I’ve gotten some interesting feedback from my post about teaching children about hoarding.  I wrote how I felt I am failing my daughter by not coaching her on better organizational habits earlier.

You Responded!

I was delighted to read your comments!  Thank you to all who took the time to leave a note on the blog or email me in person.  You were all reassuring that I haven’t ruined my kids just yet!  Phew! There’s still time to teach them about personal organization!

Knee Jerk Reaction

I suppose I’m being extra cautious.  Living so close to someone with a mental illness makes you paranoid (wait, isn’t that a mental condition too??? ).  Perhaps it’s similar to those with an alcoholic parent and forbidding their own children to ever toast with wine at holiday dinners.  I’m probably being hyper-sensitive, but I know I’ve read in several places that compulsive hoarding can be hereditary.  Diabetes also strongly runs in the family…some future I’ve got facing me, huh?

Nature vs Nuture

Genetics aside, I think learned behavior goes a long way.   I don’t want to go overboard and insist on unattainable perfection.  I can’t maintain that myself anyway.  But if I can begin to instill the proper techniques for organizing personal space, encouraging attachment to people instead of objects, and how to begin and finish any project, then I think I’ll be giving my girls some great life skills.  And hey, it doesn’t hurt to practice them myself, right?  I’m sure Will would agree, as he eyes my creatively chaotic craft room.

Your Suggestions for Teaching Kids About Personal Organization

You had some great ideas for helping kids learn about organizing, and learning how to let go of treasured toys.

  • take photos of toys before donating them, and put photos in an album to preserve their memory
  • designate a set number of keepers.  Let them choose which keepers, but don’t go past the number.
  • designate a box for toys and don’t let it go past the top.  If it doesn’t fit the box, it can’t stay.
  • trim pieces from favourite blankets, clothing, or stuffed animals and sew them into a memory quilt or pillow (careful this doesn’t add to your own long list of projects *cough*)
  • Remind them of children less fortunate, and encourage a social conscience.

Feel free to keep sending your ideas, and I’ll add them to this list.  I’m sure I’m not the only parent in this boat.

I also just came across the Overindulgence website.  It discusses dealing with spoiled children, the feeling of entitlement some kids seem to have, and gives a few ideas about giving chores.

My own purge continues

Going back to my craft room for a minute, I worked on clearing that room out, too.  Yes, I’ve been on a purging kick the last 2 months and it’s feeling great.  I didn’t realize exactly HOW great until I sat down at my sewing machine and did a quick little project.  I mentioned this to another creative kindred spirit, my best friend, and she said “Rae, I think that’s how we feed our soul.”

How we feed our soul.  Yes.  Yes, I think that’s it.

And because my craft room is the dumping ground for when we don’t know where else to put something, I had crowded out my opportunity to feed my soul. And I was starving.  Funny how having too much can make you feel so empty.

Have you carved out a space all your own?  How do you keep it clear for spontaneous use?  I’d love to hear about it!

In case you’re wondering, Mom is still without a phone.  We’ve not spoken since I saw her about 3 weeks ago.  That seems like a long time to go without hearing from your mother, doesn’t it?


My eldest daughter, Maddie, has been sneezing up a storm. I figured this was a good time to give her bedroom a good deep clean and clear out the dust. When I gently suggested she give away some of her stuffed animals, I was met with great resistance. It’s time I start teaching my children about compulsive hoarding.

How To Start

It started by clearing out all the random stuff that’s been shoved under her bed. It brought up a lot of dust but also helped us find some little toys we thought were lost forever. The pile was a real mixture of things…board games, doll clothes, books, trinkets, and so on. I explained we needed to organize these into piles and put them away. Then I left Maddie to it while I worked on Quinn’s outgrown baby clothes in the next room.

After a few minutes, Maddie called out “Mom, I don’t know what to do with all this.”

It hit me that she probably had no idea how to sort through this random pile and make general categories. It’s one thing to sort by colour, or by size, but when you’re only 7, sorting by purpose is a little confusing.

