This week we’re reminded that no man is an island, even when they try and build one with an ocean of garbage.
Verna, Santa Cruz, California
In the lush landscape of Santa Cruz sits Verna’s house and all of her stuff. Piles of dressers, molding and rotted, mountains of boxes and containers and bag after bag of aluminum cans and glass bottles and art supplies, the jade plants and ivy growing over and around everything. And that’s just on the outside.
“My house has gone past the point of clutter,” Verna says. Her brother Crow tells us that theirs is a family of hoarders. It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be much hope for Verna, straight away. Her parents owned eight properties – fixer-uppers – and taught the kids early on to keep everything “just in case.” Verna, an elderly woman now, has spent her life being trained and being trained well.
Inside her home there is barely a pathway. Rodents have moved in, and the smell of their feces (and dead bodies) is pungent. Verna’s daughter, Rhonda, and Rhonda’s son Kalijah are concerned for her safety in the house. As well they should be: Verna’s house is so hoarded that she has begun sleeping in the attic. Verna had someone cut a hole in the ceiling for her; an extension ladder leans against the hoard, enabling her to climb up its slick metal rungs and up into the rabbit hole where there is a six inch wide gap for this woman of 67 to step on, then vault herself over a dresser to the mattress wedged in the back of the room.
The attic is also completely hoarded. Cobwebs drape across the ceiling. Nails from the roofing underlay are visible all along the angled plywood overhead. This is no place for anyone, let alone an older woman with failing health.
When Kalijah informed his mother of this, Rhonda had Verna put into a convalescent home on a temporary basis – once the house is clean, Verna can come home. Verna doesn’t seem very motivated to get rid of any of her things. She’s definitely just going along for the ride, and unhappily.
We learn that in Verna’s past, she went to jail for cocaine dealing – for two and a half years. She’s spent the last 16 years of her freedom piling more and more up on her property. Instead of a crack habit, she hoards.
Mark Pfeffer arrives to help address her anxiety and “collecting,” and immediately addresses that this house is “a danger trap.” As they walk in, something shifts off a pile and clatters to the floor at Verna’s feet. Mark – avoiding a dead rat – asks quietly about a smell. He wonders if it could be mold. Verna snaps back defensively, “I do not have wall mold in this house!”
Well, then that’s one type she doesn’t have. There is clearly a lack of healthy air in this small, close house. Mark situates her in a chair so that he can climb the ladder to see her “room.” (Verna slipped off the ladder when she suffered a leg pain. She was lucky that she didn’t fall.) Mark says that for him, “climbing up that ladder made me very anxious.”
It would make me nervous, too. It’s a tight, narrow climb, and once he’s able to peek into the attic prairie-dog like, it takes him a moment to figure out how on earth Verna is getting to a place to sleep. He’s obviously concerned.
Cory Chalmers and the Got Junk trucks arrive soon after, and Cory makes a point of getting the family to walk through the house so there is no question that they all understand what Verna has been living in. As soon as Cory moves inside, Verna snaps at him for stepping on her books.
“This is the environment you’ve created,” he says, startled that she’s barking at him.
“No, I didn’t!” Hmm.
Cory wants everyone to pay attention to the spoiled food in the kitchen, the dead animals. They need to make no mistake that this is an illness, this isn’t lousy housekeeping. It’s an illness, because Verna doesn’t see that there’s anything wrong with it. It all has use, everything. At least to her it does.
Rhonda doesn’t want to look at the bedroom, realizing just how bad things have been for her mother. She tearfully tells Cory that seeing it – understanding what her mother’s life has been – will make her feel like a bad daughter. (We’ll come back to this after the recap.)
The crew dives in outside, needing to clear a path through all of the overgrowth just to make space to get into the house. They go no more than 10 feet before they’re stopped by Verna. She wants them to keep everything. Just, you know, move it over there (part of the side yard) for now. Well, that’s not why they’re there, Verna.
She becomes distracted when a mustard jar is unearthed from the brush. She wipes off moldy leaves from the outside, saying that she’s been looking for a jar of mustard, and here it is! When someone asks her if she really intends on keeping that, she snaps and snarls at them too. She’s clearly being pushed out of her comfort zone here.
She tells Cory to shut up more than once, and he turns the tables on her. “If you tell me to shut up one more time, we’re not going to keep working.”
“You’re being stupid, ignorant, and condescending to me!” Verna is pissed. Verna probably doesn’t know why she’s pissed. Mark says to Cory that it’s probably the first time anyone has ever challenged her with getting rid of her things. Regardless, Cory won’t put up with being spoken to in that manner, nor should he. It’s frustrating for us, the viewer, when we can clearly see that help is being provided, and you don’t yell at people helping you, right?
