Vula, Al, Jim, Arline, Glen
Vula was the cat hoarder. Well, she hoarded everything, but she had 36 cats in the house, and over half were still alive. Deplorable living conditions, which becomes so common place the more we watch the show, but this was one of the ones where you put food back in the kitchen if you mistakenly brought any into your living room to watch. This was the one where you maybe took a shower right after and then gave the kitchen a scrub down.
Soiled clothing, ripped open bags of garbage, dirty pans stacked fifteen high (I didn’t know people had fifteen skillets, let alone the pots and pans in that number. Easier to buy more than clean? Most likely.) Cats are lounging on everything, and litter pans are stacked up in most of the visible rooms. Cat excrement, urine stains, hair and clay litter are caked on everything in a thick, gummy layer.
A closer look shows the cats aren’t lounging, they just aren’t moving. Many have eyes that can barely open, some pant, gasping for breath. None are allowed outside. Her son David stepped up to the plate and initiated the clean up to prevent her home from being condemned. Animal cruelty specialists were brought in and found that many cats had died simply from existing in that home. The dead bodies are here and there among books, newspaper, half-empty cans of food teeming with flies, and unrecognizable material.
This was the first hoard that required a decontamination station. Matt Paxton insists on everyone wearing bio-hazard gear from footwear to eye covers and masks. He points to a mountain of dreck where his team has snow shovels at work and says, “This is a pile of sadness.” The camera cuts to a childrens book among the debris, “Pigsty.”
Veterinarians come in and marvel that none of the cats are bolting when they’re approached, which would be typical. They’re too ill. They easily go into hands, are cradled and carried out of the filth. When the bedroom is reached, a mattress is removed to reveal a litter of day-old kittens curled up with each other. The dead cats that are found show signs of suffering. 13 total are dead.
Due to legal reasons, Matt’s team cannot keep anything – everything is hazardous waste. Vula gets incensed when he tells her she can’t keep anything and says, “Fuck you.” Matt loses his cool with her, saying that he’s been respectful of her, she damn well better be respectful of him and his crew. They’re standing knee deep in waste carrying out a sack of dead animals. He’s 100% correct.
Dr. Chabaud, her therapist through this, was not hopeful for her – she continued to refuse to accept any responsibility and was the queen of the blame game. She did not believe herself to be responsible for any of this mess. It’s really astounding. The doctor thinks she might be pulled from the home. They show Vula crying and saying repeatedly, “It’s not garbage!”
At one point the camera cuts to a shot of her bathtub (all sinks are clogged and filled with utter slop) and the tub is filled with black water, and some random bath toys are floating on top. A worker uses a snow shovel to scoop out… well. You can only imagine what would make a bathtub that color and consistency. It’s one of the worst things I’ve seen on the show, truthfully.
Her son was so frustrated with his mother’s anger and denial for so many years, he wasn’t willing to bring her home with him. She stayed in a women’s shelter for three weeks after filming and her home was condemned due to the inability to completely clean it (or even empty it to a percentage acceptable to the county.) She swore to replace everything when they left, and headed out to the Goodwill when the cameras left.
David pushed through his frustrations and decided to take charge. He’s been helping her clean the home for several months now, and she’s been able to move back into the home. She is not allowed any pets, even though she desperately wants one. He points to a picture of two cats on the wall – that’s what she’s allowed, he smiles.
Matt comes to the house to follow up and it is surprisingly tidy. There is new flooring, an entirely new kitchen, and the home is spotless, orderly, and sparely decorated. Vula has on a lovely outfit with a sassy scarf around her neck, her hair is styled and she’s wearing make up. Is it a new Vula?
Matt notices the corner cabinet where the previous occupant had been a battered piece of furniture that his two feet of solid cat waste behind it. Today it’s a nice oak piece filled with bits and bobs of china and glassware. David has spent on average 25 hours every week for eight straight months cleaning, organizing, tossing, and rebuilding the home for his mother. Matt is right, he should win Son of the Year award.
She thinks of herself as a collector, though. She’s just messy and a poor housekeeper, she’s not a hoarder. Her son vehemently disagrees. He’s done almost all of the work on his own, but at least she’s letting him. The back half of the home is still pretty full, but it’s being sorted and organized, and it’s not just crammed in there, it’s David’s catch all as he finishes remodeling and cleaning.
Aftercare: Vula stuck with group therapy for several weeks, but is not willing to attend one-on-one sessions. David comes over routinely to stay on top of her purchases and to continue organizing her life. I’m of the opinion that she’s not going to really benefit mentally from this, and David has himself a weekend project for the rest of his mother’s life. At least no more animals are trapped in horrid living conditions.
Al is a jack-of-all-trades, able to repair, refurbish, or re-purpose just about anything. Except for how he never gets to that point. He sees purpose in almost everything from scrap metal to rusted machine parts. He just never gets to the actual work, he’s too busy finding new things.
