Hello, all! This is Cate, sitting in for Laura, who’s taking a well-earned vacation.
We got two uplifting stories this week. Barbara, in Florida, and Richard, in Minnesota, not only confronted the mountains of possessions in their homes, but the personal and familial cost of their hoards. I could scarcely believe it, hand to heart, when both segments wound up with deeply promising outcomes – how often does that happen? Yay Barb and Rich and their families!
BARBARA, MERRITT ISLAND, FLORIDA
Our first introduction to Barbara’s situation isn’t the person-to-camera narrative we’re used to. Instead, we join the process at some midway point, where a young woman with dark, curly hair is sharing her frustrations with Dr. Hannan (the sandy-haired psychologist who’s completely unflappable in situations like these). “She’s not coping with it!” the young woman says. “She’s not having to justify why the hell she’s doing shit. She’s just getting to do whatever the fuck she wants, and that’s what she’s been doing all along. And that’s what’s got us here!” We see an older woman – Barbara – join the conversation, and the young woman’s frustration escalates. “I need you to change!” she says through her tears. “I don’t need to worry about you falling through the damn floor, and shit piling up on top of you, and you dying, and none of us knowing because we won’t come to the house.”
We cut to an exterior shot of a trailer – the on-screen text tells us it’s two days earlier. (Why we bounced between these scenes in this order is never really clear.) The grass in the yard is short (we see Barbara pushing a mower), but there’s junk piled up around the house. There’s a table and chairs covered with a tarp, a ladder listing against the trailer, and what looks to be an old refrigerator rusting beside the back door.
Barbara, her graying hair pulled back into two neat pigtails, tells us that she’s “totally disorganized.” It’s an understatement. The house is crammed with books, boxes, magazines, and clothes. The bathroom is unusable – the tub is full of dirty Tupperware, and there’s trash mixed up with cleaning products on the floor. The camera takes us along meandering pathways that weave between ceiling-high piles of possessions – clothes; fans; a pair of slippers with the label still attached. The kitchen is crammed full of boxes, dishes, cans of food, and half-used rolls of paper towels.
Rebecca is Barbara’s daughter, the young woman we met in the flash-forward scene. She tells us that her mother spends money at thrift stores, and when she has nothing left to spend begins collecting from the garbage. We see Barbara in a carport moving a floor lamp aimlessly from place to place. There’s an upended couch in front of her; we can see rollerblades, a kettle, silk flowers, a tennis racket, and what’s potentially a tent. This is the outermost layer of an enormous pile of objects that’s taller than Barbara is.
“It’s incredible how easy it is to accumulate stuff,” Barbara tells us as we see shots of the statues she has dotted around her yard. Rebecca observes that her mother doesn’t seem to understand there’s anything wrong. We watch Barbara clamber over junk and bow her head to make it through a doorway. She can’t stand up straight because of all the possessions she’s standing upon.
Jerry is Barbara’s younger brother. He can’t believe the conditions she lives in, and makes an ill-advised comparison to Abu Ghraib. (Whatever the state of Barbara’s house, she’s not being humiliated or tortured by members of the U.S. military). Concerned about his sister’s living conditions, Jerry’s issued an ultimatum – clean up the house, or he’s reporting the situation to the authorities. He tells us he’s afraid for her safety and well being, and as we see her climb around the house we can understand – Barbara’s not young, and she looks very unsteady.
Harry is Barbara’s son. “It kills me,” he says of his mother’s hoarding. “I don’t want my mother to go have to go through any more pain. She’s already suffered enough.”
We learn that Barbara’s hoarding is rooted in two devastating losses seventeen years before. Within six months of each other, two of her sons died – the eldest, David, took his own life, and the younger, Sammy, passed away from Hodgkins Lymphoma.
Rebecca tells us that her mother hoarded things so that she would never lose things again. Harry agrees. “She walled herself in.”
The family’s tried to help before. Rebecca would throw things away, and her mother would retrieve the items from the dumpster. She was volatile and angry; she’d yell at her children, who’ve come to expect anger as her most predictable response.
“I’ve been a very angry person,” Barbara tells the camera. “I’ve been a very frightened person. I’m tired of the hurt I feel within me.” She’s very articulate about her situation, but she seems a little checked out – there’s no real emotion behind the words she says.
Dr. Hannan arrives to meet Barbara and take a tour of her home. Barbara meets him at the door. “I guess it’s nice to meet you,” she says, sounding indifferent. She leads the way inside. “I’m sorry this is such a mess. I kinda need some help as you can see. It’s gotten completely out of control.”
