Hoarders 8.5 – Ben and Robin, Kevin

hoarders mental illness reality

[Previous episode]

You’re welcome for not leading off with a “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” joke. There’s definitely a theme in tonight’s episode. Also, reminder to be kind and courteous, and that if you can’t be kind and courteous, you should not be commenting here. [points to the website’s name]

Ben and Robin, West Virginia

Ben and Robin are not hoarders. Well, that’s what Ben says. Robin says that maybe they kinda maybe could be considered hoarders, but it’s only because she doesn’t take time to sort things out. And lord, is there a lot to sort. Stacks of mail and papers, bottles and books and bags of garbage and that’s just surrounding the card table where the two play a game of Scrabble with mismatched tiles.

Amanda, their daughter, doesn’t think they will ever let anything be thrown away. Their son Bill, who we meet when he comes in to visit his parents and hops comfortably on top of a pile of stuff, isn’t quite so sure. This is pretty telling for what we’re going to see this episode and how this family operates.

The viewers see that not only is the kitchen difficult to use because of all the hodgepodge of stuff, it’s filthy. Bill takes things into the bathroom and uses the hottest water available to wash up dishes for them to eat on. The parents see nothing wrong with the state of the kitchen. That’s troubling.

The problem is that Ben and Robin like how they live. That’s… going to be tough.

Ted, their other son, mentions that as farmers, money was always tight for his dad. “As a farmer, it pays to keep stuff around in case you need it,” Ben tells us. Robin says that she had a stroke and that’s when it was hard to keep up with stuff. She says the house was clean for the kids when they grew up, but the kids say it was always cluttered and filthy. Amanda tried to clean the house when she was little, but she was made to feel guilty for doing so, like there was something wrong with being clean. Amanda admits this affected her greatly. She married very young just to get out of there, to have her own place to keep clean. Amanda still has anxiety and PTSD from growing up there.

Ben grew ill five years prior to the show, and while he was healing from surgery, Amanda cleaned the house, burning things. Whoa. When the parents got back from the hospital, they were furious. Ben says, “I growled at them. That’s what I did.”

Robin tells us this was very traumatic for the couple, that her daughter Amanda is a control freak. Amanda believes that her mother simply doesn’t like her. (Oh, Amanda. Your poor heart.) But we all know by now that you can’t just get rid of a hoarders’ things. You can’t. Oh, you want to. It makes sense to get rid of things making them physically ill, but just surprising them with a shock-clean will simply get their hoarding paced up triple time.

Mark Pfeffer arrives to see what he can do. “It’s almost like you have to take on a persona of total radical acceptance to live in that environment.” He also comments on the love affair between these two elderly folks. They love each other, they defend one another, and while there is something sweet in having a relationship that has persevered through so much, it’s also incredibly co-dependent. They feed into one another’s hoarding.

The denial to the severity of their living conditions is off the charts. But Mark explains that it’s essential for a hoarder to develop this level of denial in order to enable yourself to live in this unlivable environment. It’s a house of cards they’re building for themselves, and it’s very likely that it can all come crashing down around them. Not metaphorically, mind you.

“Hoarders have to not notice,” he continues, and thank you, A&E for allowing the specialists to really talk about the disorder. “If they did, [their living conditions] would be intolerable.” This is survivalism, is what it is.

Steri-Clean arrives with Cory Chalmers at the helm. It’s a great match as Cory’s background as a firefighter with emergency medical training could possibly serve as a selling point to Ben and Robin. He’s seen far too many times the effects of hoarding left unchecked. He meets Amanda, who hasn’t been inside in 15 years. She was counseled earlier by Mark to help brace her for what her childhood home has become. She immediately begins to cry when she steps inside.

“It just makes me sad for them.”

Mark holds a family meeting and asks Ben and Robin if they would agree that they’re not in the best of health. They do. Cory then wants a percentage of how much they’re willing to let go. Robin easily says 30%. Cory is incredibly skeptical because he can see they’re happy in their mess. Plus, this still leaves them with 70% of a massive hoard.

The camera catches Ben hiding things in his car.

The crew brings out snow shovels and start at the visible garbage as Ted, the older son, arrives late and takes umbrage to how Amanda is throwing things away. Uh oh. “What my parents want is the most important thing,” he tells the camera.

No hyperbole, Ted, but is it more important than their lives? We’re literally talking about lives at stake. It is almost certain that this couple will die in that hoard, either by succumbing to poor health, or simply because help couldn’t get to them.

The brothers have a game of mouse—they’re actually picking up the dead mice revealed as the hoard is cleared and throwing them at each other. Now, I have a black sense of humor, and I get gallows humor. I really do. But I’m getting the feeling that these guys aren’t appreciating how bad it is that there are dead mice everywhere. Please go look at Hantavirus and the mortality rate and get back to me. (Sorry, I’m writing a book about deadly viruses right now and I’m very concerned for people and their hygiene and just please wash your hands and cough into your elbow and don’t get Ebola, please and thank you.)

