Hoarders 6.1 – Debra, Patty

A&E, Monday Nights, 9EST

Welcome back to a new season of Hoarders on Hey, Don’t Judge Me! For any new readers who might be coming along, I want to stress that we take the work of the Hoarders‘ production staff very seriously. We do not view this as “rubbernecker television.” Everyone on the show (and they come by and comment on occasion!) believes fervently in shedding light on this disorder and in getting help to the people portrayed. Many viewers have finally been able to put a name to what has been wrong in their life (or the life of a loved one) by virtue of this program. I have nothing but admiration and respect (and a lot of hand sanitizer) for everyone involved in this show.

As always, the rule at HDJM is that if we don’t love something, we move on. If you were looking for a site to make fun of things, this isn’t the place for you. Hard questions can be asked, but tone really does mean everything, so please keep that in mind. On to our season premiere episode!

Debra, Illinois.

A well-groomed landscape with hot pink flowers (they look like silk flowers) in a long window box outside mask the chaos within. Debra, a petite and well-groomed medical lab technician, is the mother of five children, all high school aged or older. Debra has worked third shift (graveyard shift) for 21 years. And let me say first how damn hard that is on your body. My aunt worked that shift at the ER for almost 30 years, and boy, does it age you.

Her kitchen sports a bare counter top that is clean and an empty and clean sink. Then the camera pans left and we see that the hoard has obviously been pushed aside to clear space. Her hoard is mostly clothing and discount store purchases. Debra is the type of hoarder who shops for release, and when she can’t find those purchases later, buys them again. And the pile grows.

Her husband Ray believes her credit card debt to be in the neighborhood of $30,000 to $50,000. I’m guessing they have separate finances? That’s a hard number to swallow, especially when you consider that most of what she’s bought is still in the packaging or still has a price tag on it.

Her children have distanced themselves from her, her husband is ready to walk away from the marriage, and the entire family is falling apart. Debra says in a moment of candor, “I want to stay married for security reasons. Do we love each other? Probably not.”

I’ll be completely honest: Debra was a lot for me to take in with any measure of compassion. When someone looks as “together” on the outside as she does, it’s hard to remember that there is a real sickness involved.  And there is.

Her sons Derek, a doe-eyed sensitive young man, and Todd, a bit rougher looking and the type who probably has had to do for himself for a long time, now, tried to clean the downstairs but were hampered by their mother’s need to touch everything. There is no space for anyone in the house. Except for Debra. Derek says his mother is the most selfish person he knows.

Debra, crying in her quiet and plaintive way, says, “I don’t believe that. I gave everything to my kids!” That seems to be the problem – they don’t want everything. They want an ordered house and a present mother.

Dr. Melva Green arrives on scene and talks to the men of the house. She notes the hostilities right away, how frustrated they are with their attempts to clean being derailed by Debra. As soon as Ray starts to explain how Debra does this, Debra stammers and argues over him, trying to prevent him from saying anything. The doctor is quick to point out how the men of the family have been conditioned to be helpless as a result of her actions.

Dr. Green also notes that Debra has inflated her sacrifices to her family to epic proportions, hence her crying and “I’ve done everything for you!” attitude. “I make sure you have stuff you need! I’m there for you!” Again, she has equated love and familial support with things.  I think this is the hardest type of hoarder to have a breakthrough.

As the family begins to argue in earnest, Dr. Green takes the parents to the master bedroom, where the entire room is filled save for Ray’s side of the bed. Debra has left her things to stand in place of herself here, as well. Dr. Green asks them upfront: are you going to just clean the house, or are you going to work to keep the marriage? They both want to keep their marriage. (Even though Debra ignores that Ray was the first to say he wanted the marriage to work, crying, “I don’t know if he does.” Communication is rather poor in this house.)

Dorothy Breininger, looking fabulous I must say, arrives and gets right to work organizing. First to address: the clothing. There are over 20,000 pieces of clothing in this house. The rest of the crew and family are put on pulling everything out of the house to be sorted outside. Debra sets things aside to keep—things that are for children who no longer exist. Umbrella strollers, ride on toys, baseball bats and balls. She is shocked every time her husband says that no one wanted to keep them. They’ve grown and she hasn’t seem to have noticed.