Barbara tells Dr. Hannan about her sons, and he’s deeply sympathetic. Away from the house he tells the camera that it’s clear Barbara’s been avoiding emotional connections with others because of that loss.
They get to the bedroom. The room is half-full, floor to halfway up the walls, and they both have to stoop to get inside. Dr. Hannan observes that while there are some pillows where a bed might be, it’s impossible to actually see a bed beneath all the clothes, books, and dishes piled on top of it. “If a fire starts in here, you’re not getting out,” he observes. “The air quality in here is terrible.” Barbara agrees very pleasantly and passively. Dr Hannan notes that he’s not sure she gets it.
In the kitchen Dr. Hannan asks Barbara how much of the food she’s hoarded might have expired. She guesses all of it, and says she’ll be happy to get rid of it. Dr. Hannan asks if she’s prepared for how emotional that could be, but she deflects. “It’s been a long time coming,” she says. It will be “a relief.”
Dr Hannan observes that Barbara is acutely aware of feeling ashamed, but she hasn’t considered how much anxiety is in the mix. He tells her that cleaning up the house is only part of the plan – she’s also going to have to learn how to organize things, and how to cope with her emotions. Barbara shakes her head as if to say, I know, isn’t this a muddle? There’s no real sign that she grasps the severity of the situation.
Day one of the clean up, and Matt Paxton’s on the job. He asks who’s tired of the mess, and Barbara doesn’t raise her hand. When her daughter says that she wants her mom to be happy, we see Barbara exaggeratedly rolling her eyes. She’s fronting as hard and fast as she can, and Matt’s having none of it. “It’s easier to be the crazy lady than it is to be the person who has to clean. You need to be present and responsible,” he says kindly but firmly. Everyone moves out to begin the job.
Matt works with Barbara in the carport, challenging her to grab one piece of trash she can throw away. She does so immediately, and her family gives her a lot of positive feedback about her decisiveness. The clean-up’s going well – perhaps too well. Matt checks in with Barbara after she’s said that a whole passel of possessions can be thrown away. “It’s not just throw it away, get it out of sight. You’re throwing it away because it’s actually destroyed?” he asks. She agrees. Rebecca says her mom is being way too calm.
Dr. Hannan tries to get Barbara to connect to the emotions at the root of the situation. He asks her what made it clear she needed to get rid of things, and she tells him it’s her family – “the stuff is not that important.” It’s what we’d all hope to hear from someone recovering from hoarding behaviors, but Barbara still seems disconnected.
We cut to Barbara in the living room – she puts a hat on her head and begins to sing. It’s clearly avoidance behavior, and when her daughter notes that, Barbara strikes a pose with her hand on a pile of junk and asks the crew, “Do you know what I learned in Korea and Japan?” We don’t find out – the point isn’t whatever story she had to tell, but that she’s trying to find a way to slow the process down without being overtly obstructionist.
Rebecca’s so fed up she leaves the trailer. This is when the conversation we saw at the beginning of the show takes place. One of the cleaning crew tells Barbara to go find Rebecca because she’s really upset, but when she does she can’t connect to what Rebecca’s telling her. It’s clear that Barbara’s hoard has been a heavy burden on Rebecca’s shoulders, that she’s been frightened for her mother’s health and safety, and that she despairs of things changing. Despite the fact that Barbara won’t react to Rebecca’s impassioned pleas, Dr. Hannan says it’s good that she got to see how Rebecca feels, and that she didn’t walk away.
Depending on your point of view, things either deteriorate after this point or start to improve. Barbara stops pretending that she’s unmoved by the clean up process – she becomes openly hostile and obstructionist. Working with her kids in the hoarded living room, she begins filling a dirty canvas shoulder bag with old magazines. When Harry protests, Barbara says she’s going to look through the magazines later, and she can’t do it right now. Her kids protest, and Barbara starts yelling – she physically protects the bag with her body. When her son moves something she shouts for him to stop throwing things away, despite his assurances that he was just moving things around.
“I’m being ambushed!” Barbara yells. Harry promises to back off a little. “Shut up!” Barbara snaps.
Rebecca tries to be a voice of calm, and suggests to her mom that if she’s overwhelmed she can just tell them to stop. Barbara protests that she’s not overwhelmed, just disgusted, but won’t say with what or whom. When the conversation continues outside Barbara argues that her kids think she needs a nursing home, and when they dispute that they want any such thing she says waspishly, “So now I’m ungrateful.”
