essentially addicted to auctions. When people don’t pay their bills for a storage locker, there is an auction to get rid of it and clear the space. You can buy things piecemeal or put a bid on the whole lot. Guess what Scott does.
He has cars, buses, ambulances, old trucks. His wife is fed up. He’s drunk on the sell, completely addicted to “getting a deal.” Scott says that he bought things to make money, but unfortunately he “fell in love” with the stuff and won’t let anything go. Not one thing will he let go on 500 properties. His son Corey is beyond angry about this. He tells us that his dad fuels his addiction by borrowing money from everyone. His parents, his kids, his employees.
He owes hundreds of thousands in personal loans, and possibly millions in unpaid property tax on half of his properties. He can’t afford to have all of them, he can’t afford to keep buying more, and yet… he still does. He’s bankrupting his family and driving them all away. His wife clearly states that he has destroyed their marriage. (I didn’t get if they were divorced or just separated. She wasn’t present for the clean up.)
Scott says that “If you get something really cheap, it’s exciting,” and his eyes light up like a Christmas tree. I made a prediction right about here that this was going to be a failure.
He went behind everyone’s back and bought 300 VCRs a week or so ago. VCRs. Oh, Scott. Keri, his daughter, just thinks he’s selfish. He’s holding onto everything and ruining the family in the process. And it turns out that Corey has quite the head for business. He knows how to liquidate a large percentage to help the family out of crisis – Scott won’t let him.
This is all terrible for Scott’s health, as well. He had a heart attack that required seven stents put in. He had a second heart attack that resulted in a triple bypass. That’s massive! The kids don’t mean to be ugly about it, but if Scott dies, what are they supposed to do with all of this junk? It needs to be dealt with, and fast.
Dr. Zasio arrives at one of the properties that has twelve barns packed full. He tells her plainly that he’s a collector, not a hoarder. (Collector: has a system of organization for incoming and out going. Hoarder: doesn’t.) They hop on a golf cart to his “valuables” barn. He explains how he can’t buy one generator, he buys 35. “I got carried away.” Um, you think?
He tells her that he wants to get rid of stuff so he can get more in. UM, HOARDER SAYS WHAT? Dr. Zasio stops him and says that she’s not here to help him get more. And if that’s what he thought, she’ll pack it up and go. He bites his lip and says, no, no, that was just a slip up. Mm hm. We’ll see.
Who else to take on this curmudgeon but Matt Paxton with the Got Junk? trucks. He says plainly, “This is the biggest crisis situation I’ve ever seen.” 500 properties, all like this? Yeah. (I’m still blown away by that, can you tell?)
Right off the bat as things are paraded past him to make decisions, he refuses to let expired perfume be tossed. It’s unusable, but he is stuck on the fact that the bottles are in boxes that have never been opened. Surely that’s protecting them? Corey pushes him to make decisions (you can tell that Corey is at the end of his rope, and understandably.) Matt gets him to work with Scott; it’s the only way to get Scott to understand the scope of the problem and how to fix it.
Scott has Corey plugging in all of the busted vacuum cleaners before throwing them out; they might still work! Nope, none of them do, and Corey quickly tosses them in the back of a garbage truck. Scott defends his actions by telling his son and Matt, “I want this [the stuff he wants to “sell”] to protect my properties.” He still thinks that there is money to be made with all of his things. Well, you can only get money if you sell them.
Corey proves how astute he is by coming back with, “If you didn’t have all of this stuff, you wouldn’t need more properties and then need them to be protected.” As you can imagine, this only frustrates Scott more – he wants to be in charge, he wants to be the idea man, he wants to be in control of his family’s destiny. And here is his 32 year old son, ready for the torch to be passed.
When Scott realizes that his lighters have been taken away, he gets irate. Dr. Zasio steps in to get Scott to communicate with his family in a more productive way; shouting doesn’t accomplish anything. As they begin that work, Scott’s elderly parents show up and start sifting through things, taking and hiding items. Well, well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it seems.
Dr. Zasio calls a time out. She and Matt have a family meeting where Matt asks the parents if they just might have a hoarding problem, too.
