Hoarders 8.15 – Sandi, Vivian

hoarders mental illness reality

It’s our season finale, and for me, it was a hell of a tear jerker.  (Look, I’m a mom and my son is a giant and grown up, and I get tender around little guys, okay? Ha ha ha.)


Sandi, Port Angeles, Washington

Meet a wannabe Mrs. Claus, Sandi. She and her husband Ed are known for dressing as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They really take such delight in the holidays. In fact, they love Christmas so much that they’ve filled the house with holiday decorations, potential gifts and all manner of holiday paraphernalia.  However,  there is so much stuff inside that they can’t decorate their home for the holiday they love above all else.

You can’t get through doors because of the “treasures” accumulating into massive piles. “The stuff around us is comfort. Instead of food, we collect.”

This is what I’ve been saying (and so many people say): it’s not the stuff, it’s the action and the buried reason for the action.

Sandi’s family doesn’t want her buying them gifts. Sandi, however, starts shopping in January and isn’t done. Ever. Sandi’s youngest daughter Traci no longer lives there. “My parents’ house doesn’t have room for me anymore.” Their house doesn’t have room for much else. They have a storage room they’ve paid on for over 30 years, and honestly, they’re financially struggling. They’ve almost lost the house for non-payment.

Sandi seems to have a lot of compulsive behaviors that need addressing, which makes sense. Hoarding falls under OCD, as do other impulse-driven disorders. And Ed enables this behavior for the sake of keeping the peace, it appears.

Dr. David Tolin arrives to meet with the family, and hey! We’ve missed you! He talks to the camera and tells us that while Sandi calls herself a giving person, she isn’t, not really. The evidence is the massive hoard of gifts in the home. If she was giving them away instead of keeping them… It’s so very clear to us now, but this is the type of “oh. Yeah.” thinking that doesn’t occur to Sandi as she plans and thinks and stores. Dr. Tolin’s task now is to help her understand a new way of thinking about gifts (and money), and that seems an insurmountable task in light of the number of years that Sandi has behaved this way.

But I, as always, have faith. I’m holding out for a Christmas miracle. ;)

The show this season continues to do an excellent job of letting us in on the doctors and hoarders’ conversations. “[This house] is a paradox,” Dr. Tolin says. “You like giving to people, and yet you have things saved up in piles. You like your collections, and yet they’re buried under trash. You’ll have to get around the urge to acquire and save.”

The Got Junk trucks arrive with Cory Chalmers at the helm. “We need you to be happy without the stuff,” Cory says. Well, that’s the hell of it, isn’t it?

They dive right in, asking Sandi about a few items on an ottoman. Of course, they’re gifts. Traci points out that one item is from 10 years ago, and it’s unopened. Still. So… is a gift a gift if it hasn’t been given? This is a concept that she can’t grasp and becomes emotional. “That’s the person I am.”

Her identity is wrapped up in being this “Mrs. Claus” and challenging her spending, her hoarding, that’s challenging this magical identity she’s created for herself. It’s an identity she believes in, whole heartedly.

Dr. Tolin asks Traci what her thoughts are about getting presents from her mom? Traci doesn’t want or need them. But what if it’s a lot of gifts? Traci is clear: “Your presents cause arguments. They cause people pain. It’s causing you pain right now.”

Sandi loves her family and feels it is imperative that love is shown through generosity, but this gift-giving (read: hoarding) is ruining the family dynamic. Cory lays it out clearly: you believing in this identity is like an alcoholic working in a bar. It’s enabling the disease. “It’s a dangerous life.”

Now it’s down to Sandi being able to realize that she can bring joy to people’s lives by bringing Sandi and not stuff. On a base level, it’s selfish. It makes her feel good to get things with the grandiose plan of giving them away as gifts, but people don’t want the things she’s buying, making it all about her. The trick is to getting her to understand that.

Less than 100 square feet of space are cleared out on Day One. This is looking bad as this mentality continues on Day Two. She sees this as ‘keeping stuff that has potential”, and Dr. Tolin wants her to understand that it’s actually about changing her lifestyle. We’re on Day Three and she’s still keeping things.

Because, of course, she has a plan for it, a way to be a wonderful woman in someone’s eyes when she gives them a gift (a gift she’s hung onto for years, it bears mentioning).

“We’re trying to make a difference in your life, not someone else’s,” Cory says. He grabs the doctor to come address this. And then we get some pushback from Ed. He thinks Cory needs the doctor.


Traci, emotional, tells her mom that holding onto the stuff isn’t as important as holding onto the memories the family has of one another and the memories to come. The stuff doesn’t matter. And there was enough magic in that to get Sandi to start donating and tossing, to the tune of 95% of their stuff. Whoa.

The walk through after clean up has Sandi beaming like a kid at Christmas. This is finally a home, not a storage bin. Sandi seems to understand that she can’t buy stuff from this point on. That it’s not important. Stuff doesn’t matter, relationships do. So here’s to hoping that this lesson sticks.

After the Show

90% of the home continues to be clutter free, and there’s our Christmas miracle. Ed and Sandi dressed up and attended 33 Christmas parties as the Clauses, and hopefully that was enough to satisfy her. It seems so.



Vivian, New Mexico

While Vivian’s house isn’t as filled as Sandi’s, it’s still an enormous amount of stuff. She also appears to be a “shopaholic”. And, of course, a hoarder. Vivian lost a marriage and family members, and to manage her grief, she bought things. And then got more things. And then more of them. When she saw an item that made her think of a loved one, she bought it. The hoard continued to grow to the state it is in today.

