This will be the part where I remind you that I do not take well to mothers that blame or mistreat their children. While I try to be fair, I’ll just let you know up front that I will always advocate for minors. I mean, come on. Mental illness is not a license to treat people terribly. Period.
In a nondescript ranch house in California lives Eileen and four of her six sons, ages 11 through 18, and her husband, Ron. Before we even get close enough to the house to see the front door, there are piles of things all over the dirt yard. It’s not even possible to see what individual items are beyond boards and a few building supplies as there are tarps draped here and there, presumably to protect things from weather.
Ron admits that living the way they do feels like living in a trash pile. Inside the house are innumerable emtpy to-go cups, food containers, jars and boxes of unprepared food, papers, and so on. Eileen is a very bitter woman. She bristles when telling the camera how everyone says she needs to fix it, but “how come you won’t help me fix it?” This is not Eileen’s mess. In her mind.
Ron says with well-worn frustration, “She won’t let us help her and she freaks out when you go to throw something away.” Their son James, 18, says that “it’s crazy in the house, to say the least.” Blankets and clothes and boxes and odds and ends of just…stuff are piled in hills and small mountains throughout the entire home, one room indistinguishable from another.
Eileen angrily tells the camera that everyone says she yells, but it’s because when she talks, no one listens. Unfortunately, because she only yells now, no one listens to her. She has nothing new to say, just a reiteration of her anger, every time she opens her mouth.
Steven is their 20 year old son that moved out a few years ago. He has issued his mother an ultimatum: they clean the house, or he reports her to Child Protective Services on behalf of his little brothers. No one should be living in that house. Steven is doing the right thing. It’s a hard thing, but it’s the right thing.
Eileen has the most unexpected reaction to this news: “Okay. It would be good for them to learn a lesson.” Yes, Eileen is perfectly fine with having her children seized and removed from her custody. Because, you see, the mess it their fault. They just won’t clean up after themselves. I see. (No, actually, I don’t.)
We meet Josh, the youngest child in the house at 11. He still has the sweet open face of an elementary school boy. He looks around the house and says sheepishly, “It’s a mess. But not like normal people’s houses.” He quietly tells the camera that he thinks he’s going to be taken to a foster home without any of his brothers, and that is really scary. Josh absolutely breaks my heart. Children shouldn’t live in constant fear of being taken away from their families because of garbage in the home. It’s just… whew. Let’s continue.
There’s an underbelly to this family that is revealed, and it’s fairly shocking, considering. Ron, Eileen’s husband, is a veteran of the LA Fire Department. He knows better than most how dangerous their living situation is. More importantly, he’s bound by ethics and law to report living conditions such as he is currently living in, and hasn’t. He knows that he’s mandated to call this in, and lives in constant terror of his boys being removed from him, and it consumes him, he says, beginning to choke up. He feels overwhelming guilt, saying that he’s evidently enabled her by allowing her finances to buy more things and bring them into the home.
No one has access to beds, they all burrow in where they can to sleep, all six of them. Josh says, “I’m so small I can squeeze in anywhere, really.” He says that for a period of time, he slept in a box. Josh believes that this whole situation is his fault, because this started when he was born, “that’s when it happened.”
I’m going to stop right here to say once again to any children of hoarders (or any abusive parent, or any neglectful or harmful parent.) You are not to blame for your parent’s illness nor for their actions. You are not.
Eileen huffs at the camera that she’s pissed her son called her in, but hey, at least the house will finally get clean, right?
Dr. Zasio shows up, and has Eileen show her around. Eileen immediately points out who’s to blame for all of this, and mysteriously doesn’t point at herself. Dr. Zasio asks, “Who’s to blame?” Eileen, “Everyone.”
“But who brought this stuff in?”
Eileen hems and haws for a moment, “Me.”
“So this is mostly your stuff.”
“I do not have a hoarding problem, and I’ll tell you why. I clean, and the kids undo it. They should be held accountable.”