We just have to remember that Verna doesn’t realize that she’s being helped. For now, it’s just pushy people taking her things.
The next day has the crew and family (minus Verna) working inside the house. They find dead mouse after dead rat, and pull out a handful of rat-nest to show Verna. “Yeah, I know that’s there.”
She wants to keep everything. EVERYTHING. Just pile things outside and put a tarp on it, and she’s happy. Rhonda gets fed up and says she’s throwing away a mouse-chewed chair, and that’s that.
“Yes!” she tells her mother.
“Duck season! Wabbit season!” back and forth until Cory pulls Rhonda aside.
Rhonda tells Cory that she just wants her mother safe. She doesn’t want her mother living in that home.
“You might just have to let her live this way, and just walk away from it now. You’re not going to fix her,” Cory says softly. This is maybe the hardest lesson for a family member to learn. When should you walk away? Conversely, when should you not stop pushing?
Mark joins the conversation, saying “The resolution is for Rhonda to let natural consequences happen for her mom.” He says to her directly, “Move on with your life.”
This is a woman who has spent 67 years hoarding. Her siblings and parents were hoarders. The prognosis doesn’t look good. Rhonda, however, doesn’t give up that easily. She tries to talk to her mom, tries to say that she’s not going to stop the cleaning. An argument about boxed up-yarn (that had dead mice picked out of it) opens up. Rhonda asks Verna what would she do if Rhonda just took care of it by throwing them out?
“I’ll do my best to never call you again.”
Well. Mark asks her point-blank: “You’d choose 10 boxes of yarn over your daughter?”
“Yes. I have my priorities of things straight.”
That earlier question I asked? When should you walk away? This would be the point for me.
Verna doesn’t come on the last day. Rhonda calls her, asking if she’s coming. Nope. The crew doesn’t normally work without the client present, but this is a mess that needs to be cleaned, regardless. They begin boxing things up to clear out a bedroom for Verna, at least. A crew comes in with plaster repair, paint, and a new bed.
Verna surprisingly shows up at one point, sees her clean house and seems pleased by it. She’s happy about the bedroom, and admires how nice it looks. Cory says he hopes it serves as a source of possibility for the rest of the house. (She’s genuinely pleased at the cleaned kitchen, as well.)
Verna says she won’t fill it all up again, but I’m a little doubtful. This was a tough one – Verna fought the whole way, didn’t connect with anyone, but then again, that’s a long time to be stuck in a mindset; to just have a major turnaround in three days doesn’t seem likely. I think we all knew going in that this case wasn’t filled with a lot of hope.
Verna had a death in the family, so the plans she made with a therapist and an organizer were delayed. She’s still living in the convalescent home until more repairs can be done to her house to make it livable.
JoAnne, Streetsboro, OH
JoAnne is a retired autoworker who enjoys shopping. To avoid her “shop-a-holic tendencies,” she parks herself on a reclining chair and watches television. The main path in her home is from the front door to her chair, with a small clearing in front of her television.
Mountains of clothing are piled on every surface; bags of garbage line doorways, blocking access. There’s one other path in the house, to the bathroom. JoAnne doesn’t have running water (a pipe burst, and she didn’t have the funds to repair it, and now it’s become habit) so she lines her toilet with plastic bags, uses the toilet, and “double bags everything and throws it away.”
I have to say, after last week, this seems positively sanitary in comparison, even though it’s clearly not ideal.
She buys herself new clothes every week (instead of taking her dirty clothing to a laundromat). Her son Ed says, “It’s an incredible waste of money.” Especially since it could go to being saved up for plumbing repairs, making the need for weekly wardrobe purchases redundant. Ed and his wife Melissa are also in dire straights – they need JoAnne to watch their adorable six-year-old son Cayden while they work. They can’t afford the $200 a week cost for daycare.
Cayden has nowhere to play, aside from the narrow pathway in the house. He very clearly loves his grandma (and she loves him dearly) but he thinks “the house is gross. My grandma’s house is messy.” Melissa found out that Cayden was sleeping on a dog bed when he had sleepovers, and quickly put the kibosh on him sleeping there.
He still spends the day at JoAnne’s home, however. That’s still somehow okay with her.
JoAnne smiles and tells the camera that Cayden likes to get Grandma to clean up, and she likes doing it with him, because “he’s not critical.” Ed tells the camera that he’s cleaned out his mother’s kitchen three times, but she just keeps filling it up.
You caught that, right? That they’re fully aware of the state of her house? This is important.
Dr. Zasio arrives and is immediately bothered by the level of filth in the house. (JoAnne has a cat, who has taken over her bed – for eating, sleeping, and as a litter box. There are toys in that room, meaning Cayden has been in there.) Dr. Zasio asks JoAnne if she thinks this is “normal.”
