A warning for sensitive viewers: Carrie’s story involves sexual abuse. Carrie doesn’t shy away from being blunt with her past, but it’s what helps her heal. Also, the production staff has a new format they’re using that makes the show feel more “sensationalized” and I have to say, I’m not a fan. The show is dramatic enough without the music cues to inform me that I should be shocked. The 40 second black and white leaders are also unnecessary, so we’ll skip this one.
“I’m a hoarder.” We see Carrie’s house is filled with mostly garbage. Food, waste, empty containers, and cat feces. That in particular is everywhere, thick and prevalent. “When I make a mess, I don’t fool around.” Carrie’s hair hangs in limp curls, her face is sallow, and her eyes are practically dead. The grief and hurt in this woman roll off her in waves.
We meet Carrie’s family and friend, in particular, Elena. They’ve been friends for 20 years and Elena definitely is not happy with Carrie’s living situation. She sneers and spits anytime it’s brought up. “[Carrie’s house has] always been filled with just garbage!” Carrie would fill a room, then move to another room, only to repeat the pattern.
She’s had no heat for three years, and no running water for almost as long. Her daughter Trish grew up in this house, and has clearly been traumatized by it. “I just don’t understand.” The camera shows the toilet; it looks like a garbage can overflowing with papers and spoiled food. The authorities have deemed this house uninhabitable, and in a twist for the show, Carrie agrees with them. She just doesn’t know what to do about it.
Carrie is stuck. She has good reason to be stuck, however. She was adopted at the age of five by a couple who were alcoholics. Abuse was common in her house. At the age of seven, when she was in the third grade, she was attacked and raped by a group of high school boys. This, in her own words, set up a pattern of abuse in her life.
“I was raped thirteen times from the time I was seven years old. I have no sense of value.”
I want to take a moment to stress how amazed I am with Carrie for speaking so bluntly about the horrible crimes inflicted on her young body, and with her openness to learn about herself since. Women in her generation especially were taught that they were responsible for their rapes, and nothing could be more ridiculous, offensive, and further from the truth. She’s aware of her trauma. Now we’ll see if she can finally learn how to move past it.
Carrie has tried therapy and religion to learn how to deal with the hand life gave her, and she’s not been able to move past her anger. She feels a lot of anger; she doesn’t know where to put it. “I think I buried myself in garbage because I felt like I’d been discarded in my life. A part of me feels like trash.” Oh, Carrie.
Her “friend” Elena says with derision, “I think she’s been broken, but I don’t know when. But get over it.” Either Elena doesn’t know the extent of Carrie’s past, or she’s incredibly insensitive and needs to “get over it” herself. Trish recognizes that this mess stems from her mother’s trauma. She too has been affected, bullied, and insulted her whole life while growing up in her mother’s home. She started running away at the age of fifteen, trying to escape.
Trish went to CPS at one point, and they shamefully told her that she’d be eighteen soon enough, and hey, at least she has a roof over her head and someone feeding her. They told her to quit complaining. Carrie feels tremendous guilt about this, but she just doesn’t have to tools to do anything about it. Elena says again, “She’s full of excuses. We all have trauma in our lives; get the fuck over it.”
Raise your hand if you think Elena is not the best friend for Carrie through this?
Dr. Green will guide Carrie through the process. Carrie brings her into the house and cautions her to not step on the plastic bottles that are filled with her urine. (I always wonder why they don’t empty them outside near trees, or the like.) Dr Green reminds her that she comes with no judgment, she just wants to know how Carrie came to this point.
Carrie is one of the more astute people we’ve seen on this show. “I’m putting my anger inside so it wouldn’t be outside.” Dr. Green tells the camera that Carrie is simply building a cocoon around herself. Carrie is a Buddhist, so she believes that suffering is a part of life, but she’s unable to move past that. It’s time for her to take out her emotional garbage.
The Got-Junk trucks arrive with Matt Paxton. He brings the family into the house to really see what Carrie’s life has been. Trish knows to avoid stepping on the bottles. Elena and her son take a few steps in, begin retching and stumble outside, overpowered by the stench. Elena says, “This is mental illness at its worst.” Yes, Elena, glad you’re finally on board with what’s going on.
