When we arrived at the house in the morning, there was a woman sitting in a folding chair waiting out front. She looked like any other woman in town. There was absolutely nothing extraordinary about her appearance — nothing to indicate she had any sort of disorder. It turned out, of course, that was Bonnie, the woman we would be helping to declutter.
I’ve recently met two other women with extreme hoarding tendencies who both show outward signs of the toll hoarding has taken on their body–very thin hair, over weight, and sallow in color. Bonnie was none of these things.
For this project, I was one of ten professional organizers doing leg work for the licensed professionals working with the family on the show.
When our head organizer, Geralin Thomas (a regular on the show), introduced us to Bonnie and let her know we’d be going inside to take photos of her home, Bonnie quietly nodded. I wondered how long it had been–before this weekend–that anyone had come into the house. And here we were, a row of strangers, traipsing in with cameras. Bonnie had met Geralin the day before as Geralin is the organizer brought in by the show. She is the main reason I agreed to participate in the project—a chance to learn from a first class organizer with lots of experience in this field. We were joined by a team of 6 strong workers from 1-800-GOT-JUNK who did all of the heavy lifting (and looked very cute doing it, I might add)!
When we got to the side door—the only accessible door—and knocked, two teenage girls answered and nodded. They came out with their fast food breakfasts to finish eating outside because more than 2-3 people couldn’t fit in their living room at once. As they came out they smiled at us. They were so cute and again, they looked just like any other girls would look–some green streaks in their hair, a messy ponytail. I didn’t catch their eyes but I got a look at their faces and felt better. We were there to help the girls. I could concentrate on that.
I was last in line, feeling a bit hesitant about barging in. I got a peak into the door and was physically overwhelmed with sadness and shock. It was a primal cave of trash in there—dark, amorphous mounds filled the room. I started to choke up and couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I took some deep breaths, wiped my tears and waited alone outside for my colleagues to come back outside. In reflecting on my reaction I realize it was exacerbated by my nervousness. Still, the sadness and shock of the situation at that moment was palpable.
So when we split into teams I volunteered to work outside in the 100 degree heat. More to the point, I did NOT volunteer to go inside. My fellow organizers went in with their gloves and spent hours picking trash out of the piles. They brought what remained outside in large contractor bags to be sorted in the back yard. We were given a list of things to keep and categories of things that could be donated without question including baby clothes and out of date adult clothes. Bonnie and her girls had written the list. We posted it in our working space to send a clear message of respect for their wishes.
Throughout both days, with cameras rolling all the while, Geralin and behavioral psychologist Dr. Michael Tompkins spoke gently with the girls and their mom about their stuff, their relationship to their stuff, and what needed to happen if they wanted a safe, clean home.
The two girls, 15 and 17, were on fire — donating and sorting everything from their room and bathroom then moving on to stuff from the common areas. Still, most of the decisions were up to Bonnie to make and, as motivated as she was, her hoard was simply too large to be gone through by 10 organizers in 2 days.
Even now, a couple of days later, when I close my eyes, I see the house–the girls’ faces and the mounds of clutter we had to literally step on in order to move through the house. Some people who hoard keep neat stacks of organized items. Bonnie did not. Things were thrown everywhere in no particular order. There were sports bags and DVDs and school books, empty wrappers, gifts still in the box and soiled clothes all mingled together. By the end of the two long, long hot days, we had sorted out two full truckloads of trash and donations.
Bonnie and her girls were genuinely touched by our efforts. I definitely felt appreciated, which is one of my favorite feelings. Still in the end I came away pretty whipped and not very hopeful. We had cleared the house, the cleaning crew did the best they could do. And then, as time started to run out, we put the belongings back into the house in labeled boxes. The problem was, we put probably 100 bags of stuff left to sort back into the house before we left for good. The effect was somewhat of an organized re-hoard. This is one of the reasons I don’t enjoy the show—there is rarely a happy ending.
I do believe the people on the show experience happy endings, just not in one weekend! At the hotel in between work days I watched “The Biggest Loser” on TV with my friend, Susana. It is painfully obvious to me the connection between thinning a hoard and losing massive amounts of body fat. You can’t do it in one fell swoop!
On “The Biggest Loser” a half an hour revealed one woman struggling to lose weight for 365 days, changing her diet, her lifestyle and using a personal trainer.
On Hoarders you will see a person with hoarding tendencies and their family go through only the shock of the first 2-day organizing work-out in about 13 minutes. As with weight loss, it is impossible to expect a happy ending from 2-3 days work. But that is the format the producers have chosen and lots of people like it. Whoever said reality TV had to tell the whole story anyway, right?
In real life, we got a great start on Bonnie’s hoard and the a&e network is funding after-care for Bonnie and the girls which will include a professional organizer and therapy if Bonnie chooses those things.
I’m truly amazed by the following “Hoarders” has. People LOVE it. It inspires some to clean and to purge. And, like every other reality show, it makes viewers’ problems seem so small in comparison. The show also has given people insight into what I do at work. While the majority of my clients are not living among piles of trash, many people have a less-than-healthy relationship to their belongings. Another big change from my non-TV life—I don’t have hunky 1-800-GOT-JUNK guys helping me every day. But, perhaps I can look into that…