Hoarders 8.1 – Judy

A&E, I am so glad you learned from your mistakes, dropped the rubbernecking, over-dramatization of seasons 5 and 6, and let the stories (and our awesome crews) take center stage.  This show does real good, everyone on the Hoarders staff wants nothing more than to help people, and I’m just glad it’s back.

hoarders mental illness reality

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Judy, Vancouver, Washington

Judy is a former food service worker and lives in a mobile home alone. It should go without saying that her house is what anyone else would consider inhospitable to human comfort. Our opening shot is a mouse pulling a bit of pasta out of an open container.

There are mice everywhere, and with good reason. The house is a perfect nesting ground with paper and bags and plenty of hidey-holes for them to thrive and breed. Judy can’t bear the thought of them being killed. And now it’s a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” situation where she feeds them.

Judy knows she’s a hoarder, but is also a germaphobe. She wears gloves as she feels there are germs everywhere. She’s not wrong. She may wear gloves on her hands, but she walks barefoot in her home. Judy judges people who appear “dirty” to her; she calls them lowlifes. Um. She feels they are inherently dirty. She covers the places they’ve touched with paper. A “lowlife” gave her a mattress, so now she sleeps in a plastic chair.

There is clearly some psychosis at play here, but we are not privy to what may have caused it. Ultimately, it’s not important for us to know, just that something has triggered this extreme OCD and hoarding. I feel that Judy isn’t self-aware of what this may be, either.

Sherri is her daughter. She doesn’t know how to deal with this, never has. They butt heads and have for many years. As a teenager, if Sherri went anywhere, she’d have to wash her hands and shower immediately upon returning home. As an adult, she knows this isn’t a sign of mental health, but as a teenager, she wasn’t equipped to deal with it. Their relationship is strained, to say the least. She hasn’t been back inside the home in 20 years.

Judy life revolves around with these little OCD chores, wiping her hands, taping paper over places of potential contamination, hand shredding each and every plastic and paper sack on the chance that a note, a coin, something could be trapped in the glued fold. Each paper towel and Kleenex must be checked for something valuable tucked inside. She washes each load of laundry eight times until she feels satisfied that the germs are removed. She’s obsessed with paper and makes lists about the papers she’s keeping. First the pen must be cleaned, her hands must be cleaned again, the paper noted on, the paper taped somewhere, on and on until something else catches her attention.

Her life is exhausting and all-consuming. And it’s incredibly unhealthy. The floor is covered in mouse feces, garbage, and so on. The city has been informed, and it’s make or break time. Renae tries to help, but she’s not equipped to deal with something of this magnitude, either. Renae actually feels that being removed from the home and put into care would be the best for her. Sherri does, too. There are people in place, it’s now a point where we wait to see if Judy will accept the help being offered.

Dr. David Tolin arrives at the mobile home, meeting Sherri first. The smell hits them before they climb the stairs, the smell of rot and decay and feces. But remember that when you’ve lived in those conditions as long as Judy has, your nose no longer picks up on it. Sherri is speechless upon entry. “This is bad.” She begins to cry. This is her childhood home, and it’s no better than a dumpster.

Judy doesn’t want anyone going into one room that she feels is the one clean space. There is no discernible reason why the bagged, tossed items in that one room are the “clean” items, but this is a part of her mental illness, something typical with this level of OCD.

They ask her about the mice. She says she doesn’t want them, but she doesn’t want to kill them. There… aren’t many options, though.

Sherri wants to know how Judy uses the bathroom, but Judy won’t discuss it. It’s clear that she’s using adult diapers and feels ashamed. I’m sure it was a result of Judy being overwhelmed. That was probably an easy solution to an insurmountable problem since no working bathrooms are available. None of this is ideal and all of this is hard.

Cory Chalmers arrives with his SteriClean and 1800-Got Junk crews. Judy is already in severe distress, worried about being exposed, her things mocked, her items she’s deemed special and personal being touched and possibly judged by strangers. Fortunately Cory and Dr. Tolin are professionals with nothing but compassion. It’s just a matter of her understanding and accepting this.

Cory sits down with her and asks for her process on how to throw away paper, how she must see, touch, examine every single item, from the smallest bit to each individual page of newsprint. The very first thing he picks up—an old, tattered sheet of newspaper soaked in mouse urine—is something she wants to keep since it potentially has an article she might find interesting. If everything is precious and must stay, then there will be no point in any of this. Cory, with decades behind him as a firefighter, has seen the devastating results of people who choose to keep a hoard of this magnitude, and how they die in them.