Dr. Hannan intervenes, and points out that Barbara’s children are proud of her. Barbara is a study in avoidance by now, expression mulish, arms folded protectively across her body. She demands that if her daughter has anything to say, she whisper it. Dr. Hannan tries to get Barbara to hear her kids, but she’s too lost in a fog of self-recrimination to be able to do it. “I’m an idiot,” she says. When her daughter points out that no one has ever said that about her but herself, Barbara says, “I feel dead.”
“We’re trying to bring you back to life,” Rebecca offers. Harry suggests that they can help her, and they’ll slow down if that’s what she needs. “Please, please,” says Barbara, and for the first time sounds like she means it.
Things go more quickly and productively after the family conversation. When Matt points out that whole shelves of books are covered in rat feces, Barbara doesn’t hesitate to agree that they should be trashed. “I don’t need those damn books!” she says, and gets lots of encouragement from her daughter. The kids work with their mom on the rest of the living room, constantly asking her opinion about what should be trashed, and giving her positive reinforcement when she lets something go. Dr. Hannan observes that the whole family’s learning something new – that it’s possible to fight and yet still stay together.
Matt pauses, dirty and sweaty, and says, “I do this every week, and I rarely have a family that works this well together.” Rebecca bursts out laughing and sympathizes, but Matt presses his point. “I appreciate that you’re communicating,” he says, and oh, Matt Paxton, let me draw air hearts around you right now.
There’s bad news at the end of the clean up. Despite the cleaning crew removing ten tons of trash, it was the trash that was keeping the house together. The floors are rotted through; the walls are unstable. Harry looks around and agrees that the trailer might have to be replaced, but he’s still glad they cleaned up. He wants his mom to know where she made mistakes so that she won’t do it again. He suggests there’s maybe more he can do – get her out of the house, spend more time with her.
It’s clear that – in Matt’s words – the family’s realized that hoarding isn’t a one person deal, but pulls in everyone. Dr. Hannan sees a long, difficult road ahead for Barbara, but thinks that with time and professional help she could be okay.
“I feel like I made a big change,” Barbara tells the camera. “I’m not alone anymore, I have my family”
We see her trying to pull an item off the garbage truck before her daughter coaxes her away.
Barbara is working with an organizer and a therapist. She’s staying with family members while her son helps her to repair her home.
“I like pretty things,” Richard tells the camera. He’s a big guy with a genuine, warm smile. Despite his love of beauty, his modest Midwestern home is packed full of dirt and junk. “I have hundreds of lamps, a hundred sheet sets,” Richard tells us. We see canvas bags and leather bags and unopened shopping bags by the dozen. “I do have so much stuff that there are no paths left in my house,” he observes, and the camera pans from room to room, showing the truth of that statement. The kitchen is overflowing with unwashed dishes, expired food packets, jars, tubs, and towels covered in dirt. Many of the clothes scattered around the house are still in their packaging, some with price tags attached. We see Richard try to navigate his way around his home, and it’s heartbreaking. He uses a cane, and the paths he picks between his possessions are treacherous.
Andrew is Richard’s brother. “Richard has always closed himself away from the family,” he tells us. “He would never allow anyone inside the house.” The family’s tried for years to get Richard to let them help him, but he’s refused.
A year ago Richard’s hoard was discovered by local authorities and his house was condemned. Since then he’s been living in a local homeless shelter, in a small room with a single bed. Richard brought belongings from his condemned house to the shelter – we see him pushing a shopping cart of possessions down the street. The homeless shelter has weekly inspections, and Richard hasn’t been passing them. “If you can believe such a thing would happen, I have been evicted from the shelter,” he tells us. “Not for drugs or alcohol or fighting, but because I have brought things in to make my room nice.” Richard speaks very precisely, and he’s obviously stunned by this turn of events. He has no idea why keeping so many things would be inappropriate.
Therese is Richard’s sister. Despite Richard’s assertion that his family is ashamed of him because he’s different, she says that they’ve never treated him that way. I believe her. There feels like there’s something going unsaid in Richard’s version of events. Louann, Richard’s other sister expresses her frustration, but feels bad that he thinks they don’t want him.
