You all know the drill by now: Hoarding is a mental illness, and we’re respectful of the folks who put themselves out there for public scrutiny in their attempt to better themselves, their families, and their lives. It’s incredibly brave what they’re doing, and we here at HDJM want to encourage them (and anyone reading) on that path to wellness by being kind and thoughtful as they take that journey.
“This is never what I intended for my kids. Intellectually I know it’s wrong; I just don’t know how to fix it.” And that, in a nutshell, is the heartbreak of this disorder, isn’t it? Let’s meet Michelle.
When Michelle speaks about her kids, about being a mom, her whole face lights up. She loves having two young sons, loves being a mother, loves to have games and toys and things for them. Lots of things. Too many things. So many things that the house–a three story home–has one pathway to a sofa and another to the boys’ room. We can see one of her sons climbing on top of a pile of clothes, toys, and junk like it’s a jungle gym.
The smiles aren’t long lasting though, and it’s because they live in chaos. Her husband Frank tight-lips it every day, quietly supporting Michelle and being an attentive dad. But he’s clearly miserable. To make things worse, their young son Kyle has Sensory Processing Disorder, a disorder commonly misdiagnosed as ADHD. This can be something like not being able to tolerate certain fabrics on your skin (and as the mother of a child on the Spectrum, let me just tell you that label-less clothing is a godsend), feeling overwhelmed or overloaded by fluorescent lights (they have a hum, a tiny cracking noise that many people find distracting at best, frightening at worst), or a complete lack of response to heat or cold–which can lead to dangerous accidents–among other things.
Chaos, overloading the child’s nervous system with too much data surrounding them, is pretty much the worst way for a child with SPD to grow up. Guess what a hoard is? And it’s not like these parents are ignorant to that fact, they too are overwhelmed–how did it get to this point and how do they fix it?
It got this way because of a few factors: one, Michelle is a shop-a-holic. She literally gets a rush from buying something that’s a “steal.” It’s like an addiction. Who cares that her children don’t need another t-shirt, another board game, another race track that they can’t play with anyway? What matters is the potential, and that she “saved money” by getting such a deal. This is one of the hardest hoarding mentalities to work with because you’re dealing with an addiction on top of the hoarding disorder.
Another factor is grief. Michelle’s brother made some choices in life that landed him in jail, where he was beaten to death. As we’ve seen so many times, when someone loses a loved one, and in this case suddenly and unexpectedly, they cling to things since they couldn’t cling to their loved one.
Dr. Chabaud, the Creole with Soul as I love to call her, arrives and assesses the situation. She can tell that Michelle wants to be a good mother, but the simple fact is that the house is keeping her from being one. It’s filthy with animal droppings and urine spray, there is mold in the basement, and her children are literally climbing mountains of garbage. It has to be addressed, or CPS will be alerted.
Matt and his Service Master crew arrive, and Matt knows that without therapy, without getting to the core of the problem, it doesn’t matter if they get the house cleaned–it’ll just get filled up again. He has Michelle’s parents see the inside, and her father sums it up neatly: “Holy crap.”
It doesn’t get better–Michelle must touch everything, must approve everything, must insist to all that each item was worthy of being brought into the house, and why it must stay. She insists that items are “new” because they’re still in their box or plastic wrap, and if I may: scientifically speaking, those items are not hermetically sealed and thus protected from grody organisms (Actual Scientific Terminology). They are not protected because of that water-soluble cardboard, even with that waxy coating. The plastic wrap on food items in particular are meant to keep flavor in, not contaminants out.
And it’s hard. It’s hard to know how much money has been spent on things that can’t be saved, and Matt insists they cannot be saved. He, as a father of boys Michelle’s sons ages, would never allow his children to play with items that have been held in a mouldy, poop and pee-coated room. And she shouldn’t allow it, either, but the mental connection hasn’t been made yet.