Dr. David says she needs to find courage. There is a fear preventing her from taking an old garbage bag packed with who-knows-what and throwing it in a dumpster. She cannot identify the fear, other than she simply doesn’t know what is inside. Not knowing and losing it would be a devastation. Every pile of trash, every unchecked bag, sack, Kleenex, or paper towel is a potential catastrophe.

Living her life with that hanging over her head must be exhausting.

Dr. Tolin pushes her to express what could be inside the paper, to help them all understand, but it physically hurts her and she cries, rocking in her chair. “Hoarding hijacks your decision-making process.” He encourages her to do things that even though they feel bad, do them because they are right and reasonable. He wants her to use a new part of her brain. It doesn’t go well in the beginning. Judy wants to keep everything. At the end of the first day, there is a box and one bag of garbage on the truck. Three pounds. There are possibly two tons that needs to be removed, mind you.

Cory wants to know why she’s scared, what she’s afraid to lose. She seems to gird up her loins, says she wants to try something different, but before she turns away from the truck, her attention is caught and she begins questioning something on the truck. Oh, dear.

An exterminator arrives and says on a scale of one to ten, this house is an eleven. There are no humane options to remove the mice, unfortunately, and she feels terrible about it. She isn’t a cruel woman, but she has unfortunately made a bad situation worse by allowing them to thrive. They carry disease and it would be unfair to reintroduce them into the population only to become someone else’s problem. Traps, 54 of them, are baited and set. 27 are caught the first night. It’s enough to push on.

Cory has the crew move everything outside (always smart) so that there is fresh air for sorting. Of course, everything is stained and covered in urine and feces, and that’s what she wants to keep. She can clean it, of course. She also has gotten it into her mind that leaving things in the sunshine will sterilize them. Cory has equipment that tests for sterility (shout out to SteriClean!) to prove to our germaphobe that it’s not effective. With his equipment, sterility is evident if the reading is a number less than 40. It comes out at 1158. Her method is not even close to working.

Sherri tells her mother how frightened she is. Judy is still at her pushing back stage and cannot be reasoned with, and Sherri walks off in tears. Dr. Tolin calls a meeting with the family. He’s blunt: “If you don’t change, you will be pulled from the home and put in a facility. So can you be courageous and make brutal decisions to get the opposite result?” She agrees to let people make broad decisions inside the house, but so far it’s lip service.

“This will not get better until you let go.”

Judy says fine, just take it all, throwing in the towel (metaphorically. A real towel she would keep). But Cory knows that’s not the answer. He says he feels like he’s hurting her more than helping her. They halt everything. They want her on board with all of this. They don’t want to traumatize her by cleaning in spite of her. So now the decision becomes to make pathways to functional necessities, the kitchen, the bed, the bathroom. They can’t in good conscious leave without doing at least that much

She still struggles with even that small amount. There are glass bottles she could take back for money, she says, her voice wobbling with unshed tears. Sherri grabs her mother’s hands and begs her to just let Cory clean one pile. He promises her he will go through that one pile for her. In fact, he has to promise her to keep her from falling to pieces again.

Just an eight foot path takes so much work. It’s heartbreaking for everyone involved, but I appreciate the fact that they understood that it would be more damaging for everyone if they pushed Judy beyond what she was capable of handling.

Mental illness doesn’t have a magic pill. It’s a long, slow process, and Judy must be willing to do the work. For now, she isn’t able.

There are still major issues. Dr. Tolin must notify Adult Protective Services so that she is watched over. Judy needs it. She needs so much more, but this is what the doctor is able to do.

“I wish I could have been better,” Judy says, her face the picture of misery. We see Dr. Tolin and Cory hugging her goodbye as the show informs us that she’s begun refilling the cleared spaces since the show was filmed.

A bright spot: the mouse situation is under control, and Judy has a caseworker who will begin monitoring her. In hard, severe cases such as these, we’ll take any bright spot we can.

Judy, Sherri and Kristina, we’re rooting for you all.

Show discussion:

It’s so heartbreaking when for us as viewers it’s so painfully obvious that something must be done, but this serves as a much-needed reminder that there is no easy fix, not when there are years and years of psychosis at hand. My hope is that Judy will be put in elder care so that if she can’t get the mental health care she needs, her health will not continue to fall apart from living in such wretched conditions. And of course, I hope Sherri and Kristen know that they aren’t to blame for any of it, and I admire the hell out of them for doing what they could.  It can’t be easy to be so public about such a private thing.

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