Hoarders Review: Season 1, Episode One, “Jennifer & Ron/Jill”

This first episode of Hoarders is available for streaming via Amazon as a Prime Instant Video here:  http://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Ron-Jill/dp/B004U6O9AM.  It opens with a few shots of the hoarded homes in question and some key voice-over bits.  Like all of the Hoarders episodes, this definition is presented at the beginning:

Compulsive Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary.


More than 3 million people are compulsive hoarders.


These are two of their stories.

Jennifer and Ron are the first couple–Jennifer is described as a compulsive shopper who describes the addictive high she has for shopping, and Ron attributes his disorganization and hoarding to patterns he learned from his father.

Jennifer and Ron's house.

Jennifer and Ron’s house.

They have a toddler who lives in their messy home with them, and 2 other children.  This home is dangerously messy, with food, dirty clothing, and other debris which covers stairs, flooring, doorways, and most other surfaces in (and outside) of their house.

The adaptable toddler navigates the hoard to find his toy.

The adaptable toddler navigates the hoard to find his toy.

Code Enforcement came after complaints and said if conditions didn’t improve rapidly, they would come back with a warrant.  Their fear was that Child Protective Services would then take their kids.

These were the stairs to Jennifer and Ron's basement.

These were the stairs to Jennifer and Ron’s basement.

The second situation is 61 year old Jill, who lives on her own and is mainly a food hoarder.  She also hoards other things, and unfortunately has cats, which always complicates the matter.  Dirty dishes overfill the sink and counters.  Jill is a renter, and the landlord has threatened to evict her.

Jill's hoarded kitchen.

Jill’s hoarded kitchen.

Jill has a sister and son who appear in the episode and both are aware of how bad the situation is at her house.

Can you find the cat in this picture?

Can you find the cat in this picture?

Jill explains that periods of poverty in the past have led her to hold on to food and to buy things on sale.  Her son agrees that she is a good cook, but the rotting and molding food around the house means that most people wouldn’t want to eat anything in that house.

Jill says she's a great cook.

Jill says she’s a great cook.

After these introductory segments, Hoarders explains that each home has a looming deadline of extreme consequences, and that the Hoarders crew has come in to help out.  The crew consists first of psychologists and professional organizers, and then brings in the clean-up crew, which is often the 1-800-GOT-JUNK people and trucks.

But not such a great dishwasher.

But not such a great dishwasher.

Jennifer and Ron knew that CPS may take their kids, but that failed to motivate them to clean up.  As the organizer talks with her and tours the house, it is clear that Jennifer has a huge amount of denial.  Generally hoarders use language which make them seem powerless or victimized by inanimate objects or other people.  Also, language which minimizes how bad things are is common, such as “a little bit” messy.

Cheerios, anyone?

Cheerios, anyone?

Jill is confronted about the flies in her house by the psychologist, who bluntly asks if there is rotting food in the stinking living room they’re standing in.  At first she says “No.”

"Is there some food rotting in here?"  "No."

“Is there some food rotting in here?” “No.”

Then she admits there is a rotting pumpkin on the floor.  Then a bag of rotten lettuce…

"I forgot about the pumpkin," she said.  I"t was a beautiful specimen!"

“I forgot about the pumpkin,” she said. I”t was a beautiful specimen!”

There are actually multiple piles of rotten food in the living room and elsewhere.

There's a rotten squash, too.

There’s a rotten squash, too.

Watching other people’s severe denial has made me wonder what I’m in denial of.  This search for honest self criticism was important to me to see the areas of my life and home I’d been neglecting.

Many hoarders have placed recycling and reusing as higher priorities than having a safe and sanitary home.  It is important to become aware of priorities. While recycling and reusing are nice, it’s OK to throw things away or haul them to a landfill, especially if there is a large amount of clutter filling yards or living spaces.

While the cleaner is scooping the rotten, moldy pumpkin into the trash (while wearing a air filter mask), Jill first talks to the pumpkin, thanking it for its existence, then can’t resist picking out some seeds from the muck.  This even happens in front of the TV cameras.  Jill also insists on saving many expired items from the kitchen, even though she is under threat of eviction and has the crew and TV cameras around her.  She clearly is stuck in unhealthy patterns she doesn’t have much awareness of.

Back at Jennifer and Ron’s, Jennifer and the organizer tackle the bathroom and find an overdraft statement which Jennifer hid from her husband.  Overspending on her shopping addiction has cost her hundreds of dollars.  Meanwhile, Ron admits that he has never realized how emotionally attached he is to “stuff.”

Jill, in sorting rotting food with the helpers, says that her intention in hoarding food was to be self-supporting.  The conflict is pointed out that this behavior has led to her likely being evicted.  The fridge is completely gross, there is rotting meat and vegetable fluids filling the bottom of a product drawer which leads helpers to gag and nearly vomit.  Jill still looks for items in this muck to save and eat.