She doesn’t, thankfully. She knows it’s bad. The doctor says firmly that she needs to understand that any of these mountains, any of these piles of garbage could fall on her grandson; they have the potential to kill him. JoAnne pales at this. If this house doesn’t get cleaned, Dr. Zasio has no choice but to call both CPS and APS.
JoAnne is motivated. And just the right person shows up to take charge of organizing and cleaning up, Geralin Thomas. Geralin says that JoAnne is vibrant and sparkling – the exact opposite of her home. Hmm.
Dr. Zasio talks to Cayden about the house, making sure he knows that it’s unsafe for him to be in there. He knows. His mother, however, tries to say that she didn’t know the extent of the hoard. Ed, the son, also tries to back pedal that he didn’t realize just how bad it was inside, either. You know, where they were leaving their son every day. In the house where they cleaned out the kitchen three times.
“She’s got bad lighting in her house, so I never really saw all this stuff,” Melissa says. Really, Melissa? Bad lighting? I’ll assume her nose doesn’t work, then.
Cayden and his grandma are outside with Geralin making decisions about things she keeps for him. He’s ready to throw stuff out when he sees it’s broken or damaged, but asks JoAnne what to do. She’s happy and smiling and tells him to throw things away. Cayden becomes more and more animated, delighted that his grandma is making good choices. For only being six, he’s a pretty clever kid.
JoAnne says to the camera, “I made a promise to myself that if I started it, I would finish it. I owe it to my family.” We can see the “vibrant and sparkling” woman whom Geralin saw, especially when she’s with her grandson. She lives for that boy, and it’s really sweet to see them interact.
Melissa is encouraged to talk out her problems with JoAnne – there’s a lot under the surface with this family that we’re not seeing. It turns out that Melissa is also a shopaholic, and has gotten herself (and Ed) into hot water financially, with JoAnne stepping into bail them out with her savings. JoAnne doesn’t care for Melissa as a result, and Melissa feels it.
The hoard was something for them to focus on instead of their “bad blood,” it seems. Something to ignore publicly, but complain about privately. JoAnne, however, has really turned a corner here, and is highly motivated to make change. It’s wonderful to see her grow more and more animated; Geralin calls her a “dream client.”
Ed and JoAnne make strides in their relationship, and Geralin points out that they’re both very respectful of one another when they discuss heavy topics, and that bodes well. (We don’t see them discussing these heavy topics.) It seems like the real issue is between Melissa and JoAnne, but we don’t get a lot of fill-in as viewers. It’s probably a little too personal for national television, and I can be respectful of that.
JoAnne really doesn’t feel attached to much in the house, she just wants it cleaned and ready for Cayden to have sleepovers. There’s a whole house transformation; it’s amazing. The rooms are either gutted to the walls and subflooring (and I worried about carpet tacks, I can’t help it) or emptied, repainted, and decorated with simple furnishings. It looks like a comfortable home, and Cayden goes tearing through it with a smile on his face, happy about Grandma’s “new house.”
“I’ve never had so many people care so much,” JoAnne says, smiling hugely. She just can’t wait for tomorrow, a day filled with playing with her grandson in a safe and healthy environment. Her love for her son and grandson are lovely. Maybe with a little more work, she and Melissa can repair their relationship, too.
JoAnne is working regularly with a therapist and organizer, learning decluttering skills. Good for her! It seems that her relationship with her family is also a good one that’s getting even better. Her plumbing has been repaired and she now lives in a home with running water. Good luck, JoAnne, I bet that grandson of yours keeps you motivated.
I wanted to ask you about something that happened with Rhonda, how she didn’t want to see her mother’s living space because it would make her feel like a “bad daughter.” One aspect of the show they’ve changed that I like (The music grows more ominous and distracting every single week, come on, producers. Enough.) is making a point of bringing the family through, making sure there’s no escaping the reality of the situation.
Even Melissa and Ed tried to pretend they didn’t know how bad it was. (I get that financially they felt stuck. I do.) Their son was in a home where he had to go “potty” in a bag. You can’t ignore that. You can’t push that under a rock. If everyone is forced to acknowledge what’s happening with the hoarder, it seems like there’s a better chance to keep on top of things – make sure they’re sticking with any plans they’re learning from their organizer, going through the process of how to rethink living in that space that they’ve learned from their therapist.
So much of the work done on this show involves a support team for the hoarder, which I think is the ultimate point: you can’t do this alone. You need people to fall back on, to help remind you of goals or even to help you reach your goals.
That’s a great reminder for all of us, I think. Thoughts?
And a reminder to support friend of the blog Matt Paxton: click on his link on the right to listen to his podcasts for helpful tips. Also, here are links for Cory Chalmers and Geralin Thomas and the services they provide.)