Dr. Green finds a dining chair with writing on the chair pad. One of Debra’s five children has broken down the three “loved” children (Derek is one) and the two “hated” children (Todd is one). It goes on to say that Debra “doesn’t do bad things to [the loved ones].” The doctor is quick to get to the bottom of this, asking her what that’s all about.

“I really didn’t want another boy, I really really didn’t. I really didn’t ever like boys.”

Let me remind you that she has four. And Derek is standing just outside the room, hearing all of this. Dr. Green knows he’s there and asks her if she’d like to talk to him. “I don’t really like him right now. I’m just done,” Debra responds.

It’s a sickness, it’s a sickness. God, is it hard to sympathize, but I have to remember that it is a sickness.

Dr. Green wants her to be the adult and not ignore him simply because he’s ignoring her. That’s not how adults behave, and it’s definitely not how adults model behavior for their children. But healthy behavior is in short supply in this family. Dr. Green brings Derek in, regardless. It’s time for them to learn how to actually talk to one another.

Debra remains stubborn until Dr. Green raises her voice to be heard over Debra’s arguing and orders her to look at her boy, who is quietly crying. This is the result of Debra’s hoarding. The result of her willful denial that she has contributed to any of the chaos in the house. Debra is not ready to believe that yet, however. She does say to her son, “I have a sickness.” It’s not a stubborn woman who just doesn’t care about her family, even if it looks that way on the surface.

Dorothy wants them back outside to finish sorting through things, but Debra won’t allow it. She still sees potential in everything. Dorothy holds out a little girl’s holiday dress, wondering who will wear it.

“My nephew’s daughter will. Why throw out a perfectly good thing?”

Dorothy is at a limit here, and shouts, “Because you don’t have space!”

“Okay,” Debra shrugs. “I’ll just give it to her. It’s not like, a problem.”

Not just a river here!

It is a problem. It is the problem, Debra. In fact, it’s such a problem that they’re unable to really get rid of much beyond boxing and sorting everything, only to be shoved back into the house. She and Ray begin arguing again, both talking over one another, both saying that they don’t feel heard. Dr. Green offers them another out but they won’t take it. Debra gives up a little more control (to the tune of ridding the hoard of 15,000 pieces of clothing, no small feat) and makes enough room for the cleaning crew to roll in and put the house back together.

The show staff actually paints her walls, cleans her furniture, decorates the house, and does away with all of the silk flowers. (Guys? Enough with the fake flowers. Buy real, or don’t have them. They’re just dust collectors.) The bedroom and bathroom also get makeovers with new curtains and bedding and sundries. When Debra walks through the house, she immediately starts nitpicking. “It’s just not my color.”

She wants pinks and greens. (She wants a Ramada Inn, sounds like.) Dorothy is stunned. Debra really wants to make sure Dorothy gets it: “I’m really upset because everything I loved is gone. This is horrible! I hate this whole bathroom!” She keeps repeating “This is horrible” over and over, just making sure it sinks in, really making a point to have eye contact with Dorothy as she says it.

But before you write off this woman as the B Word, Dr. Green comes in and says to her, “This is about you being chronically disappointed.” Magic words. Debra breaks down sobbing. That’s exactly what it is with her: she hates surprises and she is always disappointed. And she hates it about herself.

Dr. Green says to the camera, “The average person would see this and say, ‘What a jerk!’ This is the illness. Transforming her space is frightening.” Debra quietly breaks down in the bathroom with Dr. Green soothing her. There’s a long road ahead. It’s going to take a lot, I expect, for Debra to get to the root of why she shops and why things are more important than her family.

After The Show

Debra is working with an organizer after the clean up, and her first priority was to repaint and redecorate the house. She is seeing a therapist regularly and wants to repair her relationship with Roy and her children.


