Thursday, September 8, 2011

So yes, I'd say her nerves were bad

It's always fascinated me that we live in a culture that casts so many aspersions on the mentally ill. Blame the Puritans, I guess, as well as any of the Founding Fathers that subscribed to the idea that if you were physically ill, you clearly brought it on yourself by displeasing God. It's not that far of a leap for us to think that the mentally ill are weak, or shiftless, or have done something to bring their misfortune upon themselves.  Pull yourself together! Why can't you just snap out of it?

Or, in our case, we hear others say such things about our parents, if anyone knows about their situation at all. Frances Boudreaux recently published Where the Sun Don't Shine and the Shadows Don't Play. She writes about growing up with her mother, who was a clinically depressed, schizophrenic hoarder. (Just typing that last phrase made my heart ache. Honestly, could it get much worse than that?) 

In an interview, she mentions that "In the 1960s in rural Central Louisiana, you didn't talk about mental health issues. It was OK just to say your nerves were bad, which my mother did." On a larger scale, I think society has moved more toward openness in the past few decades. At least there are conversations happening and funding put toward supporting those struggling with mental illness. On a smaller scale, though, I question how much truly has changed. Hoarding is such a bizarre and misunderstood illness that I very rarely have heard another person begin a conversation about it, even when their lives have been deeply impacted by a hoarder. Yet, when I've mentioned it, I'm almost always surprised by the other person's response. "Oh, my uncle was a hoarder. You should have seen his house!" "My sister..." "My dad..." and so on. There's so much shame and fear of judgment for being related to a hoarder that often, we limit ourselves to saying even less than "her nerves were bad." And so the shame and secrecy continue and we continue to feel alone, even though we truly aren't.  It's enough to make me wonder what would happen if we could be a little bit braver, a little bit more open -- if on a smaller scale, with the people who touch our own lives, we could keep that conversation going.


  1. I, annoyingly, open most conversations like this. I only need a sentence or two and the conversation takes a life of its own. Even with strangers / new friends.

    Some times it veers toward the car crash aspect of hoarding, but I'm not even the one who has to lead us away from that. SOMEone knows someone who has been affected by hoarding. Then we're off to happier topics.

    Often, when I see one of those new friends again, it's not until then they tell me about their own hoarder; sometimes it takes a while to process the information and realize.

    No one has ever made fun or judgement during these talks (at a diner, at a bar). Maybe they know if they did, I would talk them out back...

    Regardless, talk is beginning to happen. I'm really sorry for your pain. Thank you for speaking up.

  2. I like your phrase "we limit ourselves" in relation to hiding the hoard. Yes, it's tragic to think we live in a world full of unknown shared secrets, but I do believe the openness has gotten better.

    My father is a rural Italian farmer and culturally puts in high regard public reputation and perception. Dad thinks being mentally ill is weak, and I know it scares him to be that powerless.

    His fear of humiliation disables the ability to admit his hoarding problem, even to me. In turn, I'm afraid to begin the conversation.

    I fear his feelings. He fears his faults. And, like Sydney said, we're "off to happier topics."

    This is the cycle you mentioned, and it breeds into new generations if it goes unresolved.

    Posts like yours ignite inspiration in all of us who see hoarding in our lives, whether through family members or ourselves. These discussions will shed the necessary light on hoarding that is paramount to ending the cycle.

  3. The topic rarely comes up, but if I find myself talking about childhood stuff, or people mention housekeeping it can pop up. About half the time I say anything, someone else admits they know someone who is a hoarder.

    Its a lot more common than most people would guess, I'm thinking.