I guess you can't call this a 'crisper' drawer anymore...

I guess you can’t call this a ‘crisper’ drawer anymore…

Many hoarders eventually reach a defensive, angry point.  It is of course very emotional to have other people throwing away one’s possessions.  This is the point where the hoarders need to be counseled to realize that their lack of skills created the situation and could re-create it if they don’t make strong effort to continue the changes.

The Hoarders shows usually end with statements about what happened afterwards.  In this first show, Jennifer and Ron’s children were able to have friends over.  Jill started therapy and wasn’t evicted on the condition that progress continues to be made.

Having watched many Hoarders shows, this first episode is a great introduction to the problem, the people, and the treatment.  Most hoarders aren’t as severe as these, particularly with Jill’s massive amounts of expired and rotting food.  Still, seeing these extreme cases should motivate most people to do a little better job keeping spaces clear, keeping their fridge clean, and being thankful for what they have and don’t have.

Hoarders & Hoarding: Buried Alive TV Show Reviews

I’m a happy Amazon Prime member.  The fact that free 2 day shipping on gajillions of items hasn’t bankrupted me nor turned my house into a Super Hoard is another testament of how much progress I’ve made on the hoarding and shopping patterns I was taught as a child and fought as an adult.

One of the coolest new features of Amazon Prime is Amazon Instant Video.  What started as a shipping club has turned into a free video streaming service as well.  This service has several seasons of Hoarders, Hoarding:  Buried Alive, and Confessions:  Animal Hoarding for Prime members.  I think I’ve watched them all.  When I started watching them over a year ago, I still had some areas of my home with minor hoards, such as the basement shop area and my top dresser drawer.  Watching Hoarders and seeing the exaggerated effects of procrastination and OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) hoarding issues motivated me to finish sorting and organizing my own home.

Hoarders shows on Amazon Prime for free streaming.

Hoarders shows on Amazon Prime for free streaming.

While I found watching Hoarders to be therapeutic, it may not be so for someone still in the stages of denial and active hoarding.  In fact, I know my mother would simply say “I’m not that bad, and therefore don’t need to do anything.”  But for mild hoarders, family of hoarders, or interested people who want to see the destructive, unhealthy effects of serious hoarding, these TV shows are strong medicine.  It’s nice that each involves a psychologist or psychiatrist, along with the compassionate clean-up crews.

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Spaces Used for Intended Purposes

Isn't that what a bathtub is for?

Isn’t that what a bathtub is for?

This is a picture of my Mom’s tub a few years ago.  I live several hours away and only visit a couple times a year.  I don’t stay at her house; there’s no room for me and my wife.  It is a 4 or 5 bedroom house with 2.5 bathrooms, architecturally.  Functionally, it is a 1 bedroom house with 1.5 bathrooms and 5 storage units.  I don’t drop in randomly, and my Mom knows I have judgements about her hoarding.  My sister and I have offered to help clean it up.  Since this picture, I’ve pleaded with Dad to get professional help for Mom, I’ve offered to go to counseling with them, repeated offers to help out in any way I can.  I’m totally ignored.

Denial is such a huge part of hoarding.  It seems to be what puts it firmly in the ‘mental illness’ category.

In the official signs and symptoms of hoarding, spaces in the home unable to be used for their intended purpose are a key sign.  Now, if this tub were the only area of clutter, that may be understandable.  But at that time it wasn’t, and it still isn’t.  Here’s what the garage looked like that day, and I’m sure it’s the same now (6 years later) if not worse.  There’s definitely no car in the garage, and hasn’t been for over 20 years (since I got in trouble for organizing it enough to get 1 car in the 2 car garage).

A Hoarded Garage

My mom and dad’s garage has been hoarded full of stuff like boxes, old clothes, shopping bags, and unused furniture for years. The only thing not in there is a car.

I understand that some people do projects in their garage, such as setting it up to be a woodworking shop or art studio.  But I don’t think this qualifies as even modern art (cardboard sculpture?).

I’m pretty certain my sister and I will end up cleaning this up.  It has been like this for years, and it would be amazing if it wasn’t full of spiders.  If mice get in there, it will be horrible.  Of course, this is a fire hazard.  The main circuit breaker is behind this pile on the wall.  It appears that most of these are empty boxes, but in standard hoarder fashion, they are mixed with full boxes, shopping bags, old clothes, some furniture from grandma’s house, and who knows what else.

I’m sharing these pictures partly to help myself process the situation but also to let my readers know for sure that I come from a real hoarding background and am still struggling with how to “Help Hoarders Stop Hoarding” in my family.