Patty, North Dakota

Patty is an older woman, barely managing to get around on a cane. She wants to be a good Christian and says that confession of sins is essential, and her sin is hoarding. Her house is filled with broken furniture and broken-down boxes. A floor-to-ceiling shelving unit has been tossed onto the pile of debris in the front room. I’m sure someone will eventually get to it… There are cobwebs on everything, and the closer we look, the more we see that the house is piled up with garbage and animal feces—a large dog, from the looks of it.

Patty has two sons: Chris, who left at 17, and Sean, who managed to stay until he was 19 (and who slept in either the tub or on top of the hoard). When they left, her hoarding escalated. Now, she is unable to enter her home and has been living with Sean and his husband, Cody. And, as we all expect by this point, has begun hoarding out her son’s apartment. This has caused tremendous strain on Sean’s marriage, to the point where Cody has moved out.

Patty was married to the boys’ father, who was a heavy drinker. And a philanderer. The camera pans to empty beer cans all over the house, crushed by a heavy fist and covered with such thick dust, it almost looks like an olive green paste. Her hoarding began with his first affair and built from there. Patty had a “hole inside [her]self,” she says. It looks like she tried filling it with anything she could get her hands on. He left in 1998. She told herself that she was “worthless” and the hoarding escalated. She has literally walled herself off from dealing with her hurts, barricading herself in the physical manifestation of her misery and self-loathing.

Chris, who hasn’t been in the house since he was 17, is now a middle-aged man with balding hair. He has to climb on top of the hoard to even wedge himself into the house. Sean follows. They look at the bathroom, and the toilet is filled with black, sticky goo. It’s not the Toilet Everest of last season, but it’s still horrid. It looks like maggots didn’t even escape. Oh, it’s just horrible.

Matt Paxton arrives on scene and we learn that he will be staying in the house overnight, wanting to get the full experience of what it must be like to be a hoarder. The boys wish him luck, and Matt climbs in, decked out in a set of hazmat coveralls. We can only see the house through his infrared camera, and that’s bad enough. The basement appears to be completely filled – the stairs leading down to it are blocked with even more stuff. He falls on top of a large pile of who knows what and goes still. He knows there are rats and snakes in the house, but he can’t see where.

It’s a house of horrors, and we’re all screaming for him to get out of the house. And then, in typical awesome-Matt fashion, he mumbles, “Ugh, I’m sweating my balls off.” Raise your hand if you adore Matt Paxton. Now put your hand down, click on your mouse, and go to 5 Decisions Away  and support the guy, would ya? Be sure to check out his holiday ornaments. Ha. #POOP

Matt makes it to the bedroom, as that was where Patty spent most of her time. She’d lay on her bed and eat, watching the television. As Matt gets settled, we see through the infrared that there are huge mounds of dog shit right by his head. He makes a face—unable to see it like we can—and says the smell in there is utterly disgusting. “Pure sadness to live there.”

It’s pitch black with the lights out, and Matt tries to sleep. He’s still up at 2am, unable to actually do it because of the smells and the sounds. He can hear something skittering in the filth, and doesn’t know if it’s a rat, raccoon, or snake. He starts freaking out a little (who could blame him?) and eventually gives up. There’s no way he’ll do anything but toss and turn and dry heave.

The next morning, he tells Dr. Robin Zasio that “It was tough. Couldn’t do it.” He also says there’s nothing of value inside, so if they can get Patty on board, it’s simply a matter of clearing the home to the walls. As the junk clears, she’ll be face to face for the first time with her fears and self-doubts.

Everyone is decked in bio-gear (including rebreathers) and they start pulling things. Immediately Patty makes great decisions, not holding onto stuff, willing to let things be donated (notebooks, etc.), not wanting to keep any of the junk. Excellent! But she has to face what caused her to hoard in the first place if any lasting progress can be made. That means putting a mask on her, too, and helping her inside the house (the doorway and front room have been gutted by this point).

