Two very unique stories in this episode, and while Charles’ story brought me to tears a few times, Alvin’s story is one that I found all too frustratingly familiar. And it’s another reason why this country needs to address our nation’s access to basic healthcare (including mental health).
“Alvin is a good person. But he likes to have a lot of things.”
A small white house sits surrounded by semi-sorted piles of newspapers, old bikes, and well-tended plots of bearded iris. This is the home of Alvin and his mother Rozelle, who have lived here together for over 16 years. Rozelle is quite elderly and in poor health, and Alvin is one of her older children.
Inside the house is where things truly fall apart. The items piled up in waves against the walls are almost unidentifiable due to the sheer volume. Dolls, toys, boxes, towels, stacks of cloth, random knickknacks, stacked and sorted piles of dishes, papers, magazines, and trash bag after trash bag of crushed aluminum cans.
Rozelle, who is on oxygen, wants the house cleaned. There is visible mold on the walls, chunks of ceiling are missing, and what looks like rotting roof beams can be seen. She loves her son dearly—she just doesn’t love how they are living. Neither does the rest of the family. Michelle is one of Alvin’s three sisters; she received a call from Rozelle, who had fallen in the mess and broken her hip. When Michelle arrived with paramedics, the rest of the family finally learned Alvin’s secret.
(Note to the Editors: again, you are relying on musical cues to give us emotion. Trust me—Alvin’s story and family life was emotional enough. Please don’t use manipulative horror-show music and strobe-like cuts. It cheapens the final product, which is a powerful show in the end.)
Rozelle had been denying the severity of their situation up until this point. She says that Alvin takes excellent care of her, provides her with every service she needs, and we see a shot of Alvin carefully tending some of his mother’s plants. He seems like a good man, if incredibly anxious.
His sisters, however, see a monster.
One sister says that she thinks he has mental issues. (We’ll get to that later.) “And, I hate to say it, but he was raised under Mama’s skirts and doesn’t see the problem.” At first I thought this was old school for “sissy,” which we all know is code for “gay” and if they were going with that being a mental health disorder, I was going to be very upset. They didn’t. They just think he’s “weird.”
Alvin says that he has sisters from hell. He says they help themselves into the house when he’s not there and have “robbed” him. That is why he continues to bring more things in, because he assumes they’re going to take more. The sisters see no problem with entering that house whenever they feel, because it’s “their mother’s house more than his.”
Rozelle does miss living in her house, and misses living with her son Alvin. The sisters—growing more agitated by the minute—say that either Alvin can get with the program and clean out that house, or they’ll call the cops to arrest him and put him in holding until they’re done. This should tell you everything you need to know about any sort of support that Alvin has in his life.
Alvin: “I could die right now and it wouldn’t bother me. I’m a private person, and I mind my own business. I’m not happy about people coming into the house.”
Cory Chalmers of 1-800-HOARDERS.com arrives and tries to understand Alvin’s thought process so he can better help. He asks if Alvin is living in the bathroom, and how does that work? There is a television jammed in there on the back of a pile of things, and a bucket wedged under the tub’s leaking faucet. The rest of the room is hoarded out. (I will note the toilet itself is clean. This is important, as it’s…um, used often for a multitude of chores.)
Since hoarders are secretive about how they live, Cory wants to spend the night and get a better understanding of what Alvin goes through daily. He wants to be considerate to Alvin’s feelings, but also wants to help. “This isn’t to embarrass you, but how do you clean?”
Alvin catches water in the bucket, pours that into the toilet bowl to flush, uses that water to clean himself, dishes, what have you. Now, while this clearly isn’t ideal, he is getting municipally cleaned water that becomes stagnant. He’s strangely fastidious in his own way (which will make sense as more of Alvin’s personality is revealed).
He is adamant about not living in the bathroom. “I live in the living room. I don’t do anything inappropriate in the bathroom.” There’s a part of me that wants to give Alvin a big ol’ hug. His anxiety is clearly climbing and he’s clearly only had one member of the family actually care about him.
Cory spends the night sweating in the heat, trying to not slam his head into the ceiling as he navigates the rooms. Alvin’s refrigerator works—and appears to be clean, it should be noted. There’s just a hell of a hike to get to the fridge. In his mind, the house is still in working order.
