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Putting The 'Ho-Ho-Ho' In Hoarders

One hoarder thinks she's Mrs. Claus; the other just wants to give her grandkids a home.

Before we get started, may I direct you to this great Associated Press report from Thursday? It's on a private initiative in New York that seeks to help those suffering from hoarding disorder, and some of the figures in it are just staggering. I suspect that it will be relevant to your interests!

Severity Of Hoard

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Sandi, of the Washington state city of Port Angeles, loves Christmas so much that she not only dresses up like Mrs. Claus for the holidays, but buys gifts for loved ones year round. So many gifts. (Again with the Christmas hoarding! Have we had a single episode this season where Christmas wasn't mentioned?)

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We soon realize that "gift" has a very flexible definition for Sandi, in that it also covers items she refuses to part with because she believes she could give them to others.

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So, instead, everything (stuff she buys, stuff she already had) just piles up in her home, making it next to impossible to navigate.

New Mexican Vivian is also a gift-giver; she says that when she sees an item that reminds her of someone she "just has to buy it." She must get reminded of people a lot!

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It looks to me like Vivian also accumulates a lot of cute and lovely little tchotchkes, to decorate what we will soon learn is a not-always cute and lovely existence. There's something about all her bunny stuff that makes me feel especially sad.

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"I feel so alone, and things make me feel better," Vivian says through her tears. "Things and things and more things."

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Relevant Hoarder Backstory

Sandi and her husband, Ed, have been playing Santa and Mrs. Claus (I just realized she doesn't have a first name! Freakin' patriarchy!), which is like "an alcoholic owning a bar" according to cleanup specialist and apparent Cheers hater Cory Chalmers. Sandi's compulsion to be Lady Bountiful has taken her home from cluttered to out of control over the last thirty years or so.

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Vivian says that she started hoarding to cope with the pain of her divorce, as well as the deaths of several loved ones. Midway through the cleanup, she also says, "I grew up having nothing, so I thought things made me important and valuable." She has since, she asserts, realized that that is not the case.

Native Likability Of Hoarder

I feel perversely compelled to dislike Sandi purely because she is trying so hard to buy everyone's affection with the gift-giving persona. I feel like it is something nasty and manipulative masquerading as good intentions gone bad. And despite the arc the show tries to present to us, I never feel like she every really gets that, or grows. Then again, this is a woman who once bought this umbrella:

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Which is an item I'd carry proudly on the rainy streets of my city. So perhaps she's more fun than the show allows us to see.

I just want to give Vivian a huge hug, because I so strongly feel how overwhelmed and stuck she feels before cleanup begins...but once it does, she is a total trooper, throwing stuff out left and right! Not once do we see her fight anyone over the disposal of an item. She's a star.

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Anxiety Of Family/Other Enablers

Sandi's husband, Ed (a.k.a. Santa) says that Sandi's "always had a tendency to do a little bit of collecting, then over the years it's accumulated and I'm not very good at saying no...so it's not just her, it's me also." It's so rare that we see the partner own his or her role in the situation that even though Ed is suuuper-weird, later on accusing Chalmers of mental illness when he suggests that they get rid of a rock tumbler (no one needs a rock tumbler! No one!) that I still must give him props.

Sandi and Ed's younger daughter, Traci, hasn't been in the house for the last decade due to its horrible hoard. She's the one who clashes the most with her parents -- her older sister, Tammy, is present throughout but doesn't say much. "Your presents cause arguments, they cause pain. They're causing you pain right now," Traci sobs to her mom at one point, but Sandi barely seems to register her kid's pain.

Vivian has two daughters: Darlene and Heather, both of whom agree that their mom's a hoarder. Maddox, Vivian's grandson, says poignantly, "Basically my grandma's house is like trash," the first of his many too-wise-for-his age statements during this episode.

Then there's Vivian's wonderful friend Jolene, who has great hair and has never been inside Vivian's house as long as she's known Vivian. It's Jolene who joins Dr. Robin Zasio on the Tour of Shame. She's barely gotten in the front door before she says of Vivian, "I want to be her support and do anything I can to help her." Jolene is also the first one to call out what Matt Paxton will later refer to as "the elephant in the garage," specifically that "Heather is under the influences of substances that are not making her be herself." Uh-oh.

Inciting Incident

Sandi's constant shopping for these so-called gifts has financially ruined the couple. Not only do they say they've been paying $125 a month for a storage unit to hold even more of their junk for the last thirty years, but they have no savings. Even when Sandi knows they might not have enough to pay a bill, if Sandi sees something she wants to acquire, she'll still buy it, making that bill payment even further out of reach.

Sandi and Ed have gotten so far behind that they received a foreclosure notice on their home, a situation Traci learned about "on Facebook" when her parents' (I'm typing this with gritted teeth) freakin' GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign requesting donations for their house payments popped up in her News Feed. "So that was a little bit shocking," she says with a wry smile. On top of that, Ed's now working at Goodwill, which means Sandi will be shopping there even more.

How will cleaning up their house fix Sandi's compulsive shopping? I don't know! But it can't hurt, I guess?

