Whenever I see people making fun of this show (because it’s an easy target, hurr hurr dirty people!) I realize two things. One, they don’t know anyone with mental illness and how hard their struggle is, and two, they have no idea how much good this show really does, both for the people featured and for people watching who finally have a name to put to the problem in their life.
This episode is an excellent example that shows just what caring about someone and then following through with actual help can accomplish in a person’s life.
Doug, West Melbourne, Florida
“I’m Doug. And I’m a survivor.”
Close to the ocean but too nestled in the marshy pine swamp to benefit from the clear ocean breezes, lies Doug’s home. This was the home he grew up in with his sister Amy and their father. Doug had it all for a small-town boy: looks, fun attitude, and big-boy toys.
Speaking of those toys… While speeding on his quad (ATV) sans helmet, he smacked into a partially hidden tree stump and flew up in the air an estimated 80 to 120 feet, coming straight down on his head. As he lay there convulsing, the ambulance made its way through the bracken to him. He died in the back of it as they raced back to the hospital, but was able to be brought back to life. He fell into a coma and stayed there for twelve days.
Doug is one of those rare people whom soap operas love to put in their stories: his traumatic brain injury was so great, all memories before that tragic day were wiped clean. This was when his hoarding began. Inside his house is garbage as far as you can see. Cans of all types, bundles of wire, stained and busted plastic baskets, bags, a number of partially rotted couches and several microwaves, old food (both in and out of containers); and this is just in the front room.
His uncle Curtis tells us that the collecting was Doug’s personal therapy. A kitchen drawer is opened to show repulsive brown liquid sloshing about with cockroaches scurrying away. Doug’s neighbor Frank turns up and mentions to the camera that there are rat droppings all over the place, and that Doug is completely aware of the rats inside.
The vermin are the only thing running in the house—there is no working electricity or water. The state of the house is leading to its possibly being condemned, which would make Doug homeless. He’s a young man with health issues and nowhere to go. With such obvious need, his friends and family have reached out with offers of repair work and assistance, but Doug won’t accept it.
We see Doug go behind his house with a dirty T-shirt. He dips it in the marsh and gives himself a wipe down. This is how he keeps himself clean. (At least he makes the attempt daily, I have to say.) He lives where the humidity is always high, and the scorching near-tropic temperatures just make it worse. He needs running water and air conditioning.
When he came home from the hospital, he required special care. He was like a child after the accident, unable to tend to himself. And to add insult to injury, this once popular golden boy was made fun of for his setbacks, further isolating him from real support. I wonder why he might not be so inclined to accept help? His dad did the best he could by his son, but it wasn’t helpful. In the end his dad committed suicide by overdose five years ago, leading Doug to lose all sense of control.
Because his house is unlivable, he spends the nights riding his bike all over the town and dumpster diving. Cory Chalmers will be his organizational specialist; Cory wants to get to know Doug to be able to bring about the best results possible. To do so, he’s going to spend part of the night with Doug on the streets and then sleep in Doug’s house to see what Doug’s life is like.
Cory learns Doug’s method for searching for cans (which brings in $10 to $15 a week) and tracking lottery tickets. The two get along really well, and you can see that Doug enjoys having another guy to hang with again. Doug seems like a really sweet guy who has had a shit sandwich handed to him and is making do the best he can.
Back at the house, Cory attempts to settle in by himself as Doug continues scouring the town for cans. We can see through the infra-red camera that there are massive spiders on the walls. I’m going to be completely upfront here: I am terrified of giant spiders. I don’t want to hear that they won’t hurt me. It’s their movement and yep, here comes the lump in my throat. (Good hell, things with unpredictable movement are just dreadful. I had thought about talking more with Matt Paxton about this new process, wanting to know more, but there are just some bugs I can’t deal with. I could deal with a rat more than I could deal with giant spiders.)
Those of you who are familiar with older internet memes might remember Clocky. That’s about what we’re looking at on the walls, if not exactly what we’re looking at. There are wee geckos running through the garbage, loads of cockroaches (let’s bring in some bigger lizards to take out the rest of the roaches, hmm?) and the humidity is thick and oppressive, even at three in the morning. Cory is miserable. “This is no way to live.”
This is how Doug has lived for years.
First thing in the morning (after the editors prove they hate me and my ability to ever sleep again by showing a massive black and red grasshopper that looks like it came out of Men in Black. Oh, I despise Lubbers.) has Dr. Chabaud arriving to meet Doug. I want to note that Cory made it through the night. I’m not saying Matt couldn’t hack it, I’m just saying it’s Cory 1, Matt 0 for this new “live like the hoarders.” Ha.
Dr. Chabaud meets Doug and they wait for the family to arrive. They can’t begin clean up until the family has walked through the hoard; it’s important for support—you can’t claim “I didn’t know how bad it was!” if you’ve stood thigh-high in garbage. The family doesn’t come. Doug looks lost and almost childlike as the clock ticks on.
