When her husband died, her house became a reflection of herself and her family life. There was so much stuff piled up that there was no room to walk, nowhere to put anything. The devastation of Tom's death caused Janet to turn to compulsive hoarding, which is when an individual obsessively accumulates so much excessive clutter that it creates a debilitating and cramped environment. Even a photo of Tom, a Whittier Police Department sergeant, sat on top of clutter. But in a fateful moment that changed her life, cable channel A&E chose her story for the show "Hoarders." Things would change for the better.
"They saved my family. That's what they did," said Janet, 52, who lives in the East San Gabriel Valley. Her full name is being withheld to protect her privacy. "It's like a rebirth for all of us - like a new beginning. We've emerged again without the pain."
Janet was hit hard when her husband, who had a rare heart tumor, passed away on March 11, 2007, two months shy of their 31st anniversary. "Realizing that you're a widow is hard enough. I never connected being a widow and a single parent," Janet said. Without Tom, Janet turned to hoarding. Life with her daughters Amy, Becky, Kaitlyn and Savannah fell apart because of it. "The girls and I, the condition of the house strained our relationship," Janet said. "It felt like she was just kind of stuck," oldest daughter Amy said.
It was not just Tom's death that led Janet down a spiraling hole, but many traumatic experiences over her lifetime. "From the experience I had with hoarding, I believe it stems back to trauma and loss," she said. "I can pinpoint each trauma." The near death of her mother when Janet was a child; her best friend losing her battle with leukemia; multiple miscarriages; her own near death experience; dealing with three lawsuits; the passing of Tom, then her mother a year later. It was all stored inside of her.
Much like her house, she became a space for hoarding - tucking away her pains and fears until they took over her life. As with her house, no one was allowed in. Janet tried to stay away from her house because of the reminders it brought. In a room opening to the front entrance, Tom spent five days of his last Christmas at home in a hospital bed, hooked to tubes and machines. "There was so much pain in that room. He was suffering for five days," Janet said, teary-eyed. After his death, she went on an extreme case of retail therapy - minus the therapy. She bought unneeded clothes and purchased furniture for a renovation Tom once planned.
Janet was a unique hoarding case. Most people with the condition had an excessive collection of junk; she hoarded usable items. "We've run across jobs, unfortunately, where they live in garbage. They live in squalor," said Bryan Guidizi, owner of Walnut- based 1-800-GOT-JUNK, whose franchise helped with this particular episode. "Lucky for her, she bought things."
Janet's battle with hoarding did not begin with Tom's death. Although she always had a hoarding problem, it was his passing that sent her to an extreme, daughter Amy said. "After my dad passed away three years ago, it got exponentially bad. It was through the roof," she added.
It was typical for Janet not to invite friends or even her sister over. But the day Janet told Amy to wait outside, her daughter knew something had to be done. Not knowing what resources to turn to, Amy decided to write to the producers of "Hoarders." "When I actually wrote the letter to the show, I felt a little guilty about it because I knew it was a painful thing for her," Amy said. It was even harder for Amy to ask her mother to be on board when the show had chosen her story. "I was absolutely certain she would say 'no way,' and never in a million years would she say 'okay,"' Amy said.
To her surprise, her mother gave the go-ahead. It had taken that talk with her daughter for Janet to realize the state of her house. "I looked outside and there was a stack of stuff and I looked inside and I was just drowning in it," Janet said.
In a two-day period at the end of November, the show went to Janet's house and jump-started the change.It was not easy, but "it was a good day to let it go," Janet said. The show's professional organizer, Dorothy Breninger, president and founder of Delphi Center for Organization, taught her to let go of her attachment to her material possessions, while local 1-800- GOT-JUNK companies helped bag and box her things.
In those two days, Janet got rid of eight tons that had accumulated in her house. Five trucks were filled, one of which had items that were donated to goodwill.By the end of filming, Janet could see her house beginning to look like a home. Emotionally, she was growing strong. "I felt (my heart) split open and I felt it mend up," Janet said. "I hold my head up high now."Her daughter saw the effect on her physically. "It's like the weight of the world was lifted off her shoulders," Amy said.
Three months later, Janet's home looks completely different. It is warm, with a floral theme running throughout the house. There is space to walk. Everything is neatly placed and orderly. Tom's photo now sits on top of the piano, "at the head of the house," Janet said. Even the room that reminded Janet of Tom's pain has transformed. It has been decorated with inspirational sayings and adorned with family photos. "This is a family room that's truly a family room," Janet said. It has become her favorite room, where she and her daughters bond and laugh.
Although Janet still has a lot of stuff to sort, she has a routine. Almost every day, Janet goes through a bag or box and decides whether to throw it away or donate. Tuesdays are cleaning days, because her home should be pristine, and Fridays are donation day. She even looks forward to trash day "to just throw away," she said.
Little by little, Janet is letting go of the things she once held on to so tightly. The key to her mending is taking it a step at a time, focusing on the task at hand instead of the overall."I really believe she's going to do this. She's going to make a change," Amy said. Janet hopes to have everything done by June. Then she will celebrate with her sister, who also made a pact to get rid of unnecessary items in six months. It will be a day dedicated to pampering, maybe with a trip to the beach.
Since "Hoarders," Janet is in a good place. She has become close with her daughters, regaining the bond she lost because of hoarding. "The tension in the family is kind of gone now and there's nothing to hide," Amy said.
Now, Janet looks to the future. "I'm not going back to that," she said. Janet wants to go back to school, help others deal with hoarding and somehow find her dreams. "Now I realize since this experience, Tom and my life together, that did end and I don't have to spend that energy of holding on. Now my dreams are still out there," Janet said. And best of all since the show, literally and figuratively, "I've been able to open the door and say 'come in,"' she said.
Written by Stacey Wang
February 10, 2010