Thursday, July 5, 2012

If they point their fingers at each other anymore, they'll jab each others' eyes out.

It's amazing how much insanity you can pack into a single day.

I spent exactly 22 hours at home for the 4th of July. And while some of this was spent watching my sister fire a cannon four times (no kidding!), most of the fireworks were in the house.

My mother did her usual pre-visit cleanup. While the room did feature a path from the door to the closet, bed, and dresser, it was sad to realize that nothing had actually been removed from the house, just stuffed/hidden/shoved/disguised elsewhere. I gave a tour of the room in its usual state if you need a point of reference.

yup, that umade bed is my fault!

hey, I can get to the window this time!

oh, the horrors.

Enough had been removed that I could identify things of mine that I didn't know were in the pile, like three boxes of centerpieces from our wedding. I unearthed these now only 20 months after our wedding. As the day progressed I managed to snag each one of my parents individually to ask some questions about how I was going to deal with my stuff. Here's how the conversations went.

Totally irrational conversation with Mom

Me: Mom, it's going to be a real pain to take 20 hurricane vases from the wedding down to Maryland only to drive 10 miles to a thrift shop to donate them. Could you take them to the thrift shop next to your office next time you're up there?

Mom: I'll take them when I take the two recliners of Gram's to the thrift shop.

Me: Mom, those recliners have been there since before Gram died, three years ago. Are you really going to take these things to the thrift shop?

Mom: I will. 

Me: (picks up a ceramic candy dish that I asked her to take to the thrift shop at Christmas) What about this? You said you were going to take this dish from my room to the thrift shop but I just found it hidden behind the cereal on the kitchen counter. 

Mom: But it belonged to Gram.

Me: We have lots of other things of Gram's. You didn't even know we had it until I found it in my room.

Mom: I just haven't taken it because I don't have time. 

My mom is a tax preparer and has the Summer and Fall off. The thrift shop is a mile from her house. How does she not have time?

So my next thought is to put them in the recycling. My father has the habit of "editing" my trash, so I went to talk to him about this.

Totally irrational conversation with Dad

Me: Dad, I need to get rid of the vases we used for the wedding. I'm going to put them in the recycling. Please leave them there. I don't need them any more. I would appreciate it if you would respect my decision to throw items I've purchased in the trash. 

Dad: But I do leave your things in the trash. I only take them out when they could be useful. 


 By this point my father had turned his back on me was was ignoring me in favor of the computer.

The finger pointing begins

Me: Dad, I know you both have been seeing a psychologist. I think you should consider discussing the clutter issues with the therapist. 

Dad:  I know your mother needs to. She has some very serious control issues. I'm starting to think she has a bit of a hoarder in her. I found catalogs from 2004 in the basement!

(Do I cheer at the fact that he thinks she's a hoarder? Or start to panic because now he's got a label he'll use against her? And he will.)

Me: I mean you too, Dad.

Dad: 90% of this mess is your mother's.

Me: Dad, mom and I had to throw out 15 packages of ten-year-old vitamins and decongestants this morning when I went looking for some sudafed. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Mom doesn't do the shopping for that stuff, you do. And your garage--it has so much stuff in it it's unusable. 

(Ironically my mom was the one who threw out the 15 packages of sudafed after I found them. She seemed positively giddy, like she'd caught my father in some trap). 

Dad: I know I need to talk to your mother about her mess. And we were using the vitamins back then.

(and then I was stupid and got preachy)

Me: Dad, this clutter problem isn't going to get solved unless you both stop pointing fingers at each other. You each need to take responsibility for this.

And then mom walked in. The conversation was over. No progress.

Finding the centerpieces just gave my parents more ammunition. Unfortunately every piece of my clutter we unearth prompts a "See? The fact that this house is a mess isn't my fault!" response from each of my parents. Yes, I know there are a number of things still left that are my responsibility. The difference between them and me is that I will do something about my stuff. If they'll let me.