On Day Two, Ben and Robin put their feet down on anyone entering their bedroom, but the problem is that it must be addressed for the house to be functional and safe. In the meantime, Cory gets Ben in the kitchen, trying to understand why Ben would keep multiple filthy bowls that have the potential of serving as a spoon rest.

Well, he could wash them… (Yes, but you don’t.) Mark says he must prioritize and rationalize why those must be kept. Ben can’t see why, so he allows them to be tossed. Good job!

As more things are removed, Amanda sees how unlivable the house has become. She even offers to cover their monthly rent in an apartment if they would just take her up on it.

Ben won’t do it. “It may not be for you, but I’m going to live here for the rest of my life.”

“You’re living in a fantasy world,” Amanda says, clearly exasperated.

The boys think that her pushing is going to ruin her relationship with their dad. But if Amanda doesn’t push, then nothing will get done. Even Cory agrees.

Ben and Robin are put to work outside on their massive “keep” piles, and as Amanda tries to push them to throw away moldy books, Ted grows angry again. In his eyes, Amanda is being very disrespectful to their parents. Mark pulls him aside to vent, and boy, does Ted take Mark up on it. He doesn’t think much of his sister.

(…even though his sister gives him money when he needs it. He claims she only does it to make herself look good. He took the money, though, yes, he did. This is not logic I understand, if I’m being honest.)

Mark tells us that children of hoarders often don’t get along, because they have to develop their own coping skills—raising themselves, essentially—and those coping skills don’t always line up. This isn’t anything I’d considered before, and I’m fascinated by it. It makes perfect sense. Someone is doing something that isn’t your methodology, and on some level, that’s a threat to you.

The ability for this family to heal is not looking good.

The group confronts Ben and Robin once more about the bedroom. The crew is allowed to look in it, but not remove anything. Cory does what he can to make it accessible to paramedics, so that’s something, at least. The kitchen is cleaned, the living room is tidy, but the family’s foundation (and the home’s) is severely cracked.

The parents want to die in that house, so what can anyone actually do? Turns out, very little.

They refuse aftercare funds for therapy, but do accept help in the form of cleaning the house, and given their poor health, that’s a blessing.

Sometimes we just have to take those tiny positives and move on, unfortunately.


Kevin, Albuquerque

Kevin, 54, tells us, “I just live my life as a single, successful guy.” See, he’s not a hoarder, because hoarders only keep things that aren’t useable or haven’t been touched in a long time. (Bonus points to the editing staff for cutting to images of garbage, empty bottles, and opened mail lying about.) What Kevin has is a “creative mess”.

Kevin looks to be in terrible physical health, and the hoard is not helping him recover. He has a disability that is affecting his ability to walk, painful looking ulcerations on his legs, and struggles to move about let alone move through the hoard.

Debbie and Janell are his sisters. They say there is no question he’s a hoarders. The house is beyond filthy. It smells like a “gas station bathroom.” Bags of used adult diapers are sitting in the living room right next to where he eats and spends the day.

Kevin says, “It just shames me.” And this is why so many people don’t seek help. Shame is a hell of a thing, a prison, really, trapping us in bad or destructive behavior and thinking because of our fear of judgment.

So that’s a perfect segue into me reminding you not to mock or be derogatory about these folks. It’s incredibly brave to air their dirty laundry (okay, no pun was intended) and put themselves in the public eye like this. Let’s listen and see what we can learn from Kevin and this situation.

Janell asked once why the house was like this, and Kevin told them that he liked it. I… Well, what can you do with that? (There’s definitely a theme with both stories tonight.)

As his disease progressed, he’s come to realize that things are maybe a little beyond his ability to control. Well, yes. On top of his other issues, he developed congestive heart failure, his heart  only working at about 25% capacity. His edema was so bad that when they drained the excess fluid from his body, it was 80 pounds. Oh, dear lord, that’s terrifying. Even more so to his sisters is the thought of him returning to his house to complete his physical therapy and home health care.

His house could easily be condemned, so he’s staying in a hotel in order to prevent the home health care nurses from reporting him to APS. It’s expensive, and a solution needs to come about.

Dr. Suzanne Chabaud arrives to meet Joan, Kevin’s mother, who hasn’t been inside for 20 years. She prepares Joan for what she’s about to see, who is gobsmacked when she finally goes inside. “It looks like a trash dump. How can anybody live like this?” She begins to cry, wringing her hands. “His life shouldn’t be this bad.”

Kevin hangs his head and apologizes, which breaks her heart further. The shame is palpable. This, as I state every episode, is mental illness unchecked. No mother wants to see their child living in filth, and I think most children want to make their parents proud. It’s heartbreaking to see the shame and sorrow from the both of them.

