This was a tough one. I almost had to stop, guys, and I questioned keeping this show on the site, honestly. I want to reiterate that I believe 100% in what the doctors and the organizers are doing. They want people to understand the disorder and they want to get help to people who need it. But the editors and production staff? Note that most people are not comfortable (read: a sobbing mess like I was) with watching an animal die.
So there’s your warning, readers. This one is tough in places, and I do note in the write up where sensitive folks might want to turn back. Poor Jan’s story has some of the worst images I’ve seen. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but I want to put that out there in case any of you are as well. Fortunately, it has one of the most productive turnarounds.
Jan, Canyon, TX
We see a shotgun shack nestled up against the rail line’s fence as a train rumbles past; we’re south of Amarillo in a small town with few resources. Jan lives here. She has pretty nails and a sad face as she tells us that she makes jewelry and plays on the Internet.
She doesn’t leave her bedroom much. As the camera pulls out, we see why. It’s a tiny place, maybe less than 800 square feet, and every room is caked with feces and garbage. “I’m not very good at taking care of myself.” The front of the stove is unrecognizable due to the amount of feces and cat spray that is caked on the appliance. A long-haired Tuxedo cat perches on the edge of a counter, darting away as the camera comes near.
“My kitchen is the worst room. It’s just a mountain of cat crap.” Jan’s lip trembles as she tells the camera about her house. She’s clearly ashamed and seems to have tunneled into herself for years in order to just survive the day-to-day of living in squalor. She doesn’t want to talk about her bathroom.
Jan has no running water, yet she continues to use the commode. When the camera panned across the small space, I had to pause the screen, trying to figure out what I was seeing. Rising out of the toilet is a huge, black, bulbous…thing. It’s a foot and change higher than the toilet seat. Jan is still defecating in the toilet. This was the first time I had to stop and walk away. Not just because I’m disgusted by it, but… How sick and broken does a person have to be to walk into a room with their eyes closed and use the toilet, pretending that they’re not doing what they’re doing? (This is how Jan has managed to continue this behavior.)
I know people want to be grossed out and entertained by this show, believe me. But how can you see this, see the woman who looks as fragile as spun glass and not realize that something is wrong with her? How can we shovel popcorn in our mouths and just wait for the next freak show? That’s not what this show is about – it’s about recognizing that many people just can’t do for themselves, that they need others to step in and help. How they got there, and how they can change their behaviors.
But those people need to have the tools to help, of course.
Georgia is Jan’s quiet daughter. Pam, Jan’s sister, finally explained to her that she was raising “the stinky kid.” Georgia would leave the house and douse herself in perfume and air freshener, hoping that no one would realize what she was living in. Finally able to leave, she has been in college for some time.
Jan is staying with her now, as the city was called and her home was deemed uninhabitable. And this is when we realize that her home isn’t the building we’ve seen from the outside, but that it’s a duplex. I would imagine that the other side isn’t currently being rented out. How could it be?
Jan, while never a shining example of housekeeping, did function normally until her father died in the early 90s. She took steps to get counseling and medication for her depression, and as soon as she started making positive strides, her husband informed her that he’d impregnated another woman, was in love, and would be divorcing Jan immediately in order to marry the other woman. She had a nervous breakdown, during which her mother suffered a stroke and died.
When Georgia was able to leave the small house (where up to 20 cats lived at one point, we’re told) this seemed to push Jan even further. She gave up. She felt she had no worth, and so why bother? Georgia still feels guilt for leaving her mother in that mess, but what choice did she have as a child?
Jan can barely speak as her face crumbles, her voice breaks, and she tells us how ashamed of herself she is.
Dr. Zasio arrives with a smile and a hand on her arm. When they open the home, however, Dr. Zasio says slowly, “Oh…dear,” as she sees the caked feces everywhere. She immediately puts on a face mask. (Ammonia is incredibly unhealthy, not to mention the danger of fecal matter.)
Jan shakes and says quietly, “When I realized I was going to be alone for the rest of my life I just thought, ‘Well, what the fuck?’ You know?”
Dr. Zasio asks her if she doesn’t believe she deserves anything better than this? “I suppose,” she mumbles.
“This feels like punishment to me, Jan!” She holds Jan’s shoulder, bending down to look her in the eye and try and communicate with her, but Jan realizes that the next step is to show the doctor the bathroom and she just can’t bring herself to do it.
Dr. Zasio goes on her own, and later she tells the camera, “This is one of the most horrific images I’ve seen in my life.” She gently guides Jan to the doorway, needing her to see it, to stop pretending it’s not there. “You’re punishing yourself. This is some kind of torture.” Jan can’t bring herself to open her eyes.
Before they clean up, the doctor insists that Pam and Georgia see how bad things have gotten – no one can turn a blind eye to this anymore; it would be unconscionable. Dorothy Breininger is on site at this point and guides the family in.
Pam, her soft-spoken older sister, says, “I never dreamed it was this bad. I’m sorry.” She cries, trying to reach out to Jan, who is curling in on herself in her shame. “I’m so sorry I didn’t help more.” But…what could Pam have done? This is a situation where professionals were clearly needed. And if Jan wasn’t willing to accept help, Pam could bring all the doctors and so forth in that she wanted; it wouldn’t have done any good.