I haven’t heard a peep from my Mom or Dad about my concerns or offers (I’ve done this in writing and on the phone).  But it was my Mom’s birthday a few days ago.  I couldn’t bring myself to send her any physical gift, so I sent her an iPad game via e-mail and called her for a chat.  She has a huge collection of glass–blue glass, red glass, etc.  Years ago I was excited to give her a blue glass vase.  I think it disappeared into the hoard.  There’s no room for her to really display things nicely and store other things appropriately.

When I asked Mom what she did for her birthday, she replied that she’s “really into” St. Patrick’s Day this year, and had gone to a new antique mall in town to buy some green glass.  “Really into” means “buying more crap” by the way.  Christmas decor must be 10-20% of the hoard.  Other holidays are probably catching up.  Oh joy.

I learned many of these behaviors:  procrastination, collecting, impulse buying, leaving piles of stuff around until you don’t even see them as piles.  But I changed.  I worked on myself, I worked on my hoarded areas.  Now I treasure order and organization, and take care of clutter and piles quickly.  They make me uneasy, and clear areas make me happy.  This took reprogramming my emotions, anxieties, and priorities.

It feels so good when spaces are open and able to be used for their intended purposes!

Well, trying to motivate my parents didn’t go so well…

My mom is still a hoarder, she’s in her 70’s.  My dad is her enabler.  His areas of the home are tidy, but you can see the invisible line.  His side of the bed, his closet, and his office area are all sparse and tidy, but just over the boundaries teeter towers of clutter.

How does he enable Mom’s hoarding?  Alcohol and television, the two great numbing agents of modern society.  He’s also trained himself to not see things.  I know because I have this ability too.  It’s not X-Ray Vision, it’s just X-Vision.  One of the things I “X” out is things in bags.  Shopping bags, especially the plastic ones, become invisible to me.  If you want to hide something, just put it in a plastic grocery bag and leave it on a counter.  I’ll most likely ignore it.

When I started to declutter and fix my hoarding problems, one of the things I did was to take everything out of bags.  The other big thing was nothing could be stored in boxes except banker boxes (file boxes with handles, all the same size).  I made shelves so I could have an organized wall of banker boxes.  I would just look around for cardboard boxes and bags and determine to empty them and get rid of them.  It worked very well.

What didn’t work so well was me trying to get my parents to be responsible about the state of their estate.  I wrote them a letter about two things which were causing me great anxiety:  their lack of a will and the state of their home.  I thought I had some solidarity with Sis.  As mentioned in my first post, she told Mom that her granddaughter wouldn’t be visiting as long as the dangerous piles of stuff were around.  I figured that if we each pushed a bit and backed each other up, we would be able to promote real change.

Well, my parents never acknowledged the letter I wrote to me.  They did tell other relatives that I had written the letter (that’s how I know they read it), and mentioned that it upset them.  But did they call me up and talk about it?  No.  Total denial.  When I saw them, they just pretended everything was “normal.”  No discussion, no progress.

I was disappointed a couple months ago when Sis let her daughter spend the night and Mom and Dad’s house.  She caved.  My aunt noticed this as well.  I’m sure that Sis needed some alone time with her husband.  So much for solidarity, however.

To open up real communications with my parents, I knew I would have to make the next move.  I had waited about 2 years for them to respond to my written plea.  Leaving 2 voicemails for Sis, hoping to talk with her first, I got an e-mail from her saying she’d call me the next day.  It’s been 2 weeks, no call, no e-mail from her.

I wrote to my Dad.  I apologized if I had hurt his feelings.  I told him I love him.  I let him know that I was willing to talk things through and work to heal our communication.  I also let him know that the cluttered house and estate planning were still important issues for me.

After 2 weeks of no response, I was uncertain if he had even gotten that e-mail.  I sent it again, with a note asking for some sort of acknowledgement.  A couple days later I got a reply from him.  He had been thinking of responses, but was afraid of saying something he’d later regret.  He let me know he loves me, but thinks I have isolated myself over trifling issues.  Everyone else in the family is happy and loving, he wrote.

My mother is a master of white lies.  That and gossiping about people behind their back.  She has a “Shit List.”  I learned this when she wanted more communication from her sister (my aunt).  She’d say “your Aunt is on my Shit List.”  I told my aunt about this a while ago.  She wasn’t surprised, but was disappointed in my Mom.  Mom hadn’t confronted her directly about her feelings and desires, she just talked about her behind her back.

I’m sure I’m on Mom’s Shit List now.  She probably has no idea that she inspired me to create a Shit List as well.  My parents are the only people on my Shit List.

My “crime” was to confront them directly about my feelings and concerns.  I guess the unwritten rule is that I’m only supposed to talk behind their back about it, and pretend everything is OK when we get together for holidays.