Matt asks Trish how she’s doing. She says, “You know how smells trigger memories?” Matt nods. “This is my mom’s perfume.” Matt wants to know if she’s blocking, if she’s just putting her head down or is she taking in the fact that she’s standing on three feet of filth in a home, and it smells like her mother?
“Yes. We just have to clean.” At least she’s honest. Everyone is in biohazard gear as the crew goes to the top floor and Carrie’s family works on the main floor. Carrie is sitting outside, so Matt and Dr. Green go get her. “Avoidance is how we got here. Avoiding pain, trauma, the hurts, the disappointments. I want you to acknowledge [the hoard],” Dr. Green says.
Carrie snaps back, “But I’ve been conditioned to hide my feelings!” …which is the problem, you see. Carrie begins to push back from the doctor and Matt, which means they’re getting close to the root of the problem. Matt stops her from leaving. “You’re staying. Everyone walks out; that’s why the house looks like this! Do the therapy!”
The family asks Carrie if she’s glad they’re doing this. “No.” But it’s because she is feeling utter and complete shame and guilt for them having to do it in the first place, not that she’s ungrateful. “I’ve thought about burning the fucker down.” She just seems tired and done. Trish tries to talk to her about her feelings, but Carrie wants none of it.
Dr. Green steps in to moderate between the two. She asks Trish about her feelings. “I feel shame.” She talks about feeling like trash herself. In a moment so perfect, I can hardly believe it wasn’t scripted (but it wasn’t,) Carrie says with shock, “But it’s not your story.”
“But I grew up in that,” is Trish’s reply. “Why? Why, mom?”
“I don’t have an answer to the why.” You will, Carrie. This is clearly a thoughtful and intelligent woman, she’s just not been in a place to really look at herself and accept what’s been done to her and realize that it was not her fault. (Ladies? It’s not your fault. It’s never your fault. It is an assault, and it’s their crime; it isn’t yours.) Carrie acknowledges with Dr. Green’s pushing that this process is ugly, but important.
Carrie wants to hug Trish, but doesn’t think she’ll let her. Trish is absolutely fine with a hug from her mother, fortunately. With this breakthrough and moment of emotional-recharging, the cleaning picks up rapidly. Carpets are ripped out, Carrie personally throws things away, and Matt has a crew working on something special for her upstairs.
In the end, 55,000 pounds of garbage are hauled away – that’s about 25 tons. Huge clean up. Carrie is ready to move on from the hurts, and looks forward to positive moments in her future. The city inspector comes and points out the areas that will still need repairs, but they’ll allow her to do so. It wasn’t cleaned, but it was cleared for the most part. It’s a big step.
The crew shows Carrie their secret project, which was turning the attic loft into a beautiful and tranquil room for her to practice Buddhism. It’s really lovely with calming colors, minimal bits of furniture and candles. Matt tells the camera, “The family never left, and that’s how you help a hoarder: unconditional love.” That’s how you help all sorts of things, as well.
Carrie is completely reinvigorated by her “zen den” and she and her daughter light a candle and say a prayer. They’re getting better, moment by moment. Carrie says, “I feel alive.” She looks it, too. What a difference a smile makes on her face.
Carrie works with a therapist and is making repairs to the house to make it hospitable. She and Trish are now in regular contact with each other. Best of luck, ladies.
What I love most about this show is that the problems that lead to hoarding are problems that many of us have. We just act out in anger or sadness in different ways. The phrase Dr. Green used about Carrie “building a cocoon” could apply to many things: gaining a lot of weight as a shield, surrounding yourself with drug addicts who protect you from owning up to your family, on and on. The lessons here are beyond “don’t save your cat poop for twenty years,” but to look at yourself in a more introspective way. What is the root, what is your responsibility in it, and how can you accept what’s happened and clean out the negative from your mind? It’s brilliant.
James, Orland, California
James has a large piece of property. And almost every inch of it is covered with stuff. It looks like a dirty junkyard. Rusted bikes, tools, scrap metal, and bowling balls are some of the first things you can make out. There’s so much there that it’s hard to distinguish one thing from another. James is a retired cop who likes to go to yard sales and find things that are “still useful.” Hey, it’s better than some old timers who gamble and drink, right?
Michelle is his daughter; Phyllis is his wife. They both are in over their heads and don’t know what to do to help James. The city has had it with the mess. It’s a public nuisance. They’re filing a lawsuit that will require it get clean. And if the city has to do it, so be it. And then James will be stuck with the bill.
