Hoarders 8.10 – Kathy, Elmira

hoarders mental illness reality

Two families with hurting children amongst the hoard, but the hurts are for vastly different reasons. It serves as a reminder that until those hurts are addressed, not even these massive hoards are enough to smother them for good.

Kathy, Great Falls, Montana

Kathy is the mother of fourteen children.  With regards to her house, she says, “It’s like an accumulation of the forty-some-odd years I’ve lived in this house.” It’s a labyrinth of clutter, garbage, boxes, shoe-horned living space, and there are multiple floors of this, not to mention the dance studio and apartments she owns next door. If she could get the two apartments and the dance studio below them cleaned up and rented out, she would be able to have enough funds to support herself in retirement.

The older kids grew up with relative order, save a “catch-all” room that is honestly pretty common in large families. But when Kathy’s third son, Mike, was killed in a car wreck when he was a young man, everything began to spin out of control. Sam is her 13th child. He’s mostly grown up in the hoard, and tells us that beyond the hoarding, Kathy also has a wicked temper. Verbal and physical abuse were common ways she would express her anger. Sarah endured enough trauma while growing up to develop what was once called multiple-personality disorder, but now is more correctly called Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Kathy admits to the abuse. All of her children have suffered at her hands, but as Sarah says, “She’s sick. I can’t hate her because she’s sick.” What a good person, my word. That’s some astounding forgiveness, right there.

Dr. David Tolin is here, and again, I’m always so impressed with the matching done between doctors, organizers, and the clients. He’s going to be great not only for Kathy (and is someone who can stand up to her in a way that will still evoke compassion) but especially for the kids. There are a lot of past trauma and buried hurts that will need to be addressed for this to have any measure of success.

Another great pairing, and you should have seen this one coming, is Dorothy Breininger, who will make sure the children’s voices are heard. (Doesn’t matter if the kids are young or old, she always makes sure hoarder’s kids get their say.) She’s blown away by the sheer volume of family who have come to help. Given the size of this hoard and the number of locations, it’s pretty fortunate.

A fascinating moment (meaning, as a viewer. I can’t imagine it was anything short of awful for the family) happened when one of the children uncovered rotten food whose smell quickly filled the entire space. The kids all cringed and dry heaved, seeming to shrink in on themselves. Dorothy had them explain what they were smelling, and I wondered if this was the first time they were able to vocalize their disgust and unhappiness in their mother’s earshot without fear of retribution. (See what I mean about the good Dorothy does?)

Kathy isn’t dealing well on her own. She’s letting her kids make the decisions, but as Dr. Tolin states, “They’re not always going to be here.” And the point is for her to unlearn her current behaviors. He takes her outside to address the frankly shocking amount of garbage that’s been pulled from just one apartment and the dance studio. It stretches all the way down the long drive, a good four or five feet high and wide.

Of course, she cannot bear to let some mangled old tutus go from the pile. We’ve seen this before with grief hoarders (if that is indeed what she is), where they couldn’t hang on to the person they lost, so they’ll hang onto everything else. Boy, did she ever.

Day Two has another child there (making 10 present!) to support Kathy, and gosh, they all get to work like it’s their job; these are some dedicated family members. Kathy is set up to sort through some of the outside piles, makes some really good decisions, then turns on a dime wanting to keep the most inane objects.

The children are inside cleaning, and as the junk is pulled out, it’s not unlike a tide rolling out where a shipwreck is revealed. April breaks down at the memories of having been abused, causing a ripple-effect of sorrow through the other siblings. They have each other in group hugs, rubbing each other’s backs as they sob, and it’s just awful. Their hurt and agony is a flashing neon sign that Kathy cannot see. She’s too focused on her own sadness at being made to throw away bug-filled wigs and dance paraphernalia.

“It’s hard to let go of some things,” she sighs.

“Do you feel beaten up?” Dorothy asks, and oh my god. Setting up those dominos, Dorothy.


Dorothy narrows her eyes. “Am I talking too sharply?”