The hardest part is how no one in this family seems able to talk about how they really feel. It’s all company smiles and gritted teeth, clenched jaws and terror-filled eyes, and no one talks about anything straight on. There’s a lot of passive aggressive sighing, picking at one another, and Frank, the husband, is quick to defuse when Michelle turns her ire on him. In fact, instead of focusing their anger on themselves, they turn it onto the film crew, something Matt shuts down quickly.
This family needs help learning how to express anger in healthy ways, as well as better tools to deal with conflict. For now, they either bottle it up, or snark at one another in wholly unhelpful ways.
That’s not to say that these are bad people or that they deserve our derision: they simply need better tools in their kits. Dr. Chabaud tries to get Donetta, Michelle’s mother to express herself. Why couldn’t she ever bring up the topic of hoarding? Well, Donetta didn’t want to upset the balance she and her daughter finally achieved.
If I may, there is no balance in this life nor in this family. Not with the chaos that surrounds them. And Michelle is determined to sort through everything individually, so by the end, they’ve only managed to clear out the kitchen, living room, and the boys’ bedroom. It’s a start, but don’t forget this is a three-storey home. There’s a lot left to do; Matt surmises there’s another three or four tons of junk inside.
The boys, however, are ecstatic to find order and a space to call their own. They’re so happy that it brings Matt to tears, thinking about his own little guys. (If you didn’t know Matt’s good people, now you do.)
After The Show
Michelle is pursuing both family and individual counseling with the funds the show provides, which is awesome. Family therapy is so helpful–even if you each see the same therapist by yourself, it gives them a better picture of your lives, which just benefits the family in the end. And if you can believe it, Michelle and Frank are slowly but surely going through the rest of the house and cleaning things.
I am shocked and very happy to hear it. And not only that, but they’ve started having playdates for their boys. Aww, good work, Mom and Dad. Keep it up.
Yama is a tender young woman, age twenty-two, which is shockingly young for a hoarder. We learn, however, that she’d been groomed to be one from the age of five. Her mother was a hoarder, a shop-a-holic, and buying things was the favorite activity Yama and her mother did together. That was their thing, and they kept the scope of it hidden from most of the family for years.
Her mother has been dead from pancreatic cancer for a year, now, a debilitating disease that left Yama caring for her every need until she passed. So much on such a young person’s shoulders… So now, when she buys things, she gets that thrill, that emotional connection to her mother, and it’s just a little less lonely for that brief moment.
The moment is brief, though, which is why she goes back and shops again. And again. And again. She has at the time of filming about 30,000 pieces of clothes and shoes. But that’s just her stuff. She still has all of her mother’s things, too.
Yama is young enough that by getting to the root of the problem now, she has a good chance of breaking this cycle. Not only is that a help, but she has a strong network of females in her life, both friends and family, who are 100% there for her. There’s her best friend Bree who finally saw the extent of the hoard and knew something had to change, there are her cousins, like Taylor, who want her to know that her family is there for her in any way they can be, and there’s good friend (and I mean she’s a good friend) Re’jae who is the only one who can stomach cleaning out the really bad stuff. (Everyone needs a friend like this. We’ll get to that moment in a bit.)
Dr. Zasio arrives to talk to Yama about her mother, her grief, and where she can go from here. We’re shown a powerful image of Yama’s childhood bedroom, one she can’t get into because of how much stuff is in there, stuff that belonged to her mother. It’s a pretty stark example of an arrested childhood, and a reminder that at 22, she’s still very young. (I’m an Old, sorry. 22 still seems like a kid to me.)
Dorothy Breininger arrives, and yep, grief hoarding plus a needy child equals the smilingest tough mom on staff. (I kind of love these guys, have you figured that out?) Because there’s such a strong network of friends and family (and Dr. Zas and Dorothy), Yama is raring to go. At one point she looks at the mountain of clothing and says she just wants one pair of shoes out of it, and the rest can go.
Wow! Is… this healthy, though? Is she going through everything and making those neural connections in her brain? We’ve learned over the years how important it is for success that the hoarder makes the mental connection of letting things go and for the right reason. But no, Yama is making the right decisions when it comes to her things.
