“This behavior is self-abuse.” This week’s episode features two people who are lost in their loneliness, their hoards serving as their companions.
Sandy, Lisbon, Maine
“Books don’t judge you. I use books to escape reality.” Sandy struggles with reality. It’s uncomfortable, upsetting, and emotionally-fraught. She’s buried herself in a cavern of books, paper, boxes, old rotten food and garbage. Pretty effective wall against reality.
“It’s inconvenient,” she tells us, meaning it completely. “It’s not a hazard.” Well, that’s not true. Sandy’s home absolutely is a hazard. So often the houses bleed into one another visually. It’s a mess, it’s a fire trap, there are things piled up head high. Slick and slime are everywhere, old food and dead bugs, and it’s nothing a person should be forced to live in. It’s absolutely nothing a person should choose to live in.
The bathroom cannot be used so Sandy is reduced to sponge baths after wedging her way near a faucet. The city was notified about the house, and since her sister Nona is financially responsible for the home, Nona decided it was time to see what damage had been done.
Sandy has been hoarding for a very long time. When she and Nona were little, their mother was a bit of a neatnik. Everything was thrown away once used, particularly books that Sandy had hidden to re-read. Mom would decide that something should be tossed, and she would, regardless of how Sandy felt about it. When she went into decline, Sandy moved in and took care of her as best as she could, even though tensions were high. Once their mother died, Sandy’s hoarding and lack of self-care went through the roof.
The house was left to Nona because Sandy doesn’t make wise decisions financially. Nona is ready for the house to be habitable and has stated that if Sandy doesn’t clean it up, she’ll be evicted. This tension between sisters is most likely going to blow up when the clean up begins.
Dr. Robin Zasio arrives with Nona for a tour. Nona seems like she’s ready to punch her sister out, and… that’s literally what she says she wants to do. When Dr. Zas asks what’s going on, Sandy is ready with excuses. It’s not as bad as we think. She takes things out, after all. And she’s managed without hot water for years, so…
This is that whole denial-for-survival thing all hoarders do. This is mental illness. This is a mental game hoarders have to play in order to keep living every day in their home’s condition. That’s not an excuse, that’s an explanation.
Nona bursts into tears when she comes out and throws her arms around Sandy. That was a pleasant shock given the tough-guy attitude at first. “You’re not going to do this to the house again. You’re not going to do this to yourself. Period. I don’t care what it takes.”
They’re all ready to work when the Service Master Clean guys with Matt Paxton arrive. And it’s a great fit—he’s funny and real with them, and these are some tough Maine folks. They don’t want the “psycho-babble” method, but the tough-love angle.
The crew starts pulling things out to be sorted, because they cannot be inside to work. Sandy immediately wants to keep everything that passes her. Nona asks why on earth she’d want tools for applying wallpaper paste when she’s never going to wallpaper.
“Well… I use them for sweeping up.” Everything has potential, remember. If I, in my minimalist, tidy home, kept a small brush because I knew it was effective for sweeping up, that would make sense. But I also wouldn’t keep three other brushes. A hoarder (this is my inexpert opinion) is only thinking of that one brush. The other three might be buried under bags and boxes or they simply don’t remember they have three other ones. This brush, this brush has a purpose. It’s very impulse-driven, in-the-moment thinking. And this is how the hoard builds because this thought process happens for every single item that enters the home.
The next issue becomes clear: after the first few layers are excavated, everything is covered in mouse droppings and urine. Matt brings out a pink plastic box of food, a box covered in urine and mouse turds.
“The food is clean,” Sandy insists.
“The food is not clean,” Matt says.
Dr. Zas gently lays her hand on Sandy’s arm and says, “It’s not just about throwing things away, it’s about changing the way you think.” Then she promptly shrieks as she reaches blindly into a box of food and grabs a freshly-dead mouse. Dr. Zasio works with animals, so to shock her is something else.
By the end of the day, nothing has been tossed. When they go inside to see how much progress has been made, Nona is furious. It looks like nothing has even been removed. She’s done. “They can take everything out. No more. Toss it all.”
Day Two and Matt has a proposition for her: “Waist-down, toss?” Waist-down is the lower sedimentary layers where everything is most likely affected by mice droppings. She agrees, and this means the clean up can actually begin. Industrial dumpsters are now being filled, hallelujah.