“I never wanted anyone to ever know about me or how I was living,” Richard explains, corroborating his siblings’ perspective. “I thought I could make myself happy if I had nice things around me.” The camera pans to the flaking paint on the ceiling, and the sea of Target bags that fills one of the rooms, full of unopened purchases.
Richard’s hoarding escalated in 2008, after the men’s clothing store at which he worked went out of business. His brother says he went “overboard” afterwards, and Richard confesses that he felt old, ugly, and like he’d never be employed again. He became severely depressed and stopped paying his bills, but he still kept shopping. “I know that I have brought this all on myself. I don’t know where I will go from here,” Richard says. “The shelter was the last stop.” He doesn’t seem to be able to imagine a clean house as an alternative.
Richard’s therapist is Dr. Green, who arrives bringing oceans of good cheer. She’s undaunted by climbing over a mountain of objects to get across the covered porch and into Richard’s home. Dr. Green observes that Richard has a lot of brand new things, still in bags. “I have a beautiful mahogany dining room table and chairs,” Richard tells her as they climb precariously over mounds of stuff. The table is impossible to see. “I’ve never, ever entertained here.”
Dr. Green muses that Richard can’t let anyone into his personal space, whether that space is physical or emotional. He admits that he’s used objects to cut himself off from people, and he insists he doesn’t want his family to be part of the clean up. Dr. Green presses him. “You got here doing this alone. You got here isolating yourself. The people who love you have to be a part of this.” She sees his family’s involvement as vital to the healing process, to Richard opening up lines of communication with people who care about him. “His crisis is at boiling point,” she says. “If we can’t help him get in touch with everything that’s going on . . . he’s going to be homeless.”
Standolyn Robertson is Richard’s organizer. As Richard, his family, and the cleaning crew gather outside his home on day one, she reiterates the stakes, and says that the challenge will be to keep Richard focused on the big goal. The plan for the morning is, at Richard’s direction, to clean out the basement.
The cleaning crew wears head-to-toe coveralls and breath through masks as they remove empty hangers, mounds of paper, shopping bags, and clothing from the house. Richard watches everything go into the dumpster and he’s clearly on edge, even though the process has only just begun. Standolyn – also in a head-to-toe coverall – asks to throw away a dismantled fan, but Richard refuses. “How many fans do you have?” she asks. “A lot,” Richard replies, “but they all work.”
Richard insists that the shirts still in their packaging stay, and stainless steel racks in ruined boxes, and clocks that his sister rightly points out are wrecked. He tells Standolyn that the box she has in her hands is full of very expensive hats, but he can’t process the fact that a mouse has built a nest in there. While he keeps identifying items as new and pristine, it’s clear to us that they’re soiled, covered in urine, wet, and dirty. “The new stuff in boxes I have to keep right now,” Richard says. “This is too hard.”
Dr. Green reminds him that he knew it would be hard, but that he needs to be in the present moment, to allow this process to occur. “I can’t let it go right now,” he protests, and he’s shaking with the force of his feelings, breathing hard. “I’m starting to panic.” Dr. Green observes that he’s so overwhelmed he can’t even think.
Panic makes Richard combative. “Things that I have new, that I have not used, I want,” he states, and when his sister points out that’s almost everything in the house, he says, “this is my stuff. I decide.” Dr. Green suggests to the camera that Richard identifies with a lot of the things in his house, and when the cleaning crew throws those things out, Richard feels discarded. The fact that he’s going to be homeless if he can’t see the clean-up operation through seems to have slipped from his grasp. Dr Green pulls him aside.
“You made a commitment that you would let us help you,” she says gently but firmly. “You came up with the basement”
Richard agrees, but explains that he’s never had another human in the house before. Despite the fact that he invited the crew inside, he feels invaded. “It’s making me jumpy,” he says. “I feel really jumpy,” and he begins to cry.
Dr. Green is sympathetic. “These are the feelings you’ve been trying to avoid,” she points out, and Richard agrees. He still finds the clean-up process overwhelming, and he fights his siblings on almost everything they want to throw out. Therese points out that he can’t return items that have been closed out, but Richard insists that customer service people love him, and it’ll be fine. She presses the point, but Richard says that he’ll return anything that he can possibly return. At this point his sister Louann loses her patience. “So why didn’t you do that in the last eight months when you’ve been doing nothing?” she asks. Her voice is raised, but she’s not lashing out – she’s trying to hold Richard accountable.
Dr. Green is impressed by Richard’s siblings and their commitment to expressing their feelings. She points out that while Richard maintains his family is ashamed of him, they’re not acting that way at all.