Over at Vivian's, we learn that Heather, Maddox, and her toddler-aged son, Anakin (sigh) recently became homeless -- a side effect, it's implied, of Heather's rampant drug abuse. Anakin's gone to stay with a friend because the house is too cluttered for the near-baby. Maddox is living on Vivian's couch, and Heather appears to have taken over the garage as her living space/drug den (as Paxton says with a suggestive moue, she "is in the garage and does her own thing").

Maddox lives in constant fear that his living conditions will cause him to be taken from his family by child protective services, at one point even resisting Zasio's effort to help him because he says that "you trust a counselor and tell them you live like this, the next thing you know they called CPS and you're in the foster system."

"I get worried that they would take me away," Maddox tells the camera at one point. "It's kind of an emotional thing," he says as I burst into tears.

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If that wasn't enough, Zasio also claims that Heather says she won't stop doing drugs until Vivian deals with her addiction, hoarding. Now, this sounds more like the excuse an addict makes to keep using -- and there are certainly more where that came from. But being able to take that argument away isn't a bad thing.

Assigned Experts

Sandi ends up with Dr. Dave Tolin as her shrink, and he's great with her, from lines like "It's not actually a present 'till you give it to somebody; until then it's just stuff in your house," and telling Sandi that she needs to adopt a lifestyle that isn't about acquiring.

Tolin's paired with Chalmers, who is my all-time Hoarders fave. He doesn't disappoint this go-around, going toe-to-toe with Sandi over a huge box of wire whisks she intends on keeping. "Being a non-kitchen person," Sandi snaps, "you don't understand" that she needs them all, she says. "A non-kitchen person, or a non-hoarder?" Cory responds. BURN!

Zasio's gentle approach is perfect for the clearly-fragile Vivian, and Zasio's earning her pay this week as she juggles not just our central hoarder but the intricacies of poor little Maddox and his junkie mom. Paxton, who is always great with kids, spends a lot less time on cleanup than he usually does, and puts his focus on being a buddy to Maddox, a child you suspect is a little short on solid male role models. There's a heartbreaking scene in the yard as Maddox talks about his parents' drug abuse -- Matt can barely look at Maddox as he says in a choked voice, "So you know your mom's on drugs," and Maddox whispers, "Yes."

Matt also knows when he's out of his depth, calling Zasio in when Maddox brightly says, "I'm actually pretty glad I'm with my family right now, because I could have been adopted....I've seen so many sad stories of adoption." You can tell Matt really likes the kid (and how can you not, he's terrific!) and that the whole situation makes him a little crazy.

Success Of Cleanup

As noted earlier, Sandi fights Traci, Tolin, and Chalmers every step of the way until the middle of Day 3, when Sandi announces, "Things have been solved. Mindsets have been fixed." I'm not convinced, but Chalmers says that after the "midday meltdown," 95% of Sandi and Ed's possessions went out the door.

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The show is very carefully picking their shooting angles, I think, because the reverse of the above shot is this:

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That's a lot of stuff on the wall. Maybe the house isn't the minimal paradise they are suggesting it is? I mean, look at all these DVDs:

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"Still too much stuff!" I yell as I look around my home for things I can toss. But hey, Sandi's kitchen looks nice.

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Down in New Mexico, Vivian approached the first day of cleanup with gusto, ready to toss it all to make a place for her grandkids. Matt gets worried, telling her "I'm a little confused because you're doing awesome, this shouldn't be that easy," but I think that having the team here was exactly what Vivian needed to pull her out of her pit of despair.

By the second day, Heather has flaked on the project, as Zasio relays that Vivian now believes that one of the reasons she was hoarding was to push Heather away. There's a lot of time spent on actual therapy for the family -- much more than I think we usually see. This is great; I believe it gets at the root causes of the disorder! But Matt, ever the pragmatist, rings the alarm on Day 3, saying that with all the talking, they haven't gotten to much tossing. So most of what we see happens during a final six-hour push, and the progress is impressive!

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And all that is nice, but the real juice is Maddox's new room.

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When Maddox sees his Legos all organized, he just loses it, as I am sure everyone there did. And I don't think Matt is going to shake this one off as easily as he has some, saying to the camera, "We came to help Vivian, and Maddox, and Anakin, and we've done that. And I have to leave being okay with that," looking not okay with that at all.

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"Did we change this kid's life? No. But at least they have a chance."

Epilogue

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Okay, what's 90%, in this scenario? What is that a percentage of? Does this mean her house is 10% cluttered? Because it still looked about 30% cluttered to me at cleanup, so this does not sound good!

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Maybe they got paid for some of those appearances? Here's hoping!

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The cautious way this is worded worries me. Maybe by the time we watch, Anakin will be there too? That might be nice, since Maddox clearly misses his little brother like crazy.

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I do not think Heather's story will have a happy ending, but I'm glad her kids have Vivian, who has shown herself to be a real solid lady. Like Matt said, they have a chance.

0-39: Noticeable Stack Of Mail

41-79: Upsetting Amount Of Old Periodicals

80-119: Invisible Flooring

120+: Detectable Feces

Final Score: 124

A Precious Moments figurine in every pot and a drugged-out daughter in every garage

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