Hoarders: Family Secrets 1.5 – Ricky, Cynthia

hoarders,lifetime,mental illness,Matt Paxton

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We’re back! Thanks for bearing with me last week–I don’t get paid to talk about the shows I love, and there are times when this show hits a little too close to home. That’s when I need to take a breather. But we’re back, and my all-time favorite doctor returns as well. And as Dr. Michael Tompkins explains at one point, “Hoarding is very complicated.  There isn’t one thing that contributes to it; it’s many.”


Ricky, Michigan

“I’m Rick,” he tells us as the screen shows a previous shot of him shoving a can of food against a busted space heater for his dinner. “I’ve got some problems in my life. I’m trying to play with the hand I was dealt.”

The thing about Ricky is that he’s a good guy under it all.  He’s got a big heart and an eager mind.  In fact, his mind is so eager that he’s constantly seeking to occupy it (read: escape from life) with books.  Ricky loves books. Books, if you ask him, love Ricky.  His modest house is filled to the rafters and beyond with books, papers, leaflets, mail, muck, grime, food and who knows what else. He has little pathways cutting through them all to a tarped corner up in the attic where he sleeps and eats and does his business, which is in a pickle bucket.

The thing about Ricky is that he fills that pickle bucket with paper not unlike a hamster, and then carries his waste out, so it’s not like this is a problem.

This is totally a problem.

But the real thing about Ricky is that he’s a man hanging on to the last good moment in his life, because his heart has been utterly and completely broken. We don’t get the full story, and I don’t know that we need it for our purposes here, but back in the ’70s, he fell in love with a beautiful women who had two kids, whom he adopted.  They had two more, and it was everything he’d ever wanted: a family and to be an attentive dad.  Then she left with all four, and he’s never seen them again.

His house is a monument to those halcyon days for the sake of his children, proof that he did love them, that he had toys for them, books, presents….  It all must stay just in case they come back.

It’s been close to 40 years. I think it’s safe to say they’re not coming back.

His brothers have tried to help him, especially with finances as the fees and court visits have mounted up, but they’re at a breaking point. Ricky’s dear friend Rosie has been there all along, as well, but as we know, you can only lead a horse to water.

My favorite thing his brother Jeff said was with regards to why Ricky must clean the house: think of the firemen going in there. It’s positively a tinderbox. Loose paper blowing about, and this guy is lighting candles and incense sticks “for ambiance.”

And while I can see Ricky’s thought process here (I really can) it’s–as we know–completely dangerous.  Dr. Zasio with her bright smile and open heart can’t get Ricky to see that everyone is there to help him; the wounds are just too deep.

She asks him why he hasn’t had contact with his children all this time, and he absolutely loses it in the most taciturn way.  He literally chokes up and starts to leave, even though she tries to gentle him through what he’s feeling. He’s that guy, I think, the guy who grew up thinking men can only cry over two things: the Michael-Frodo kiss-off in Godfather Two, and when Rudy hits the field.

(Protip: Guys? You absolutely can feel more than anger and rage. I promise. We ladies do it all the time. It feels good to let that stuff out.)

She focuses on the safety issue, possibly trying to tap into that Dad-part of him, by pointing out how the ceiling is bowing in from whatever is upstairs. He’s so used to it, it doesn’t resonate at all.  She has to bring in Cory Chalmers right off to inspect the safety of the house.

It’s not good. Support walls have been removed to allow for more junk to be brought in, and he points out how there are only two–two!–2x4s holding up the entire second floor in the center. Yeah, no one’s going near that. The camera pans across joists bent away from the structure, and raw, rusted nails are sticking out. I’m not going to lie to you guys, I was panicking for him and the cameraman just filming that much.

One thing I like about Cory is that he’s a dude, and Ricky’s a dude, so they immediately get that chest bump-level of trust going that guys like that have. Ricky’s all smiles and dad jokes, throwing out, “Okay, Big Guy,” and stuff like that, and it’s almost enough to think this is going to work.


They’re either pushing too hard (they’re not) or Ricky has his stuff buried too deep (he does), but things spiral out of control after a while. You can almost see the thought process with Ricky: they’re moving things that I put there, things that have stayed, things that didn’t leave in the dark of the night forty years ago, and they are MINE they will STAY.

Yeah, that betrayal runs deep.

Even the visible high he gets when they clear the floor is short lasting, because he goes into a manic episode (do we have some undiagnosed bi-polar going on here? Not my business, but that was where my thoughts went) and essentially undoes all the work Cory, Jeff, Kevin and Rosie have done in the front rooms. And then there’s just no talking to him.

He gets so worked up that he casually flicks a knife at one of the cameramen and Rosie, where it sticks in the ground. Dr. Zasio pulls out her Big Voice and says, “I’m shutting it down.” Rosie takes Ricky off property so the brothers–with the help of Cory’s Steri-Clean Hoarders.com crew–can clear out the kitchen, a room, and the yard, that last one being the most important so the fines the brothers are paying can stop.

So Ricky’s left with a tidy room, some books, a bed and a chair, and the property cleaned up enough that he can have power and gas turned back on.  It’s safe as it can be, because they all seem to realize Ricky ain’t going nowhere. Better make that place somewhere he can putter around without worrying about it falling in on his head or going up like a match. Tough, tough case.

After The Show

Ricky is seeing a therapist regularly, and that, to me, is the most important thing. He has so many hurts that have festered for decades. Here’s to hoping his therapist can help fill that tool kit with better ways to cope instead of the destructive manner of the past forty years.  He’s also using the aftercare funds to fix plumbing so he can have running water. Oh, thank goodness. No poop buckets, buddy, you’re worth more than that.


