First, apologies on the late posting. I was in production meetings all evening and this morning for a new television show. If A&E ever wanted to send me screeners for Hoarders, however, there would never be a delay. Just, you know. Putting that out there.
Warning: This episode has some seriously disturbing human filth, and as much as I want to be sympathetic to the hoarder, this is when my sympathies (and wishes of bleach/Karen Silkwood showers) shift to the crews. (I do care about the hoarder, of course.)
Shanna, Bothell, Washington
Shanna is a young woman, probably in her thirties. We see her on a literally beaten path—food boxes, newspapers, fliers, fecal matter that has been walked over until it’s become a makeshift floor—squatting down to mix wet cat food. She is on disability and lives alone.
“I can definitely handle dirt. I don’t have a problem with that.”
There’s dirt, and then there’s filth. Fecal matter is everywhere. It’s not necessarily from a cat. Or rodents. There are sloshed brown stains on the walls, old food rotting into greenish-grey slop, greasy paper towels in huge quantities, and spider webs in every visible corner.
All of this spills outside, as well. This is what prompted a neighbor to peer over the fence; what they found led to a call to the city and an ultimatum for Shanna to clean it up, facing a daily fine of $250 until it’s complete. Her brother Sean knows that the only reason we’re here is because of the city—Shanna would never decide to change a thing.
Shanna lived in the house for 13 years with her mother, also a hoarder. They got on like flies on roadkill, and the house spiraled. The mother decided to shut off garbage service years before but never made arrangements for the accumulating trash to go away. There are heaps and mounds of black trash bags—many split open, their fetid entrails strewn about the lawn.
Inside is a horror show. Bags of food are covered with unidentifiable stickiness, and multitudes of dead bugs are plastered onto them. Inside some of the containers, living bugs are still visible. This is not the horrible part of the house.
There is no toilet, and hasn’t been for over a decade. Shanna’s mother devised a method of “waste disposal” by using a bucket, and then siphoning off that into water bottles. One bedroom and all of the bathroom save the doorway’s empty space for the bucket are filled with bottles of dark, sloshing liquids.
The house smells. That should go without saying, but Shanna doesn’t realize it smells. We see her scoop up cat vomit with a paper towel as she explains the “dirty water jug” system. She tries to carry the large bucket (a 25-gallon paint bucket) but isn’t able to move through the hoarded house. So she pours off some of the bucket into a smaller bucket, which she demonstrates for the cameras.
She carries this through the house, some of the mess slopping over the side and onto the hoard, the walls, her shoes. She dumps this onto a wet, sodden patch of grass at the base of some shrubbery. This is how she uses the toilet, and has for years.
She is convinced that the neighbors don’t mind this (or can smell it) because “they’ve never said anything.” If this isn’t your clue that we’re dealing with a severe disconnect in logical thinking, I don’t know what will be.
Using her fingers, she wipes out the interior of a paper bowl as Matt Paxton arrives. She makes dinner in the bowl, putting the paper bowl in a toaster oven with the timer set for 20 minutes. Matt gapes at her. “Oh, it does burn a little.”
While that cooks, Matt checks out the house. He says it’s the worst smell he’s ever had to endure in his life, and when Matt “Flat Cat” Paxton says something smells awful, there is no question that things are bad. Really bad. “I’m speechless,” he says, as she tells him her bucket system.
You get the impression that she is quite proud of this, as if she’s a clever girl to devise a method. There’s the other clue that we’re dealing with a severe disconnect in logical thinking. She chats him up, smiling a knowing little grin and asks, “This isn’t the worst house you’ve seen, is it?”
Matt: It’s the most dangerously unsanitary house I’ve ever been in.
Shanna: But— [she looks amusingly skeptical here] do you think I meet the definition of a hoarder?
Matt: Hell, yes! Why do you think your house smells?
Shanna: [she's excited to have an answer] It’s a musty smell! Mold and dust make a musty smell.
Matt: No, it’s the feces and the urine.
This is brand new information for her. She looks blown away, shocked even, to learn that human waste has an odor. She can’t smell it, but she’s heard that her house has a “musty odor.” Her house is filled to the ceiling with leaking bottles of shit and piss, there are bloody tampons on the floor, and…
Guys, this is mental illness. This is beyond hoarding and this is severe mental illness. Fortunately Dr. Zasio arrives, is told by Matt how grateful he is that she’s there, and they get out of the way of the bio-hazard crew. And for the first time in Hoarders’ history, Dr. Zasio not only suits up, but puts on a rebreather. (And here is where I panic for Matt having been in there for hours breathing in who knows what. Matt? Get a booster for cholera, please. I’m a mother, I worry.)