One of her daughters struggles to visit–the state of the home is too upsetting. This in turn makes Vivian feel isolated, which sends her into stress-mode, which leads to more shopping which… You can see the problem. However, her other daughter Heather and Vivian’s grandsons Maddox and Anakin have found themselves in a predicament where they lost their home. Because Heather is struggling with substance abuse, Maddox now lives with Vivian. This is not ideal, given the state of the house. Heather’s youngest Anakin cannot live in the house because of the hoard and lives with Heather’s friend.

This is clearly upsetting for everyone, but let’s take a moment to recognize the hard choice Heather had to make for the sake of the baby. (I assume that they’re strapped with finding someone who can help with Maddox, too. It’s a lot. This is a family with a lot of love, and I can only imagine how desperate they all must feel.)

This isn’t a matter of just cleaning the house, even though they need to clean the house. If they throw things out, Vivian will just bring more things in later. Vivian needs to address the root cause ( not to mention the other problem of Heather’s substance abuse), and this family needs to be made whole.

Maddox is a cutie-patootie, first off. And we can see that this is weighing heavily on his little heart. He’s worried and scared and with good reason. He could be removed from the family, and there’s no question this family loves this little dude. (Ugh, he’s so precious, you guys.) We need to get them some help.

Dr. Robin Zasio arrives to meet with Vivian’s friend Jolene, who has never been inside. Jolene immediately feels bad that she didn’t know Vivian has been living this way. She’s all support. I love that so much. Please know that people out there want good things for you, your friends want your happiness and your joy, and this show illustrates that almost every single week, and for that, I’m so grateful for the reminder of human kindness.

Dr. Zasio is clearly there for Vivian, wanting her to have the help and support she needs, but she’s also completely there to advocate for Maddox, which makes me feel a lot of relief. No slight to Heather, Vivian, and this family; they’re doing the best they can. They just need someone to help them with the tools they don’t have in their toolkit.

Service Master Clean and Matt Paxton show up, and I bet this was a hard one for Matt, given that cute little dude, Maddox, who we’re all worried for. Maddox is emotional right away (and me, too). Let me just tell you about this awesome kid who I might steal for cuddles, because my son’s too big for it, okay? (Ha.) He dives right into work, then later walks up to his grandma and tells her how proud he is of her, and I’m not crying, I just stubbed my toe.

…I’m totally crying. What a sweet kid.

And because everything is so easy on Day One, we all know that means things are going to fall apart. That’s the process, that’s the disease, so I’m hanging on to my hope that our team is going to make it work in the end.

Day Two, and Heather isn’t there. The relationship between Heather and Vivian is strained. They’re basically both addicts, one with shopping, the other with drugs. Dr. Zasio deduces that the hoard is a way for Vivian to keep Heather and her addictions isolated, in a way. But if the house gets cleaned, what does that mean for Heather? And more importantly, for Maddox?

Matt and Maddox have a little one-on-one. If you watched this moment and you weren’t clutching your chest, you might need to look into what’s broken inside you. This kid… So wise for his young years. He loves his grandma (and his mom, even though he understands that she’s an addict, and that’s a heavy load on a little guy) and more importantly, he knows his grandma loves him. He’s terrified of being adopted or sent out to a foster home, and I get it. I want him with Vivian, and I want his house clean and ready for him.

Vivian? I’m pulling for ya, lady.

Maddox tells Dr. Zasio that he worries about therapy because they’re going to turn him into CPS. They’ll know he’s in a hoard and that his mom’s an addict. Wow, that’s a lot for this little guy. Dr. Zas and Matt call a family intervention. Matt says it’s time to just toss stuff. Vivian is in tears. What’s that about?

“I grew up having nothing. And so I thought things made me important and made me valuable. It’s hard to part with them. But it’s okay and I can do it.”

Guys? This show is a life lesson. This show, if you will just listen to people as they begin to understand why they behave the way they do, this show will show you so much. My word, I am just in tears.

The stuff is a cover for all the problems, and now that there’s no cover, there’s no hiding. It’s all out. Instead of brow beating these folks, let’s get to a solution. Vivian sees this as a gift. “I didn’t want to do this wrong. I want to get it done.”

This is what the show constantly tells us: it’s about doing it right. You can’t just throw stuff away. You have to pull back the thick blanket of the hoard, exposing the core problem so you can get to work on it, and you have to have a hoarder ready to do just that. It’s pretty fortunate that Vivian is at that place.

Hat’s off to Service Master for kicking into serious overdrive and clearing the whole home. Vivian’s breath is taken away, and it is truly amazing. It’s like we changed filming locations, honestly. Maddox is blown away by the room he’s given, and when his lip started wobbling, I can’t lie to you guys. I burst into tears. (I’m sensitive, okay?) That was a lot of fear on his wee shoulders. And if you needed a reminder that this is such a sweet, precious little boy, he says he’ll take the top bunk in the new bunk bed so his little brother won’t get hurt on the bottom bunk.

Then he sees where his Legos are being kept, his books, and he has to cover his face, and I have to lay down with a cold cloth on my face because it’s a lot.

This problem isn’t solved. But this problem is way smaller than it was before. Thank goodness.

After the Show

Maddox and Vivian are both in therapy. Anakin is still living with family friends, but Heather is no longer living in the garage. She’s been offered addiction counseling. I hope for her sake and for her family’s that she gets to a place where she’s ready to make a change. Barring that, here’s to hoping Vivian and Maddox (and Anakin) continue to live better lives. Please know I’m rooting for you.