As it empties, it’s time for her to confront what effect her hoarding has caused.
“I want you to see your refrigerator,” Dr. Zasio says.
“I already know.” The open it and it’s a horror show. I don’t know how people didn’t vomit who were in the room. Even Sandy’s jaw drops. “I didn’t know it was like that.” Well, now you do. Acknowledging this sort of thing is crucial to rewiring her brain, to get her to remember this image when she feels the impulse to hoard again.
… I spoke too soon. She wants to go through it because maybe something is still good. No. Nothing in there is good. I feel bad for the dump that will have to take this fridge, that’s how bad it is.
And then the real damage to house begins to reveal itself. The house must be gutted. Cabinetry and fixtures, appliances and flooring are ruined. The house, the show tells us, is “contaminated beyond repair.” The camera cuts to Sandy who is rocking back and forth looking shocked and terrified.
Does Sandy have anything to say about this? Well, just for herself, that she’s shaken up. Nona is furious. “We did this for you. We’re doing this for you. You destroyed the family home.”
“You didn’t visit me in ten years.”
“Find a place to live.” Nona is done.
Matt has the team switch to cleaning it out, gutting it, so they can sell it. Nona tells us, “I thought I was doing a nice thing,” by having her sister stay in the home and cleaning it out. “But it ended up kicking us in the ass.”
Dr. Zasio has to tell Sandy that Nona needs her to find a place to live. Matt points out that they’re telling her this because Nona was doing her a kindness by not saying it herself. If Nona was there, it would be nothing but anger. Well, that’s a pretty true thing, and it is good of her to take one less emotional gut-punch away from Sandy, who looks as overwhelmed as any person I’ve ever seen.
She’s devastated. “This has been my home my whole life. I’m almost sixty-five. I thought this was going to be my home for the rest of my life. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this.”
God, neither do I. What a dreadful situation.
Dr. Zasio has found some information for her for Section 8 housing vouchers but before a clear plan can be laid out, Sandy points out that if they can just clear a bedroom, she can stay there and work more.
Oh, no. No, Sandy. If she does that, Matt will be required to call the city, which will result in
- the house being condemned
- Sandy forcibly being removed
- Nona being fined as the landlord
None of this needs to happen. She needs to accept the reality. Remember how that’s the one thing she dislikes most of all.
Matt gets her to call some friends to see if she can find a place to stay until they can help her find a place of her own. Nona is visibly upset about losing the family home, but she’s also relieved to know her sister isn’t sleeping another night in that contaminated house. I appreciate the show showing us these real reactions. I understand Nona’s rage and I respect her for still wanting good things for her sister. And I’m just sad for Sandy’s inability to face the reality of the situation she’s brought on herself.
This is why it’s so crucial to understand this disorder. Could the house have been saved if this had been attempted two, three years earlier? I just hope this will be the catalyst for another family somewhere realizing they need to intervene.
After the show
Oh, dear. Sandy secretly moved back in and hoarded out a room. Nona is trying to undo that damage while attempting to sell the house. Sandy now has seasonal employment, at least. Here’s to hoping this family can be released from this financial (and emotional) burden.
Len, Akron, Ohio
“Yes, I’m a hoarder.” Let’s just put out there that Len seems like a tender-hearted, kind man, timid for all that he’s a giant of a man.
Gaynell is his god-sister. The house is filled with… filled bags, oddly enough. “Len has a things with bags.” He has color-coded bags, trash bags, gift bags, grocery store bags, contractor bags, you name it and the house is filled with them. And they in turn are filled with stuff.
He can’t figure out what’s in black bag #3,716, so instead of knowing that something has been “protected” and put away for safekeeping, he’ll just have to get another one of those things. And then protect it in a new bag. You can see how this hoard got so quickly out of hand. I have to give him points for wanting to be organized, but here’s to hoping that the organizer the show brings on can tackle that in a much more efficient manner.
Len’s hoarding seems to have been triggered from a series of tragic events. His mother and aunt were killed in a car accident when he was only eight. After that, his father developed cancer and died. He was all alone, and he believes that’s what brought on his hoarding. He feels lonely. “I feel lonely to this day.”
Well break my heart, why don’t you.
Shavis is his great-niece. Her family has essentially adopted him, and they all just love him. He’s over often for meals, and it’s because there really isn’t anywhere for him to prepare or eat food in his own home. Gaynell is at her limit, though. Len is afraid that if he doesn’t “correct the problem,” she won’t want him around anymore.