Finally, Amy and Uncle Curtis show up toward the end of the day and get a little chastisement from the good doctor for their trouble. “It’s baffling to me that you couldn’t be here, knowing how important it was.” I think we’re getting a clearer picture of the type of support Doug has had for the past 15 years since his accident.
Everyone goes inside so they can see how their brain-damaged family member has been living all this time. Uncle Curtis (brother to Doug’s deceased father) begins to cry softly. He’s a tough-looking guy with all the accoutrement of a biker. He’s utterly heart-sick over the living situation of his nephew. We’ve heard this multiple times by now—“I didn’t know.” This is an excellent reminder for all of us to actually pay attention to people in need.
The crew begins to bust their butts to make up for lost time. They fill up three and a half dump trucks within a few hours—all garbage. Doug has been living in complete squalor, and he knows it. The doctor spies a picture of him when he was younger and we realize that while most hoarders hold on to things to trigger memories, and how unnecessary that is, Doug is that unusual case where he actually does need to hang on to things to help him remember. This is a tough situation all around.
Dr. Chabaud says, “The greatest gift for Doug is to find other ways for him to maintain memories.” A bag of cans will remind him of the night before and what he did—but that’s not the most effective way to remember the night, in other words.
They move to the shed where the memories of his father are kept, and that’s when the wall is hit. (We know by now that there’s always a wall—and if they can break through that, recovery will be made.) It becomes difficult for Doug to get rid of anything here. But what memories do these items really hold? His father’s death. Is that a memory he needs to cling to?
Doug says, “I still haven’t let him go.” He doesn’t want to look at the fact that his father committed suicide. It’s time for him to look at these painful memories and allow himself to feel whatever it is he’s denied himself.
Dr. Chabaud says, “You’re afraid that your real feelings are going to mess you up. But feelings are important. They’re a part of being human. You can’t block that out.” (I really love Dr. Chabaud. She knows just how to get to the kernel of the problem and speak to the person in a way that really makes sense.)
As Doug moves through his feelings, he admits that he’s contemplated suicide many times. Given the trials he’s had in life for years, it’s understandable that his thoughts would drift in that direction. “Coming back to life was the most painful thing ever.” This is just a sweetheart of a guy who simply doesn’t have the tools in life to deal with what he’s been handed, and doesn’t have the support around him to help him get through the really low moments.
The crew takes him away from the house to give him something nice—a shave and a haircut and some new, clean clothes. It’s such a simple thing, but to have people fuss over you and want you to look and feel good can really do wonders for a person’s outlook. It takes a bit for Doug to let himself be treated nicely, but his whole demeanor changes once he does. The lost and scared look that has been ever present in his expression is gone and he begins to be more animated.
They take him back to his house where major repairs have been underway. Cory and Dr. Chabaud have created a memory room for him—a clean and organized space for pictures, video tapes, letters, anything that has a positive connection to the past. He sees it and is blown away, not quite ready to talk about it as he takes it all in.
I got choked up, guys, I won’t pretend otherwise. “It’s a place for all of the things that were stolen from you by your accident,” he’s told.
“It’s…civilized. Like a normal house should be,” Doug says before his face breaks into a huge grin. He moves through the rest of the house barely touching the surfaces of his new and clean sofas with his fingertips, almost as if he’s afraid it’s going to disappear. Hopefully this is the start of things sticking around, from his memories to his family to his positive outlook.
After The Show:
With the power fully restored, he’s now living in his house and working with an organizer to keep his house clean. His sister Amy takes him to his regular therapy sessions, and they’re growing closer again. Doug is the kind of guy who just deserves a break, and I hope these good things coming his way keep on coming. What a sweetheart of a guy.
To learn more about traumatic brain injury and the resources available (medical and legal), go to www.braininjury.com
Ruth, St. Louis, Missouri
Ruth is a darling, huggable grandma who is retired and loves to shop. We see her house, and it’s filled with tossed bags, crushed boxes, random purchases tossed here and there. It appears that once she’s made the purchase, the thrill is gone and the items themselves are inconsequential. “I have everything,” she tells us. Ceramics, glassware, clothes, papers…whatever bargain she finds at the Goodwill or other thrift shops are what she loves to find.
Her daughters are Jewel and Tanaya. They love their mother dearly and are worried about her health and safety. They’re right to worry—twisting and turning pathways through her things are no safe way for an older woman to live, not to mention the fire safety issues that a hoard brings. It’s not the worst hoard we’ve seen, but it’s enough to be damaging to Ruth’s psyche. Her daughters want it cleaned up, or they feel that a call to APS (Adult Protective Services) will be warranted. Fortunately, it seems Ruth is ready to make a change.
Her house wasn’t always like this—it used to be so clean the girls could skate from one end to the other. (I loved that story—I remember doing the same thing in my childhood home.) Ruth’s hoarding began with a series of tragedies.
Twelve years ago, her husband—suffering from lung cancer—came home from the hospital after a “bad spell.” He took his pants off to lay down, and Ruth’s oldest son Frankie rushed out to find her. He was in bed coughing up blood in torrents. By the time she got her hands on him, he had died. She didn’t move anything from the room. His pants continue to lie across the dresser, Jewel tells us as she cries.
