Saturday, December 17, 2011

Musing on going home for the a house of hoarders

i don't know who holds copyright on this. no infringement intended.

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.


  1. I have no advice...but my mother is a mild hoarder. My stepdad is more than a mild hoarder. When my brother is no longer at home (he's 13 this month), and no longer has friends over, I worry about what their home will look like. Right now they could probably be called "pack rats" but the words out of my mother's mouth are usually "I'll always need it" no matter what the item is. A cup I've stuck in my donation box? She wants it. More bedding than any one family could need being donated? She wants it.

    So I commiserate. :(

  2. You took the words right out of my mouth :o) Have you been able to get rid of things or has someone always swooped in to 'save' the object? Any strategies you'd recommend?

    There's still time for your folks before your brother moves out. It is scary though, realizing that if things get worse it may becoe difficult or impossible for us to go home. My psychologist suggested that I don't stay with my parents for more than a night anymore. It hurts but I'm starting to think that I might have to do that to keep my sanity intact. Good luck to you!

  3. Nope, it always gets "saved" - including MY stuff! My mom "declutters" a LOT but she focuses on stuff right in front of her face, which means the important paperwork that comes in gets shredded while there are boxes full of junk papers stacked in her room. She has two crates full of pads of paper (my stepdad is a printer) but will take in another crate worth and get rid of a sheaf of notebook paper that can be used for school. I don't get it!

    I live in the same complex they do so thankfully I never have to stay over. I'm sorry you have to deal with that...but maybe they will be able to adjust their mindset? At least you seem to know that they don't hoard to hurt you, which is super important. It's not a matter of "stuff" versus "the kids"...just that they can't help themselves.

  4. Joanna, I think you nailed the essence of the disorder: "Stuff is Love"
    Wow. I think I should make one of those signs with the circle and diagonal slash over that phrase.
    Stuff is NOT love..... Conversely, I do NOT love my stuff...

  5. My parent's house is 2/3 unusable space due to the excessive things that have been packed away. At first I thought it was just because no one had time to deal with the things that accumulated. Now that my mom doesn't have a job anymore I decided to see what kind of space I could clear up. This is where I changed my mind about why the stuff was there. For example: my sister got married and then divorced 3 weeks later. She's got engraved champagne glasses from the wedding with their names on them. She won't let me put them in the recycle bin because someone might use those. This wasn't explained lightly to me. There was some yelling involved (mind you I was being pretty forceful about having her get rid of them). This was so illogical to me I couldn't even grasp the concept of saving something like that for 10 minutes, let alone a year. So as we work our way through the room and start the process of letting go of these items it got very complicated. Some things were just too good to get rid of, others are to be sold for money (since we're hard up right now), some to be given to the neighbor kids, some for GoodWill, so on and so forth. Its really hard to try to help someone that can't let go of things, but I can't stand to see them blocked off from portions of their house and living in confined areas because excessive crap laying around. I wouldn't be attempting this if it was not wished for. My mom has a blazing desire to be able to use these rooms again and I'm excited for this to happen so we can stop moving bills and newspapers off the kitchen table when its time to eat. I'm going to be forceful about this and not stop until the job is done. I pick up individual items and sarcastically ask, "let me guess, this is too good to let go and you're going to sell it soon right? Because someone is totally going to pay some good cash for it." That's my strategy.


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