This pisses James off royally. “I’m American. I own property; I pay taxes. I can do what I want with it.” Well…no. You’re thinking of Somalia. And only if you’re a crime lord. There’s a social contract, James, and you’re going to have to sign up. He has his heels dug in, however. He has dreams for his place, you see. A resale shop? Maybe a little place to tinker and figure out how things work? James is a very old, unwell man who rolls around his property on his Rascal scooter. Michelle knows that this is his coping mechanism for stress.
Dr. Zasio arrives with some sass and her own heels ready to be dug in. The show does an excellent job of matching up people, without a doubt. She figures out very quickly that James is all grand plans and no execution. All hat, no cattle. He laughs at her commenting on how everything is rusted and dilapidated. “I’m an old man! It gives me something to work with!”
The doctor explains that most of this stuff isn’t fixable, and she calls him on his blustering in a friendly way. He gets upset very quickly, realizing that he isn’t healthy. He isn’t fixable. Ah. There it is. She gets him to talk about that, about getting old and losing his health.
“Just give me hope,” he asks in a pitiful way. If James gives up hope, then what does he have to live for?
Cory Chalmers arrives with a crew and some massive dumpsters. There are two 60-yard-long dumpsters just for the scrap metal, and four of the Junk Trucks, which can each hold two tons a piece. They’re planning on multiple trips. The sorting begins and James says sullenly, “Everything can go.”
Dr. Zasio isn’t going to let him check out of the process, though. He deflects in order to not accept the way he’s feeling: like he can be carted off, too. Cory tells James that if he continues to shut down, the emotions are going to come back with a vengeance. He’s seen it before. Phyllis and Michelle try to get him to talk about his feelings, but it’s a tough thing to ask of this old tough-guy cop.
Cory and the doctor try to get him to sort through things on his own, to have a physical connection to what’s happening. James dithers over a busted ski. He then says that he hurts and he doesn’t want to do this anymore. It’s hurting his stomach, his back, his heart… Dr. Zasio finds a disgusting cast iron pan that has actual holes in it.
“Are you going to eat off this?”
“What difference does it make?” He asks,
“It’s not usable!”
And he’s finally close to what this is all about. Cory says kindly that he’s looking at everything as to what it could be, not what it is. James shouts, “What is wrong with that?”
Cory wants him to talk about why he’s so angry about this, but James only wants to be left alone. Dr. Zasio gets the women to come talk with James and explain how this is making them feel. Phyllis has to leave, and goes to the house to fall apart alone. Dr. Zasio follows her, but won’t let the cameras inside.
You see, the hoard is in there, too. No one but Phyllis and James knew.
We hear through Dr. Zasio’s microphone that there is rotten food and clear evidence of vermin inside the house. She tells Phyllis that she has the right to assert herself and that she doesn’t deserve to live like this. She reminds Phyllis that there is support; that’s why they’re here.
Dr. Zasio tells the camera that she is arranging for aftercare services to help them clean the hoard from the house. There just aren’t enough resources available today – there’s too much outside that must be addressed, or they lose their property.
James sees his women upset, and this is what finally gets to him. He loves them, clearly, and tells them that he’ll try and make changes. He starts letting things go and takes responsibility for this tremendous mess. The clean up takes off after that.
James even lets the rotten building that he dreamed would one day be a workshop get bulldozed. He smiles as they knock down the walls and cart it off. It must feel like a relief – the removal of the stress from having to continually supply those dreams that deep down he must have known wouldn’t come true.
Cory tells us that there were eight dump trucks (each can carry two tons) that were carted off, plus two of the 60-yard dumpsters. The grand total of materials removed was thirty tons. Sixty thousand pounds. Talk about a weight off your shoulders! James smiles with his loving wife at his side, clearly relieved by the process. The property still has some work to do, but it’s far improved.
James is using his funds to continue cleaning the exterior hoard and now on the inside of the house. He has yet to meet with a mental health therapist, though. The lawsuit with the city is still pending, as the clean up is still underway.
One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned was to stop focusing on things’ potential. I was doing it with people, James with ratty old bikes. But the lesson is the same. Can you use/accept something as it is right this moment? If not, you don’t need it.