Hoarders: Family Secrets 1.9 – Doris, T’Resa

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I don’t know what it is lately, but these hoarders and the kids/grandkids who love them have just been choking me up.  This week we have a success and a potential backslide.  And it’s not who I thought it would be.  But, this is mental illness, never forget.  It’s a long trudge forward until the walking becomes second nature.


Doris, Long Beach, CA

“I think I’m a hoarder in a way.”  Yes.  This is accurate.  The inside of Doris’ modest home looks as though several dump trucks backed up to the windows and unloaded.  It’s all disarray, filthy disarray.  There are no working toilets, no pathways to access anything inside, so Doris, a retired grandmother, is living on her sun porch.  Well, within the very small and accessible part of her sun porch. She resorts to water from a hose and a bucket for her bathroom.  This is no way for a person to live.

She has a daughter, Cynthia, who moved back from Hawaii to help care for her, as Doris is becoming quite ill.  Cynthia, however, is beyond frustrated with the hoard.  And more importantly, with the excuses her mother constantly throws out to deflect from the real issue: that Doris continually chooses her things over her family.

We learn that Doris’ husband was an alcoholic.  She was left on her own quite often, and used local garage sales as a way to fill her time and distract herself from her increasing loneliness.  The irony is that now, with her decades of garage sale finds piled to the ceiling, she’s isolated herself from her daughter and her beautiful granddaughter, Celeste.  Celeste wants nothing more than to spend time with her grandma, and is often in tears just in contemplating the state of living Doris has forced herself into.

Any time Celeste spoke about the love she has for her grandma, I just ached for her.  What a beautiful, beautiful soul Celeste is.  (Cynthia should be very proud of the lovely person she’s raised.)

Dr. Mark Pfeffer arrives and listens to Cynthia as she states how angry the hoard makes her.    She believes her mother’s “I’m sick” refrain is simply a cop out, a way to elicit sympathy, which we all know by now can be a way to deflect people from actually talking about the hoard.  Cynthia isn’t having it.

Dorothy Breininger arrives, and yep, Celeste is going to need that sweet, supportive smile Dorothy is known for, says I.  As soon as Doris starts hemming and hawing about what to keep, Dorothy is able to immediately pull a few dead rats out of the hoard.  She asks Doris plainly, “Do you really think you can just wash that cup that a dead rat was in and let your granddaughter drink from it?”

Doris… isn’t sure.  Uh oh.  They sit her down and make her physically throw things into plastic garbage bags.  She needs to make the connection, needs to lay those tracks mentally, that she is capable of doing this, even though it’s stressful and anxiety-inducing.  “It just deeply hurts me.”

Mental illness causes physical pain, too.  I think we often forget that part. An anxiety attack hurts.  It affects your muscles, your heart and lungs, your blood pressure.  The key is to get the person through the other side of that pain to see that it isn’t everlasting.  It’s not really clear that this is happening for Doris at this stage.

Cynthia yells at her mother. “You love that crap more than us!” For a woman who was so deeply lonely, Doris has only made sure that she’s going to continue to be alone–unless she can figure this out, of course.

Mark and Dorothy lay out 53 suitcases Doris has amassed.  Who needs that many? No one.  This is not something theoretical now, she can see the bad decision to continue buying suitcases and the consequences of that bad decision right in front of her.  Celeste seems to be the only person who can really talk to Doris, getting her grandmother to let things go.  I think a lot of Doris’ decisions come from the tight hugs and the kisses to the cheek that Celeste gives her every time she does something healthy.

The crew has a massive setback when it starts pouring down rain (California! Rain! A miracle!), so they have to halt everything to throw up tarps and tents for the cameras and the salvageable items.  This is a terrific time for Mark to get Cynthia and Doris talking about their feelings.

Cynthia’s are all centered around her anger, which is rooted in her feeling hurt and abandoned by her mother.  “My mom is so full of the hoard, there’s no more room in there for the rest of us.”

Doris wants a new start, but Cynthia has a “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude.  I can’t blame Cynthia for it.