His house had been condemned, and the show came to help him get it back, and mostly so he could have custody of his toddler-aged son again. His wife died of cancer when their child was only a year old, and the loss of that spun the hoarding out of control. The child was sleeping on rags among the piles of garbage, CPS was called, and the child was removed.
Cory Chalmers tried to emphasize that all of the stuff in his house couldn’t replace his son, and was he really going to keep a room filled with dirty baby toys for his son, when his son wouldn’t ever be allowed to play with them? The clean up was unproductive, the inspector came out and saw that barely any work was done. The house remained condemned, and he would not get his son back.
Al felt violated when it was all over, and he felt betrayed by his brother and friend who came to help with the clean up. He refused all offers of assistance for therapy and organizational help after the cameras left.
Cory Chalmers comes to check on him and finds a huge dumpster in the front of the house. There is plenty of refuse piled up on the porch, against the house, and garbage on the bare ground. Al pretends to not want to open the door (I don’t think he’s pretending) and pulls Cory in for a hug.
There’s more clutter in the house since they left. He’s filling it back up. He doesn’t listen to Cory when asked questions about his child, he just keeps on talking about things he’s going to do. He only has seven more months to turn things around or he will lose permanent rights as a parent to his son, who will then become a ward of the state.
Cory asks him if he misses his son, how can the stuff be more important than his child? He hems and haws about needing this or needing that, when he son comes home, if he doesn’t have this table, or that box of clothes, he’ll just have to buy it all over again! Cory doesn’t let him off, however. He wants Al to quit making excuses. Cory asks him when enough will be enough, when does his son come first?
Al starts talking about various projects he’s going to get to eventually, completely ignoring the problem in front of him. His projects are like a never ending mise en place. Cory says that if he doesn’t get therapy, and quick, he’ll lose everything. Al isn’t phased by this at all.
Al’s brother tells the camera that Al simply is who he is, there’s no changing it. Cory says to the camera that he doesn’t believe Al will ever get his son back, and frankly, his son is better off where he is now. Al refuses all aftercare options and has not gotten his son back.
Honestly, I agree with Cory.
Jim was a standard issue biker dude of a certain age. He got the hoarding bug years before when he learned he could turn in scrap for money. He started dumpster diving and it went from metal scrap to food to furniture – all of it stuck on his property. Jim and his wife Dawn adopted their grandchildren Bailey, 12-ish and Charlie, 7-8, when Jim’s son no longer could care for them.
When the show first introduced us to Jim, Bailey was quickly on her way to becoming a hoarder, as she was routinely accompanying her grandpa on dumpster runs, delighting in both the finds and the time with him. The house was so filled, they no longer could live there and were effectively evicted. They stayed with Jim’s elderly mother, the four of them packed into one spare room in her home.
Charlie cries often; he wants to go home. Bailey is miserable being cramped with everyone in one place. She’s reaching that age where she needs privacy. Charlie, choked up, tells the camera that he wants to go home badly.
Dr. Michael Tompkins helped them work through the process of cleaning, and Jim made remarkable strides. He fully accepted responsibility for his home. He’d denied that the house had rodents, but saw one streak across the driveway and laughed, “Well, there’s that. We do have a rat problem.” He made decisions quick and simply. He wanted that house cleaned out, and he wanted those kids in it, thriving. He’d do what it would take, that’s that. He even shaved off his long, grey beard as a signal that change was coming.
Enough work wasn’t able to be done to satisfy the county, so they weren’t able to move in immediately. The back yard of their sizeable lot was completely filled with junk, metal, scrap, and bags of garbage, it was a lot to ask to get it all out. But Jim wasn’t deterred, he vowed to keep at it.
Dr. Tompkins pays a visit to the family and is happy to see that there is hardly any clutter of any kind in the house. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy. The house isn’t perfect, there are still piles of books on shelves, but they’re on shelves! They have family dinners, the children have cleared places for homework and play, and are able to have friends over for play dates and sleepovers.
Jim says that this was clearly his problem, and he’s willing to do what it takes to keep his family healthy and happy. It’s unbelievably heart warming to see the joy on everyone’s faces, how happy and secure they all look. Jim is routinely seeing a psychiatrist and has a great mindset: “Oh I still look at the menu, I just don’t order from it.” It’s sweet.
The whole family goes to therapy sessions together and say they love the experience. Jim has worked so hard, and made so many improvements that he qualified for a special loan to make major renovations to the home to keep it livable.
I asked Dr. Tompkins if he thought there was something inherent in Jim that made him able to change behaviors for the sake of the kids, where someone like Al is not capable of it. His response:
A great many researchers are pondering this very question you raise — what is it about some people with a significant mental health issue who can turn their lives around while others cannot? Jim’s motivation was definitely there. He clearly saw how the hoarding behavior placed at risk his grandchildren. Often, when we help people connect with the things that are truly of valuable to them — for Jim, that was his grandchildren — they can move mountains. Another interesting point about Jim’s case is that his situation reminds us that no two people with hoarding condition are the same nor are their hoarding situations.