He tells them plainly to stop taking things off the trailer as they’re enabling Scott. Scott, meanwhile, takes a break from all of this, upset by the turn of events.
Corey takes over and boy, do things start clearing out. He has some auctioneers come out to look at rifles, tools, and so on. Scott surprisingly lets them go, with praise from Dr. Zasio. He starts selling off the valuable things, which is terrific! Then they get to the vast majority of the hoard, which is just…junk. VCRs, cheap little end tables, old technology that isn’t salvageable like cameras and radios. (Not in the bulk that he has.)
Scott is shocked that there’s no money in 300 VCRs. He paid money for it, after all. And what about those batteries? They’re brand new in the box! Well, they were twenty years ago. Again, he’s stuck on the idea that something in a box equals value. Matt says gently, “These are experts telling you that you can’t sell it.”
It sinks in, and you can see the frustration and upset on his face. He looks like a man that has just realized he’s been conned. (And he has – by himself and his addiction.) Only five percent of his hoard can bring in good money, it seems.
Matt pulls Scott and his family aside. He knows that there are millions in taxes owed and says that Scott simply has to sign Power of Attorney over to Corey, since he’s willing to make the hard decisions, and quickly. “It’s the only way to get you out of this.” Scott could go to jail for monies owed.
He agrees. It can’t be easy for him, but to his credit, he does. Everyone makes sure that he isn’t being coerced, that he’s doing this freely. He says he’s doing it freely. Well, there’s progress right there. The team knew they couldn’t clear Scott’s hoard. They came to get the ball rolling and to give Scott tools to handle the rest on his own. He will, with Corey in charge.
Corey managed to make $30,000 on the auctioned items, which barely makes a dent in the amount owed. But it’s something. The next step is to bundle up facilities and sell them as whole lots, not unlike what Scott did in the beginning to acquire things. Then they can sell off properties and pay off debt. Corey has helped Scott get his spending under control so no new items are coming in. They’re working together with the IRS to get a payment schedule for taxes owed. Good job, Corey.
Scott’s case was one where the addiction to having was so apparent. The scope of his hoard is unfathomable, and it’s a wonder his family was still speaking to him by the time the show was filming, honestly. But when his parents showed up, skulking about and picking through the mess to hide what they felt was valuable, I think that was one of the turning points for Scott. It’s not just a hobby or a way to make money, his parents share the same illness, and I think he finally saw that.
As far as Kathleen goes, oh, she just reminded me of every wonderful science teacher I had growing up. I was a Biology major, and delighted in all of the specimens in the labs. I get it, why she’s attracted to those things in particular. And I was fascinated at how obvious it was that she collected things that had been alive once, how she wanted them to have meaning, to still be appreciated and admired. How it made her sad to think of something being killed in its prime.
Amazing how she wasn’t able to make the connection to her husband, how he’d been killed in his prime and she was holding on to everything that symbolized that. (And I got the impression that her children hadn’t made the connection, either.)
I think it’s so helpful to the viewer when you can clearly see how someone got to Point B. It takes mental disorder out of the scary realm (“Well, that lady is just crazy! Birds in her freezer?”) to a clear understanding. Her husband was hit and killed. She’s a former science teacher who marveled at life. Now she collects things that once were alive to try and preserve what they once were.
That makes sense. Obviously it’s not healthy, but we can understand and appreciate how she came to this place in life. And by getting her to actually grieve, and to have people there to help her move through her grief, she’s able to start making healthy decisions.
Side note, something I find fascinating about the process is how the person must physically go through their things. With Scott, it was evident that he got a sort of “high” off of buying things. When you get that endorphin release, you want to have it again. (See: over-eating, drugs, sex, running, etc.) New pathways have to be made in the brain, new positive experiences have to be had in order to release those endorphins again. And hopefully that new “high” will be better than the destructive one.
(And we would like to point out Matt Paxton’s website 5DecisionsAway, which you can access on our sidebar. Podcasts, helpful hints, and Matt’s humor all wait for you.)