Two women on the opposite ends of the social sphere, as different as can be, but both hoarders. One keeps everything because she can remember what it was like to do without, and the other keeps everything to block out the realization of just how lonely she is.
It’s our last episode of the season, and we even have a doctor brought to tears.
Constance, Freestone County, TX
When I say Constance lives out in the country, I mean that spelled kuntry. Her dilapidated mobile home sits out on several acres in the middle of nowhere. The closest town is Mexia (say: Muh-hay-ya) and beyond that, Waco.
Dozens of chickens scratch in the yard, penned in with a huge amount of space under some live oaks. Most of the grass has been scratched away, there are discarded garden hoses strewn about, old chairs and corrugated tin are propped up against the chicken wire. It’s far nicer than where Constance lives.
The roof is slowly sliding off the structure. Inside, it looks like a massive garbage can. Rotten food (some in containers, some out) is everywhere. Nothing is ever thrown away, only aside. Constance – her makeup and hair done and looking very pretty – looks defiantly at the camera and says that some people may call her a redneck and a hoarder. “You’re darn right.”
Spider webs coat the ceiling; chickens wander through the house as Constance leaves the door open to air it out. Her sisters, Alicia and Darlene, are beyond disgusted with her. There’s no pretense that they believe she’s mentally ill, they just think she’s nasty. As you could imagine, this isn’t the best approach to elicit change.
Angela is Constance’s long-suffering daughter. Passed off to be raised by her grandmother and aunt Alicia, she’s visibly upset by her mother’s behavior (and lack of regard for her). Constance says she had to work 12 hours a day, so she let her mother raise Angela. With tears running down her face, Angela tells us that her aunts explained that if Constance died in the house, they’d simply burn it to the ground to be done with it.
Constance is given an ultimatum: If she doesn’t clean the house, Darlene will call social services and have her removed. This doesn’t sit well with Constance, who promptly digs in her heels and says, “If you want me gone, then go on and dig a hole and let me jump in it. That’s how I feel about it.”
Her only income is from raising the chickens, and she’s very proud of them and her care for them. Three of the hens, she says, think they’re house pets and wander inside after her. The camera shows her pushing French fries into one cage of pullets. (I had to go back three times and make sure I was seeing what I was seeing. To the chickens’ credit, the fries went ignored in favor of proper feed.)
Constance gathers eggs to sell, but often she’ll just bring them inside…to be set on the table. Or the counter. Maybe stuck in a used egg carton and wedged on the book shelf. Because one day she’ll get to cleaning out the incubator (which she keeps over her bed) and hatch the eggs. No washing them off, no refrigeration. Sometimes she’ll pull one off the shelf and scramble it up. If it’s cooked, it’s fine, right?
She blames her food hoarding (because she does this with most of her food, the eggs are just…unique to her) on her poor childhood. She went hungry more often than not, and learned to hide things to make sure that she would have something to eat. She’s much older now and never got rid of that habit.
We see her sitting outside over a tub that she’s converted into a grill, scrambling some eggs and eating them with her fingers.
The family has tried to help her, but she quickly becomes belligerent when confronted. In fact, Darlene coolly tells a story of the two of them getting into a knockdown, drag-out fight where Constance smacked her upside the head with a frying pan, leading Darlene to tell us, “I had to take that pan from her and hit her with it.”
Mm hm. She had to.
Angela tells the camera tearfully that she doesn’t think she’ll ever have a relationship with her mother. She feels abandoned and unloved, and the hurt is so evident on her face, it’s painful to watch.
Dr. Melva Green arrives, and she immediately comments on how the chickens are representative of what “Miss Connie” (I’m guessing Dr. Green is from the South, too. That’s a very Southern thing, to call someone Miss [their name].) has done right in her life. It becomes clear that Miss Connie also prefers their company to humans. Humans want something from you and don’t care about you in return. They’ll lie, cheat, and take what they want. She has a pretty negative opinion on humanity.
As they wander through the house and Dr. Green sees just how unsafe it is in there, Miss Connie says that when eggs go bad she just scrambles them for her puppy. She thinks that cooking them means that any salmonella will be destroyed. (Oh, that’s a stomach turner, I have to say.) She was brought up in poverty and can’t see to throw anything away that could potentially be used. A rotten onion that’s sprouted? Those sprouts are salad.