It becomes clear, however, that the real problem lies in the items most connected to her mother: her mother’s hospital bed, in particular. Yama wants nothing to do with the removal. Which… sounds like that’s exactly what she needs to do.
The things we fear are the weapons we forge against ourselves.
Fortunately, her family rallies around Yama, reminding her that she did as best as she could for her mother, that they love her and will support her, and she’s able to get rid of that millstone about her neck. Her friend Re’jae keeps up a great sense of humor as she peels rotten, bug-covered food out of the refrigerator, her cousins help clear more things, and then they’re down to a soiled couch that Yama can’t get rid of–and it’s not why you’d first think.
“I can’t afford to replace it,” she says. Taylor says the family will help her get a new couch. “But,” Yama says, “if I’m getting help, then it’s like I can’t do it on my own.” Oh, do I understand this, Yama. I do.
Dorothy and Dr. Zas come up with a great plan to address the second part of Yama’s concern: they leave her overnight to clean the bathroom all by herself. If she cleans it, then they know that she really can do this on her own. If she can’t, then they know she needs help. It’s serving as a wonderful diagnostic tool. And in the morning, while not spic-and-span, it’s definitely cleaner than it was in the beginning. We can actually see the floor!
See, Yama? You can do this! You just needed the boost and the reminder that your network of support is there for you.
Another interesting moment is when Yama says she’s worried about replacing things, because what if she gets out of control again? That’s very insightful, and something that usually takes a lot of therapy to get to that point to recognize. I have hope for this girl, I really do.
The last big hurdle is Yama’s dogs. They aren’t even a little house trained. I think we all can see that they’d be better off with someone who knows how to raise animals, but then, maybe they act as a sort of therapy for her? Dr. Zas, who we all know is the Animal Hoarder specialist, wouldn’t leave them with her if she feared for the animal’s safety, so I think we can put that thought to rest. The problem is the dogs using the house as a toilet, which after the show ended, they apparently are doing still.
But Yama knows she needs to educate herself on dog ownership, so that’s a step in the right direction. The house gets cleaned, her family gets her a new sofa, (aww!), and when she sees her newly decorated bedroom, she and Re’jae burst into tears, giggling and hugging, happy that she has a space that’s perfect for her.
“It just feels so free now. It’s wonderful.”
That’s the feeling the show wants hoarders to arrive at, so it’s fantastic that she’s able to make this connection with order and cleanliness being the source of peace.
After The Show
Yama is looking for a therapist, which can take a while to find the right fit. To complicate matters, she’s pregnant and having serious medical complications. I hope she’s able to get healthy physically to match her strides with mental health. We’re rooting for you, Yama!
I feel like it bears repeating, but I want to stress that every object in your possession isn’t inherently of value. The emotional connection hoarders in particular place on items seems to be “an event that has significant emotional weight is tied to this photograph, this used ashtray, this stuffed animal. If I rid myself of this thing, I am ridding myself of the emotional connection to said event. Or I am negating that the emotional connection has meaning.”
This isn’t true. You aren’t throwing away your love for someone, your memories of someone, or your own value by getting rid of objects. Those memories and feelings are within you, and they will always be there. We see Yama not wanting to be a part of tossing her mother’s bed, because it’s throwing her mother away, almost like she’s saying her mother’s pain (and all the care she gave her mother) no longer exists. But it’s not true–it’s just a broken bed. Her mother’s love and her love for her mother are so clearly being carried in her heart every minute of every day.
In Michelle’s case, she has intentions with those toys for her children. She plans on reading those books, dressing her boys in those clothes, feeding them that food, luxuriating in a bath with her bath salts as her personal reward. The problem is that there’s too much for one lifetime. For four lifetimes. She will never be able to read every book to her sons, they’ll outgrow their clothes, they’ll outgrow the toys by the time the house is clean enough for them to play with them. She’s trapped by the potential of every item, and if she rids herself of these things, then… maybe those moments won’t ever happen.
In the end, it’s just some stuff. People matter, families matter, the hoarder matters. The stuff? Nah. But then, that’s the whole crux of this disorder, isn’t it?