The next morning, the Got Junk trucks roll in, but Alvin is clearly worried about “snooping.” Cory finds Dr. Melva Green (yay!) and informs her of the situation ahead of time. Alvin is going to get very upset about his things being touched, and to an extreme level, he’s guessing. And Alvin does not have a supportive family. He anticipates fireworks.
Sure enough, when the family arrives, Alvin locks the house and won’t let them in. He goes outside to sort the things already there; they all immediately begin butting heads. The family’s frustration levels are through the roof and Alvin gives the impression that he might be suicidal, causing Cory to stop everything and ask him straight out, “Are you legitimately saying you don’t want to live anymore?”
The cleanup is at a complete standstill because of Alvin’s red-line stress. And then even more family shows up, including the oldest of the three sisters. She has absolutely no patience for any of this; after reading the next thing she says, you might get a clearer reason why these two have the worst relationship of all family members.
“He’s stubborn, mean, hateful. Nothing will work. And I hate him. I want to hurt him. If I could blow his fucking head off, I would do it.”
You know, I can appreciate that people in this world are ignorant when it comes to atypical neurological behaviors, but good hell. There’s no excuse for her reaction, I’m sorry. Yes, Rozelle needs her home back. Yes, this has caused the family a huge amount of stress. But Rozelle and Alvin clearly love each other, Alvin has clearly been cowed by strong and outspoken sisters his whole life, and has been made to feel “wrong” for decades. Even a nephew says that he knew his uncle was “weird, but I loved him anyway.” Well, that’s mighty kind of you. For crying out loud…
Cory says, “This whole thing is a nightmare,” as Alvin locks himself inside.
The cleanup is shut down, Alvin is closed off, and his sisters are griping and yelling in the background. Dr. Green and Cory try to regroup and talk only to Alvin. There is no way they’re walking away from this volatile situation. Alvin knows that if he throws things away, he is going to regret not having them in the years to come. Something the doctor says (it’s off camera) inspired him to go through a few more boxes, and we know the team has their In. No family involved here, just the team and Alvin starting the work.
And of course, just when a groove is settled into, more family starts insinuating themselves in the process. The nephew starts in on him, and you can see how much anger everyone in the family has for Alvin. We all know at this point that if the family isn’t there supporting the hoarder, progress is going to be close to nil.
While this is going on, Cory finds papers from the city that are four months old claiming the hoard will force them to condemn the house. It’s time to bring in a contractor to determine what’s salvageable. Cut to Cory pushing on the ceiling with one finger and the whole ceiling shifting. There are huge holes in the roof, and the water damage may have destroyed the structure of the house. The contractor determines that major repairs (an entire new roof, including the joists) will be needed.
Dr. Green gets the family together and tells them sternly, “Y’all have to come together as a family. Start moving beyond your differences and get on the road to forgiveness.” There is so much blame here, and you can tell that they just want Alvin to disappear and take all of his problems with him.
Dr. Green takes the older sister aside. While she’s not been able to do a full psychological test on Alvin, she can state with positivity that Alvin is on the Autism Spectrum. And maybe the family should actually take in that they have expectations for Alvin to think in a way that he’s simply not wired to do.
Kim, the older sister, says, “But how can a person be so smart in certain things, but can’t do things a child understands?” Welcome to the world of autism. (Note: I have a child on the spectrum, a brother with Aspergers, and a sister who has severe autism to the point of being non-verbal. Yeah, it’s stressful. Sad fact: 66% of families with a person on the spectrum end in divorce. Families that work to understand the differences in behavior, however, are the successful ones.)
Cory finally breaks through with Alvin and they begin to work successfully, Alvin making huge, sweeping decisions for things to be removed. The crew begins to clean out the rooms in earnest now and start the makeover process. (The team is there for four days now, instead of two.)
The noticeable change in Alvin happens when his mother is brought back to the home after it’s cleaned up and he sees how pleased she is. Rozelle is murmuring about it being a miracle, and all Alvin wants is for her to be happy. I think there’s a chance this can stick, as long as the external family butts out or gets with the program.
After the show
18,000 pounds of garbage were removed from the house, and it also cleared out Alvin’s mind. He’s happy, focused on learning how to not fall back into bad habits, and is working with both a therapist and an organizer. He’s happy. Rozelle divides her time with him and the sisters until all repairs have been completed. Dr. Green leaves us with her belief that the family will eventually pull back together. I do hope so.
(And we’ll talk a bit more about ASD afterwards.)