The good doctor is not one to be cowed, however. She lays it out for everyone. “Legally, I can’t leave. This is unsuitable for the kids.” She asks Ron if they can stay elsewhere during the process for their own safety. Yes. She then asks Ron why he didn’t act sooner? He was terrified of the children being taken from him. Eileen interrupts, yelling, “And I would not have a problem with it! Maybe that’s what it’ll take for my kids to understand they need to help me!”
Dr. Robin Zasio stands there, jaw dropped, and has not one word to say. She tells us in a voice over that she’s never experienced speechlessness before. Oh, is Eileen an angry woman. She is a simmering ball of rage, stomping around, forcing everyone around her to constantly walk on eggshells, lest she explode and hurl abuse (physical and verbal) at them.
Dr. Zasio asks, “Quite frankly, the only thing that comes to mind is that you would want your children taken from this home to teach them a lesson?”
Ron begins to cry.
The Got Junk trucks roll in, headed by Dorothy Breininger – there are kids involved, and that means that A&E brings out the big guns. I highly approve. Smiling, she tells the crew and family assembled that they’re here to take care of the “disaster inside.” Eileen starts to blame people and you can see that Dorothy immediately gets her number. Dorothy instructs everyone to take everything from the house and bring it outside for sorting. She asks Ron what he would say about this house if he showed up on a call.
“It’s a death trap.”
“Sir? Get a voice.” (How can you not love Ms. Breininger?)
Eileen begins sorting through things, we hear her say “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and Ron asks if that means it’s garbage. “Nope. Keep that case, too.”
Josh, the 11 year old, asks his mom if they can’t throw away the extra phone cases that they don’t really need, and she yells at him. Steven, the son that initiated the clean up, tries to get her to see that she’s now fighting over keeping a broken Lego. She spits her venom at him as well, and it’s just all about control with her.
My two cents: I get the impression that Eileen believes life happened to her, and that feeling of not having choices has led to a lot of her behavior. It’s easier to point the finger at everyone else making your life the way it is rather than admit your part in it. [Just my armchair psychoanalysis.]
Eileen fights over everything, and Dr. Zasio asks her once again to stop yelling, asking why she’s even yelling at Josh, who happens to be standing next to her.
“Because Josh is the main culprit!” Wow.
After even more push-back (regarding electronics, that she wants nothing to do with and hands the task to Ron) Eileen decides that no one is showing her, nor her things, respect. She drags all five containers that have found their way on the trucks (It’s Day Two.) and pulls it all back, berating anyone within earshot. It’s incredibly upsetting to watch.
Dorothy says, trying to keep patient, “I have twenty-five people here, all on one side of the fence and you’re on the other.”
Eileen bursts into tears, “That’s been the whole problem all along.” Oh, Eileen is a sad, miserable person.
In the end, only enough to fill half of one truck leaves. Everything is out of the house, however, which is cleaned and made safe for the children. We see Eileen sorting through cardboard boxes, the sort that multipacks of cleaners come in for warehouse storage. She quickly snipes, “Don’t make this about me being obsessed with boxes.”
A case was filed with CPS, which is currently under investigation. Dorothy is continuing to work with her to keep CPS at bay, she’s not currently using any funds for therapy. I asked Dr. Zasio if there were times when it would just be better for, say, Ron and the kids to “cut their losses,” in a way, as the show gave the impression that there wasn’t a lot of hope for Eileen.
This was truly a painful situation to watch unfold. However, I don’t think that giving up on people who have potential is the solution. This was Eileen’s first attempt at working with a professional and it’s not uncommon that on their first try they are not successful. She had years of hoarding behavior and conditioning that we were not going to fix over night. And, that was not our goal. We wanted to alleviate the crisis, get the kids safe, and then start the decluttering process. Through aftercare she can continue to work with a therapist and organizer who will hopefully be able to help her see how the therapy process can help both her and her family reclaim their lives as a family.