Richard walks away from this tense moment, and Louann runs after him. She lays her hands gently against his chest and speaks passionately, urgently. “I want you to stop locking us out,” she says. She clearly cares about him very much. “Will you please trust us?” she asks. Louann points out that while Richard’s telling people that his family doesn’t understand or want him, they do, and she wants to know what the hoarding behavior is really about. “It’s not about this stuff. It’s not about this stuff.”
Therese joins the conversation, and asks Richard to let them help him break out of the cocoon he’s built for himself. “We’re going to help you emerge from that so you can be our brother again,” she says. The depth of feeling is very moving.
Richard reengages with the clean-up. He decides that anything that’s sellable should be sold. He’s touching things, making decisions, facing his emotions as Standolyn and his family give him positive feedback. He’s still on edge but he’s staying with the process.
And then Richard finds a picture of his late, beloved dog, made newly visible by moving and sorting so many other possessions. He grabs for the picture, moaning, clearly tremendously upset. Therese assures him they’ll keep the picture, but Richard doesn’t seem to hear her. He clenches and unclenches his hands, turns away from the camera, struggles to keep his emotions in check, but breaks down anyway. Dr. Green encourages him to just let it all out, and suggests that he’s been holding in the tears for twenty, thirty, maybe forty years.
Therese asks Richard why he started hoarding things. “It was all hiding, just hiding,” he says. Hiding what, she asks. “Things that I felt I kept in here. I kept to myself.” He’s talking around the edges of something bigger – the effort he’s expending to choose his words carefully is clear.
Dr. Green suggests that honesty is tremendously important to his recovery, and Therese holds his hand, supporting him as he tries to decide what to say. Richard asks to talk to his family off camera, and for the first time in his life tells them that he’s gay.
I suspect this isn’t a surprise to his family. Therese seemed to know that when he said he was hiding, it was about something big; his brother is nothing but happy that he’s finally told them and that he’s letting them into his life at last. The transformation in Richard is readily apparent – even though he looks a little shocked, a little unsteady, we can see that a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Cleaning happens at a rapid pace, and we hear Richard’s brothers and sisters affirm that he’s part of their family and they’ll help him any way they can.
As for Richard, he feels like it’s a new beginning. “I’m going to try and rise out of the flames like a phoenix,” he says.
Richard’s made progress at the shelter and he’s being allowed to stay there while he continues to work on getting his house up to code. He’s seeing a therapist and working with an organizer.
I suspected Richard’s secret early in the episode, but I was still a little stunned when he finally articulated it to his family. It’s heartbreaking to consider that he so deeply believed he’d be rejected for who he is that he built walls of possessions to keep everyone away. Several people have asked questions on the A&E boards about whether his family knew he was gay years before, and whether they should have told him they knew (if they did). I’ll update when Dr. Green replies.
eta:: On the boards, maplesugar commented that:
I have had two friends come out to me. In both cases it was obvious to me from the moment I met them that they were gay. I think it was more important for them to SAY it, than it was for me to hear it (although of course I was glad they wanted to confide in me). Although I knew that I embraced and accepted them, they needed to voice who they were, and know unequivocally that they were welcomed and wanted as they were
Dr. Green replied with “BINGO!” She elaborates in another thread: “He’s doing AMAZINGLY well. His SELF ACCEPTANCE & SPEAKING TRUTH took away to urge to fill his heart & home up with “stuff”.” And with regard to Richard’s family (and the comment his sister made about him not returning items during his unemployment, which some viewers read as very harsh):
The sister was speaking out of a sad, sense of helpless place. They REALLY care about Richard. They remain in the top of the families that I’ve worked with that TRULY care but feel shut out by the hoard so it comes off seemingly unkind and uncaring. Not the case.
In both stories, it was heartening to see family members who could engage in the process. As we’ve seen on so many episodes, hoarding is wrenching for friends and family members, as well as the person who hoards, and that makes for an emotional experience for everyone involved. It was impressive to see Barbara’s daughter, Rebecca, articulate her fears and anger with so much love, and then to see her become calm when Barbara became angry. Dr. Hannan points out that this is because “this family knew her pattern. Without really stopping to think about what she had done to herself and the family, she would likely revert. I think the family wanted to see some reaction because they wanted her to stick around and work through it.” It seems that Barbara’s anger was a sign of engagement Rebecca could work with.