Saturday, April 28, 2012

Surprising sympathy. Sort of.

I'm the first to admit that I normally have precisely zero sympathy for my mother, the hoarder. This is a trait that I share with many children of hoarders. There's something about growing up in a household where your parent bonds with things more than you that doesn't inspire a ton of warm, sympathetic feelings. Recently, though, I had probably my first flash of sympathy ever. After moving last month into a much smaller place, I still have one bedroom stacked with boxes to go through. It's like death by a thousand tiny decisions. Open a box, take out an item. Does it go to Goodwill? The garbage? Do I keep it? If so, where do I put it? Then multiply that by all of the items in the box, and then by all of the boxes I have left to go through. Overwhelming. And this is coming from someone whose default mode is "If I don't love it, it needs to go away." And then I thought of my mother, who has filled a four-bedroom house, two-car garage, and two storage sheds to the brim with utter crap. It's an incredibly overwhelming amount of possessions.

Researchers are discovering that hoarders' brain function seems to differ from that of a healthy person. (This will come as no great shock to those of you who are related to a hoarder.) Part of the issue seems to be that they cannot accurately judge the value of an item, leading to keeping a huge excess of things that to them (and them only) seem valuable. They also have great difficulty making decisions (this likely isn't shocking to you either). But if I am this worn out by clearing out one bedroom's worth of stuff, I can't imagine what facing down an entire hoarded house would feel like for my mother. Therein lies possibly the first glimmer of sympathy I've ever had for her.

Granted, the sympathy is limited. Her refusal to seek help for hoarding or her concomitant manic depression kind of puts the brakes on the warm fuzzies. It's certainly not her fault that, like many hoarders, she grew up traumatized by living in an abusive family. It isn't her fault that her brain chemistry doesn't work like most people's. But forcing three children to grow up in the midst of her very substantial baggage? I don't have enough sympathy to let her off the hook for that.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lies my mother told me, part 2

Growing up in a hoarded home, you internalize a lot of messages about how to exist and how to make your way in the world. As my therapist has pointed out, this means you learn patterns of behavior that help you survive your childhood. Unfortunately, the flip side of this means that if you're looking to create a healthy adulthood, there are a lot (a LOT!) of messages that you need to rethink and revise.

One of the biggest messages I received growing up was never actually verbalized. It had more to do with watching my mother's reactions to problems. For the most part, whenever an issue arose, her reaction fell into one of three camps. Option 1: Make no attempt to solve the problem. Stick head in sand. Repeat as necessary. Option 2: Attempt to solve problem via incredibly complex, complicated solution that is doomed to fail. Flagellate self ceaselessly when completely unrealistic solution doesn't work out. Option 3: Blame someone else for the problem. (This last one is very handy, as it totally preempts the necessity of examining your own contributions to the issue. Unfortunately, it also means you have a snowball's chance in Arizona of actually resolving anything.)

As an adult, these three choices seem to have melded into one giant, crippling shorthand. No matter what the problem is (and in my life lately, there have been some doozies), my unconscious reaction screams that "There is no possible solution to this problem!" I'm pretty sure this comes from the complex of issues that stem from growing up in a crazy, hoarded home, not least of which is the specter of learned helplessness that raises its ugly head all. the. damn. time. As I'm facing my own, new apartment that is still in chaos from a move, plus a variety of implosions in my personal life, it can be hard to remember everything I've learned over the past decade. Sometimes, no matter how far you've come, it's still hard to be a hoarder's child.