Ultimately all hope was lost; the hubs and I packed up the car with the vases knowing that we'd find them back in my room if we moved them to anywhere else on the property. It's a small car so there wasn't much room for anything else, which made it even harder to move anything else out. That gave my mother ammunition to use her favorite line: "But this junk isn't all ours, you're almost 30 and you still have so much stuff here!"

By this point all I could do was take my $10,000 worth of psychoanalyzed brains and leave. To hell with empathy for them. No amount of blogging or playing my guitar was going to calm me down. And then the Awful Realization hit me.

My parents aren't going to get help. Ever.

Why do I care so much? Why does it matter to me that the house is a mess?



  1. Oh, Joanna, I feel your pain. Just keep moving forward in your own life. You deserve it. Believe that with all your heart!

    1. You're right Karin, you're absolutely right. I deserve a better life and I don't need to put up with this anymore. It's sad, but I guess at this point it's just the next phase of growing up. The *real* moving out has begun. I have to grow up now, right?

  2. This is sad. Having these talks with your parents only makes the situation worse. True. I have experience with this. Time for a different approach. Hug them. Reinforce that you love them. This is very very important. It is something to do with expressions of love that increases the hoarding. Tell them that you are grateful that they take such good care of things. They actually do that. They are not able to get rid of things. They can not take your things to the thrift shop for you and you already know that. They really do need you to do that for them and for yourself. Your parents are caught in a dreadful trap. It is scary for them and it paralyses them. You have to help rescue them. Of course you hate it. That is your personality. Just be a hero and do it with courage. I have sympathy for you, but courage is needed here not criticism. You saved yourself, now save them. The method that worked for you will not work for them.

    1. Isn't it easy to expect the things that help us to help others? I need a more open mind about what might help them. After all, I've tried so many things that haven't worked. Thanks for commenting!

  3. This sounds like very familiar conversations, despite the topic changing. It's hard when parents can't see the errors in their ways. The Hubs' parents have the WORST relationship (if you can call it that) and are always pointing fingers at each other. Whenever I mention something about compromising or it not being fully the other's fault, it makes no difference--they just plant their feet more firmly in the ground. What I've learned is that I can't change how they will react or what they will do, but I can change my reaction to it all. Learning that little thing in therapy years ago completely changed my relationship with my dad. For years, I pinned it all on him, but once I realized that I had a choice how I dealt with his crap, I saw everything in a new light.

    Maybe in your situation, you can get everything of yours out (I think you talked about this in your vlog), so they can't hang that over your head. I'm wondering if you can talk to them simultaneously and explain that you can no longer come their house if things are a certain way and how it affects you. If all else fails, you at least know that you are taking amazing, strong steps to ensure you don't turn out the same way.

    Hugs to you! This has to be the hardest thing, but we're all here to help support you however it is best for you!

    1. I think I'll definitely feel a lot better when my mom can't blame me for the mess anymore. And to see the look of shock on her face when *she* realizes that she can't blame me anymore.

      Argh, but the idea of dumping it all in my current place *cowers in a corner*

  4. I agree with the above. Also, next time they visit you or you visit them, take a trip to donate some goods. Don't buy anything at the thrift store, just donate. It gets them to practice letting things go, without actually having to let things they own go.

    1. I think it also sets a good example :o) Great idea! I'll definitely try that next time I'm home.

  5. You care that the house is a mess because you care about them and really do want them to be happy and healthy. They may get help someday, but it's going to have to be on their timeline or any progress made won't stick. I still think your best bet is to rent a truck and pack up the rest of your belongings still stored there. Even if you had to pay for a storage unit for a month or two while you sorted through it, it would be better than dealing with that every time you go. And yes, asking a hoarder to deal with your donations is about as effective as beating your head against a wall.

    1. I think you're right. As long as my stuff is on the walls I still think the space is mine. So some of this is fear of my own issues, 1.) that I don't have a home at my parents' place anymore and 2.) that I'm afraid to have to go through my childhood stuff. The more stuff I get rid of the the more I'm left with the hard stuff. You're totally right. I've got to get everything out of there.