It’s like a Third World country in this place. All of a sudden, she switches off the light to go lie down. Dr. Green slaps it back on, worried and confused. Constance says she’s hurting and needs to nap. Mm hm, Dr. Green knows what this is: too much is coming out, and it’s emotionally painful. She asks if she can help Constance, who looks at her with suspicion and asks back, “Why?”
Dr. Green realizes that this whole experience is going to be about getting Constance to trust her. Quietly she asks Miss Connie, “Let me help you.” Silence. A little more emphatically, “Let me help you.”
Someone we haven’t seen in ages, Standolyn Robertson, arrives with a team and is ready to show the family the house. Everyone needs to see how bad off Constance has been so there will be no excuses of “I didn’t know.” The sisters promptly freak out once inside. Instead of being worried about their sister, though, they deride her and make fun of how “nasty” she is. They seem to delight in showing rotten, half-hatched eggs and saying how it’s not fit for a dog in there. (Ladies, it’s your sister.)
Alicia has to go outside and throw up after being in the house for a brief period of time. The smell is overwhelming. At the front door, Standolyn tries to get through to Miss Connie: “Just because you can use it, doesn’t mean you have to keep it.”
This doesn’t make sense to her, though. Hours are wasted, trying to get through to her. Standolyn addresses the eggs all over the house. “Explain to me what you were going to do here.”
“I was going to hatch them, you know, but you have to have a bunch to hatch at a time.”
“So you were going to just hatch a little baby chicken right here on the edge of this table?” Ha!
Some workers find an old meat freezer – there’s no electricity powering it – and pry it open with a crowbar. It’s packed with spoiled meat. Rotten food is everywhere. (Keep in mind that in this part of Texas it easily gets over 100 degrees for months at a time.)
Finally, Dr. Green approaches her and asks, “Did you come here to die?”
“Yes, I did. I’m through.” She stares back, angry and crying.
Oh, Miss Connie… Her sisters, though, are outside eavesdropping and bust in the house, yelling. See, Alicia’s buried two husbands and you don’t see her putting eggs on the bookshelf! Constance needs to snap out of it. Because it’s that easy. This is a family that doesn’t have any acceptance for mental illness. You’re clean, or you’re nasty. That’s it. Dr. Green gets them back to work quickly to derail their tirade.
A visual of all the clothes Constance had is made outside on a series of tarps. Mountains of clothing pile up, some never worn. So she complains about being poor and not having money, but she’s wasted…we’ve all heard this before. She can’t see the money spent for the hoard. She’s not connecting the dots here, and gets irate with the group.
Angela finally puts her foot down. “You get with the program, or you’re going to the nursing home. What’s it gonna be?”
And finally, finally Constance is willing to try. She actually gets physically involved in throwing things away, which we’ve learned over the course of the show is key to recovery. They get everything out of the house and discover that the floor is rotting away. It’s completely unlivable. While Standolyn makes some calls to find temporary housing for her, Dr. Green has an emotional breakdown with the family.
“Angela, I want to honor you for not giving up on your mother. That’s big. You’re a strong young lady. She’s lucky to have given birth to you.” Dr. Green’s voice breaks as tears run down her face, completely overwhelmed with the strides these tough women have made.
Constance turns to Angela and says softly, “Thank you, baby. I did need the help, and I appreciate the help. I appreciate you being there for me.”
Dr. Green chokes up again. She knows how huge this is. “You trusted, and you believed.” In all the years I’ve watched this show, I have never seen a doctor cry before. I was choked up, too.
Meanwhile, Standolyn has a massive (and I mean massive) surprise for Miss Connie. The owner of StarTex Manufactured Homes is donating a house to her. (And that’s a link to their site, and I’m absolutely fine with giving them some free advertising. What a nice man.)
As she sits with her family outside wondering where she’s going to go, a double-wide mobile home is backed onto the property, shocking everyone that wasn’t in on the surprise. Dr. Green smiles and says, “Miss Connie, I think this is coming for you.”