I asked Dorothy Breininger about the welfare of the children, and she had this to say:
I know it’s human nature for our “first response” to be to blame another, but eventually maturity prevails and hopefully we can begin asking ourselves, “Hey, where’s my responsibility in this whole thing?” We usually grow out of the blame game in our 20’s or so. What I get with Eileen is she doesn’t have that tool set and on top of that is her mental illness. I pray her therapy will bring a shift for Eileen. Ahhhh, but you are right on the money – what about the kids? Is there a ray of sunshine here? Youbetcha! I am lucky to have the chance to see the kids when I visit and work with them individually in their rooms. I do share with them how this is not their fault and I take the opportunity to teach them short organizing mantras so they can grow into young men with some organizing tools in their back pocket.
And then she sent me big hugs until next week, and I just really want y’all to know how much I adore these people on the show. Good, good folks.
JUDY, HEBER CITY, UTAH
Let your shoulders drop, Judy is a fun one. She also lives in the “backyard” of where my dad grew up with his 14 other brothers and sisters, so I cackled a lot at the landmarks (and some of the religion clues sprinkled in the house. Come on, it’s Utah, you thought it. And you weren’t wrong. Mostly.)
Judy is a happy, loving older woman that works part time at the local radio station. She’s a mother, a grandmothers, a sister, and wife, and – she laughs – a hoarder.
Her house, modest, is packed with stacks of books and clothes, boxes, and purchases. She lives with her husband, Niles, a burly teddy bear of a guy tricked out in leather vest and flannel shirt with a Sundance-style cowboy hat. Salt of the earth people.
They have essentially a mouse trail that runs through the living room into the bathroom. The kitchen is inaccessible, which frustrated Niles as he really likes cooking. Since the kitchen is blocked off (and they live pretty high up in the foothills – they’re a short drive south of Park City) it’s cold enough to use what the old timers out there call the “enviro-fridge.” As in, stick in on the back porch, or jam your milk in a snow bank. I laughed when I saw that, because it’s pretty common. Well, maybe not for everything, and not all the time, but when you’ve got family coming (and in Utah, that’s a lot of people) you stick your 12-packs of soda and jugs of milk in a snow bank to save room in the fridge.
I spied a jug of Folgers on a shelf. Someone’s not Mormon (and my guess is the husband.) David is Judy’s brother. He loves his sister dearly, but boy, does her frivolity make him a little crazy. See, their mother died, leaving them a sizable ranch. They sold off 32 acres of it for a million dollars. (I actually think they got low balled.) Judy inherited the farm, the horses, the gorgeous view, and has all but run through the entire million. She figures she’s got about two grand left.
She has spent a lot of it, as she’ll lose something in the hoard and just buy a replacement. And it’s not just that she’s spent it all, she’s lost it. As in, there’s money somewhere in the house. Just a matter of finding it, that’s all. She’s asked how much she’s lost in there, “Oh, maybe $30,000 or so.” Just in checks.
Anyone remember the movie Parenthood? When Steve Martin freaks out about having to dig through the trashcans to find their son’s retainer? His wife says, “Gil, those cost $200. If you dropped $200 in there, you’d go look, right?”
Thirty thousand smackers.
We get a little back story on Judy: her first husband, father, mother and two best friends have died from cancer. Niles’ father and mother also recently died from cancer. When her dad died, that’s when she started collecting. (Grief hoarding, guess who’s on deck as her organizer?) It went full blown after her mom died. (The camera pans to part of a plaque that Mormons keep in their house to remember the commandments. I smiled. I bet her mom was devout and she and Niles are lapsed Mormon. Just a little local color for you.)
She and her friends used to shop, and now that they’re gone, she continues to shop to feel close to them. Oh, bless your heart. The family loves her, wants to be able to spend time with her, and she claims that it’s not going to be a problem for them to take stuff. Because they won’t, you see.
