Monday, October 24, 2011

It really, really could have been worse

And in another news item that makes me deeply thankful that my mother hoards innocuous things like books, this Louisiana couple just got sentenced to jail for hoarding snakes. Seriously? Snakes? Not that I condone animal hoarding or anything, but I could at least kind of see how you could get started hoarding something like puppies. Puppies are cute. Plus, they don't typically harbor a desire to kill and eat you while you're sleeping.

Granted, the news coverage makes it sound somewhat unlikely that these people are genuinely hoarders; it sounds more like they were just trying to make a (neglectful, unethical) buck by illegally breeding snakes. Disturbingly, though, they presented themselves as an animal rescue organization. This, apparently, isn't uncommon amongst animal hoarders, who will continue to adopt animals long after they've stopped having the funding or wherewithal to care for them (much like this Ohio woman, who hoarded dogs, cats, snakes, fish, and a horse). The lack of insight amongst animal hoarders is mind-boggling. Long after they have begun keeping animals in absolutely deplorable, cruel conditions, they continue to believe that they are saving and caring for them.

I haven't yet come across a news report of an animal hoarder with children in the home, but I'm sure it happens. And just thinking about it makes me truly thankful for small mercies. Growing up in a hoarded home was heartbreakingly difficult at times, but at no point was I sharing space with 100 snakes. Ick. So it really, really, really could have been worse.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Well, that explains it

One of the more interesting things about reading about hoarding is finding actual explanations of why hoarders do the nonsensical things that they do. I grew up as the daughter of a mother who saved milk jug caps and boxes of miscellaneous paper. I am the granddaughter of a man who lived in a house stacked with so many newspapers that he had small aisles to walk through, plus a backyard filled with oil drums left over from the oil shortage in the 70's. This meant that, even as a child, I spent a lot of time being completely mystified by what went on in my family. Why was it so hard for them to throw out things that were clearly complete garbage?

Turns out, among other things (and this will surprise no one who is a hoarder's child), hoarders find decision making much more difficult that the average person. This New York Times article discusses a study by David F. Tolin, a professor of psychiatry at Yale and director of the anxiety disorders center at the Institute of Living in Hartford. When the brains of hoarders were scanned while they tried to make irreversible decisions about what to discard, the part of the brain involved in decision-making lit up like a Christmas tree. They showed clear signs of stress and difficulty making choices; non-hoarders showed no such effect.

In practical terms, this means that when I pick up a piece of junk mail, I think, "Piece of junk mail. Recycle it. Done!" When my mother picks up a piece of junk mail, I'm pretty sure that the thought process goes something like, "This is a piece of information that could be valuable someday. Maybe I should recycle it? No, I might need it later. Maybe I should put it in this towering pile of papers on the couch? No, maybe that's not a good place for it. Maybe I should put it into my incredibly overly-detailed filing system? No, if I can't see it, I might forget about it. Maybe I should, um...." At this point, the piece of junk mail is clearly not going anywhere, so it's put somewhere to be dealt with later. Multiply this process by one bajillion pieces of detritus filling the house and you'll begin to understand, at least partially, why the decision to discard something is never really made.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What a waste. Literally.

Not surprisingly, we children of hoarders are well aware that our parents aren't going to live forever. Unfortunately, we're also well aware of what is going to happen to us after they're gone. Since burning the hoarded house down is generally frowned upon, that leaves us with the dreaded option of actually having to clean it out. Years ago, my brother and I decided that when our mom dies, we're going to go through the house, remove anything we'd like to keep (about two boxes of baby pictures, all told), and have a clean-up company come deal with the rest.

This plan sounds fine on the surface, especially as I mostly just try not to think about it. But when I consider that my mother has filled a 2100 square foot home, three storage sheds, and a two-car garage with total crap, the plan gets a little more complicated. (Hence the trying not to think about it.) It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to hire a company to clean out a hoarded home, plus all of the repairs that are necessary once the place is empty. But the alternative is putting our entire lives (and, most certainly, our sanity) on hold for months while we clean out thousands of square feet of junk. It is completely insane to think about the utter waste of time and money spent cleaning up a hoard like this (not to mention the wasted life that went into creating the hoard in the first place). And when I read something like this Newsweek article on what happens when a hoarding parent dies, I'm pretty sure my blood pressure goes up about 15 points.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lies my mother told me

I experience such a flood of recognition when I read this post by One Wee Spark that I'm pretty sure I stopped breathing for a second. She writes about lies that you grow up with in a hoarded home, one of which being "if I can't do it perfectly and complete it right now, I should wait until I can."

My mother had several stock sayings that she repeated throughout my childhood (one of which being, "you make my life a living hell," but that's another post). I remember her telling us kids that "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." On the face of it, this is a worthy sentiment. In our house, though, the meaning somehow morphed into something more akin to, "if you can't do it absolutely perfectly, then don't even bother starting." When applied to most areas of life, this misguided perfectionism basically paralyzes your ability to function. In my adult life, this translates into being an excellent procrastinator, which then translates into stress generated by a to-do list that gets longer rather than shorter. If I can't get it done perfectly and completely, I'd rather not even start.

Lately I have been giving myself permission to do things less than perfectly, so I can just get them done. I can vacuum the dirtiest part of our house and leave the rest for later. A short phone call to my grandparents is better than not calling at all. It's immensely freeing to start letting go of the pressure I put on myself. And the more I let go, ironically, the more I realize that trying to do everything perfectly has often kept me from accomplishing anything at all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Apparently, I'm not the only one

One common theme running through the writing of children of hoarders is that we're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some of us are already hoarders ourselves. But those of us who aren't are often hypervigilant, waiting for something bad to happen, waiting for a switch to flip that will turn us into our hoarding parent. Some of us keep Spartan houses, throwing away anything that might even resemble clutter. Some of us live with clutter, but keep a constant watch out for signs that things are taking a turn for the worse. All of us, I would guess, have to play catch-up to learn basic housekeeping and life skills that most people learned as a child. Some things seem fairly obvious -- dishes should be washed after dinner, you sweep the kitchen after you've made a mess of the floor. Some things are more of a mystery for those of us whose parents did no housekeeping as we were growing up. How often do most people change the sheets? Are you supposed to get a new towel every time you take a shower? How messy do "normal" people let the house get during a busy week?

If my father is right, my mother's hoarding was triggered by the trauma of an interstate move forced by economic circumstances. That means the hoarding started when she was in her mid-30's. I'm 31, so I haven't quite reached the age she was when she began hoarding. I also know that the hoarding "switch" is often flipped by traumatic events in the life of the hoarder. I've had plenty of trauma in my life (less-than-idyllic childhood, death of a sister, a disastrous starter marriage) and so far have had no impulse to start collecting things to comfort myself. I have an ongoing Goodwill bin in the closet and experience a disproportionate amount of joy when it's full and I get to discard it. I'm even happy when I finish off a tube of toothpaste or a bottle of shampoo, because that means I get to throw it out. But no matter how often I remind myself that I'm not like my mother, that I don't have the same problems that she has, the fear is always there. One day, I'm afraid, I will wake up in a house where I have allowed things to rule my life, to push out relationships, to distance myself from family and friends. And I know that other children of hoarders and I are in that same place, hoping that other shoe never drops.