Hoarders: Family Secrets 1.8 – Michelle, Mary


hoarders,lifetime,mental illness,Matt Paxton

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Before we get into this episode, I want to thank all of you who read, link on Reddit, comment on Facebook (and here!), and most especially those of you who get what I’m trying to do, not just with these recaps and discussion posts, but with Hey, Don’t Judge Me.  Everyone knows: “You don’t read the comments.” People get nasty and mean, they delight in being rude, cruel or hateful in comment sections, and that just doesn’t happen here.

We’re here to listen and learn, to talk to each other, and often times, whether you, the Reader, know it or not, cheer on the folks this show in particular features. I hear from the hoarders on occasion, and I hear from family members and friends–they all say that they appreciate it.  They get encouragement from the thoughtful comments, the worry we share for their safety and health, and I wanted to tell each of you reading this how much I appreciate your support for this website and what it stands for.  I don’t get paid to run the place, I do it out of genuine love.  So thank you for contributing.

And now, to the rat-mobile. (I just ruined everything, huh?)

Michelle, Michigan

I want to point out that the first shot we have of Michelle’s house shows actual counter space.  That’s… just about the only clear space here, however.  Michelle, with cool bright pink hair, is retired, living in her home with her husband Maurice and her mother, Genny.

And about 18,000 dolls.  Maybe more.

“I guess I have to admit I’m a hoarder.”  To say things are piled up doesn’t cut it–she has stacks and mounds and heaps of boxes, both shipping and plastic.  It’s all dolls and their related paraphernalia.   They’ve gone into debt buying little hats and shoes and accessories for her extensive (to say the least) Barbie collection, as well as all of her Beanie Babies and whatever other collectible dolls there are to be bought and hoarded.

Side note, when I was in college, I cleaned houses for my job. One client had her own personal kiln in her home, where she made porcelain dolls. I never wanted to clean her living room as the sun was setting–there were almost 100 toddler-sized dolls in there with glassy eyes following me as I pushed the vacuum around. I, um, have a bit of a doll-phobia.

The hoard is so extensive that when there was water damage, repairmen couldn’t get in to fix it.  So there’s a plastic tarp with a drain plug stretched across the ceiling.  That can’t be healthy.

We start off believing the worst in Michelle: how selfish! It’s all about her! Her poor husband who is an alcoholic, he’s going to be triggered back out of his hard-won sobriety! But it’s never that simple. Never.  Michelle’s daughter Roxanne is angry, (rightfully) worried about her grandma Genny’s health in the hoard, but let’s not be so quick to point fingers, even if the sight of Genny sleeping in the only place she can get to, a reclining chair, is hard to take in.

We can’t really know if Maurice’s alcoholism is triggered by the hoard or if the hoarding is triggered by the alcohol, but we do know this: the house must be rid of chaos for anyone to get better.  Enter Dr. Melva Green (and I love that color in your hair, by the way) who tells us that even Michelle is overwhelmed and depressed by the hoard.

That’s usually a good sign that progress can be made.

But first, a whole lot of anger and pent-up frustrations must come out.  Maurice and Michelle go at each other, apparently having never addressed the 10,000 pound Barbie in the room. “I feel like I’m wasting my life!” Maurice shouts, when everyone sort of turns on him, mother-in-law Genny in particular.

Wow, is Genny angry.  Everything in her mind relates to her son-in-law’s drunkenness.  (Genny, that is your daughter’s husband, the father of your grandchildren, and you are living in his house. Come on, now.)

Dr. Green reminds us that everything wrong in this relationship is buried in this hoard. As things get taken out, those wrongs will be exposed.  But they need to be exposed.  And these folks need to air out their grievances.  However. It’s okay to feel and express anger, we’re reminded, but it has to have a purpose.  None of this below-the-belt, just to hurt someone stuff, in other words.

Got Junk and Dorothy Breininger arrive, and Dorothy realizes “Mom is in a cage.”  She very quickly realizes that Genny needs her focus.  Why?  Turns out that Genny is the one who is most emotionally attached to the hoard, oho! Michelle, who had been silently sitting and watching, her despondency clear on her face, is brought in to make decisions, even though they’re not pleasant to make.  But she does it.  It’s slow going at first, because the women–both Genny and Michelle–want to keep a lot.  Too much, really.

Dr. Green gently asks Michelle if maybe this is her addiction.  (My question is, what is Michelle really holding onto?  It’s not my business, the show isn’t about poking under rocks and getting private details that aren’t meant to be shared, but that’s the big question for me, and one that symbolizes whatever it is that is the root cause of the hoarding issue.)

