Hoarders 8.4 – Ruby, Mary

hoarders mental illness reality

[Previously on Hoarders]

Tonight we focus on the effect hoarding has on children, both young and in their developmental stages and as teens who have grown up in chaos.

Ruby, Long Beach, CA

“I think I’m the worst kind of hoarder.”

Ruby has to slither through the narrow canyons carved by her body through the ceiling-high piles of food, boxes, bags, forgotten purchases, shoes, anything you can imagine.

“Everybody calls me Momma.” Ruby adopted her great-grandchildren Jessica and Jeremy when they were babies and raised them. Jeremy says he only remembers living in a hoard, but the last five years have been especially bad.

Lorraine is Ruby’s daughter who stepped in and started taking over her finances. “Thrift stores were getting all of Momma’s money. She’s out of control.” Ruby loves how she feels when she shops. When she buys a fake plant for a steal, “it feels good.” She then comes home and shoves it on the pile. The good feeling dissipates, so she’ll have to go shopping for another rush. It’s a vicious cycle.

Now, the hoard is pushing her out of the house. She spends the day in her car sitting in the front seat reading, eating, chatting on the phone. She has a home just a few feet away, but she lives in her car. That’s where people come visit her. (And of course the car is getting full.) The house is so full that Lorraine stepped inside and immediately was struck with vertigo. It’s overpowering is what we’re getting at.

Five years before, Ruby’s grandson Christopher was arrested, sending her into an even bigger spiral of shopping and hoarding. With a grandson in jail, and now with Jeremy getting to an age where he would rather be anywhere but in that home, there’s a fear that Jeremy could get mixed up with the wrong people and follow in Christopher’s footsteps. (He seems like a good kid to me? Just frustrated?)

Lorraine is ready to call APS because it’s becoming dire. Ruby is miserable. The family is miserable. The house is not a home, and this family needs a home. It used to be a home. It used to be clean, everything wrapped in plastic. Now… well, Lorraine and her sister Jamie are about to see what it’s become.

Buddhist-Kewpie doll Dr. Melva Green (please do yourself a favor and follow her Facebook page for laughs and enlightenment) arrives, and again, this show does a bang-up job on matching personalities who will work well together. The girls, once they’ve entered the hoard, are shocked. Anyone would be.

“It’s not that bad,” Ruby says.

The girls look at her with their mouths open. “What happened to the house we grew up in?”

“I tried to clean it, but it won’t let me.” Oh, Ruby. I think that right there must be something all hoarders can identify with at some point. Well, god bless, and let’s get these folks loving on you so you can get some relief.

(I’ll have you know I write these as I watch, so you’re getting unfiltered hopes. I really hope there’s no back-sliding, because Jackie from the episode prior hurt my heart.)

Dr. Green says that calling the hoard “it” isolates her from responsibility. I… hadn’t thought of that.

The girls are crying, beside themselves over the state of their mother’s life.

Dorothy Breininger—and of course it’s her, because there’s a child who wants to be heard!—arrives with the 1-800 Got Junk? trucks, ready to be a smiling wrecking ball of Midwestern Can-Do attitude blasting through that mess. (You’re looking lovely, by the way! Her pro-FB page is also full of goodies.)

“We want to get this done because it matters. You matter,” Dorothy tells both Jeremy and Ruby as the crew begins to pull everything outside. It’s a huge crew, and it’s needed. The first thing for Ruby to decide is trash was brought out by the family. Will she let it go?

“Oh, no y’all didn’t! You know how much stamps cost?”

She sees value in everything, and the family calls her out on having said earlier that she said she was going to accept help.

“Okay. I lied.”

She saw a few things that weren’t totally garbage in her opinion, so now she won’t trust any family members to make sweeping decisions. Now she must search everything. This is no small home, and this is no small hoard. To do what Ruby wants will take months. She has days. She’s fighting everyone at every point. Everything can be washed, everything can be salvaged. There aren’t enough days in a person’s life to wear all the clothes she has, carry every purse she owns, wash every towel she wants to keep. There is just. Too. Much. Stuff.

“Don’t let them take me from you,” she says the items are saying to her. Well, that doesn’t sound good.

The girls ask her to please donate clothing without having to check everything. Dr. Green points out that Ruby’s way means the house will remain full, and the crew will leave. Jamie says Ruby is being selfish. With tears, Jamie says, “I have always admired the strength you’ve had; can you have the strength today to get this stuff out of the house?”

Jamie? I just adore you. What beautiful people Ruby has raised. “You don’t need it. You’re saying that you don’t want me to come see you.”

And this is how children of hoarders feel, if they are six, sixteen or sixty. Your things mean more to you than I do. And for a child to feel unvalued by their parents, why, that’s about as damaging and isolating as it gets. That’s why the show involves families. That’s why this show makes a point of offering care to the children, because they need it, too.