Dr. Chabaud is worried that Kevin is going to shut down and let the women in his family push him around, which won’t help in the long run. This has to be Kevin’s decision. This must be him in the driver’s seat.

1-800-Got Junk and Dorothy Breininger are on the scene with sympathy and determination to see the job done. Kevin starts making good decisions right off the bat, almost outpacing the workers, and… then we learn why. He asks for his family to give him a moment with Dorothy in private. He has certain items he doesn’t want them to know about. And his sisters are not okay with things he’s hiding.

Um. Ladies? Take a knee. I appreciate that you’re coming from a place of love. Everybody deserves privacy with some things. They just do. Now, it would have been better for Kevin to say to his family, “I have private things that aren’t your business. I have a professional right by my side handling them. I need you to be accepting of that.”

But of course, that’s not how people typically work. We want to know. We do. Also, I don’t believe that’s how Kevin actually operates. His… interests are making sense to me, now. (Read on.)

Kevin is now panicking about his family moving inside and clearing things. He states very clearly that he’s not okay with it, that he would prefer the professional crews to do it, but the cat’s out of the bag. (Not a literal cat, ha.) Debbie spies the “hard core pornography”, and to up the ante, it’s right by not one, but two Bibles. (I’m sorry. I had to laugh a bit because it’s funny to me, the outrage at the porn’s nearness to the Bible. Bigger fish to fry here, folks!)

In a nutshell, Kevin has a massive porn collection, and it’s not just the behind-the-counter magazines. It’s specialty pornography, to put it lightly.

For Day Two, Dorothy takes the sisters and crews upstairs, prepared now for dirty magazines but instead find boxes of garter belts. The sisters are shocked, worried their brother might be a cross-dresser.

If I may. There is nothing to be alarmed about. Cross-dressers have no intent of harming others, and it is not harmful for them to wear particular items of clothing. There is nothing wrong with an article of clothing, and they are not gendered. As Eddie Izzard so wisely put it, “It’s not a girl’s dress, it’s my dress. I bought it.”

They also find S&M gear, sex toys, and other fetish items. Janell is mad, but I’m frustrated with her for her rage and judgment, something that usually drives people with paraphilic issues (such as cross-dressing and fetishism) into secrecy: the fear of judgment and rejection. It may not be your cup of tea (it’s not mine) but come on. There’s a multi-million dollar industry based off a series of books (50 Shades) that deal with this very thing. Every damn soccer mom in the USA read those books.

…okay, every damn soccer mom didn’t buy gimp-masks and cat-o-nine-tails, so I’m in over my head. Carry on, doctors.

It does appear, however, that Kevin maybe was ready for his family to find his secret. Well, that’s a pretty passive-aggressive way to go about it. Debbie brings a bag down to Kevin and confronts him. She says that she would have appreciated a head’s up, and I can certainly appreciate that. It’s not that she’s judging him, it’s that she just doesn’t want to stumble on that sort of thing, and I get it. That’s perfectly reasonable. It’s her brother and it’s not really her business, and she probably doesn’t want to think of her brother… utilizing those items. This is perfectly reasonable.

And she really doesn’t like the fact that she found this out with a film crew. That’s a good point.

Dr. Chabaud says this is maybe an act of aggression. He’s pretty cow-towed by his sisters and their rage. He does make a point of apologizing to them, pointing out that “with all the love and all the care” they’ve shown him over the years, “it’s inexcusable.” The sisters wonder if he actually means it. He says he does.

Day Three, and the house is getting seriously clean. He’s blown away (so am I, honestly). The sisters are positively sobbing and thanking the crew. How lovely! They all want to come see him and visit him and love him, and I think he needs just that. Debbie cries, “I’m so happy for you. I’m thrilled.”

I’m glad things seem to be better between them.

“As much as I hated yesterday, I loved today.”

Kevin is seeing a therapist, he’s dedicated to improving his relationship with his sisters, and a neighbor is helping him organize the rest of his things. Aww, that’s great to hear.

Show Discussion

Well, this was certainly a first for the show, I believe! Little eye-opening for some viewers, I imagine. But for me, I’m talking away from Kevin’s story how desperate he must have been to find acceptance from the women in his family, yet afraid to seek it. Hopefully this is something he’s addressing for his own sense of well-being.

I want to commend the show for allowing Mark Pfeffer to talk more about the mindset of the hoarder, furthering our understanding (and ultimately, our compassion) of this particular mental illness. They’ve been doing more of this throughout the season, and I think it’s a brilliant idea. And as always, I like the focus on the organizers making the house safe for paramedics and emergency personnel, never letting us forget how dangerous it is to live in these conditions.

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.

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