Shanna gives push-back to letting things go, and it’s because she has the mindset that if a can is sealed, it’s fine. If something still has the plastic wrap, it’s sanitary. Well, Dr. Zasio explains, not really. The outside is covered in horrid awfulness. You touch that (and Shanna explained in the bucket brigade segment that she doesn’t wash her hands after carrying the bucket out) and then touch other things, and now all things inside and out are contaminated.
This makes no sense to Shanna. You can pick mold off bread! You can eat around weevils! Plastic wrap on the edge of a tub of lettuce keeps it safe! Matt says he won’t eat her poop salad, and she doesn’t understand why not. Honest and truly does not understand.
They have to tackle the poop bottles. It’s not like the team can grab them, toss them in a dumpster and cart it off—this is years-old fecal matter, harboring who knows what type of diseases. They have to be fully suited so nothing touches their skin, they put the bottles in huge garbage cans, pass that down to the outside where someone then has to open and empty every single bottle into a porta-potty so the chemicals instantly destroy the harmful bacteria.
There are hundreds of gallons of filth.
The family arrives, a sister and her husband, and a brother. They’re all so angry about this, they’re all so sad that their mother died of cancer in that home, and they don’t know who to turn their feelings on, so they turn on each other. Matt steps in, directs them to a healthier way of communicating, and gets them working on the house. At one point the brother-in-law Will almost vomits into his rebreather, so he leaves after ten minutes. Sean has been at it for hours and is relieved of…duty. (Hurr. Sorry.)
Matt gets Shanna in to explain why it’s so bad, and she still is under the impression that the toothbrushes in their plastic can still be saved. They’re resting on a mountain of “dirty water jugs.” No. They…no. She then tries to convince the doctor and Matt that she can eat her contaminated food because it’s like a “last high.”
She likes that she can eat that stuff, see that her house is filled with fecal matter, and she’s still standing. It’s a very bizarre survivalist game she has in her head, and it’s incredibly unhealthy on multiple levels. Dr. Zasio realizes that she gets actual pleasure from eating food with poop on it. Shanna is amused by their concern, and this is not a good situation for anyone.
Dr. Zasio makes a decision. With the family gathered, she tells them that it is her professional opinion that Shanna cannot live on her own. She requires therapy, medical attention, and some type of transitional or adult housing. Meanwhile, Matt is inside with a construction expert, who explains that the house will need to be ripped out to the studs and rebuilt in order to be habitable, to the tune of $150,000. Or, they can bulldoze it and rebuild a new house for $145,000.
The family is now aware of how ill their sister is, thank her for allowing them to actually help her, and you can see that they don’t just think she’s a “slob” anymore. She is not well. The cleanup shifts to getting the yard to code, and the family will decide later what to do about the house. (They decide to try and sell it as-is, so someone else can bulldoze it.)
After The Show
Shanna is working with a therapist and is in temporary housing. Her case-worker and family are looking for a permanent long-term care facility for her. She has a huge hill to climb.
And Matt Paxton has a new line of cleaning products – road tested, Hoarder-helper approved – at his website, Clutter Cleaner. Check it out and support a great guy doing great work.
Lynda, Montrose, Colorado
“I believe we are at the beginning of the End Times.”
Lynda is an elderly woman, reading The Book of Revelations from her Bible on its special stand and in its special quilted cover. She believes deeply in the Rapture, that the most righteous of God’s Children will be taken up to heaven in an instant when the end of the world comes.
See, her hoard isn’t for her. Because she won’t be there. Her hoard is there for the “Left Behinders.” Boy, am I intimate with food storage. I grew up in a religion that required dutiful members to keep and maintain a two-year supply of food, fuel, and clothing (they now only recommend one year). My aunt and grandmother’s “pantries” were like mini grocery stores, everything orderly, sorted, old food rotated to the front to be eaten and not wasted.
Nothing of the sort is happening at Lynda’s house. Everything is jammed where she can shove a box or toss a can. Clothing, blankets, books, sleeping bags, it’s all heaped and piled and shoved and stashed wherever she could heap, pile, shove, or stash. Her son, Tony, thinks she’s off her rocker.
