“It’s an emotional thing when you try to fill yourself up [with things], and then you get filled up for a little while, and then you’re empty and you go back out to fill yourself back up.” Marlene, one of our hoarders, sums up the whole problem perfectly. And always remember: for these people it’s a hoard, but it could have easily been drugs, alcohol or food.
We should be treating all of them the same: as fellow humans with a mental illness.
Marlene, Topanga, California
The first sight of Marlene’s house on the outside made me think I was looking at the slums of Cape Town or Mogadishu. Exposed red dirt, piles of rubble, trash strewn all about. “I’m the worst hoarder on the planet earth, practically,” is how Marlene greets us, followed by “I’m a trashoholic.” She doesn’t say this with pride.
Marlene is an older woman, still beautiful in a quietly elegant manner (until you see how she lives). Her house is crammed to the ceiling with bags and bags of trash, refuse, recyclables, and I even spotted a bucket filled with plastic bottle lids that were kept for some discernible reason. I’m sure Marlene could tell us exactly what she saved those for, though.
She’s a gentle soul, anxious, and appears to be constantly ashamed of herself yet unable to do anything about it. Well, that’s what our crew is here for, m’lady.
We hear her story: a former fashion model from the ’60s (she really is a looker) who met and instantly fell in love with a handsome man, David Lear. As in LearJet Lear. You just never know who’s going to become a hoarder, do you? They both state over and over how in love they were, how instantly they connected. They married quickly and had a child, Celeste. And that’s when things went sour.
David began cheating on her, and she fell apart. She demanded a divorce and then it was just her, Celeste and her crippling depression. (David stayed in contact with his daughter and supported her.) Marlene’s hoard grew, and by the time Celeste was 14, it hit a breaking point. Celeste was no longer allowed to have friends over. She lashed out by throwing away filthy Tupperware containers and a stack of unused coat hangers, and Marlene bagged Celeste’s personal belongings, set them on the porch, and affixed a note saying that Celeste was no longer welcome in her home.
Celeste recalls that as the worst moment of her life. She clearly loves her mother and wants to help, but as we’ve seen time and again, until the hoarder is ready to address their situation, anyone’s offer of help is moot. At this point in Marlene’s life, the hoard has tumbled out of her house and all over her yard, which prompted the city to get involved. It must be cleaned quickly or face being condemned. Marlene is staring down the barrel of homelessness.
She is desperate to change, she says. She just doesn’t know how. Enter Dorothy Breininger, organizer extraordinaire, who is there to spend the night with Marlene and see how she lives, how she processes her thoughts. As soon as it’s dark, they go dumpster diving, but it’s not anything I’ve ever seen before. Marlene sorts through her neighbors’ trash looking for ways to recycle. Literally: she digs through garbage cans and pulls out plastic bottles to go in recycling bins and pulls out banana peels to go into trash bins. And she’s so angry that people wouldn’t be considerate to their shared earth. A partially-filled water bottle is carried to a plant so the plant can benefit from that person’s waste.
Dorothy realizes that if she could get Marlene to focus on her house like she does the neighborhood garbage, they can get somewhere. This task of Marlene’s, this job she’s given herself, it’s how she identifies as a person. She’s a caring and thoughtful individual and without her, why, the garbage of Topanga would be a nightmare.
They go back to her home to cook dinner. The stove top is barely visible under a mountain of paper and plastic products. More bags hang from the ceiling just above their heads as they cook. They’re cooking over a gas stove. Dorothy tries to explain how incredibly dangerous that is, but Marlene argues (sweetly) that she’s been doing this for 15 years without incident, so…
[Not the point. I could drive drunk for years without incident, but it only takes that one time to become something devastating.] Marlene seems shocked that she’s been flirting with death for 15 years. She genuinely didn’t understand that. And we have the first chink in her armor.
Dr. Melva Green arrives to confer with Dorothy and get a battle plan ready. The main focus will be to repair the damage in Celeste and Marlene’s relationship, starting with having them work together on the kitchen. Instantly Marlene panics, telling her daughter how nervous she is, how she needs to see everything – garbage, rotten paper, it doesn’t matter, Marlene must touch it. Her voice spirals higher and higher into something almost childish, where she says, “This isn’t fair!”
She then has a panic attack.
Celeste holds her, talks her through it to get her heart rate down, and says something incredibly wise:
“You brain, your thoughts are stuck in a loop. You have to break the pattern of your thoughts right now. That’s the big challenge. Think of this as a positive thing.”
Celeste then excuses herself to cry, tired of having to parent her mother and aching for her mother to follow through and be a mother. Dr. Green quietly asks Marlene to realize that her daughter’s goal in life is to help her. Can she move past this and move forward?
After another series of frustrating moments in the bedroom, Celeste hits upon a huge trigger for her: a pile of coat hangers. She yells and hollers out about her mother kicking her out all those years before because of coat hangers. That Marlene chose those over her daughter and how Celeste is still hurting from that, is still clearly a huge issue. It’s a lot for Marlene to take in.