Every time Doris makes a good decision, Celeste cheers her on, giving her a hug and a kiss, and a “Good job, Grandma!” and seriously, every single time I just choked up.  That relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is so precious.  I’m just happy for Doris to finally get to experience it.  I think that alone could do wonders for her.

The house gets cleaned as best as it can (there’s visible structural damage, but she can live inside, finally)  and Doris says, “Without you, I would have thought this is the end, I can’t go any further.  But with encouragement, this is what I’ve got.”

Oh my gosh, Celeste performs a traditional hula for her grandmother, ending it with a kiss blown to Doris from both hands, and I’m totally crying again.

After the show

The family was able to celebrate Mother’s Day in Doris’ home for the first time ever.  She has a therapist, but hasn’t made an appointment yet.  May I suggest Celeste goes with you, and the two of you can go out for lunch afterward? Sometimes more carrot, less stick, eh?


T’resa, Annabelle, UT

First off, my family used to hold our family reunions outside of Annabelle–all 300+ of us. The sight of those mountains made me a little homesick. Speaking of being sick in their homes (that was terrible, I know), this is basically the worst situation possible.  T’resa’s home is a death trap.

First, it’s filled to the brim.  It’s filthy, so the air is wretched.  And T’resa is a smoker.  T’resa is on oxygen and is incredibly ill, and yet she still smokes.  Can I explain that oxygen is incredibly flammable? (My papa was a smoker on O2 as well, and would smoke while hooked up to it. It’s maddening.)

But when we first meet T’resa, looking beat down by life, barely able to walk without needing air, her whole face lights up as she says, “I’m a mom.  And I love almost every minute of it.” T’resa has a son Jace, a fantastic boy who stuck it out with her until he was 15, which was when he had to leave the hoard.  He couldn’t deal with his friends having to climb through his window to hang out, only to be turned out of the house for a bathroom trip, not to mention the filth and stink of it.

Jace has never had a stove-cooked meal from his mother, he says.

Rick, T’resa’s brother, confirms that she loves her son, that she would do almost anything for him.  Almost anything.  When T’resa was married to Jace’s father, he ran around on her, drank too much, the whole “bad husband” playbook, and it destroyed her sense of self-esteem, and in her words, she “fell to pieces.”

It’s all so evident when we look inside her home and see all of the burn marks in everything, the trash piled up so badly that when Dr. Chabaud arrives, T’resa can’t bring herself to stand up from where she’s sprawled on her damaged sofa. Dr. Chabaud asks, “You’re in a immoveable place, ready to die?”

She’s very aggressive after this point, until they manage to get her to look at Jace’s room.  Then she’s sorrow-filled and self-hating.  “I couldn’t have loved him more,” she says, then acknowledging that she did him a disservice by letting the house get to where it is.

Hoarders mental illness T'resa,T'resa hoarders Jace mental illness,

The best part about this case is that Cory Chalmers, former firefighter and a paramedic, is on hand.  He’s immediately concerned (as he should be) with the danger that her smoking inside this home presents.  When he holds up a fleece blanket, it literally appears as though it’s been hit at close range with buckshot.  Oh, T’resa…  She starts crying (me, too).  He reiterates that he wants her safe and functional.

I got choked up when Jace hugs her as she nods a yes for them to get started.  What a great boy.  They start working together, mother and son, and my happiness is short-lived.  T’resa’s mental disconnect with the danger her hoard presents is so strong.  She instantly becomes hostile, fighting the crew on anything being thrown away.

We’ve seen this before, the lack of connection made with a hoarder truly being able to move forward, or that is, until they hit their Ah-ha moment. It doesn’t appear that T’resa will have it, but not for the lack of trying on everyone’s part.

Dr. Chabaud: “She can’t see beyond the object and see her son.  That’s why Jace is so angry.”

T’resa, after Cory brings her outside for both fresh air and to better accomplish dragging stuff out, says they’re being mean to her.  Jace responds. “Sorry.  Us ‘nice-ing’ you to death isn’t working.”  He wants his mother in his life so badly. He just needs her to be more functional than she currently is.

Again, Dr. Chabaud has just brilliant, to-the-point insights: “There’s so much pain, and that’s why the house is full.”  T’resa has blocked out anyone from hurting her again with a wall of garbage and random items, even though we can see that she truly wishes she could have a relationship with her son, and he with her.