So, we sat together and I pointed out how board games don’t get stored with books, and doll clothes have their own container. It was starting to make sense when I showed her we actually DO HAVE a place for everything…it’s just that I’d always done the sorting for her in the past. What a disservice I’ve done for her!

Once that pile got sorted out, it was time to look at all the stuffed animals she keeps on her bed. There’s about a dozen stuffies, and she wants them ALL on her bed. I’m thinking they’re a treasure trove of dust and it’s time to simplify.

I held up a stuffed cat. “What do you think about this? Can we give to charity?” With wide eyes, Maddie grabbed the cat and clutched it to her chest. “But I love this!”

Everything Can’t be special

We went back and forth like that with a few other stuffies, and I finally said “You can’t love all of these the same. Surely some are more important than others!” And I think deep down she knows that too, but when faced with the scary thought of parting with any of them, they were elevated to Must Haves.

I was at a loss.  I tried to explain that sometimes we have to make tough decisions.  That the memories we have can be kept in our heads and we don’t need to keep every thing just to remember.  That if everything is special, it really means nothing is.

So far, I’ve been keeping the family’s dirty little secret from my children.  Maddie doesn’t know the reason we never visit her grandmothers house is because there’s no room.  She has no idea that compulsive hoarding even exists!  But I needed to show her, so…

I grabbed the laptop, launched notjustclutter.com and called up the photos from my Visiting a Compulsive Hoarders Home post.  I didn’t tell her I took the photos.  I didn’t tell her it was Meema’s house.  I didn’t even call it compulsive hoarding.  But I showed her how little space there was to move around.  How you couldn’t see the couch.  I pointed out the piles were taller than her head, and there was no room at the dining table for eating.  I showed her how food was piled on the kitchen floor with no sense of organized categories.

And everything I pointed out, she met with a rationalization.  She had a modified action for everything I said that would allow her to cope with that appalling environment.  In short, she didn’t think it was that bad.

Will My daughter become a hoarder, too?

Obviously, I’m failing.  Not only have I lost my mother behind her hoard, but I’ve not done enough to develop the right skills for my first daughter.  I can see this will be an on-going attempt to teach her how to organize, how to detach emotion from objects, how to truly value certain things and treat them with greater respect, and how to actually clean a home.  I’m open to your ideas, so please share your tips for guiding my children away from a future in hoarding.


It’s been about 5 years since I last visited my childhood home.  It’s a compulsive hoarders home now, thanks to Mom’s mental disorder.  Lynn and I snuck in while Mom was out and did a tiny purge of her hoard.  You’d never even be able to tell we’d spent 2 hours working on a 4×4 foot area just putting spare papers in recycling bins.  We removed 4 bags of trash and yet, it didn’t make a dent in her hoard.

How bad could it be?

I took photos while we were there of the general state of things.  Given so many years have passed without anyone else stepping inside, I can only imagine how high the stacks are.  Oddly enough, I found the CD of photos as I cleared out my basement decluttering my own junk.

Merely Existing

I knew the photos were going to be bad, but they still took me by surprise when I loaded them up on my computer.  If you’ve never seen photos from inside a compulsive hoarders house before, brace yourself.  I know you’ll probably wonder how could anyone live like this?  I don’t know if you can call it “living”, actually.  I think having to survive in such a space is reducing to merely “existing.”

A view of a living room of a compulsive hoarder

A view of a living room of a compulsive hoarder

 

The dining room of a compulsive hoarder

It’s hard to tell, but this is a dining room.

This was my home once.  I lived here with my sister through all my childhood, and only left when I went away to college.  I have good memories of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, and watching Sunday morning classic movies on PBS.  And I’m willing to bet there are physical remnants of all my memories still left inside that hoard.

Now, we stay with Lynn when we visit my hometown.  Mom comes over to Lynn’s house to sit with us for a while and we make thin small talk.  I’m curious to try to get over to my old home while Mom is out again.  I probably won’t get in because neither Lynn nor I have a spare key.  But I want to see how the old place is holding up…or quite likely, falling apart.  On the other hand, do I want an even worse mental image of my home if I should see it in such disrepair?  It’s like when you visit an ailing relative in the hospital right before they die, and they’re frail and forgetful…they’re not the vibrant and fascinating person you remember anymore.