Constance’s eyes are huge. She’s completely blown away and murmurs that “it’s wonderful.” Standolyn hugs her and says that it’s two bedrooms, and two baths. “Thank God,” Constance says, repeatedly.
They get it set up for her, decorated with some nice things, and her clothes have been cleaned and hung in a closet. She is blown away by how beautiful it is to her. The owner of StarTex hands her the key and gives her a hug. She is like a whole new woman, even her posture is different.
“I think people are beautiful, I really do.” (Let’s not forget that she thought all people were out to hurt her and couldn’t stand them just days ago. Talk about a change!)
She is working with a therapist and is extremely happy with her new home. She no longer hoards eggs, and no chickens are allowed inside. Ha. She and Angela continue to work on their relationship, as well. Bless your heart, Miss Connie. (And you, Dr. Green.)
Jeri Jo, Walnut, CA
Jeri Jo lives alone with her Pomeranian and all of her things. She loves shopping. Thrift stores, garage sales, dollar stores, doesn’t matter. She loves buying stuff. “I like things,” she says. She’s an executive assistant, so she’s doing well for herself. With the exception of her living space. She has none. Her house is filled with boxes and bags and clothing and wine glasses and tchotchkes and just stuff. She usually sits on the porch crocheting with her dog, and never lets anyone inside.
Her sister Cindy and Cindy’s husband Mike have had it. They know how unsafe her house is. If there was a fire, she couldn’t get out. Mike says it’s an absolute disaster. He’s said that if Jeri doesn’t get on the stick and clean the house, he’s going to call any and all authorities to get it handled. Jeri mocks that and says that she wouldn’t even let them in. (It doesn’t work that way, Jeri, but we get your point of view.)
Mike and Cindy have tried cleaning before, but they’re met with the stubborn resistance that seems to currently define Jeri Jo. They’re frustrated with her bad choices. Oh, but there’s more than just hoarding that’s on the list of bad choices by Jeri.
Jeri is married to a convict. As in, met a convict in prison and married him. This was 22 years ago, and they’re still married. He’s on a life sentence. (We later find out he was incarcerated at 19 for killing a man, and is now 54.) She tells us that she “wanted a stable relationship with a man that wouldn’t hurt me or cheat on me.”
Boy, is that a tell.
She met him through a biker magazine. She also kept it secret for years. Oh, Mike? He’s a retired cop. He is beyond disgusted with this choice, as you would imagine. He’s also made the connection that she’s barricading herself in her house. She tells us how lonely she is and that she doesn’t feel complete. (She’s making the mistake of thinking that a seventh handbag will make her complete.)
Dr. Michael Thompkins (and I have a lot to say later about how they matched up clients with Show Staff) arrives with his kind eyes and compassionate demeanor. She shows him a painting that her husband “had done” of the two of them. It’s very “3 Wolves Howling” in style, but it’s a treasured possession. He points out that she’s making her own prison, as well, as he looks at the piles of things blocking windows and doors.
“How would you feel if all of this was gone?” he asks her.
“I’d feel like I could take a deep breath.” Sure. Denial, river in Egypt, rinse, lather, repeat. We’ll see. Once she’s forced to really look at all that she’s done, her isolation, loneliness, and shame is going to rise to the surface, and Jeri Jo looks like a scrapper to me.
Cory Chalmers – Owner of Steri-Clean – arrives with his crew and takes the family in. She tells Cory right away that a lot is trash, and a lot can be donated. I get the impression right away that she’s taken with Cory and is ready to trust him, too. We’ll see if it lasts.
Mike immediately starts in on how dumb it is to marry a con and how dangerous it is to have that in the family. The guy sponges money off of her, apparently, and then there’s the whole “you have a man, but you don’t” thing, and for a woman who claims to be lonely… He wants her to see that it’s all related. Yes, Mike, this is true, but kid gloves, buddy!
She bristles and says that she fully expects them to cut her off after this and not talk to her anymore. Cory gets in there and says they all need to talk it out. Jeri Jo’s sisters say that they won’t stop loving her just because her house is messy. (And isn’t this the flip side of Constance’s story?) They try to reach out to her, to let her know that she’s been mistaken: they love her, and they’re not judging her. They want her to be happy, that’s all.