…remember how he feels alone? Take away the one connection he has and just watch his whole life fall apart.
He had a heart attack, lost his job, and the house has really fallen apart because he just can’t manage on his own. This is just a heart-breaking situation all around.
Dr. Melva Green meets with another extended family member, Lee, who hasn’t been inside for ten years or more. Len immediately becomes emotional when they finally see the state of things. He’s not proud of his home and is clearly overwhelmed mentally and physically. Lee is worried about his safety. “This has got to stop.”
“This behavior,” Dr. Green says, “is self-abuse.”
“I just hope you understand how I got like this. I didn’t want to be like this.” Len looks up from under his eyelashes at them both, which is no small feat since he’s towers over the both of them. A gentle giant in every sense of the word.
And the whole point of this show beyond getting the hoarders and their loved ones the help they so desperately need is to get the general public to understand how this can happen. If we can understand how it happens, we can understand how to identify it before it gets out of control, and hopefully one day we can understand how to prevent it.
“Cracking down with tough love, that would be a disaster,” Dr. Green tells us.
Dorothy Breininger and the Got Junk trucks show up, and she’s immediately tickled by the unwitting help he’s provided by bagging things up for them. Silver linings! They start upstairs and bring the bags out. And the sheer number of bags from just one room has the family in shock. Yeah, that massive pile is just from one room.
The problem now is that Len isn’t really letting anything go. Gaynell has to excuse herself to keep from getting into it, but Dr. Green wants them to work together and learn how to communicate better. Unfortunately, Len shuts down, snailing in on himself and ceasing to make eye contact whenever he’s challenged. I’m guessing he’s feeling a lot of shame, and coupled with the frustration of “But these are my things,” it’s massive roadblock.
Because everyone has a tendency to walk away when they’re upset or uncomfortable in this family, they don’t know how to communicate effectively. Dr. Green says they must learn how to sit with those uncomfortable feelings and then address them with one another. Avoiding is preventing Len from dealing with the “emotional clean-out.”
Day Two, however, brings a new Len. This new Len is ready to donate and toss, and the family is ecstatic. The family, we learn, has cleaned the house before, so this really needs to happen for everyone to be able to heal and move on.
Dorothy brings the family together. It’s time these folks actually vocalize how they feel and say it to the face of the person who has caused the feeling. Gaynell needs him to learn how to care for himself. Shay is ready to wash her hands of this. She loves him, but she can’t come to the rescue again. Dorothy says it’s time for tough love.
Dr. Green intervenes when it pushes Len into silence. What’s behind it?
“It’s like a drug. It eases the pain of my loneliness,” he says.
He isolates himself after this exchange. He tells Dorothy privately that it hurts him that they’re joking and making fun of him and his illness.
Please think of that when you talk about people with mental illnesses. It hurts them to be mocked. They’re trying their best with the limited tools in their tool kit, after all.
He’s alone, and now that the stuff that replaced the people he’s lost is gone, in his way of seeing things, he’s now truly alone in his own mind. It’s frightening. It’s unbearable for him to lose all of his things. Dorothy wraps him up in a hug. She tells us that with as huggable as he is (and he does look like the sweetest teddy bear of a guy), no one is hugging him. He’s had his things in the way. But now people can get to him.
Let me just point out that humans need an optimal number of eight hugs per day for mental health. I’ll wait while you go get yourself one. Did you? Good. Man, there is nothing like a good hug.
(Dorothy sneaks in one more Len-hug, as well.)
2700 bags were taken out of the house. And wow, when the house is revealed all clean, it’s just stunning. The family is struck silent. “I never thought anything would shut my mouth,” Gaynell says, “but this truly has.”
They’re all so happy for him. He bursts into tears. “I feel like I’m finally starting to get my life back together like it once was.” My eyes absolutely stung with tears when he said that, his voice choked with emotion.
Couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
After the show
Len talks with Gaynell all the time now. He’s working with a organizer on a weekly basis and is beginning therapy sessions soon. Len, I am cheering all the way from Texas for you.
Please, please remember that these are actual people. These are not actors. These folks have been incredibly brave to put themselves in the public for the sake of educating us as well as getting help. Rude behavior, nasty comments, and judgments are not welcome here.