We learn that Lynda has another house. She filled it to bursting and walked away to this new trailer home. She’s close to being evicted if the hoard isn’t addressed. The difficulty lies in the fact that Lynda believes she’s been called on by God to store up these treasures for His less fortunate children.
Tony says, “I can clean up the place. But I can’t do anything about how she thinks about these things.” [Don't you love when a family member has such an insightful moment? That's it in a nutshell.]
Dr. Melva Green arrives and asks her about the rapture and her reasoning behind her hoard. She laughs later on camera and says, “How do you dispute God?” Dr. Melva is good people.
Cory Chalmers arrives at the other trailer. When he opens the door, it looks like a shallow closet that someone has shoved a bunch of boxes in. But that’s because you can’t see past six inches. He tries to wedge himself in there and becomes stuck just under the ceiling. He can see, though, that rats have been in there chewing things up. There’s not going to be anything salvageable there, is his guess.
Dr. Melva asks Lynda, “Do you think the Lord is pleased with this?” She indicates the hoard as Lynda sighs, her shoulders sagging. She wants to do the right thing, but it’s going to be hard. And a big part of that is because she doesn’t trust her son. This is going to be the stumbling block.
Troy looks visibly worn out, and you can tell this isn’t the first time he’s tried to empty out his mother’s home. He doesn’t call her “mom,” he doesn’t have expressions of love for her. He’s at his limit. She clearly doesn’t think much of him, either. There is a lot of anger simmering under the surface here. She admits to not wanting him there and not trusting anything about him, so he walks out, snapping off his gloves and saying tersely, “Excuse me, gentlemen.” He leaves the property.
Dr. Green tries to get Lynda to do the work, to push through her fears and stubbornness and get things done.
“I know, I’m being bad and—”
Dr. Green cuts her off and says, “It’s not about being bad.”
Lynda starts talking about how she needs to repent and be the person God wants her to be. But she gets back to work.
Troy and his wife Debbie arrive late in the cleanup, and she immediately rubs everyone the wrong way. Debbie is a lot to take in—bossing people around, challenging the crew and Dr. Green, and insulting them.
“Are you a professional in this? Have you ever done this before?” she asks Cory.
“For seventeen years. I go around the country training people to stop hoarding.”
Debbie has her hands on her hips and rage on her face. She says she is angry at them for not pushing Lynda harder, yadda yadda. The best thing about this is watching Dr. Green’s cool and collected expression, just waiting for Debbie to lose steam. Troy jumps in first, though, and tells his wife to shut up then gets back to working in another room.
Cory tells the camera, “This ain’t God. This is a hoarder, pure and simple.” The Rapture is just a handy excuse for her.
Lynda and Troy are brought together to actually talk, because if they can’t get over their anger and frustration, nothing will change. Troy refers to her as “Mom” and gets a few “I love you’s” in there, and it makes all the difference for Lynda. She begins to cry softly, and Dr. Green points this out to him. “This is real. This a real moment.” This isn’t posturing or anything of the sort, this is Lynda breaking through her anger. (We don’t know why she was angry in the first place.)
Troy pulls her into a hug and says, “I’m not here for any reason but to take care of you.” She murmurs a thank you as they embrace.
The clean up hits hyper-drive, a crew comes in to paint and restore the trailer to the point where it truly looks brand new. She enters the house and says, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful?”
Debbie says to Cory and Dr. Green, “You know, you were right and I was wrong.” Yeah, they kind of know what they’re doing. I get it, she’s frustrated but for crying out loud. Cory is far more gracious than I am, telling her that he knows that was hard to say, and thanks her.
Troy, looking far less hardened and weary, says that he feels like he has his mom back. Their relationship looks like a completely different one than we were introduced to. Outstanding.
After The Show
Lynda is working with a therapist and organizer. Her number one priority is to keep her home clean, and once she’s on top of that, she plans to work on her abandoned trailer and clean it, too.
Two good outcomes this episode, and I was so pleased that Shanna was not allowed to live on her own. She just doesn’t have the mental wiring to make it in any healthy way. Good for her family for stepping up and getting her long-term care, all while being supportive and kind.
Figuring out the cause is the key. Who knew? (We did.) And to any production staff at A&E: thank you for losing the hyper-dramatic music. I was able to see real people have real problems.