Three years after that, just two days after Christmas, Frankie died of a heart attack in the house. Tanaya tells us that the hoarding got worse. Ruth’s youngest son Todd found that he couldn’t deal with any of the traumatic deaths in his house and took his own life in the bathtub eight months after Frankie’s death. Ruth and Jewel found him.
Ruth began to fill the bathtub with plants. Hanging them in a macabre reminder of how she found her son, perhaps to banish that image with something filled with life? Tanaya feels her mother treats the bathtub as a sort of gravesite memorial. The house was out of control from then on.
In a moment of insight, Jewel says, “She bought things to fill the void of missing her loved ones.” (Isn’t it marvelous how insightful we’re all becoming into human nature?)
Ruth says that shopping relieves her depression. “My mind is occupied with something else.” This type of self-awareness is going to help her healing and moving effectively through the process. She truly is ready for help.
Dr. Zasio arrives, telling us that “This is by far the most tragic and most sensitive situation I’ve been in.” The grief in this home is palpable through the screen, I have to say. If there were a way to reach through my television and hug tender and caring Ruth, I would do it.
Dr. Zasio asks Ruth about the plants, prompting Ruth to tell the story of the deaths in the house; she begins to choke up. “I haven’t been able to get into the bathtub since.” Her eyes move from watery to full on sobbing as she sags against the doorway. Dr. Zasio hugs her, rubbing her back.
“You’ve walled it off so you can’t go in there.”
Ruth continues her heart-wrenching sobs, acknowledging that she’s done that very thing. This is going to be a slow process to enable Ruth the ability to deal with emotions and not be overwhelmed by them.
Matt Paxton arrives with his Clutter Cleaner crew…and Ruth has disappeared. They can’t start without the homeowner, so Jewel hops in her car and goes out in search of her mother, knowing she probably wanted to clear her mind. They find Ruth on a walk doing that very thing. She tells them she’s walking back, Jewel follows in her car to make sure, and this family is so loving and supportive of one another, it’s just heart warming. (And is a huge key in recovery, as we can see by comparison of tonight’s two stories.)
She starts the clean up with excellent and efficient choices, almost giddy with her delight at clearing out the gloom. But that’s because it’s just the stuff they’re getting rid of—none of it is personal, none of it represents the horror that has happened in her home. Matt describes this as a False Progress, because the hard work hasn’t started yet.
Dr. Zasio takes her into the master bedroom to address her husband’s things. This is where it could go off the rails. But Ruth is made of stronger stuff (and has nothing but love being directed at her from her family). As she explains the pants to the doctor, she begins to cry again, her body shaking with the force of it. Instantly she’s surrounded by her daughters, granddaughters, and her niece. “You have to let him go. He’s physically gone.”
Her husband’s love is still there, evident in the family he’s left behind. His memories are still there. It’s just a pair of pants in her hands. We can see Ruth making a cognitive decision that indeed they are just a thing—they aren’t her beloved husband, and her heart won’t change if the item is removed from the house.
Ruth pulls herself together, puts them in a trash bag and carries them out to the dumpster, tossing them in. She says that she gets that she isn’t throwing him away after she does it, and is rewarded with a hug from Dr. Zasio and bear hugs from her family. They are just the sweetest people, and I got choked up several times watching how loving and supportive they all are. What a tremendous family.
Everything ramps up after this, as we expect, and as they move to the bathroom, we learn that there is a smashed mirror there because of how Frankie didn’t like what he saw when he looked in it. The sisters and niece begin to cry, missing their brother and cousin, but Ruth recognizes that the broken mirror doesn’t honor her son and has it removed.
Matt and his crew take over from there and start to make repairs and touch up the paint where needed. Meanwhile, Dr. Zasio takes Ruth and the family to the cemetery where they will release heart-shaped balloons to put some closure on their grief and loss. Ruth lets hers go with a sad sort of smile. But she let it go. She really understands that the memories and love she’s carried for her family aren’t being thrown away—just the grief.
She comes back home to see the work completed, and is overwhelmed completely. It’s beautiful, clean, orderly, and peaceful. It’s a welcoming place for her family to gather and make new memories. A place for the legacy of love that her husband left behind to flourish. The amount of love in that house as all of her family holds her and gives her praise for making this huge step is unbelievable. That we all could be so lucky to be so loved!
There’s nothing like seeing kind people being treated with kindness, is there?
After the show:
Ruth has regular therapy sessions and meetings with an organizer to help her stay on top of all of the progress she’s made. She is in great spirits, and is closer than ever to her daughters, if that’s even possible.
All the best to this wonderful family.
I have to say, the emotional slant the show is taking this season is awesome. We don’t need forced drama on us by musical cues or manufactured cliffhangers. The people shown and their stories are moving enough to make us, the audience, care and want to see them succeed. Well done, crew!