  6. The truth is, it takes one to know one.

    When I look at the mass accumulations in my parent's home it points the finger at me. It is the mirror that reflects my behaviors and my issues. The feelings that arise about their stuff are projections. When I feel myself getting worked up, I remember to hold us all in compassion, rather than judgement. Something happened and gathering, saving, collecting and hoarding seemed a viable solution.

    Until we face the underlying cause, we are just floundering. Even when we carry out stuff to the trash or donation, we are just going through the motions. I am supporting clearing two homes and I know I do not need another thing. I can feel the urge rise in me to take things home. It's like I am jonesing for crap.

    Working in other people's clutter does remind me to sort out my stuff more often. Some nights I think I don't want to leave a bunch of crap for my kids to sort through if I die. Then I remember, they love me, no matter what.

    1. That's very astute. I wonder how much of my own anger at them is just me projecting? Definitely something to consider carefully. Thanks for the thought.

  7. Wow! This all sounds strangely similar to conversations I've had with my parents. They are not hoarders, but very dedicated "savers" I guess?

    When I moved out of my parent's house, my mom turned my room into a sewing room; she had wanted that for years. Then, she complained about the small amount of my things that still occupied the room. So, I got rid of the things. Then she promptly filled the room almost floor to ceiling!

    For years my dad went through my trash, just in case I threw out something useful. As a teenager, it really made me want to scream STOP GOING THROUGH MY TRASH! I didn't understand at all.

    But thankfully, through my kind suggestions to help them clear out and organize their home, I think they are finally coming around and are open to any kind of "downsizing", which I think is fantastic.

    So I am thankful that any progress is at least.. progress.

    1. Oh, that sounds awfully familiar! Kindness seems to have worked for many. I just need to get over my resentment and get to the point where you are, the point where I can be kind instead of hateful. I think I have plenty of opportunities to practice in the future!

  8. We have the same parents. I swear, it's like I was visiting my parents' house reading this entry. The house is packed to the gills with junk, but neither of them are hoarders. My dad says the house is a mess because of my mother, ignoring the 2-car garage PACKED with stuff; my mother says the house is a mess because of my dad, ignoring the closets full of clothes from 1994 and knickknacks everywhere and stacks and stacks of newspapers. I threw away NyQuil from 1991 last time I was there. And she still looked through the bag of trash to make sure I didn't throw anything away that she wanted to keep.

    My mother gets highly offended when I even suggest that they are bordering on hoarding. She cried when I asked if I could throw away a three-foot-high stack of newspapers. We have to rearrange two bedrooms and clear off two beds whenever we visit, or we won't have anywhere to sleep. The downstairs is a system of paths; I feel like an ant in a hill down there. Half of their home is unusable because it is filled with junk, but it's always someone else's fault.

    We've tried to help them. My husband is a master organizer, and he has offered to spend a weekend there and rent a dumpster and make trips to the thrift store for them. They have turned him down every time, so he stopped offering. It's getting to the point where we no longer feel comfortable staying there, which will cause World War III when I have to tell my mother that next time we are in town. But the stress of being there is starting to outweigh any enjoyment we might get out of visiting them.

    1. I feel like the "no longer feeling comfortable staying there" is one of the hardest parts of all of this. It's like losing our homes. At that point I suppose it's just grief and can be dealt with as such. It still hurts though. I'm not looking forward to having to dodge my mom's question of why I never want to come visit anymore.

  9. If your parents are anything like mine, the problem seems to be that their living conditions really don't bother them. They realize it's not socially acceptable, but if it doesn't bother them what is the motivation to change?

    Why do you care so much? We don't choose our parents. We don't choose the living conditions we are raised in. But these greatly affect the adults we become. I didn't have a lot of friends growing up. I could only go to my friends homes so many times before they began to wonder why they weren't welcome to play at my house. To this day I get extreme anxiety when we have company over. I never learned how to be a good hostess because I never learned how to be a hostess. To this day people sometimes find me to be "rude" when I truly am trying my best. I just never learned those skills.