Georgia starts sobbing, holding her mom. This was her home. It was never great, but it was never this.
The Get Junk crews start carting things out: soaked and damaged card tables, boxes that have been chewed on. Jan stands outside saying, “Good-bye!” with glee. Her sister and daughter are inside, however, working. She’s not participating. Dorothy acts on that quickly, telling her that she needs to participate, regardless of how ashamed she is; she must deal with things.
Dr. Zasio adds, “It’s your responsibility to take care of this situation, okay? Go back in.”
Jan, eyes wide, murmurs, “Okay.”
The biohazard team arrives to dispose of the toilet. They suit up, tape off, and put on their rebreathers. They have to chop away at the black mountain in the toilet before they’re able to break it down, bag it, tape that, and cart it out of the house.
The family is called outside so they can be addressed by a member of the team. Something has just gone wrong. [Here’s your warning from me.] “While we were doing our clean out, we noticed there was [sic] cats hiding in the bathroom. One of them was hiding behind the toilet. And it ran out, came over here–” He points to the sidewalk outside. “–laid down and died.”
The women all move to where he pointed as Jan sighs sadly, “Oh, Randy!” And my beef with the editorial staff is that they showed the poor cat lying in the street. And also as Jan held it, cradling him. For several minutes. I have a hard time enduring images where innocent victims (animals, children, the infirm, the mentally challenged) are helpless or hurt. Or in this case, still warm after dying. Maybe I’m just too sensitive. I had to leave the room to pull myself together, I’ll tell you that much.
Dorothy stands behind them wiping away tears as well. She and the biohazard team try and explain that years of ammonia and filth led to this, not the ammonia released as the toilet was removed, as Jan is trying to tell herself. She has to take responsibility for this. She stands still, holding her deceased cat, stroking his head as they try and explain this to her. It’s a lot to take in.
The Got Junk crew picks up the pace, essentially pulling everything out of the house. Nothing is staying, nothing. They find more cats hiding, corral them into a box, and call the SPCA, who immediately come out and rescue them, sending them off for health care.
The less chaotic the interior of the house is, the more Georgia seems to find her voice. She angrily tells her mom, “You made me feel like this was my fault because I didn’t clean the litter box [for my cat],” when there were other animals in the house. Georgia felt like the mess was her fault for years.
Jan blinks, shocked by this. “I didn’t mean to make you feel responsible for all of them…”
“But you did!” Georgia shouts. “You did!”
Jan is being bombarded with truth and the realization that her actions affected others, but it’s actually sinking in. She apologizes profusely to her daughter, who takes it at face value. They’re sweet, quiet women and I get the impression that they just want to find some sort of happiness. It’s nice to see people willing to work for it. Jan knows she’s made it rough on her daughter. “I’m sorry, darling. It’s been a lot to ask.”
Everyone notes that Jan is now “wildly committed” to the process. After getting most of the rooms shoveled free, Dr. Zasio loads her up in a van and takes her off to an undisclosed location while Dorothy engineers some magic back at the house. Dorothy has a crew come in behind the Got Junk crew to do a biohazard scrub down – ceiling to floor, everything sanitized – with a second team behind them to repaint and decorate the house.
All in all, five tons of garbage are toted out of this tiny little building. Five tons. I’m telling you, that apartment couldn’t have been larger than 800 square feet. It’s like a clown car of garbage, I don’t know how there could have been that much inside.
Jan, meanwhile, is at a salon getting her hair properly cleaned, cut, and styled. Dr. Zasio wants her to remember that she has worth, that she’s worthy of something as simple as being clean. With freshly done makeup and a new hairdo, they drive her back to the house where she’s shocked to see new (albeit simple) furniture, curtains, and a few rugs. The bathroom has a new toilet, pretty candles and tchotchkes. She’s overcome, crying harder the farther into her house she goes, completely grateful and humbled by the effort put into “little ol’ me.”
She openly weeps, saying “It’s so pretty!” She’s finally decided that she’s worthy of something decent. “I can live again, I can be a person again.”
(Pardon me, a few rainclouds broke out over my face…)
Aftercare: She is working with both an organizer and a therapist. Some of the cats that were taken from her home have been adopted out to forever homes.
Dee, New Mexico
Dee has stuff. Collections. Things. She’s not a grief hoarder by any means. She loves a bargain. Piles of clothes and lamp bases and garage sale finds are piled everywhere in her small adobe home. She calls it her “secret life.”
Her daughter Thalia hasn’t been allowed in the home for the ten years her mother has lived there. Once, Thalia was nine months pregnant and in need of the bathroom. Dee wouldn’t let her in.
There are no pathways. One has to climb over piles and mounds and exposed bits of furniture and bags of clothing to get anywhere. The house is completely unlivable. She showers elsewhere, she tells us, almost with defiance.
Thalia is preparing to move away, and once she’s gone, her mother will have no support system. She’s told her mother to get her house in order, or she’ll be forced to call APS. Dee scoffs at this, not believing her daughter would do it. After seeing the anger and frustration on Thalia’s face, I sure do.