The research we have on not only the phenomenon of hoarding but also it’s treatment is largely based on a population of people with the problem who seek help or treatment and participate in the studies. We know very little about the people who steadfastly refuse any help. Perhaps they are different in some significant ways. We do not know at this time. However, whether Jim is an exception or not, he clearly has much to be proud of. Thank you for your thoughtful question and kind words for Jim and his family. Michael
Arline and her very ill husband lived in a small house. Well, her husband wasn’t living in the house; there was no room for him. Richard had prostate surgery before the show, and was in advanced stages of scoliosis and was unable to stand upright. He had been sleeping in his car for over a year as the hoard had pushed him out of his home.
Arline is so far in denial that she’s sleeping under alligators. Her house is one where people can die, either from a fire spreading rapidly or from falling items trapping or crushing someone. She believes that even with her bad knees and diminutive stature she is perfectly capable of kicking out a wall to get to safety. See what I mean about alligators? She also sees herself as nitpicky and a perfectionist. She does have some of her hoard stacked by color and size…
Dr. Chabaud is frightened for her after attempting to enter the home and a wave of boxes and things fall onto Arline as they push through a channel. Arline has many excuses for why things are the way they are, but none of them are because she put it there.
Her daughter and son-in-law come to help her clean, and Arline fought tooth and nail for everything. Towards the end of Day 2, there are maybe four items on the truck, and they’re things you can hold in one hand. Dr. Chabaud called an emergency meeting with the family and said that morally she can’t walk away from this, it’s far too dangerous. The son-in-law says he’ll handle this, and will tell Arline what’s going to be. She slumps in her chair, defeated and angry as Brian tells the crew to just throw everything out until he says otherwise.
They cleared the bedroom enough for Richard to have access to the bed. He stretches his body out for the first time in ages and the visible relief on his face is both gratifying and heartbreaking. Arline had a nervous breakdown when the cameras left. She refused all aftercare. She wouldn’t speak to her daughter for over a month.
Melissa and Brian come back after having been gone for a year and are accompanied by Dr. Chabaud. The house is filling back up; Dr. Chabaud isn’t surprised. Richard refuses to let the bedroom fill up and block him again, however. The kitchen is almost back to pre-show status, crammed with food, boxes, bags, and who knows what else. They still do not have access to the sink, Arline says that an “idiot plumber” came out and couldn’t fit under the sink. The dishes in the cabinet are filthy. She washes things in their bathtub. Melissa and Brian leave, heartbroken.
After Follow Up:
Something motivated Arline after this brief filming, and she became motivated to clean, going so far as to invite friends to come help her. The family is delighted by this turnaround.
The Rat Man. Remember him? It took me days to get that sound of skittering, clawed feet out of my head. He had well over 2500 rats in his modest 3 bedroom home. They took over it and he slept in his workshop. Glen was a very tender soul who was married to a woman that meant everything to him. When she died, he lost all reason. The rats became a substitute for her love. He seemed stuck on the loss, unable to carry his grieving through to acceptance. Glen would burst into tears, trying to hold them back, at seemingly the drop of a hat.
Dr. Zasio was very sympathetic of his plight, understood the love for his animals, and made sure that all of the animals were taken into rescue. They were social, for the most part. Capturing 2500 rats was no small feat. Eventually the walls had to be torn out to access the rats in hiding. For the most part, they were healthy, there were just too many of them. A semi-truck was needed to take all of the traps and cages away.
Glen cried often, hoping they’d go to good homes, wishing he could keep them as companions, even though he understood that was far too many animals. Dr. Zasio expressed grave concern over his inability to move through his grief, and worried that he’d fall back on bad habits.
Glen began therapy and was able to keep his house empty, saving the two female rats he kept from the previous year. Dr. Zasio asks him if he’s been emotional since, and he’s still struggling with the loss. He suddenly breaks down, sobbing, remembering a memory of dancing. It’s very out of the blue and has the doctor worried. She tries to cheer him up as he has a tendency to wallow in “the dark places” his mind can go. She asks about the two remaining rats and meets “Commander Whitehead and Captain Brownbottom.” Ha, hilarious names.
She tells him about how well the rats are doing, that the vast majority of them have been adopted out to families that are happy to have friendly pets. Over 1000 have been placed, and the big surprise is that Dr. Zasio adopted two of them. She shows him pictures of them and he’s so pleased by that. It turns around his sorrow and gets him animated and smiling.
Glen is taking weekly sessions with a therapist and has found that he loves it. There are now only 500 rats left waiting for adoption.