    The only visitors we ever had were the obligatory family visits. When those came around, everything was stuffed into my parents bedroom and the door was shut. They just crossed their fingers that no one would open the door. I never learned how to clean. We lived not only with hoards of things, but also in filth.

    It's almost impossible to grow up as a COH and not have some level of mental trauma as a result. Whether it be going to the extreme of trying to be the opposite with a perfectly clutter free and sterile home to inheriting the hoarding problem yourself to other control related illnesses, it's very difficult to escape the impact it's had on our life.

    If you are anything like me, you care because your parent's living situation has affected who you have become as an adult. We hope that if our parents can work out their issues, we can move further along in healing our own issues that came about as a result of living in those conditions. We want our parents to recognize what we've missed out on both as children and now as adults as we struggle with our own control issues.

    Every time we return home and revisit the same situation, all of those feelings flood our minds all over again. We work on changing and healing, but going home always feels like taking steps backwards. That is why I have made the choice to no longer visit my parent's home.

    I know I've been rambling, but hopefully you can relate. And about the vases, since you made the decision to recycle them rather than take them to the thrift shop, I would have broken them and then put them in the recycling. They can still be recycled, but there is no use for broken glass!

    1. I would say that you hit the nail on the head. I care so much because I feel like my parents could've been better parents if they'd gotten help, and the house is just a reminder that they haven't gotten help (and that, oh god, I will have to deal with them when they get older.) I'm resentful that I couldn't have friends over as a kid, that I was blamed for the mess when it wasn't my fault...yes, you're right. What it's really about is that I'm living in the past, when my parents controlled my life. They don't anymore and I've forgotten.

      Ah, and the idea of breaking the vases did occur to me. I didn't do it because I didn't want to hear my dad whine about how I broke something useful, but I also didn't do it because (ah, hoarder trait!) I couldn't bear to see them wasted myself. They're definitely going away though! Thanks for commenting. I really appreciate your thoughts.

  10. Some of your readers have made such thoughtful comments--wow. I agree with the people that have said you need to get everything of yours out of the house so you can lead by example. Change can be slow. Have you ever had a conversation with either parent about how it is hard/uncomfortable sometimes to give something away (or used to be) for yourself, yet you sit with the discomfort and do it anyway? Maybe that would plant a seed.

    1. I've had a few conversations with them about how hard it is to give something away, but then I get to the part where I look at my irrational thoughts, eg. but this teddy bear will be lonely!, and realize that they're irrational and should be ignored. That's the part where they get completely confused. I'll keep trying though.

      And yes, I'm really coming to grips with the fact that I'm just going to have to move everything out at once. Now, I just have to pick a weekend to do it. And find neighbors whose trash cans I can borrow.

  11. It can be hard to get all your stuff out when it's hidden behind the newer acquisitions. I haven't had a room to stay at my Mom's house for about 13 years. And I haven't been allowed inside the house for at least 6. But I remember the procedure of cleaning up when expecting hard I worked as a kid to help hide the piles of stuff when someone was coming to visit.

    1. Not having a place to stay at our parents' house seems to be a common trait among COH. I was hoping for so long that I could avoid it...but I'm realizing that I can't. It's time for me to make it final and just remove all of my stuff. Then, not only won't I have a physical place to stay, I won't think that the space is "mine" anymore either.

  12. Why does it matter so much? Because you only want good things for your parents. Because you care about them. Because you want them to be well. Because it isn't normal. Because you don't want to have to pick up the pieces after one or both of them passes on.

    I think you need to get all your stuff out of there to remove you from the picture completely. I think that may help them trying to place the blame on you.

    I also didn't quite understand the vase thing. You wanted your mom to take them to a nearby thrift store? Couldn't you have done that(instead of drive them to your house and then take them to a donation place there)? Or was the point that you wanted your mom to do it?

    1. about the vases -- the one thrift shop in my hometown keeps bankers' hours - 9 to 5 weekdays and NO weekends. I only ever go home on weekends so somebody has to drop any donations I make off for me.

      But sure, it would've been a good exercise for her too!


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