Cindy is Dee’s sister in Texas. Dee reached out for help once, and since Cindy couldn’t physically come, sent a woman to help Dee with organizing and cleaning. To which Dee refused her help. Dee acknowledges her daughter’s “Anger Issues” from growing up with a mom who hoards, but “Eh, what are you going to do?” seems to be her attitude. (Dee struck me as someone who is spoiling for a fight.)
Thalia says point blank that the reason she never called the city when growing up was the knowledge that her mother would choose hoarding over her. Now, as an adult with children of her own, this is no longer as emotional a decision as it could have been in the past.
It seems that Dee had a massive settlement ($150,000) from a botched eye surgery a few years back, which fueled her hoarding to new extremes. She blew through it in less than three years to add to her hoard. Now she has nothing; nothing but her stuff. She admits to screwing up, almost with a smile, like, “Oopsie doodles!”
I’m having a hard time figuring Dee out.
Dr. Melva Green arrives and they’re like oil and water. Dee closes herself off physically, answering the doctor in short, clipped sentences. “This is really advanced,” the doctor says. “She’s gotten lost in it.”
She tells Dee that it’s not safe to be in here (as Dee slips down a mountain of things). The family is brought in (they shove the door open and peer in – there’s not really room for them to stand inside). Thalia begins crying; it’s worse than even she’d imagined.
Geralin Thomas, the smiling, no-nonsense-taking organizer arrives. One thing I like about Geralin is that she looks like a sweet, “ladies who lunch” kind of woman, but boy, she takes no guff. She’s not hateful, she’s not mean, she just knows how to quickly assess situations and get in there. Her plan is to drag everything out of the house, lay it out, and force Dee to see just how much stuff she has.
Well, this plan quickly deteriorates as Dee fixates on things, needing to touch everything, not allowing anyone to handle her stuff. Because they’re precious. Even though she hasn’t seen most of these items since she bought them and tossed them into the mix. Geralin asks her ,“Okay, then, what’s most meaningful to you?”
“Okay, well, like any – you know – ethnic art. Anything boxed.” She snaps at Dr. Green standing next to her for having her foot on Dee’s “things.” Mind, there is nowhere to stand, there is no visible floor. Dee is also standing on stuff. Her anxiety and anger is boiling over and Dr. Green is doing everything to keep her cool as Dee bitches at her to stop “stepping on my stuff.”
Geralin snaps, “And it’s stuff that you have not – have not – taken care of! None of this is being honored, none of this is being cherished!” Dee doesn’t bother listening, and Geralin feels strongly that this is a colossal waste of time.
Dr. Green asks, “So you want your things in boxes, not your grandchildren over?”
“You’re clear about that?” Dr. Green asks. “Okay about that?”
Dee dives back in to her “things,” touching and sorting. Meanwhile, it starts raining outside. They’ve been boxing stuff up in cardboard and now have to drag it all back in. The boxes stack to the ceiling in the one place they’d managed to clear.
Dr. Green brings Dee to the kitchen to work with the family, yet she wants to keep everything. Every possible dish, glass, lid, box, paper, all of it. Cindy, frustrated, says, “So I came here to watch you touch each dish?”
“It’s helping…” Dee says as she goes back to her things. “It’s just makes me feel uncomfortable [to have the family make decisions].”
A family meeting is quickly called; Thalia and Cindy tell her that she has to allow them to make decisions about obviously broken/torn/ruined items at the very least. Dee stands there, lips pursed, angry. Thalia begins to cry, saying, “You have to help yourself or I’m not going to stay here!”
Dee shuts down, completely unwilling to communicate. By the last day it hits her that this is it, this is her chance. But she doesn’t quite get what the chance is for. She treats the crew like her personal movers, wanting them to position furniture just so as she marches around with different paintings. She stomps out to her shed – also packed – and demands an armoire brought in. She wants multiple armoires in her living room to put all of her things in – “that was the intention.”
No, it wasn’t. Geralin refuses to bring more in, angry at the lack of understanding of what her services actually are. I don’t blame her. The crew instead focuses on the kitchen where they paint the cabinetry and walls and dress it up for her as she continues to rearrange tchochkes in the other rooms, looking for ways to have her “armoires.”
Geralin tells the camera, “This is not going well.”
They finally take her to the kitchen, hoping the cleared and cleaned space will inspire her. She smiles at it (and it’s very cute, retro blue and yellow, bright and shiny).
“Looks great!” Dee says, then she really looks at it. “I thought I was going to have curtains?”
Woman… This is a hard one for me, guys, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. These people have busted their butts for days for her, and she’s finding ways to be upset about it. She clearly has a long way to go to even admit to herself that there’s something wrong.
Aftercare: She’s working with a therapist and organizer, but still is working to make more room in her house to bring in armoires and other furniture.
I guess they can’t all be success stories, hm?
So how do you feel about some of the subtle changes this season with the music and the cliffhangers? I won’t lie, I find it cheap. I think it detracts from the seriously good work the crews do. And I really do not want to see a dead animal. I can’t deal with that sort of image, personally. Thoughts?
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