Tuesday, August 23, 2011

God bless Elizabeth Vargas

Seriously, the most awesome thing I've seen all day are Elizabeth Vargas' facial expressions in this 20/20 special about children of hoarders. As she clambers through the hoard, it's actually kind of funny to watch the spasms of horror cross her face. This is a woman who probably should never play poker. After mountaineering her way through the hallway to the living room in what seems to be a state of shock, she picks up and puts down a mustard bottle and then a ketchup bottle, clearly thunderstruck by the fact that they are being stored on the living room floor. (Apparently, she keeps hers in the fridge. Huh.)

There was something very validating about being reminded that growing up as a child in a hoarded home is, to most people, completely foreign and simply unacceptable. 20/20 clearly articulated some of the most damaging and lasting effects of growing up this way. Continuously receiving the message that your parent's junk is more important than you are leaves lasting scars. The feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness have a way of following you, although they are most unwelcome companions.

Watching the show was a little difficult for me. But I also felt uplifted by the profiles of hoarders' children who have grown up and gotten out, moving on to create lives of their own. And to Jason Brunet, whose mother was featured on this show and on Hoarders -- your brave message of hope is actually even more awesome than the expressions on Elizabeth Vargas' face. You're right: there are people out there who understand. And there is always hope. So to those of you who are still living with or struggling with a hoarding parent, to those of you who feel worthless and helpless and like nothing will ever change -- it does get better. It truly does.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wait, how is this my fault?

The comment OneWeeSpark left about this article on children of hoarders got me thinking. A line in the article states that "There are no easy answers to this, which is why so many families of hoarders give up trying to change them." Reading this shot me right down memory lane, back into one of the less-than-delightful aspects of being the child of a hoarder.

Growing up, most people didn't know much about my mother's hoarding. Those that did, while well-intentioned, clearly didn't understand what was going on. There's such a misperception that hoarders are just lazy, disorganized slobs who should get up off their couches (if they can still find room on the couch next to all the piles of newspapers) and just start throwing things away. When someone new actually would see the inside of our house, which didn't happen much, they would typically ask (understandably), "How can you live like this?" This question was often followed by some form of disappointment that we kids weren't helping our mother enough, or the expectation that we should just dive in and start throwing things away, or another insinuation that we were somehow responsible for what was happening.

"...Which is why so many families of hoarders give up trying to change them." It took me years -- decades, really -- to come the the conclusion that (brace yourself!) it is not, in fact, my job to cure my mother. I cannot solve the problem by riding in on a white horse (or a white Dumpster, maybe) and throwing everything out. Hoarding has such deep psychological roots that, typically, if a house it cleared out against the hoarder's will, he or she will just fill it back up again.

Besides that, when did it become the child's job to care for and change the parent? Would someone ask the child of an alcoholic to help Mommy quit drinking? The child of a schizophrenic to help Daddy cut down on his pesky paranoid delusions? Blaming the children of hoarders for "allowing" our parents to live the way they do not only misses the mark, but also deepens our sense of shame around an issue we don't need to be ashamed of.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Apparently, it could have been worse

I was reading recently and learned that there are several types of hoarders: animal hoarders, squalid hoarders, and clean hoarders. (Really? 250,000 words in the English language and the best term that researchers could come up with was "clean hoarder?" Come to think of it, that's actually kind of funny.)

Clean hoarders keep things that the rest of us consider junk, in quantities that impede basic daily activities (cooking, sleeping, mobility, etc.). Piles of gifts for other people that are never given away, 27 bottles of unopened shampoo, newspapers and magazines stacked to the ceiling -- you get the idea. Hoarding of this type can be dangerous, as it creates fire hazards, falling hazards, and basic house maintenance issues. Clean hoarders do not, however, tend to keep things on the more nauseating end of the trash spectrum.

Squalid hoarders keep junk, too, but they also keep things that would make most people's stomachs turn. We're talking used paper plates, rotting food, dirty adult diapers, bags of garbage, and sometimes their own bodily excretions. (Seriously?) Their houses often begin to decay as well, because they are unable to have a repair person come in to, say, fix the leaking toilet. It will just keep leaking for years until the floorboards give way. These houses are often unsalvageable after the hoarder moves out. They're so far gone that they must be bulldozed.

Animal hoarders live in squalor, too. You've probably seen them on the news. They're the hollow-eyed people arrested for animal cruelty after the humane society raids their home and finds 82 cats (or dogs or horses or whatever), in varying states of illness and starvation, living there. Often, they will keep dead animals in the freezer or in other areas of their property. (Again I say, seriously?) Ironically, these hoarders often truly believe that they are "rescuing" the animals under their care.

My mother is a clean hoarder. So yes, I'd definitely say that it could have been worse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It all started when...

My father thinks my mother started hoarding about 25 years ago. After struggling to make ends meet for a long time, they had given up and were moving to another state in hopes of finding work. He remembers her loading up the truck with absolute junk that she couldn't bear to part with. You never know when you might need that old rebar, right?

When I was very young, I remember her being not so great with the housework or tidying up, but the house wasn't filled to the brim. The collecting, for the most part, was limited to stuff that got stored in the garage. As I got older, the garage stuff started overflowing into the house. Then we moved again, my mom started working, my parents' marriage continued to deteriorate, and the stuff just kept coming in. About 10 years ago, my parents separated, my sister died in a car accident, my brother and I moved out, and the stuff started coming in faster.

Many hoarders begin hoarding after experiencing a trauma. My mother's hoarding had already begun when my sister died, but it definitely intensified after that. Hoarding also tends to worsen after the hoarder starts living alone, so I guess we're dealing with a double whammy here. Regardless of exactly why, my mother's hoarding just seems get worse with time. The fact that she won't allow me in the house anymore (plus the fact that her piles have now spilled out onto the front porch -- sorry, neighbors!) scares the bejeezus out of me. What on earth does the place look like inside at this point? Mostly, I try not to think about it too much. Occasionally, my brother and I talk about what we'll do when my mom is no longer able to live alone. Given that she's filled a 2200 square foot house, a two-car garage, three storage sheds, and sections of her back and front yards with junk, cleaning the place out is going to be somewhat less than awesome. (Personally, I lean toward burning the place to the ground, but I'm pretty sure the insurance company would frown on that sort of thing.)