The doctor and Dorothy ask Marlene if this is the point where she kicks them out or she moves forward, which is it? Marlene sheepishly says she wants to keep going. Real progress gets made after that, with hugs and encouragement all around. Dr. Green tells Marlene that she never wants her living like this again, and Marlene gets it. She finally starts to get it. Not all the way, but this is a huge step for her to see just how harmful her living situation is.
While repairs and clean up to the few rooms that were emptied are taken care of, Marlene is sent for a makeover to remind herself that she’s more than a dumpster diver. She looks wonderful, but more importantly, she is blown away by her house. ”It looks like a human home!”
She thinks the whole thing is a miracle, that people cared, that she and her daughter reconnected, and that she has an actual living space including a smart-looking meditation room. The tears and hugs between mother and daughter are sweet – that was made possible by Celeste going in with the hope of getting that back. As we’ve all seen time and again, when the family is determined to see things through to the positive end, real results happen.
After the show
Since cleanup, Marlene has struggled emotionally. Efforts are ongoing to get her a therapist and organizer that she can connect with. However, she and Celeste continue to rebuild their relationship.
Jeff, Chattanooga, TN
We meet a smiling, happy gentleman in the autumn of his life as he records a trumpet solo in a small studio. This is Jeff, a once-small business owner, now musician. Jeff is a charming man, the kind my grandmother’s generation would say “wouldn’t melt butter in his mouth.”
Jeff has lots of lady friends, some romantic, others not. Two of them are important in this case: Deborah, his longest friendship and best friend and Camilla, a woman he met online that he fancies. Camilla is also a musician; they bonded over the desire to collaborate musically and Jeff makes it plain that he’d like more.
Camilla finally came to visit and saw the hoard. Jeff had a prior house that burned, so he salvaged as much as he could and filled a second house, the one Camilla saw. Prior to this, legal issues forced Jeff to shut down his business, so all of that miscellany was added to the growing hoard in the second home.
After seeing it, Camilla put her foot down: either Jeff cleans that up or she calls the city. It’s harsh, but she’s right.
Dr. Zasio comes calling and immediately makes a face at the overwhelming odor of gasoline in the entryway. Red plastic jugs of gasoline are strewn about and at first glance, four lawnmowers can be seen. In the entryway.
…did you get the part about how his first house caught on fire? And the man stores gasoline haphazardly. It’s time for Jeff to stop whistling Dixie and get serious about this incredibly dangerous situation.
Cory Chalmers and his crew arrive, along with Camilla, Deborah, and Jeff’s brother Allen. Cory is immediately worried about the extreme fire hazard this house poses, as he was a former fireman for more than a decade. The women start henpecking Jeff, trying to get him to stop all the nonsense. Nonsense like following along behind people with a dust pan and broom. Sir, that is what the snow shovels are for, grab a busted chair and start hauling.
Deborah finds a jewelry box from an old flame of Jeff’s, angry that he’d keep that as if that woman meant something. If she meant something, why isn’t she there helping? She leaves to cool down and Jeff is feeling the stress of the day, wanting it all to stop.
His brother Allen is also on point with the astute observations: “The deeper we go into the house, the rougher it’s going to get.”
Camilla excuses herself to cry, Dr. Zasio tries to be upfront that it’s not going to get better for a long while yet, and Jeff crawls into the back of a dump truck to see if something can be salvaged. Like a busted, filthy umbrella. Yeah, this one isn’t looking promising.
Jeff is a project hoarder. Everything has potential, anything can be tweaked, repainted, screwed tighter, something. He has so many projects set up for himself, though, that he’ll never be able to get to them all. He wants to keep a giant tiller (in the dining room, of course) because one day he could have a garden.
He might not have a house, let alone a garden. Dr. Zasio says, “You’re in this mess because of your good intentions. You can’t get them all done. It’s not going to happen.”
Jeff says painfully, “If I only had more time…”
But you don’t. It is officially now or never time. It seems like he might kick everyone out, but instead he agrees to push on. He doesn’t look happy about it, but at least they can make the house livable now. Ultimately, only a few rooms were cleaned out, one of them turned into a lovely music room for him. Jeff looks at it all, smiling.
“I could see it in the position of being livable and it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that way.”
That’s why the show makes a point of redecorating a room or two, to show the hoarder what they’ve been missing. He continues, saying, “At this point in time I have control of my life. It can’t get but better.”
Dr. Zasio nods, but says with gravity, “It’s great now. But you have to make good decisions.” Cory and Dr. Zasio are cautiously optimistic about Jeff moving forward with his treatment.
After the show
Jeff is working with an organizer to clean out the rest of his home so repairs can be made. He’s seeing a therapist and making music again. Camilla even came for a visit and stayed for a week in his house. Aww.
I loved Marlene’s comment about how it was exciting in the moment to find something to bring home, but how fleeting that feeling is. It’s no different than a drug addict chasing a high. What I find endlessly fascinating is how someone goes to hoarding as their high instead of something like alcohol, food, sex or dangerous lifestyles. The fundamental need for objects to complete someone seems to be a modern problem as we live in such excess. And as always, it’s never about the thing, it’s about something deeper. When the hoarder (or drug addict, food addict, etc.) finds out what that is, that’s when the real success happens. It didn’t seem that either of these two found that core trigger that sent them on the narrow, littered path of becoming hoarders. Let’s hope they do someday.