I know I try to be neutral, I try to be respectful, but you all need to know that I paused my screen and stood up, clapping when I could see where Dorothy was leading Kathy. And apologies to my neighbors for shouting out, “YES. PUSH THAT, DOROTHY.” Sarah, overhearing this exchange, clearly understands the point Dorothy is trying to make and becomes so frustrated she leaves to cool off.

Dorothy gets the whole family upstairs and has them push it into overdrive. The room essentially has to be clean in an hour. They miraculously do it, and it’s because of these amazing kids and grandkids. Can Kathy appreciate this? Sarah finally has to say to Kathy, “We all talk about it, but not to you. It was hard growing up. And even to this day, you haven’t ever said, ‘I’m sorry for the way I’ve treated you.’ I would like an apology.”

“Well, let me say not only to you, Sarah, but to everyone I do apologize for the way that you were treated. I do apologize for that.” Sarah pulls her into a hug.

She then says to April, “I apologize, April,” who then pulls her mom into a hug, telling her how much she appreciates it, even as she cries.

(Me, too!)

Sarah says, “I didn’t know how to ask for that.” I think it was also getting Kathy into a place where she could hear what her children were asking. Kathy goes to each and every one of her kids, apologizing to them, and they all hug her and it’s just marvelous, not only that Kathy can get to where she knows she must apologize, but that her amazing children will forgive her. Even Dr. Tolin is shocked by this astounding turn of events.

…do I need to say that Day Three is fast-paced and awesome? Because it is. And Kathy is doing a lot of the work on her own.

All of it gets cleared out. All of it. It’s a mind blowing transformation, from the apartments to the studio to the family home, one that is filled with children who have been through hell and back, standing there with smiles on their face and love for the woman Kathy can be.

After the show

Kathy has kept the house clean, her family is there supporting her, and the apartments will be on the market by next month. Whew! That was a massive job, and I’m still so impressed they managed to get it done.


Elmira, Chesapeake, Virginia

Mira knows she’s a hoarder. She calls the piles of utter garbage in her house “clutter,” but she at least knows it’s not good. Mira has an obsession with shopping and wants to be at her best in public. Her daughter Maria says she’s never seen her mother wear anything twice. Wow. I just… Whoa. When you look at the piles and piles of clothes everywhere, it’s pretty believable.

Sue Ann, her sister, has never been inside. The rest of the family hasn’t been inside for over 15 years. Mira recently had a stroke, and when her step daughter Missy brought her home from the hospital, the secret was out. More than just clothes and trash, there are filled impromptu ashtrays on almost every visible surface. To give you an idea of how full they are, the cigarette butts are almost like a tight, floral bouquet, although I’m sure incredibly unpleasant to smell. And they’re everywhere.

Maria, who is wearing a neck brace after some pretty heavy-duty surgery to remove tumors from her brain stem, usually has to get information about her mother from Mira’s stepdaughter, Missy. The favoritism rankles her greatly (and I can certainly understand that). Maria was raised by her godparents until she was 11. Even SueAnn finds this distressing.

Missy’s father, Malcolm, was the chief of police in their small town. He ran around on Mira, then left her for the minister’s wife. (What?? That is some dirty… Okay, not the point. I promise to focus.) It devastated her. This was evidently a huge trigger for her hoarding’s escalation. Now Code Enforcement is in on this with threats of the house being condemned. Time is running out to get it cleaned.

Dr. Robin Zasio meets with the family. Sue Ann almost breaks down immediately. “All you had to do is call me,” she says. And while that’s lovely and so important to have that familial support, Mira says in a quiet, flat voice, “I didn’t have the energy to call.” To call means to explain. To explain means to defend. To defend means to be shamed. And to be shamed means to be left.

And what do we know was the trigger for all of this?

It’s not that it needs to be logical to you or to me, it’s to understand that this is how a hoarder thinks. This is the multi-step process their brains (often) go through in order to justify living the way they do. To ignore is just the one step. The other? Too much work and with a pretty uncertain outcome. Best to just stick to the one step.

Maria isn’t ready to understand the hoarding mindset yet. There are a lot of hurts in her still to be addressed.