Dr. Chabaud is her therapist, and she shows up in a schnazzy studdy chapeau and a huge smile. She laughs when she sees Judy’s things. “I could go shopping in there! Things look new and nice!” She and Judy have a pleasant rapport. (There’s another close up on religious items, a poster that reads The Living Christ. Yep, lapsed LDS. I have strong Exmo-dar. It’s like gaydar, but for former Mormons.) It does bother Judy that money is missing, though.
The doctor notes that because there haven’t been any consequences yet for the lost money, it’s not a problem for her. That needs to be addressed if behaviors are going to change.
Dumpsters are dropped off and Matt Paxton shows up, ready to get to work. He explains that there is money in there, so they all need to actually sort through everything to find it. Oy. He wants to teach her skills so she doesn’t fall back on bad habits. She says that they can do what they need to do, but “the Western stuff stays.”
If there are horses or a braying wolf, she wants it.
They start finding dollar bills and change and stick it all in jars. (I would have loved to have seen the filled jars at the end, that would have been fun.) They really have to be diligent and check everywhere. An employment check from 2003 is found. It’s not valid anymore (you can only cash a check up to a certain time frame, by the way.)
She realizes that her favorite sofa (buried under all manner of stuff) has been infested with mice. She lets it go, sadly, but she gets a lot of praise. (I have to say, having lived not to far from there for years, they’re lucky it wasn’t infested with skunks. They’ll just move in and move you out.) She starts to make great progress until she sees that clothes she wanted were sent to the donation truck.
It happens, unfortunately, but everyone tries to get things back on track. Dr. Chabaud notes that she’s upset that she made a decisions that wasn’t listened to. She gets mad at Matt, who takes it in stride.
They finally get to the kitchen, and there are mouse turds everywhere. Matt pulls out a package of Kroger cheese that is still sealed, but coated in mold. Matt says, “She told me she’s not been here since July. Well, yes. July of 2006” according to a summer sausage in the fridge.
David, the brother, reiterates that he doesn’t think Judy is spoiled, just really irresponsible with money. They start looking for checks everywhere, and hit the jackpot. Multiple checks are jammed in an old purse. Unfortunately this just reinforces her thought process that she doesn’t lose things, they’re just misplaced. That’s going to need to be addressed.
Why on earth doesn’t she just take checks straight to the bank? Well, she doesn’t want the townspeople to know her business, that’s why. Oh, Judy. I get it. I do – I lived in Lehi when there were about 400 people in town. So find a bank in Park City and cash the damn checks, would ya?
David says there’s about $25,000 in checks, and they should invest it for her. Nope, she wants it now. I think she’s being a little cheeky, honestly. It’s at this point that Niles loses it. The extent of his wife’s problems hits him, and he just wants things gone. He wants his house back so he can hold her in front of the fireplace and have their children there, and he lets out 20 years of aggravation and upset. In a gentle-giant sort of way, because he’s a big ol’ sweetheart.
Matt calls a family meeting with everyone there. Dr. Chabaud asks Niles why he’s not said anything in all this time? Well, he didn’t want to upset her. All of her kids tell her how much they love her, how much they miss spending time at home with her, and they just want what’s best. There is a lot of love in this family.
She starts to get it. She realizes that she’s pushed them all away, and apologizes for shutting them all out. She’ll work on it, she promises. Amazing progress is made: nine tons of material is hauled off for the dump and donations. The house looks amazing – clean and spare, and who knew?
Judy is using funds for therapy, and working steadily with an organizer. More loads of materials have gone since filming, she’s learning how to control her spending, and she is enjoying her life with her husband Niles.
Aww. It’s so great when you can see the huge step someone’s taken for their own happiness. One of the better outcomes, for sure.
Edited to Add: Matt Paxton has weekly podcasts that are both hilarious and insightful, I highly recommend you head over to iTunes and check them out.