Extremities: As Seen on TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ – Hoarder Mary Thompson Takes Her Life Back One Piece at a Time
UPDATE: My friend Mary Thompson’s hoarding got her featured on TLC and since the story I wrote about her last year she’s made steady progress decluttering her home and her life. So much so that she’s been able to reclaim the furniture she had to move out to make room for her stuff and she’s thrown off the shackles of her old job for a new one. She proves one is really never too old to change.
The first time I went to Mary Thompson’s home to get my taxes done I knew I’d walked into a story. She is a hoarder with a compulsion to collect a seemingly endless number of things and an inability to throw anything away. For years neither she nor I made any comment about the condition of her place. But the mass of stuff everywhere, the difficulty moving around in her home, the fact that even the staircase was littered with things, plus the ever-present cats, all amounted to the 800-pound gorilla in the room that even though never acknowledged always weighed heavy on our meetings.
As Mary and I got to know each other better, and I shared some of my own eccentric, even addictive tendencies, we began to talk a bit more openly about ourselves. Then one day I flat out asked if I could profile her for an Omaha publication, making sure she understood that meant discussing her affliction with hoarding. She agreed. Nothing came of it until late 2009 when she called to tell me she was going to be profiled on a cable TV reality series about hoarders. So we chose that as the hook to hang my story about her on, as my editors might put it. The resulting piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I am pleased to report that Mary liked what I did with it, neither overdramatizing her story nor avoiding its extremities, the word I chose for the title or headline. Mary is much more yet than what I portray in the piece, but given the space limitations I had to work with I think I captured enough of her to satisfy both of us.
My story about Mary’s late mother, the equally eccentric Lucile Schaaf, can be found on this blog as well. It’s entitled. “Lucile’s Old Market Mother Hubbard Magnificent Obsession.”
Extremities: As Seen on TLC’s ‘Hoarding: Buried Alive’ - Hoarder Mary Thompson Takes Her Life Back One Piece at a Time
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The front door to this Old Mother Hubbard house opens to reveal a small, vibrant woman who gingerly ushers you inside. The caution is a concession to the bursting-at-the-seams interior, where there’s but inches to spare in any direction due to a staggering assortment of things splayed out before you. Wherever you look, a pastiche of shapes, colors and masses catches your eye. A sprawling assemblage of grab-bag miscellany.
If this were a department store warehouse, the sheer volume of goods heaped about in piles, columns, stacks and bundles would rightfully be called inventory. Only this is retired IRS agent Mary Thompson’s home. All three floors over-brim this way. As do the basement and storage spaces under eaves and stairs.
So what does that make this snarl of odds and ends? Junk? Not unless you count Fifth Avenue designer hats junk. Not everything is so swank. But hoarders like Mary have strong emotional attachments to everything they own. Nothing is inconsequential to them.
Her affliction is profiled Sunday at 9 p.m. in the TLC series, Hoarding: Buried Alive. A crew twice visited her Little Italy home to chart her journey of surrender.
In a recent interview at her place, she said, “It’s become easier for me to disown things, to give up ownership.” A daughter, Becca, helps her sort through the maze for recycling or Goodwill donation. She said her mother’s tendency to ritualize the sorting draws out the process.
Yet, a second-floor den previously inaccessible is now an oasis or sanctuary amid the chaos. A spot where Mary can relax alone or entertain guests.
“I love it — the feeling that I get from having an empty place where I can come in, sit down, have a glass of wine, and visit,” she said. “I have a place that’s clear. I walk through this empty space and it feels so good.”
The rest of her home however is so constricted she barely has room to sleep on the floor. Her main furniture is “visiting” other homes for lack of anywhere to put it in her own. What’s there is buried under mounds of mishmash. The organized clutter represents her eclectic interests and fixations on display: hats and cashmere sweaters (hundreds each), dresses, costume jewelry, luggage, thousands of books, board games, silverware sets, catering equipment, tools, office supplies…
It’s not that she’s so possessive she won’t give anything away. Her daughter-in-law, Christy, said, “she’ill give you the shirt off her back. She’s very kind.” For all her generosity though, Christie said her mother-in-law can’t stand to part with anything if she doesn’t know what’s going to happen with it.
Suggest her possessions must represent a lifetime’s collecting and Mary says, “No, this accumulation is just from 1986.” The bungalow next door is hers, too — the basement stuffed; the garage between the two dwellings completely filled as well.
Then there’s the cats. Feral ones outside and domesticated ones indoors.
Big house items are packaged, bagged, boxed, loose. Mirrors and paintings adorn walls. Vases line mantels. Even the staircase is a makeshift storage conveyor.
“I’ve been collecting stuff forever,” said Mary, whose late mother, Lucille Schaaf, was an eccentric known for her acquisition of all things Christmas and of architectural remnants. Lucille was dubbed the Christmas Lady for the elaborate Xmas displays she mounted and the Lady in Orange for her penchant of dressing in orange from head to foot. She became one of the original Old Market denizens.
