For plenty of people, Monday nights on A&E have become Must See TV. ‘Intervention‘ kicks the evening off with searing accounts of addicts and the people who love them, but the night wraps up with an even more compelling group of people who need help: ‘Hoarders.’ Geralin Thomas is a professional organizer who works with clients on the show to help them clean up their lives. She spoke with Fancast about her first hoarding client (four words: vermin in a vehicle), Hoarders’ frustrating two-day deadline, and tonight’s episode with freezing children living on their front lawn.
How the heck did you end up doing what you do?
Oh gosh, okay, well I started my business in 2002 and spent a couple of years just doing residential organizing. I got somebody who was a compulsive shopper and that’s what led to my interest in mental health disorders. Then from compulsive shopping I started investigating hoarding, and then one thing led to another.
Do you remember what your first hoarding home was like?
Oh yes. It was somebody who wouldn’t let me in her home because she had a lot of clutter—she called herself a pack rat. We started by decluttering her car. She was very embarrassed about it. As we were decluttering, we found that she had mice in her car. After we got rid of the mice in her in car and decluttered her car, she was experiencing a lot of anxiety letting things go, like trash, newspapers, food wrappers. I told her she needed help. She wanted to know if this is normal. I said “No. it’s not unheard of, but it is unusual.” Then I told her she should seek counseling. After that we started working on her house.
What was her house like?
Pretty severe. She saved everything—I mean everything and anything you can think of. Every square inch of every horizontal surface was covered with things. My first experience with her, I was very surprised, because she looked very presentable and had a somewhat normal social life. She was very high-functioning outside of that. And now, of course, whenever I walk through a parking lot and see a car like that, I automatically think to myself: There’s a hoarder. If you go to dollar stores, that’s oftentimes where you see cars like that. Cars are jam packed so that there’s no way a passenger could ever get in.
I’m obsessed with this show. As a viewer, you think How did you get that far? Why wasn’t there a trigger for you to stop, or someone in your life who just said “no?”
It’s interesting, because these people, there have friends and family members who tell them you have a problem. But what they do is they sort of start leaving those people out of their lives, and they socially isolate themselves from that person. As times goes on, they become more and more isolated. Sometimes families will have an intervention and throw things away, but what that does is encourage the isolation urge even more.
How did you get involved with the show?
They found me on the internet and they’d read some of my testimonials from people, and knew that I was a certified professional organizing specializing in chronic disorganization.
One thing I don’t understand: On A&E’s other show dealing with this topic, Obsessed, the focus for hoarders is on the therapy. On Hoarders, it’s on purging. Why the difference?
Season 2 I think is showing much more of a collaboration between the therapy and the organizing. They are showing a lot more of the therapist working with clients, as well as the organizing process. In my business, I will not work with a hoarder unless they agree to see a therapist. The reason for that is because there is no organizer on the planet, regardless of how good—this is a mental health disorder—there is nothing an organizer can cure or solve. We take care of the external problem and let the therapist take care of the internal problem.
What’s up with the show’s two-day deadline? It’s obviously not enough time to help most of these folks.
The two-day deadline, I have no idea—I don’t have anything to do with the production of the show, that’s just the way it’s laid out. While the deadline does rub a lot of people the wrong way, one positive thing I can say about it is that you really can gauge the client’s readiness by giving them an intense deadline. And often it’s crisis-driven: Their kids are going to be taken away, they will be evicted, they’re having surgery and if their home isn’t cleaned up by the time they go in for surgery then adult protective services will step in. That’s pretty much the whole basis of the show Hoarders is that there is a looming deadline. The woman I visited a week before last, I was in Seattle, and she had to have surgery. She had no heat in her house because her rooms were filled floor to ceiling and a repairman couldn’t get in to repair the heat ducts. Adult protective services said that she needed to have heat in her house and her house had to be cleaned up.
So hoarders often have deadlines on them anyway?
Absolutely. We don’t impose any deadlines. They write to us for help. On tonight’s episode, one of them is my client, Bob. He is a father of six children. Four of them live at home. Their house was infested with bedbugs. They’re homeschoolers and it was becoming winter in Massachusetts. When I went out there they had put up a tent in the front yard, because the bedbugs were so bad in their house. Then he had to call us because the tent got bedbugs. So then he had to move his wife and four of the children into where he works. And it was so cold while we were up there I had on two pairs of thermal underwear under a HazMat suit. It was bitter cold, and this was in the daytime, so I can only imagine what the temperatures were at night.
So the kids were sleeping out there too?
Mmhmm. And the neighbors were complaining because there’s a tent pitched in the front yard, and they could see kids coming and going out of the tent with sleeping bags and all that stuff. So that was their looming crisis. Here’s what we think may have happened: They shopped curbside for a lot of their furniture, they went to thrift stores. They could have bought a piece of furniture that was infested with bedbugs and brought it into their home.
How did you deal with that?
We wore HazMat suits. We wore all disposal clothing, right down to our shoes. We packed them in plastic bags labeled “Bedbugs. Do not open.” We threw the mattresses out and they were disposed of properly so that nobody else would use them.
Do you follow up with the people you help?
I follow up with every single person who has ever been on the show that I’ve worked with. Most of them are doing well. I had one client who went through her after-care funds and has now started having backsliding issues. She lost her job, her husband lost his job. Her house went into foreclosure. They didn’t have enough money to keep getting therapy. Then she wanted to stay in bed for several days. It was just one thing after another. She wasn’t answering my e-mails and phone calls but now I am hearing from her again.
But most people are staying on the path?
It doesn’t mean they’re keeping the house what my idea of organized is, but they’re keeping the acquiring at bay, and they continue working with an organizer or therapist. But I don’t want to use the word cured, because that’s not the case.
Is it possible to cure a hoarder?
I don’t know if it is possible. My hoarders tell me they think of it like they’re alcoholics. You always have to be guarded against it. If you start shopping, start going to yard sales—they know their triggers.
What have their reactions been to seeing their lives on the show?
Well, it’s interesting because every person I work with, I ask them as I’m leaving, “Right now would you do the show again?” Every single person has said “yes” immediately. Now we’re coming up on the one-year mark, and they still would do it again. Now those are the folks I’ve worked with. I do know a couple of people who probably would not do it again, but all of my clients say they would do it again. I’m proud of my clients. They’ve come a long way.
Even the woman who had pumpkins exploding into her carpet?
Jill! She is a great example. I’ve spoken with Dr. [David] Tolin and he said that when they left that shoot Jill was really aggravated and she didn’t think anything was wrong with her. But after she saw herself on TV she saw that she needed help and has been getting therapy since the show. So, another happy consequence.