What’s lovely is that Roxanne, who was so angry in the beginning (and with good reason), can see how hard this is for her mom and how hard her mom is working.  There’s a lot of love under the anger.  And we all can see that a lot of this behavior Michelle has was learned from Genny, who tearfully tells Dorothy as more and more is taken out, “I’d rather just die now. I mean it.  There’s nothing I can do now.”

So much of Michelle’s behavior makes sense, doesn’t it?

Dorothy redirects Genny to her room, and while Genny wants to keep everything, we all know she can’t.  But she certainly can have some things, and some things can be put in storage to be decided on later.  This is a lot for Genny, so she lashes out, not at herself, but at Maurice.  He is the reason behind everything bad.  (Come on, Genny. When you point a finger, you have three pointing back at you.)

There’s a lot behind the scenes we’re not privy to, but I have faith in Dr. Green.  So much so that it makes sense that later, when an auctioneer comes out and values the hoard at half a million dollars, I believe the rekindled love between Michelle and Maurice, the happiness on their faces, the visible relief.  Michelle can part with a lot for money like that, especially since they’re in debt.

The house was cluttered beyond belief, but at least it wasn’t filthy.  The cleared-out house looks terrific, and we can see the special dolls Michelle wanted to keep. More importantly, we can see smiles on all of the family’s faces.  Michelle calls her newly sorted house “Doll heaven.”

Genny’s room is nice, too. It’s clean, sorted, and orderly.  Roxanne is relieved that her grandmother has more than a recliner to live on, but it’s not clear to the viewers that everyone gets that this is a familial pattern. (One Roxanne seemed to skip, so good on you!) Then again, Michelle and Genny are now working on it, so that’s the important take-away.  Even better is Maurice’s genuinely happy face as he hugs Genny, who smiles and laughs as he does.

After the Show:

Michelle and family are all in therapy (oh, hooray!), and there have been no new dolls coming into the house.  The ones removed are still awaiting auction.


Mary, Fresno, CA

Oh, boy. This is the segment that makes people either rally behind what Hoarders: Family Secrets sets out to do, or makes them turn away.  It’s bad.  Mary’s house is bad. You thought Shanna’s house was bad?  Not even close.

(How bad is it?) It’s so bad that Matt Paxton had to call in a specialist to not only test for Hantavirus (a nasty bugger brought in with rats and mice) but bubonic plague.  That, my friends, is bad.

“Obviously I like to collect things.”  Actually, it isn’t obvious.  It’s not obvious that there is any sort of collection happening inside, just that stuff is… accumulating.  And on top of the accumulation is mold, dirt, and rat feces. Feet of it. I’m talking feet of rat poop splashed up the side of things.  Rats, Mary explains, commonly get to sixteen or seventeen inches in length.  [Insert quote from The Princess Bride here, just before we’re all attacked by an ROUS, rodent of unusual size.] My word.

Kathy and Kirk are Mary’s friends, and gosh, are they worried about her.  At one point they cleared out twenty cubic yards of garbage from one room.  Please know that a small dump truck only holds three cubic yards. A sucker’s bet would be that Mary didn’t bring more stuff in after that.

The rats have taken over, chewing through everything–food, plastic, walls, flooring, furniture–and Mary gets it to some degree.  It has to get cleaned out. Her house has become Ground Zero for the rat population in her neighborhood, and it’s not fair to the rest of the folks nearby, let alone healthy for Mary to live there.

Bubonic plague, remember. (The test fortunately comes back negative for the plague. Matt? Was there Hantavirus? I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some evidence of it. Yikes.)

Dr. Zasio shows up and is instantly shocked by the state of the house, and more importantly, for Mary.  We don’t know what traumas Mary has suffered to get her to such a place, but we do know that every ten years like clockwork something tragic has happened to her.  One of the last situations was finding her significant other dead in the hoard.  She’s had a tough, tough go of it, and that should be obvious, given the lack of concern for herself.

But it always bears repeating.  People who feel good about themselves, who love themselves, don’t live like this. This is mental illness. This is trauma.

Dr. Zas has nothing but soft words and back rubs for Mary–Mary looks like she needs about a million more. Matt tries to explain to Mary how dangerous the house is–as he stands there in full biohazard gear with a rebreather. (Everyone is wearing them, actually.)

Matt said later that when he gets quippy and jokey, it’s to hide how traumatized and sad they all are.  It’s a tactic I support 100%.  He tries to explain to Mary that the black splatters all the way up the bottom of furniture is what they in the biz call a “patina,” trying to get her to make the cognitive leap from “I live like this” to “no one should live like this.”  It’s not quite working.