Cynthia, Texas

“I’m embarrassed and I don’t want to be judged.”  Well , Cynthia, you’re in the right spot with me, sugar beet, because there isn’t judgment here. (In Texas, sugar beet is what you call company. Sugar booger is for loved ones. If you’re from Texas, you’re nodding your head.)

Cynthia is a sweet faced older woman with the most gloriously thick hair, I swear.  Her eyes are wide and kind, her face open and… afraid. Because her secret is going to get out. The house she’s had for five years is already packed to the ceiling. Storage boxes, bags, bits of furniture, childrens’ toys, and bird cages. Now, the bird cages are a real problem, and it’s not just because there’s dander, feathers, food and filth pouring out of them: Cynthia has an autoimmune disease.

Her immune system cannot take a hit, not after suffering with Hashimoto’s Disease and almost dying a few years back. The bird mess isn’t helping. Neither is the mold and maggots in the kitchen sink, the mouse poop on the floor, the rat piss soaking into everything, dust mites and who knows what else crawling and chewing through the mess.

This is no place for a person to live, especially not someone with as delicate an immune system as Cynthia. She has a few things going for her: her lovely daughter AJ, and her caring sister and her husband, Laura and Chris. Even her mother is there.  We get some details about Cynthia’s past, about a stepfather and the sick state of things in a country that believes a slap on the wrist for abuse is good enough, but as Dr. Tompkins said, how she got here–in this case–isn’t important. It’s how she gets away from it.

Cynthia explains that it’s like this because of “energy, time and will.” In that she has none of them. She’s surrendered herself to her environment, and it’s going to be tough to convince her to make a change. She stands off to the side, silently wiping away tears as her family sees the mess the house has become.

This is a tender, tender lady. Fortunately for her, it seems like it runs in the family.

Once the clean up begins, she must touch everything, sort through every box, approve each item, and AJ knows why she’s doing this, and says to her mom when Cynthia shows her some toys she’s saving for AJ’s children, “They’re not sanitary. They’re the foster kids’ toys, and you’re hanging on to the memories of them, and this is proof you’ve never grieved your loss.”

Well, she’s certainly not wrong.

Dr. Tompkins intervenes by having AJ express her fears to her mother. They’re both soft-spoken women, but this has been building, so AJ borders on anger as she says that if they don’t clean the house completely, then it will never get done. Cynthia counters with frustration that it seems any progress is worthless if it’s not complete.

They’re both right in many ways, unfortunately. What needs to happen is for Cynthia to have her breakthrough moment. Cue Matt Paxton and the Service Master & Restore crew revealing boxes covered in mouse turds. …no? That’s not enough? It’s in the garage, so it doesn’t count.

Matt couldn’t convince her that a few poop kernels in the garage meant anything, but maybe these soaked floor tiles of rat piss and poop could do it, and add in a little chewed up sofa.  And nope, still not enough. She has plans for her crafts, plans for those things, and Matt laughs, “Your plans are covered in rat piss and poop. Period.”

On the last day, Matt finds what just might breakthrough the walls with Cynthia: dead mice and rats, surrounded by fecal matter and urine, inside the house. She loses it, bursting into tears to be comforted by her daughter AJ. She didn’t realize that was inside.  A garage is one thing, but her house, where she’s finally felt safe? She gets it.

Matt’s team works double time as Dr. Tompkins patiently listens to her work through this new understanding of her situation. And can I say for the millionth time that Dr. Tompkins looks like a First Class Hugger? We should clone him and pass Dr. Dads out for Christmas, I’m just saying.

Cynthia, armed with this new understanding of herself, gets to work side by side with the crews. The house gets a serious scrub down–sterilized from top to bottom, and Matt did say that this was one of the best, hardest working crews he’s ever been with–and I have to laugh at her sister Laura’s hat, which reads:  #AWESOME.

It is that. They pulled out over 8000 pounds of trash, and there’s more to go, but the living spaces Cynthia needs are clean and healthy for her.

“I’m so happy and thankful. I get to wake up tomorrow morning and have a whole, brand-new fresh start.”

After The Show

She’s working with a therapist, but says it’s too early to tell how beneficial it will be. Stick with it, Cynthia! You’ll push past the discomfort to lighten the mental load even more, I promise.  She’s also still cleaning the house up, and the family is pleased with her healthy–both physical and mental–choices.


Show discussion

On paper, what Ricky needed for his breakthrough was there. But it didn’t really happen. This harkens back to what Dr. Tompkins was saying, that there are so many factors at play here.  Ricky and his brothers are definitely the type of guys who don’t want to show weakness, and emotions are weak. You suck it up, do what you have to do, and that’s that. Except… that’s really stunted, as we all know. They’re not bad guys, not by a long shot.  They’re just from an environment that doesn’t bode well for someone with Ricky’s problems.  I was delighted to hear he was seeing a therapist with regularity, though.

If you’re the type who struggles with that, let me just put it this way: it’s an unbiased person who will listen to you gripe. (They do so much more than that, but baby steps) It’s also incredibly uncomfortable in the beginning, because you’re pulling out a jagged thorn that’s been buried in you. All kinds of gross stuff is going to come out, and it’s going to hurt. But then the healing gets to happen.

I have high hopes for Cynthia and wish her and her family all the best. (And I want her to know how jealous I am of that braid.)  I hope Ricky sticks with the therapy–there’s promise just under the surface, but only if the work comes from him.

I just want for all of these folks what Cynthia stated: a whole, brand-new fresh start.