I do want to know how my Mom is existing, though.  It’s important to me to understand what her daily life is like.  No matter the mental disorder, it pains me to think of her living in such conditions.  I wish I knew how to make it better…and I wish she actually wanted it better, too.


I dreamt I was in my Mother’s house.

When someone’s compulsive hoarding is so extensive it invades someone else’s dreams, you know it’s significant.

In this dream, I go to my Mom’s house to take photos.  I want to collect images not just for notjustclutter.com, but to really see how she’s living.  Maybe if she sees the photos she’d realize there’s a problem. I’m also a photographer, so it’s in my nature to want to visually document the legacy my Mother is hoarding. In the dream, I need to take the photos in secret, so I sneak in.

And not in the standard dressed-all-in-black-in-a-svelte-catsuit sneaky way.  No.  In this dream, I’m also trying to navigate a bicycle along the goat paths.  Don’t ask me why.  I don’t love riding bicycles.  The dusty stationary bike over there in the corner agrees.  But anyway, here I am, struggling with my trusty Nikon around my neck and a mountain bike.

As I’m moving through the house, I feel confident that I’ll be able to hide pretty quickly should Mom come along.  Piles are at least shoulder height.  I’m so preoccupied with hauling the bicycle over a stack of vintage lace pattern books and cases of RC Cola, I don’t hear her coming down the hall.  Suddenly, I sense her on the other side of the door while I cower in the chaos I once called my childhood room and it’s too late to hide.  Everything is just too jam packed.  The door begins to move.  It doesn’t exactly swing open, but nudges against a jagged wicker doll bassinet.  My heart is racing.  When she finds me here I’ll never be forgiven for invading her space.  She’ll disown me and play the “I once beat CANCER card, let me have my things” card.

I hold my breath.

 

 

And wake up.


Today is my Mother’s birthday.  I just got off the phone with her.  Yes, that’s right.  The Phone!  She finally got her cell phone and we’ve actually had a couple of conversations on it already.  Tonight was the first time to call her on her cell…and she was out shopping!  At 8:30!  Where?  The second hand store, her favourite place on the planet, of course.

She told me about a couple things she had put in her cart, thinking I might like them.  She described them to me, and they weren’t anything I thought I truly needed or wanted, so I politely declined.  I thanked her for thinking of me.  She thanked ME for thinking of HER on her birthday.

I admit I lost track of time and am late getting a birthday card out to her.  I made one myself, and will send it with a drawing Maddie did for her, too.  I’m always stumped for gift ideas for Mom.  She has everything…possibly triplicate of many things.  I don’t want to contribute to the pile.  I know many gifts I’ve given in the past are still in the original packaging.

Gift cards are not a good alternative.  Lynn & I have tried that in the past.  Mom can’t ever decide on something “special enough” to use them on, so they expire or get lost unspent.

If we lived closer to each other I would take her out of lunch, or on an excursion of some sort.  I like the idea of spending time with her and experiencing a memory together instead of exchanging material things.  She’s too tired to travel to me for a visit, and I know all the stairs in our split level home are tough for her to manage while she’s here.  But at least we have a bed for her here.  She can’t offer the same if I tried to visit her.

What I’d really like to do is pay for a month or two of a bill…perhaps her new cell phone bill, or a portion of her gigantic oil bill.  She has a fixed income.  I’m not at all sure how she manages to pay for anything really!  How far can one stretch an old age pension and a disability benefit?  But I’d need her account information, and she’s not about to hand that over.