Charles, Bizbee, AZ
Charles is an older man who is at heart an artist. The promos tried to turn his art into something salacious by virtue of him preferring to work with the naked female form, but it’s a classic for a reason. (Also, as a female, I take offense at my body being something naughty. I digress.)
We see a shot of several of Charles’ paintings grouped together: women reclining on furniture, sprawled on beds, walking. And here’s the thing: Charles is incredibly talented. His style immediately had me thinking of a beautiful hybridization of Manet and Degas. I would happily own one of his paintings, is what I’m saying.
But this isn’t a story of an amazing artist simply running out of room for his things. We meet Kat, his current life model. She thinks he’s a dear man, if perhaps a little broken. The camera pulls back and we see that his studio gallery is filled to the high ceiling. Paintings, empty frames, unstretched canvasses, brushes and paints, odd bits of furniture, and through the weak light that manages to filter through whatever dirty window is exposed, we can see the swirling dust motes.
His home matches, but for the labyrinthine canyons of books that stretch floor to ceiling. “Books are my company.”
Charles is divorced, has two beloved children from that marriage, and the children clearly adore their father and marvel at his talent. They hate that he’s hoarded himself out of any space to create. His son Bo says, “It’s like prison bars growing tighter and tighter. But my father has a dark side. If this isn’t addressed, it could be fatal.”
Are they talking about suicide? We see a group of paintings in a new light. An entire series has been painted of women in his preferred “vulnerable state” of nudity with a monster-type animal in the mix. It looks wolf-like, but he calls it a Javalina (which is a wild pig). The psychology is right on the surface here, folks.
We meet Charles’ ex-wife, Ginger, and boy, is Kat a dead ringer for a young Ginger. Like I said, the psychology is right on the surface. They had an idyllic marriage until there were surgical complications after the birth of Bonnie, their daughter. She was ill, Charles couldn’t handle seeing her in pain, and in the end she sought comfort in the arms of another man. When she confessed, he “flipped out.”
We see a close up of another of the Javalina paintings where a woman is cutting out the bleeding heart of the monster. (Charles says without reservation that he is that monster.) There are several that match this, with different women, different situations. Charles says he began drinking heavily and carrying around guns. Oh dear.
“It was either move out or do something violent with her.” Oh my god. Well, that was the right decision to move? Yikes, Charles. (I want to point out that the man we meet is a tender St. Nick-looking man. It’s hard to reconcile the two, especially given how beloved he is by his children.) He recognizes that his paintings and books “fill up the loneliness spaces.”
When they can see what they’re substituting, it’s usually a good sign for a positive result, I want to mention.
Charles is miserable and emotional; he’s a creator, and his sickness is preventing that, and it’s killing him inside. His children are equally passionate about his creativity and want to simply help him. Charles begins to cry at the thought of never creating a painting again.
The lovely, kind, and gentle soul Dr. Michael Tompkins (he is one of my favorites) arrives and he says, “My eye goes right to this magnificent painting [on the wall].” It’s a nude woman in repose on a sofa, a dressed Javalina next to her, mouth agape and in her space. Charles calls it “Beauty and the Beast” because of his beastly feelings. (I want to reiterate that he never acted on them.)
Charles tells the doctor, “I married beautiful women. None of them lasted.” He begins to cry while explaining it, and we know that letting go of any of these is going to be a huge challenge. He says that he’s lost the will to live. Oh, Charles!
The Got Junk trucks arrive with the delightful Dorothy Breininger. Her plan—because she is a wily one—is to get everything outside to be sorted. It’s much easier to let things go when the other option is to sort and carry things back indoors, you see. Extreme care is taken with Charles’ things as the cleanup begins.
Immediately, though, Charles has difficulty just sorting through furniture. Everything has a story, and everything has inherent beauty.
Charles: You can’t give away beautiful things!
Doctor: If you did, what do you believe would happen to you?
Charles: You’re diminished. Your soul is diminished. These things are substitutes. They keep me company.
Oh, dear. (Again, his family is clearly ready to support him in any way they can. Even Ginger is here to help him. This bodes well for Charles.)
Ginger asks him about one of his paintings, and is that her, or another woman. It doesn’t matter, because they’re all her, and they’re all other women he’s loved. He leads with his heart, which is lovely at first, but devastating in the end. He begins sobbing as he thinks about how many times his heart has been broken. Dr. Tompkins pats his back and says softly, “I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t,” Charles says, his voice devoid of any positive emotion.
