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.


  1. I understand this phenomenon of "the flash of sympathy". The more I read about how hoarders' minds work, the more I understand how my parents were frequently trapped by thought patterns they believed were normal.

    When a person's overwhelmed by something, sometime he gets pushed into a depression, and that reinforces not dealing with the task at hand. Hoarding has also been found to be co-morbid with depression, and having dealt with some depression recently myself, I am more sympathetic to my parents than I ever thought I could be. It's unbelievably hard to recognize a mental illness in yourself.

  2. Theres a difference between understanding troubles and forgiving trespasses.
    A lot of people seem to think that if you understand why someone did something horrible, you should automatically forgive them, what bunk.

  3. oh, same here. My parents both have this incredible, deep-seated aversion to getting help from a psychologist. Me, I'm 29 and I've already probably spent $15,000 on couch time to clean up the mess in my head that my parents made. Life really is better on the other side. I wish they could see that.

  4. I could have wrote that.