Matt Paxton and the Service Master crew show up, and he tells Mira that they’re all here because her family doesn’t want her living like this. Mira immediately breaks down into tears. Sue Ann pulls her into her arms and tells Dr. Zasio not to ask Mira any questions.


Mira might not be the stumbling block here.

Pretty quickly into the cleanup, Matt finds mice and poop, which sends Mira into another bout of shame and crying. This is clearly very difficult for her to share publicly, and this serves as another reminder of why we as viewers need to be respectful of how brave it is for these folks to share their incredibly personal experiences in the hopes of connecting with someone who needs to see themselves, a family member or loved one. This cannot be easy to let happen, even if you know the end result will be a better life for you.

Maria tells her that she is here despite her own pain because she loves her mother. She wants a better life for her mother, but Mira is going to have to find some inner steel to get herself through this process. Dr. Zasio knows that Mira is a woman of deep faith, so they take a moment to pray for Mira to have the strength to get it done. It definitely pulls Mira back from the edge of her overwhelming shame.

Mira starts to make some great choices outside until Sue Ann and Maria get into it. Sue Ann goes straight to ten, pulling a knife out of her bag.

…did y’all think I was lying about going to ten?

Dr. Zasio, with her perfect ponytail and flutter-sleeve blouse, calmly walks over to Matt and mentions that there’s a safety issue. Yeah. He takes it upon himself to address the family. (I think that’s wise because of the way Sue Ann cut the doctor off in the very beginning. It’s important that Sue Ann hears what needs to be done without being on the defense.)

Day Two and no Sue Ann. She took herself out of the picture, and as Matt says, “Sometimes the best way to show support for someone is from a distance.” She wasn’t helping matters being there, but she clearly loves and cares for her sister. That was a great choice on her part.

Matt takes her by the hand and leads her into a room where they’ve left several of the overflowing ashtrays. As Dr. Zasio says, “You were one puff away from this whole house going up in flames.”

Matt takes it a step further: “This is not who you are. Say goodbye.”

Mira nods, a few tears on her cheeks (huge improvement from her overwhelming sorrow of the day before), and says, “Goodbye.” That couldn’t have been easy, but here’s to hoping she felt a huge burden off her shoulders. The crew gets back to work.

The kitchen has to be addressed and by the Code Enforcement officer. “With all the oil everywhere, this is a huge fire hazard.” Mira nods even though she’s visibly overwhelmed. Everyone grabs a bag and starts clearing out some of the mess, but Mira can’t make it for too long. The more things are cleared, the more she can’t hide from her hurts and past. Dr. Zasio, after Maria offers encouragement, says, “You’ve raised two amazing daughters.”

Maria bristles. Privately she and Dr. Zasio talk about why Maria wasn’t raised by her family. Mira says, “Because Grandma didn’t want you there.”

I- ouch. Oh, Maria. She breaks down in heart-wrenching sobs, so certain that her family didn’t want her, that they just threw her away. “Nobody wanted anything to do with me.” Mira does love her daughter, but she seems to have an impasse when it comes to acknowledging the source of Maria’s pain. We don’t see everything, though, so I’m trying to keep that in mind.

Boy, does the Service Master team kick butt on scraping and shoveling and sanitizing. The house is given the all clear by Code, and it’s so nice to see that under all the garbage Mira has some nice bits of furniture to make her house a home. She’s so grateful for the hard work of her family.

“The hoard happened because the family didn’t talk,” Matt says, “but now that they are, she’ll be able to keep it clean.”

After the show

Mira is working with a specialist, keeping her home clutter-free, and has talked to Maria every day. Rebuilding that relationship is a priority.

There was a lot of forgiveness in this episode, to the point where I’m truly humbled by it. Kathy’s children are just marvelous individuals to be able to let go of some really significant trauma for the sake of their mother’s final years. And this was clearly difficult for Mira to be so public–and difficult for me to witness Maria’s aching heart, honestly–and just put yourself in these people’s shoes for a moment before you start tossing out judgment.

(And let that be your reminder for the website’s name. Leave your judgments at the door.)