A & E’s show “Hoarders” has presented quite a challenge for me. It chronicles people who have OCD(Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) which manifests itself through the person’s hoarding-it could be food, animals, trash, or anything that fills a space. The filling of space seems to be the object-it fills some void in the person’s soul that only possessions can seem to fill. My mother was a hoarder. I see pictures from years ago, before I was born and I see an almost sterile looking home. In the pictures there is no clutter and wide open spaces. My mother developed an interest in antiques when I was 3 years old. Later that year, my oldest brother was killed in a car crash. My family essentially self-imploded. One of my brothers left home a few months after my brother’s death, another enlisted in the Navy. Another brother got involved with drugs. The youngest of the boys was in high school. My sisters were 11 and 9 when my brother died. But my mother’s way of dealing with her loss was to become an ‘antiques’ collector. In reality, what was collected was mostly junk. I think my Mom went from being OCD- clean to being an OCD-hoarder. She was also a child of the Depression, so that tendency to hold onto things harkened back to a very poor childhood.
My whole childhood was spent listening to my father complaining about the ever-increasing piles of junk to my mother. My mother’s response was that this was her hobby. I guess I realized that my house wasn’t normal about the age of 10. I would fret about the dust and dirt. I think I was the only sixth grader who would run home from school to clean. I kept the living room, dining room, kitchen and bathrooms sparkling. I had a sense that it wasn’t the normal thing for a kid to worry about. Also during this time, my one sister got involved with drugs and the other got married at age 18-to escape our house! My mom started doing flea markets twice a week. During the summer, I was forced to go with her and help, even though there were no prices on things, the booth was overflowing, and there were outhouses for bathrooms. Yes, Mom would say it was her stuff, but I had to live with it, and also work with it. I did an accounting of her costs and what she took in at the flea markets, and she didn’t even break even. Her ‘hobby’ was an ever-consuming need. The need was only visible in the piles of stuff that kept getting larger and larger!
Something funny would happen every time there was some crisis-either my brother or sister having to go to drug rehab, or some nasty argument between my mom and dad-more stuff would appear. So much stuff that the basement had filled up- then the den, the attic, and the garage were completely filled to the ceilings. It was hard to stake my claim and keep my room from being overtaken. My mother would buy pieces of furniture-say she was going to resell them, and they would end up in my room or my sister’s room. Decorative style in this house was many pieces of furniture lined up along every free spot in the walls-and sometimes the furniture was placed in front of other furniture, or stacked on it. The drawers of the furniture became junk drawers for the smaller ‘collections’. Do you know how many silver spoons can fit into one drawer?
When I was in college, I was desperate to escape the house. Yet, I was also very protective of my mother. My father dragged us all to family counseling. He complained about the lack of space and the difficulty in cleaning, my sister and I had the same complaint. The idiot therapist backed down from my mother and said it was my mother’s house, she should be able to do what she wanted. No consideration that it was my father’s house, also. No consideration for my sister’s and my feelings-in other words-put up or shut up. I shut up, but I also stopped cleaning obsessively. There was no such term as hoarding back in the 1980s, nor was it recognized as a form of OCD. I was just the girl from 'that' family that had all of the crap in the yard!
It is hard to explain the conflict that lives in a child of a hoarder. In one sense, I would have these fantasies of getting the house completely clean and making my mom and dad very happy. My mother would always complain that we never helped her. If we tried to straighten up, she would complain that she couldn’t find anything. We were never, ever allowed to throw anything out. She would check all of the trash to make sure we didn’t get rid of anything! She was always quick to say that it was HER house and HER things, but there was some cognitive disconnect between caring for HER house or HER things. She had never claimed any responsibility for the massive pile of junk that accumulated in the house, the yard, the garage-even cars left in the driveway would get boxes placed in them. To vacuum and dust was a major undertaking. There were knick-knacks everywhere. Mom would also complain that most of the stuff wasn’t hers, but she couldn’t even say whose stuff it was! The den and basement were floor to ceiling and wall to wall stuff. There was furniture, boxes, books, dolls, china, and my mother’s specialty-linens. Do you know how much mold and mildew linens acquire in a damp basement? Let’s just say that many people entering the house would turn around and leave. It took me a long time to come to terms about not helping my mother, and realizing that there was no helping her. It was a war that no one could win!
When I got married and moved to my own home, Mom proceeded to fill up the areas I had always kept cleaned-the living room, dining room and kitchen. My dad also divorced my mom at this time-after 43 years of marriage. He just couldn’t take it anymore. Dad was 72 when he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to the Solomon Islands. He was thrilled to have one suitcase to carry all of his possessions. I guess spending many years of your life walking in an obstacle course would make the lack of possessions a real big plus! Around this time, my mom also received a notice from the township about all of the junk in the yard. The yard got cleaned up, then inevitably it would fill back up until the township would complain again. In my Mom’s eyes, it was the neighbors’ fault for notifying the township-she never got that what she was doing was wrong and unsafe!
Mom continued to collect ‘antiques’ and she would also visit an estate liquidator on a weekly basis and bring home more ‘treasures’. Thanks to my Mom I do have an appreciation of quality furniture and antiques. Thanks to my Mom, I struggle on a daily basis to not accumulate items. I do throw many things out, I have a small pile(2 boxes) of ‘treasures’ in a spare bedroom, and you can walk through the rooms in my house without tripping. But I am always on the lookout for holding onto ‘things’.
Mom has Alzheimer’s now. She had built up a cocoon of belongings in her surroundings, keeping many away from her cocoon. Now the cocoon is around her mind. Her bedroom, living room and hallway are not as cluttered as before because Mom needs to use a walker to get around. The house is still there. The township visits on a regular basis to make sure the outside is clear. If the inside got checked, the den and cellar are still wall to ceiling junk.
How do you explain the mental illness that is hoarding? It can be so heartbreaking, intolerable, and damaging to your psyche. I love my Mom, but I still harbor so much hurt that her love of stuff trumped her love of her children, her grandchildren, and especially my Dad. I am finally realizing that Mom didn’t make a choice-it was just her way of coping with life. Watching “Hoarders” is bittersweet for me. The show does what I wish had been done for my family many years ago!