She tries to leave, but Cory keeps her focused, knowing that she’s not wanting to deal with the emotional aspects of confronting her issues. It takes a while, but Cory continually pushes her to talk with her sisters, to not turn away, and her sisters repeat that they love her and they really and truly are just there to help.
She’s anxious and frustrated. Overnight it seems that she finds personal items that weren’t meant to be thrown away, and she confronts Cory about it, but not in an angry way. She looks nervous and disappointed. Cory quickly takes responsibility for the action and promises he’ll have people find the other items she’s missing. Trust is reestablished and the cleaning picks up by several notches.
Jeri is positively giddy now that she has things that actually matter to her. The rest is quickly sent to garbage or donation. Everything is going wonderfully. Until Mike finds a hangman’s noose in the garage. Everything comes to a halt.
She thinks it’s funny; her intent was to hang a teddy bear in there. Ha? Dr. Thompkins explains that no, a depressed person and a hangman’s noose are not the best of combinations, Jeri. She shrugs and has no problem with Mike taking it down, however. He quickly and expertly unravels the knot and disposes of the rope. He’s a good guy.
Everyone dives back in to the clean up, and she really does a great job of making smart decisions with her things. She’s given heaps of well-deserved praise and love from her family. 8000 pounds of trash were removed, and two cargo trucks full of donations are sent off. Wow! The house is immaculate. A special room is painted and decorated for her, and she’s completely floored. She says it’s a turning point for her. The whole house is clean and tidy; the sisters all hug.
Jeri Jo is working with both a therapist and organizer now, and is extremely motivated to change her life. Her husband is up for a review with the parole board soon.
I was really impressed with how well the producers match clients to doctors and organizers. They each have distinct personalities, and someone like Geralyn wouldn’t have been the right fit for Constance, even as good as Geralyn is at her job.
I got the impression that with Constance, it was a conscious decision on the show’s part to have two strong (but compassionate and successful) black women as her team. Dr. Green obviously had a point of reference with the mindset that Constance had and was able to talk with her in a way that went straight to the heart of the matter and gain Miss Connie’s trust.
Standolyn is strong – as the women in Constance’s family all were – but she isn’t mean. It was a good example for Constance to see that it’s okay to stand up for yourself. That’s a good thing, to advocate for yourself. But you don’t have to be ugly about it, you don’t have to be mean. The hug and smile Standolyn gave her as the new home rolled in choked me up. You could see that both she and Dr. Green recognized how much Constance was hurting and that a tremendous breakthrough had been made over the course of filming.
I got the impression from Jeri Jo – mostly because the woman married a con so she could be “safe” – that she wanted to trust men, but she continually trusted the wrong men. Enter Dr. Thompkins, a large and physically imposing man, but who immediately gives off the impression that there isn’t a mean bone in his body. Kindness rolls off the man, and his voice is soft and gentle. That’s a wonderful example for her to see that men can be more than “cheaters” and abusers.
Add Cory Chalmers to the mix, and you have a completely different kind of kind man for her to have further proof that they exist. Cory is tough – he was a fireman for 17 years, that’s pretty much my definition of tough – but he genuinely cares for his clients. He wants them to be happy, he wants them to heal. He’s the first to insist that families work out their problems so lasting changes can be made. She took to him immediately, and you could see the hurt in her face when she thought Cory was disregarding her wishes for her things.
Once he apologized and rectified that mistake, she looked about 100 pounds lighter and it was as if she was levitating from happiness. See? Some men keep their word. In fact, there are a lot of them out there, ladies.
This was an intense season; I’m still unhappy with the music cues they’re using now. (I swear I heard Carol Orff’s “O Fortuna” at one point.) But the new idea of cleaning and decorating an “inspiration room” is awesome. The compassion the doctors and organizers continue to show their clients is so heartening to watch. I’ve really appreciated every conversation I’ve had with some of them, as well. The insight into how they see their jobs (they love it) just adds to my appreciation for the show.
Great work, guys. See you next season.
(And don’t forget that Friend-of-the-Blog Matt Paxton has weekly podcasts that are FREE. Advice, funny stories, and just a lot of his humor. A link can be found in our side bar, and it will direct you to his cleaning services, as well.)