Dorothy takes Jeremy into the house and let’s him take over his own space for the first time. Dorothy wants him to have a space to become a man, and I just love everyone here, okay? He is so clearly pleased by being treated like a person who matters, and Jeremy, you are just a good guy, and I want good things for you.

Dr. Green quietly tells Ruby everything doesn’t need to be a power struggle. “You’re going to mess up. I’m just letting you know,” she says as Ruby looks off in the middle distance and nods. Dorothy then says to let things go. Ruby sees a coat she loved and pulls it to her lap.

Dr. Melva gets smart and has the organizers lay everything out end to end. It covers the entire block. Well, that’s eye-opening for Ruby. Then enough stuff is pulled out that the rats start coming out, and Lorraine is ready to drop an A-bomb on everything. The fog is moving out of Ruby’s brain, she says. Oh, she has to let things go. She gets it, now. Whew! Jeremy wraps his arms around Ruby and says how proud he is of her, and seriously, this is a good kid. Jeremy! You’re a good boy!

Holy smokes, after the cleaning crews come through, it’s a whole new world. It’s lovely. Just lovely. It’s a space the whole family can enjoy, and Jeremy is stoked about his cool teen pad. He immediately says, “I’m coming home. I want to kick back at the house.” He is beside himself with happiness. Everyone is.

(Did I mention I love this family? Because I love this family.)

Wow, this is a heck of a transformation. Jeremy is so happy in his space, Ruby is, the girls are, we all are. Dr. Green and Dorothy, what an amazing job. Ruby! This is because you made good decisions. I’m so proud of this family.

Mary, Napa, CA

To say the house is a mess is an insult to messes. There is just nowhere that is clear. The kids have to shove things around to have enough carpet space to play. Mary, her two children and husband Mike all share the same bed because there’s nowhere else for the kids to go, and by this age, children simply need space of their own. The kitchen is non-functional, so Mary goes to her mother’s home next door to cook and do laundry. That’s convenient. (And enabling.)

We see Mary’s young son, Michael (maybe six? seven?) trying to push things out of the way just to open the fridge door. “I wish the house was clean. I think there are monsters in the pile and they’ll just jump out and scare me.”

Mike says things were just fine until they moved to Napa when Mary’s beloved grandmother died and Mary inherited her home. Mary still cries now thinking of losing this pivotal individual. Mary knows this was the trigger. Her fear of losing those she loves means she can’t throw away a doll Michael held when he was three. She can’t throw away a filthy dinner tray her daughter used. It’s like throwing away her children, and she loves her children. (She does.)

First, it was very difficult to even have children. They had to go through the arduous process of getting a surrogate, and years later, had their son. Michael, loved though he is, isn’t growing up in a healthy environment. No playdates, no social life, nothing normal for a child his age, because what if someone calls CPS? She’s terrified at the thought of losing children who are so precious to her.

Karen, her sister, and Karen’s daughter Angie live next door. Angie says, “I don’t understand how she can let the kids live in that situation.” Short answer: Mary has a mental health issue. She can’t see how unhealthy it is. She’s rationalized having that clear two feet of floor space as proof she’s providing for her children. She’s doing it on the show this very moment as I watch.

“They’ve always been safe.”

Well, there aren’t bears in the house nor are there landmines, but I don’t think you can call those potential avalanches of rubbish “safe”. She does not believe the health of her children have ever been in danger.

Napa had an earthquake last year, and Mary says the house was affected. Everything fell, gas poured out, and they couldn’t leave the house. (And we all say, “Mary. This is the very definition of unsafe.”) It might be time to call in CPS. This is very sad.

“I love my children more than anything else on this earth. But, I’m scared CPS will take my children away.” Look. I’m a mother. I’m a mother hen, too. Any child in my hugging range gets tucked under my feathers. I do not doubt for one minute that Mary loves her children, that she would put herself in front of a moving car for them, that she has dreams and wishes for their futures, that holding their hands fills her with love. I don’t doubt that.

But she’s unable to see that the inexorable hoard she’s allowed to accumulate of the years is a real and present danger for these children who she loves so dearly. It’s going to take someone with extreme kindness yet steel in their spine to get through to her.

And like my wishes have been granted, the unbelievably wonderful Dr. Michael Tompkins—the gentlest of all the doctors on the show and who literally wrote the book on compulsive disorders such as hoarding—arrives.

Look. Don’t make this weird, but I think the man must give the most wonderful hugs. If you could heal a person just by being present and kind, he’d be the guy to get a gold medal in it. (I just really love this show, okay?)

Dr. Tompkins takes the family through the house for the first time since 1989. It… doesn’t look like it did when their grandmother was there. Karen immediately begins to cry. Mary pushes back against the idea that this is damaging her children. I assume that by her sister saying it is, it’s challenging Mary’s love and care for her children. Well, we’re not challenging your love, Mary. Just the caregiving. Fortunately, if you’re willing, that’s something that can be addressed and improved.