I let them know in my original letter that I found it difficult to truly relax and enjoy vacations together with these unresolved issues causing background anxiety.  It didn’t feel right to me to either avoid or force confrontation during a vacation.  So I let them know that until these things were taken care of (i.e. writing a basic Will and fixing a few things in their house), I wasn’t very interested in vacationing with them.  I pointed out that making a basic will takes just a couple days and a short appointment with a lawyer, so instead of spending a couple days visiting me, I’d really prefer they prioritize that.  Afterwards, I’d be happy to celebrate with them.

I truly don’t care what I get from their estate.  I realized that if they both die (like in a drunk driving accident), my sister and I have to fight the State through the probate process for the right to go clean up their incredibly cluttered house.  So at a time when we should be grieving and honoring the best memories of our parents, we’d be involved in a stressful clusterflock of bureaucratic paperwork before being allowed the privilege of spending weeks hauling Mom’s clothes, holiday decorations, craft items, etc. to the Goodwill or landfill.  Sounds fun, huh?

In other words, I realized that my parents were spending virtually every evening having 3-6 drinks (of alcohol) each while watching a few hours of television, and have no intentions of cleaning up their clutter or creating a will.  Procrastination until death.  This means that their “plan” (actually a lack of a plan) is to leave this stuff for their kids to deal with.  That’s me and my sister.  Yes, the sister who won’t return my calls.

I’m very close to just cutting ties with my parents and sister.  The last time I wrote to my Dad, I told him I’d be very willing to drive up and go to therapy with them.  I send him a link to an article in their paper about hoarders needing psychological help, with phone numbers of specialists.  They live in a big, progressive city, so there are plenty of resources around.

Yes, for me it has come to this–therapists need to be involved.  But my parents have always frowned on those who need therapy as somehow lesser beings.  In fact, they have a fridge magnet (of course the fridge is always dripping with layers of notes and comics and magnets, etc.) that says:

I don’t need therapy, just another martini!

That was probably the final straw, suggesting that we all go to therapy together.  He hasn’t written back.  You know, he might regret communicating.  He doesn’t seem to realize that not communicating is even more regrettable.

I’m here to help hoarders stop hoarding

I’ve spent much of my life being pulled between the the drive to hoard and the desire to organize and clean.  One of my biggest dreams growing up was to have a nice, big house where I could entertain people and tastefully display my collections.  That dream has come true for me, though years of hard work on myself and my stuff (and support from my wonderful wife).  Unfortunately, my hoarding instructor (Mom) is still at it.  Her combination of denial and acquisitiveness have damaged her relationship with her husband and her children.  My sister won’t take Mom’s granddaughter to her house.  Several years ago Sis devoted a week of her vacation time to trying to help Mom organize and see the gravity of the situation.  Tears came out as she told Mom, “It’s just not safe here for a little girl–she could get into one of the rooms full of stuff and pull a pile down on top of herself, and it would be very difficult for us to get in to help her.”  Mom said, “Well, I don’t think I have a problem…” and changed the subject.

So this blog isn’t about how I’ve had total victory in helping my family overcome the challenges of hoarding.  However, my personal victory has come from years of self-reflection and study, and by sharing my story, perhaps I’ll help another hoarder reprogram their behavior so they can create a better environment for themselves and their loved ones.

Being a blog which allows comments and guest posts, I am also hoping to learn from others.  You (yes, you!) are invited to send me your pictures of rooms full of clutter, before and after pictures of your desk, living room, dining room, garage, top dresser drawer or whatever project (big or small) you are working on organizing and cleaning.  Here you’ll find both support and encouragement.  Denial and pathetic excuses, however, will not be met with sugary reassurance that it’s “all OK.”  This is a place to come to get real, to change your behavior, to state your goals and report your progress.  It’s also a place for people to come to share their stories and challenges, whether it’s with your parent’s hoarding, your partner’s obsessive-compulsive shopping addiction, or your own clutter issues.

I know from experience that it can be helpful just to be heard, to share your thoughts and feelings.  This is particularly the case when the hoarder you’re dealing with is in denial and can’t or won’t see the mess right in front of them.

I’ll be reviewing the Hoarders TV shows including Hoarders episodes on A & E and Hoarders:  Buried Alive on TLC.  We’ll review Compulsive Hoarding treatments, from counselling to psychiatric medication.  Perhaps we’ll even create a community that can come together in the real world to help people tackle their messes!

I’ve chosen the pen name Dewey Decimator for this site.  I like puns, and this one refers to the library system of organizing (Dewey Decimal system) and the need for decisive action in getting rid of stuff.  I of course have a “real” name and a “real” occupation–hoarding is just a personal interest because of growing up with Mom.  I’m trying to protect her identity more than mine.  I welcome you to leave comments with a made-up name as well.  It doesn’t matter to me, the important thing is to encourage you to share your experiences, ask for help, or just get things off your chest.