Dorothy pulls him and his family aside when it becomes evident that he’s not going to let things go. She encourages them to say the things they’ve not over the years. Ginger tells him that she couldn’t talk about her pain back when they were together (almost forty years ago) because he was carrying guns around and she was terrified. She believed he could have killed the whole family, including himself.
“You weren’t there for me when I needed you,” she says, brokenly.
He begins sobbing in earnest, his face crumpling with the realization that there are always two sides to emotional situations. His heart wasn’t the only one broken. He isn’t the only victim. The children each take a parent in their arms and soothe them. This really is an amazingly tender family.
Dr. Tompkins says that Charles has never been able to balance the artist’s life with being a husband so he could hold on to both. I think this is something that is fairly common with creative men (and many women, to be fair.)
Charles apologizes from his heart to Ginger, and with a wobbling voice she replies, “I know. Neither one of us were very strong.” They take each other’s hands as she tells him how sorry she is, and through their tears, they all smile. “I was bad to you, and I’m sorry. I’ve been holding that in for forty years.” This is about when I had to go get a tissue. There is nothing like seeing a group of people really want to love one another and put aside their own hurts in order to make it work.
Bo, who has been in tears multiple times, overcome with love for his father, says to Charles that he will sleep outside and do whatever it takes to help him make his life better. Charles replies, “You’ve made it better.” I mean, come on. I am not made of stone, people. This is a lovely family that is finally letting go of decades of hurt and it is beautiful to watch.
Charles has cleared the air and is ready to clear his life. He dives into the job with gusto, making sweeping decisions about letting all furniture, rugs, etc. go without needing anything further.
“Getting rid of stuff today…it’s one of the pleasantest experiences I can remember, just toss-toss-toss.” He is giddy with excitement. And I was so tickled to see his life model Kat there, helping work, helping support him and the family. He tosses all of the books, and that was a monumental decision right there. Everything is cleared out that needs to be, there is nothing but praise and cheers and support on this job, and everyone from the crew to the family is all smiles as they work.
“I value my family more. Good-bye stuff, good-bye! Muwah!” Charles blows the garbage trucks a kiss as they rumble down the mountainside.
What Charles doesn’t know is that a sneaky crew has been in the gallery making repairs. It’s now clean, stark, open and lovely. The vaulted ceilings allow in natural light, and his paintings now hang from floor to ceiling. It’s amazing. He bursts into tears at the sight. He kisses his ex-wife in gratitude.
Dr. Tompkins tells him, “You’re a remarkable man. I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time with you.” He tells the camera, “He’s quite amazing.” He really is. This is a lovely family that was ready to heal, and more importantly needed to heal.
We last see him sitting his adult children down to sketch a beautiful charcoal portrait of them both smiling. I mean, can you stand the loveliness? What a wonderful story, one we needed to balance out the stress of poor Alvin’s.
After the show
Charles declined the therapist and organizer, but with gratitude and thanks. He has turned his gallery into both a working studio and a place for him to teach art. Outstanding.
Alvin’s story hits close to home for me. With my family’s history, it should be obvious why. I understand that his family didn’t understand that there was anything “wrong” (I bristle at that) with him, and just thought him to be “weird.” I also understand that there’s a generation that lumped odd people together into the “mentally retarded” category, as well, even though that is incorrect.
Autism isn’t mental retardation, it is a different brain wiring. It’s not something that needs “fixing,” it’s not a “disease.” It is a different way of seeing the world, period. Some things take most of the person’s focus such as, say, the person who knows everything there is to know about medieval plumbing and has an astonishing amount of brain space dedicated to the data collection of that subject. That is important to the person, and looking and dressing cool may not be. Or worrying about how people perceive them.
And it’s not wrong to think that way. They mentioned in Alvin’s story that he’d never been to the doctor. I don’t know if Kim meant a medical doctor (vaccines, etc.) or a mental health professional. The fact that we don’t have the ability for people without funds or insurance to get the health care they need is appalling. Hey, look at that, a voting cycle is coming up.
The simple fact is this: a healthy person is a person who contributes to society. Mental health, a family’s ability to understand the health of the others and be supportive, is a part of this very simple equation. The differences between the two families today clearly illustrate how much good can be done when a person has support. I believe strongly that mental health is a key part of an individual’s overall health—and again, a healthy person is a person who contributes to society.
What are your thoughts on this? Agree? Disagree? Anyone know how I can purchase one of Charles’ paintings?