Instantly she begins sobbing, the kind that takes over your whole body. It’s unbelievably sad to watch her acknowledge just how miserable she’s been all of these years. She has to sit down from the force of her crying. Matt tries to get her to breathe, worried that she’s on the verge of a panic attack. When the sobbing actually intensifies, they get Dr. Zasio inside. She’s able to calm down enough for the doctor to talk to her.

“You have experienced tremendous abuse and trauma. Trauma has led to this,” Dr. Zasio says as she opens the refrigerator door. It’s as expected: rotten and awful inside, a perfect mirror to how Patty has seen herself. “It’s painful,” the doctor continues, “but moving past this will make things better.”

Patty feels as if she has failed everyone. But she’s calm and willing to listen, which means it’s the perfect time to bring up how her hoarding has affected her son’s marriage. Now, there are some things not talked about on air so we’re left in the dark on a lot of what’s happened. Patty and Chris do not like Cody, and Chris even says he wants to put a fist in Cody’s face. My first thought with Patty’s treatment of Sean’s husband is transference. Her husband treated her terribly, so she’s going to treat Sean’s husband the way she couldn’t treat her own.

But that’s just speculation on my part.

Sean is in the middle, but seems to be leaning toward his mother and brother. That doesn’t bode well, is my first thought. Patty agrees to having Cody come join them, saying, “It’s time for Cody to grow up.” Editors? I get that you can’t put the personal stuff out there, but this is just enough for us all to make up what’s going on, and in the bad way.

Cody shows up and immediately dives into cleaning, it should be said. The house gets stripped to the walls and floor. Meanwhile, Dr. Zasio gets Patty to see that everything they’re finding of Patty’s ex-husband has a bad memory attached to it. Does she make the connection to having things that make her miserable? The doctor finds glass beer steins that belonged to Patty’s husband. She sets them up in a dumpster and gives Patty a sledgehammer.

“Let it out. Let it go.”

Patty holds the handle, yells out her anger and hurt and smashes the glassware to smithereens while her sons look on. It’s incredibly cathartic to see her really express herself in a healthy, forward-moving way. She and her boys realize that it’s actually okay to express your emotions. Boy, if that’s not one of life’s most important lessons, I don’t know what is.

They redo the entire house, bringing in nice, clean furniture and bedding and even touch up the walls and hang a few pictures for her. She walks in and stops for a moment, her face slowly breaking into a genuine smile, the first we’ve seen from her. “It’s beautiful,” she breathes, her huff of air turning into a delighted laugh. She’s completely overwhelmed, and I hope she gets that people did this for her, and they did it because she matters. She deserves to have a clean, healthy, and happy home. Everyone does.

“I can’t express how thankful… that I am. I let go of a lot of horrible memories that were in that house.” She smiles in turn at every person on the crew, really seeming to want to connect to each of them. “I feel like Patty.”

Oh, Patty. The grief hoarders are always the hardest on my heart, and always the most touching when they learn to let go and find their own worth instead of putting objects first.

After The Show

Patty is seeing a therapist and immersing herself in life again, after years of isolation. Her home is cleared and repairs are being made (they had to remove all of her appliances and the bathroom wasn’t in working condition when the crew left); once that is finished, she is looking forward to moving back home. (I bet Sean and Cody are looking forward to that, too.)

[Edited to add: Matt Paxton has stressed that the tension with Cody had  nothing to  do with his sexual orientation, or the orientation of Sean. It was just good ol’ family feuding.  In case you worried.]


Thoughts: as difficult as I find connecting with a person like Debra (the angry mothers are always the ones I struggle with, and boy, could we write a whole show on that) I love that Dr. Green essentially looked at the camera and told us that this disease doesn’t always look like Patty. It looks like Debra, too. And it’s a disease. Her mind doesn’t work like a neurotypical mind does. It’s hard for me to remember that, so thank you for that reminder, Doc.

Okay, gang, what are you thinking about this new “staying in the home of the hoarder” angle? I think it’s going to be wonderful for the organizers to get an “inside view” of the people they’re helping. Matt has said on his blog that it was pretty amazing. I just know that there’s no way in hell I’d be able to do it. But that’s why they’re the professionals, and I’m the armchair quarterback.