Cory tries another tactic with forcing her to make decisions, and this is so erudite, I wrote it down and underlined it five times: “Try and see it through the eyes of the person you want to be.”

Be that mother to Jace, the one who has a successful crafting business, the organized, happy woman.  That woman wouldn’t keep a useless Tidy Cat bucket covered in rat piss. But unfortunately, T’resa’s not there mentally.  She’s just not there.

Even worse is that Day 2 starts with Cory having to climb into a window to help T’resa breathe as she struggles, helpless and unwell. It’s a damn good thing for her that he’s a paramedic.  She literally could have died before anyone got to her. This is the real danger of hoarding, something we all know, but wow, did this serve as a hell of a reminder.

He helps her get her breath back, the calendula on her face, the O2 switched to flow, and then she lights up a cigarette.  I just flashed back to my papa smoking from his tracheotomy hole.  Good lord, is nicotine a hell of an addiction.

Dr. Chabaud makes her way into the bathroom to hold T’resa close and beg her, “Please ask us to rescue you from this death trap.”

T’resa, voice shaking from more than just emphysema, says, “Please rescue me from this.”  Dr. Chabaud sighs and rests their foreheads together, their hands linked.  If you don’t get that this show exists to save lives, then you’re not watching the same show I am.

It’s not instantly better, even though we’re all rooting for her.  Her mental illness has deep roots, keeping her from seeing the forest for the trees. After she climbs into the dumpster for a sewing machine she might one day use, Jace holds her by the shoulders and implores, “Mom.  Please choose me over this stuff. Please.

She breaks down, says she’ll always choose him, and lets him pull her from the dumpster. Please remember that hoarding affects whole families.  This wonderful boy is still trying, and he has every reason to have given up.  It’s clearly hurt him for his whole life, but he’s trying.  He just wants a mother. There is a lot of hurt here.

Cory asks her to allow him to toss the “bed,” the sofa that is busted, filthy, partially burned, and host to a family of mice. It’s just unhealthy, full stop.  She agrees, and Jace tells her how proud he is of her, how happy he is.  That gives her a little oomph to keep going.

They get the house cleaned out and Cory hangs a sign: The best things in life aren’t things.  I almost wonder if they had that commissioned just for her, it’s so spot-on.

When she sees the clean and tidy house (and the new sofa Cory & the crew  managed to get her), she goes into a state of shock, shaking and crying, and even does a little dance and shimmy in the kitchen.  “I’m gonna cook you guys something!” I wonder how long it’s been since she’s been able to do that?

She’s grateful, she’s thankful for a safe, proper bed, a place for her son to sit and share a meal with her, and Jace says, “There’s been more growth and progress in the last 24 hours than the last 13 years.”

T’resa tells the crew, “I already feel my life coming back.  My heart is just swelling.” She thanks them all, and gives Cory a hug.

After The Show

T’resa is still smoking.  And hasn’t utilized therapy.  And is frustrated over the loss of her things.  And has strained her newly rediscovered relationship with Jace.

Oh, T’resa.

Show Discussion

It’s so disheartening when we don’t get our happily-ever-after, right?  We want it to always be perfect in the end, but life doesn’t work like that.  Mental illness doesn’t work like that.  I hope T’resa manages to go to therapy (I suspect it’s not easy for her to actually get to a therapist, knowing that isolated area in which she lives). And may I suggest therapy via phone?  There are many who will use the 50 minute appointment that way just to make sure their patient gets a session. Maybe that will make it feel less “therapy”-like and more like she has a sympathetic ear?

The kids in this episode once again gave me hope for the world.  The darling that Celeste was, how ready to love her grandma…  If you’re struggling with hoarding (or anything that has you feeling ashamed of how your loved ones will view you), I implore you to look at how these kids (and the kids all season-long) have been there, supporting and ready to open their arms and hearts. You may hear some hard truths, but you’ll also hear that they still love you, that they’re still here for you.

It could be your future.  See the world through the eyes of the person you want to be.  Make the decisions that person who you’re striving to become would make.  It is possible. And we’re rooting for you.