If it’s behind glass, it’s okay, right?  Wrong.  If it was encased in plastic?  He shows the camera the chewed through holes in plastic. Nothing is salvageable. Nothing. People can’t even be inside for more than 30 minutes at a time without becoming nauseous.  Mary has lived in there without any breathing aids for decades.

My one positive thing to say about Mary’s place: there were some gorgeous grandiflora roses in full bloom outside.

The first day is a total wash, mostly spent on trying to get her to understand the depth of her illness. She asks Matt if she can just wash out a pretty glass bowl that’s been buried in the hoard.

“I could take a dump in this bowl and you can clean it, but would you eat out of it tomorrow?”

Mary, the answer to that is no. Unfortunately, she still hasn’t made that connection. She’s stuck on the “I bought a lot of cheap stuff to save money, so I can’t just throw it away!” mindset.

The team sets traps to help on Day 2. (Guys, these are disease-ridden pests. This isn’t a bunch of pet store pals.) The rats are huge, and there are a lot of them. Yeesh. I’m not squeamish about rats, but this one might change my mind. You could put a saddle on some of them and go for a ride.

Mary starts off wanting to know what can be saved.  And I get it, I do.  She had the A + B = C mindset, where A is “I don’t have a lot of money,” B is “I’ll buy things that are cheap,” and C is “I’ve saved money and done something smart.”

The problem is that her situation was really [A + Bh*N] ? C.  That buying things cheap times hoarding them over and over again is never going to produce the results she thinks.  She’s never getting to C.

“Wasted time, wasted money, and now I’ve contaminated my life,” she grumbles. I’m so sorry, Mary.

The snow shovels come out to clear the rotten floor, and now the structural damage is exposed.  The whole floor bounces when Matt pushes on sodden sections of it.  The subflooring is gone, and the house isn’t safe.  The more things are taken out, the more mice and rats we see scampering away, running along door frames, leaping across bits of busted furniture, and it’s a cold reminder that they’ve been in that house the entire time.

To give you a visual, when everything’s gone from the house, it looks like someone spilled a huge plant all over the floor.  Someone on the show says coffee grounds–it’s rat and mouse poop. That’s how thick it is. It’s just unsalvageable. The crew removed, wait for it, 30 tons of trash. That’s… I think that’s a record? Not that it’s something to brag about, but that’s to illustrate how much was in this home.

A final inspection indicates that fumigation from Terminix is needed to insure the rat population is gone (not to mention what must be a breeding ground for roaches, too).  The house will have to be gutted to the studs and brick exterior walls.  Or she can bulldoze, sell the land, and settle that way.  She’s probably going to have to file for bankruptcy.

Hoards aren’t just mentally and physically unhealthy, they’re financially unhealthy. Homes are usually investments, and there’s nothing Mary can take away from her home that she’d filled for decades.  It’s just a sad situation all around.  The positives, though: Mary is no longer living in utter filth, which is great for her.  Her friends are dedicated to loving her and helping her. She’s not alone, at least.

This is a stark and harsh reminder that saving up those bargains costs you in the end.  You’re kidding yourself if you think stockpiling goods is going to save you anything in the long-run.  Let Mary’s house be your reminder.

After the show

Mary is staying with Kathy and seeing a therapist.  Extermination dealt with the rats, but it’s still up in the air whether a contractor can make repairs or if Mary should just bulldoze and sell the land.

Show Discussion

We had two sides of the “stock piling” coin here, and while Michelle’s had a happy ending, please go back through all of our hoarder posts to see that hers is a rare one.  Most people who are “collectors” don’t make money off their hoards.  If you’re telling yourself you’re not like those “dirty” hoarders, you’re probably in denial.

Nine times out of ten it’s a Mary-esque situation. You buy this and that because they’re on sale.  Hell, they’re on sale, get five.  Make it ten.  In fact, go back tomorrow, because there’s a purchasing limit, and you really want to maximize saving.  Gotta spend money to make money, right?


Mary lost everything, all of those purchases and her house.  And we see this happen over and over.

If you think you or a loved one has a hoarding issue, please seek help.  You have value.  You inherently are valuable as a living, breathing person, and you do not deserve to live in an unsafe, unhealthy home.

Contact any of the following outfits.  There are people who will help you judgment free.

Clutter Cleaner

Steri-Clean Hoarders.com

ADAA’s site on Hoarding and Anxiety Disorders, including anonymous helplines-NOW UPDATED with a more concise link

(And a reminder that the hoarders, their families and the cast and crew of the show read these posts and your comments. Kindness first, please.)