Dr. Tompkins is immediately concerned for the children’s safety. The earthquake factor plus the threat of fire means he must call CPS if this isn’t addressed. Calmly and quietly he explains to Mary, “This is not a threat, just a fact that I must call CPS if we cannot resolve this.” She cries and states that the things in the house aren’t as important as her children.

I hope for this family’s sake that proves to be true.

Matt Paxton and the Service Master Clean crews arrive, and knowing Matt’s the father of three young boys, he’s going to take the care of these children to heart. Michael raises his hand and says he wants to get started right away.

Little Michael makes some good plans: “I want to throw this stuff away. And then I want it swept. And then I want to get back to work.” Ahaha! I love this kid.

Matt says with a grin, “Michael is hands-down the best worker I’ve ever seen.” Everyone is getting motivated by little Michael’s energy (even though we’re sad that it’s because he’s getting to clean his house).

As the hoard is reduced, it’s clear that Mary has a compulsive shopping issue. “Consumption is a serious addiction for her. When UPS shows up when my crew is here,” Matt says, “that is just like someone taking heroin during an AA meeting.”

The shopping issue needs to be addressed. Dr. Tompkins asks her if she thinks she’s a good mom.

“I’m a great mom.”

“Then why do you have to prove it with stuff?” he counters. “Do they have a college fund? Rainy day fund? This is not sustainable. You are squandering their future.”

It’s clearly a sobering thought for both parents. Please remember that people in the grip of a mental illness this strong are living moment to moment, barely even day to day. They’re not able to see the big picture because there’s no view beyond the pile in front of their face. That’s why it’s crucial to get the hoard out of the way while addressing these issues.

With time running out, Matt and the crew point out how little they’ve managed to do. If they don’t do this to the end, these kids will be removed from their family. It’s serious. On Day Two, Matt tells the kids to go pick out five toys, and only five toys to keep. And something I love (and mentioned in the last episode), Matt explains that the toys they’re not picking are going to go to other kids and make them really happy.

Can this be a thing we promote more? Only for the actually usable items, obviously, nothing with mold or cat urine. But can we help our friends who are hanging on to things by pointing out that they can spread love by sharing that toy with someone who could use it? Someone else might delight in that coat, that lamp, those books.

(And remember that there are places like women’s shelters who truly could use things like children’s clothing and toys, gently used adult clothes and household goods to help people who have fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Those items could be a real boon to someone. They will appreciate the value the hoarder saw in it all along. I don’t know if this is enabling thought processes or not, come to think of it. Thoughts?)

So the kids happily give away 80% of their stuff. Mary immediately sabotages this by saying that maybe the kids will still want these things. But Mary, they don’t. They chose. Mary’s husband Mike says, “Yeah, but how many dolls do they need?”

Mike clearly doesn’t like conflict, but this is a situation where he’s going to need to stand up to her. Mary wants to keep everything related to the kids. “There could be…”

Matt interrupts, “There could be. And you could lose your kids.” That’s the harsh reality Mary is refusing to face.

The family has hit a wall with her. “What’s more important? Some stuff and your kids?” Matt is working husband Mike in order to get him to confront Mary. (So smart. And so necessary for Mike to unlearn bad habits.)

Mike tells Mary that everything else just needs to go. She’s shocked and confused by this, because she’s almost done with a small pile outside. Well, that’s 1/20th of the hoard. He’s putting his kids first. “I’ve been passive for years. But I’m not going to lose my kids. It’s not going to happen.” Go, Mike! That’s wonderful. Hard, I’m sure, but wonderful.

Matt pushes Mary to donate a pile of clothing, but Mary must look through it. Matt looks at Dr. Tompkins, who is looking grim. Oh man, how is this going to go?

Mary tearfully allows things to just be taken so they can keep the kids in the house. The last day has Mary tackling things with renewed vigor and urgency. Mary, I’m proud of you. It’s clear this wasn’t easy, but that was the right decision. Once clean, we have another amazing transformation. The house looks like it appeared from somewhere else. It’s clear everywhere. It’s … I’m amazed. What a hell of an effort by everyone. What tender, wonderful folks, and now they get to be a proper family.

After the show:

Ruby is struggling with the loss of her things (which is understandable) but fortunately is seeing an OCD therapist and a life coach. The family is still watching over Jeremy, hoping he makes good decisions, so Jeremy, go to school and eat your veggies. Signed, a mother who wants good things for you. :)

Mary’s kids have been inviting friends over, keeping their things tidy, and I just want to cuddle those precious little beans. Mary is seeing a therapist, and I want nothing but good things for both of these families. So much work, and our Hoarders teams just knocked both issues out of the park. Great work.

So tell me your thoughts on how to approach the idea of encouraging donations to others. Does this enable the hoarding mindset that everything is valuable (when we know it isn’t)? Or is this a way to break through? I’d love your insight.

You can watch all episodes of Season 8 (and 1-6) on A&E.com, as well as On Demand through your local cable provider.

The next episode is here.