Mary, who does not argue she is an eccentric herself, is variously known as the Hat Lady, the Tax Lady and the Tax Witch.
“I’m what a lot of people refer to as a collector’s collector,” she said, “because if they’re looking for something specific they can call me, and if I don’t have it I know where I can find it. I probably use that to justify my junk shopping.”
Since the TLC shoot she said she’s only been to a thrift or pawn shop once. “In a sense it’s like withdrawal,” she said of dropping her old habit.
Her children long pestered her to clean house. It’s not like she was oblivious to its disarray. She acquired self-help books with the titles Simply Your Life, Organize from Within and Let It Go. “I’ve been trying,” she said. “That’s hard.” She appreciates the disconnect between intent and reality.
She’s paid a price for her home’s over-run condition, saying her children “didn’t even want my grandkids to come over because they feared for their safety. What does it take to admit you have a problem and you need some help?” In her case, she said, it took committing to the TLC program before admitting “I should probably do something about it.” She found TLC’s call for hoarders on Craig’s List and responded, never imagining she’d be selected.
“When she made the first step I knew she was going to make it work,” said Christy, whom producers flew in for the taping. “Others tried helping before but she wasn’t ready to do it. She’s come a long way.” “We’re really proud of her,” said Becca.
The show stipulated Mary work with a psychologist and professional organizer. Her family agreed to lend support. and Mary agreed to accept it. She said her family’s been “super” pitching in with the purge that proceeds ever so slowly.
When the crew arrived the first time in December, she said, “I had accepted it and I was ready for it.” She said the experience turned out to be “one of the funnest things I ever signed up for.” Her only worry was the crew “breaking something.” She said “they were gentle up to a point.” Only a couple mishaps, The consensus of the family is the crew were sensitive to Mary’s situation, not exploitive.
Producer Krys Kornmeier said, “I feel my job is to tell these people’s stories as honestly and genuinely as I can.” She said she hopes viewers come away aware there is no “quick-fix” for compulsive hoarding. “It’s an ongoing issue that needs ongoing support and I think Mary’s got a great family that’s supportive.”
Christy said Mary went through highs and lows during the filming but handled the intrusion and transparency well. “They were long days, but she was a trouper.”
Kornmeier added, “Mary was gracious and funny. She went along with it, but I’m sure she had moments. It’s really hard to ask for help when you’re as independent and competent as she is.” As for comparisons, she said some subjects “have less stuff, some have more stuff, but what they all have is too much stuff, and they’re all overwhelmed in some form or another by their stuff. Mary’s included in that.”
She said what Mary did to go from “goat trails” to clearing out a salon-like sitting room marked real progress. “She was as excited as I was to see it.”
Weeks after the shoot, hints of denial persist. For example, Mary said when she watches other hoarders on TLC she concludes, “I don’t think I’m as bad as a lot of them.” What she calls “my multitasking” and “hints of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)” interfere with her progress. “I sometimes get easily distracted,” she said. The incessant phone calls she takes from folks seeking tax advice interrupt the clean-up. She runs the local AARP office’s tax assistance program, one of many activities that keep her on the go.
“It’s frustrating, but I’m the one who has offered myself to everybody. I sometimes find I don’t understand the word or the concept no.”
Still, with the help of Becca and a handyman named Stanley, Mary’s feeling a sense of relief and hope she can reach her goal of having enough cleared away by her July 5 birthday to move her furniture back in. Others aren’t so optimistic but they note that at least she’s visualizing action steps.
“People say there’s even a difference in me, that I seem much lighter and freer, that I’m excited talking about getting this done,” said Mary. “Well, I am, I really am. I don’t regret it. It’s one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever embarked on.”
If nothing else, she said, “I realize I’m not alone in this.”
As for having her story out there, she said, “when it’s going to be on television it’s not going to be pretty.” She expects people “might be embarrassed” for her. Some are sure to be shocked she lives like this. “I’ll get over it,” she said. “Everybody’s got some of those tendencies — what’s wrong with being truthful?”
The task ahead is daunting as she’s barely scratched the surface of what’s a multi-year project. The removal of an object or a bin-full can take days or weeks. as she must convince herself she can let it go. Becca said, “It’s baby steps. She recognizes that and we recognize that. If we were to get in there and really push and not have any respect for her emotions then we would lose her immediately. She has to make those decisions. I’m not going to deny her that.”
Mary’s self-aware enough to know she’s not there yet.
“I’m still working on it. It’s a work in progress. I’ve got a long way to go. But I made up my mind, I’m going to get it done, I am going to get it done, I will have it done.”
- In a Hoarder’s Home, Going All Out to Find the Floor (nytimes.com)
- Drowning in junk: Hoarding called a public health issue (cnn.com)
- Hoarding disorder can consume households (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Under the Clutter: The Psychology Behind Hoarding (foxnews.com)
- Hoarding: How Collecting Stuff Can Destroy Your Life (time.com)