My parents are hoarders. My dad's mostly one of those "I can't bear to throw anything away because it it's wasteful" hoarders. His case is so mild that I'm not sure he's a hoarder so much as a compulsive saver. It's only one week of newspapers completely covering his half of the dining room table, not weeks of them, for example.
My mother does have an honest-to-gosh hoarding problem and is the one of the pair that I'm truly worried about. She struggles most with the emotional attachment to completely usesless/worthless objects and feeling too overwhelmed and ashamed to do anything about it (I doubt I'm helping with that one by writing this post. I'm sorry, mom.) She'll buy anything cute even if there isn't space for it. Stuff is love for her.
My parents have a basement that is the size of our entire apartment. It's filled up to my shoulders with boxes, laundry baskets, old furniture, piles of magazines, catalogs, books, videos, childhood games, you name it. It was the coolest room in the house during the many years we didn't have air conditioning. And it was completely unusable.
Their two in-home offices fit similar descriptions. Last time I opened the fridge there wasn't an inch of space. When I finally did locate the six bottles of salad dressing I was looking for, all of them were two years expired. I could go on but I think you get the point.
Understanding How We Cope With Hoarders
Dealing with the hoarders in your life seems to fit the pattern of the Kubler-Ross and Kessler's five stages of grief. I'm realizing that understanding where you are in the process makes a huge difference in how you choose to react when you return home to hoarders. Where do you fit? Let's see where I am right now:
- denial. "No, my parents don't have a problem. It's normal that I was never allowed to have friends over as a kid because the house was a disaster, right?" Ah, the ignorance of my childhood and college years.
- anger. This happened when I visited over the summer after the salad dressing incident when I didn't feel like I could even eat safely in my parents' house anymore. I threw a fit and that puts it mildly. My mother was in tears. Not helpful.
- bargaining. Funny, when I went home in November (first time home since the salad dressing blow-up), I came home and I could see the surfaces on the first floor of the house again. Huh? Apparently my begging and bargaining over the phone between these two visits had temporarily convinced my mother to try to clean up in order to please me (or to shut me up, take your pick). And it worked, until I realized that the junk had mostly moved to other parts of the house.
- depression. This part I've been navigating with the help of a wonderful psychotherapist. Realizing that my mother is dragging herself into a deeper hole and that I'm not helping has been a struggle, especially since I've been dealing with my own self-destructive coping behavior. But my psychologist insists that I have to choose the next step to be happy when I go home.
- acceptance. My mother is probably never going to stop being a hoarder. My father is no help. I've never gone home with this attitude before. But if I want to actually have a good time and not be stressed while I'm away from my home, I need to make this happen.
How can I accept that my parents are hoarders? My psychologist suggested mulling over these thoughts:
- You can't change other people.
- Hoarders do not hoard to spite you or make you miserable.
- Hoarding is a psychological coping mechanism.
- You have every right to carve out a physical and psychological space that is safe and comfortable for you.
- You have done all you can for them already. They have made the choice not to get help and they have chosen to live with the consequences.
- This is not your fault.
- You are not your parents.
- Parents aren't always right.
- You need to do what is best for you. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
- Relax. And leave the house! Go have fun on your own.
We'll see what happens. I hope these strategies will make my holiday (and yours) a little easier. If you have a family member who is a hoarder, I'd love to hear your strategies for coping with a trip home for the holidays.