So, I’ll send my belated card and try to be on time for Mother’s Day instead.  I really miss her.  I miss the way I remember her, before the walls of stuff grew so high.  I send the warmest of birthday wishes to a woman who drove me to all my dance lessons, music lessons, competitions and performances.  Who sewed 50 air freshener skunks to raise money to go to my competitions.  Who bragged about me to anyone who’d listen.  Who could just give me that “look” and I’d behave.  Who bought a book of Jello recipes and spent the summer with me trying out 50 ways to create desserts with the worlds favourite gelatine treat.  Who instilled in me a love of reading, art, creating by hand.  Who showed me there’s no limit to the power of creativity.  Who respected me, listened to me, cried when I cried, and laughed when I laughed.  Who embodied warmth & patience (and stubborness, too).  Who tried so hard to keep everything equal between her two daughters.  Who stowed away money for years so I could graduate college debt-free.  Who stayed with me and helped when my daughters were born.  Who shaped the person I am today.

For any faults I might find with her, there are many, many more qualities.  I’ll remember them not just today but everyday.  Happy birthday.

 


Mom wasn’t always an extreme hoarder.  The illness didn’t settle in until after I moved out of the house to live on my own, but she WAS unorganized and had a lot of clutter.  Even though she was employed as a housekeeper, she wasn’t great at keeping our house tidy.

My Mom is incredibly crafty…she is skilled in just about any handicraft you can imagine, and she has all the supplies for each of these hobbies.  And she was brilliant at starting a new project, but often didn’t finish them.  These half-finished crafts still exist in limbo around the house at various stages of completion.

As a kid, it was normal to have the pile of laundry sitting on the sofa, and if you needed something to wear, chances are you’d find it in that pile.  There was extra stuff pushed to one end of the dining table that always seemed to be there at every meal.   I was never really required to put my toys away, so I missed out on learning that discipline early.

The only time we really did a major clean was when guests were expected.  Then the whole family would rally and whirl about the house shoving stuff from the public rooms, like the living room or bathroom, into other rooms people wouldn’t see.  The walk-in closet did not facilitate “walking in.”

No one would ever know this was an issue, and as I kid I didn’t know any better either.  I figured that’s what you did!  You lived with your comfy chaos until company came.

Surprisingly, we actually seemed to host somewhat often back then.  Mom’s sister and brother-in-law would come to play cards and I’d hang out with my cousins.  Gramma would come and stay the odd weekend.  And I’d have my friend from down the road over all the time to play in my room.

I think the frequency began to trickle as I got into my teens.  I didn’t bring friends from high school home.  And once I went away for college, it was hard to squeeze myself back in.  My old room was repurposed as a ‘craft room’ and I got the spare room.  The spare room that served as a mausoleum for the beautiful porcelain dolls my Mom had lovingly created.  And all the spare parts that had “potential.”

After I graduated college and returned home to try to find a job, it wasn’t too bad.  There was room to relax on a couch, after I moved the laundry.  I could shove a pile of magazines aside to put a water glass on the coffee table.  I had access to a computer and (38,000 bpm) data/fax modem for internet.

After a few months, I got a job in another city, and moved away.  That’s when the small avalanches started; and there was no going back.


It’s shocking.  And appalling, terrifying, heartbreaking, dangerous, and irrational.  And you probably know someone affected by it.  I’m talking about compulsive hoarding.

What is compulsive hoarding?

According to The Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, it’s defined as:

a disorder characterized by difficulty discarding items that appear to most people to have little or no value. This leads to an accumulation of clutter such that living and workspaces cannot be used for their intended purposes. The clutter can result in serious threats to the health and safety of the sufferer and those who live nearby. Often people with compulsive hoarding also acquire too many items – either free or purchased.

Essentially, a hoarder just can’t bear to throw or give anything away because they perceive it as having value, even if no one else thinks it’s worth it.  For instance, most people would have no trouble throwing away a lone sock with a hole in it, or empty takeout food containers.  But a hoarder finds all sorts of excuses to keep those items.  That sock could be used for dusting!  They’ll find the other one the day after tossing the first one!  Or that salad clam shell container could store spare clothespins, spools of ribbon, spare socks with holes in them!  The possibilities are endless!  But rarely does the re-purposing ever happen.  Instead, those items remain in a pile of other items.

This is my Mom.  She lives like this, surrounded by a house FULL of stuff.  It’s a mass collection of vintage sewing & crafting patterns, unused gifts, bolts of fabric, porcelain doll parts and molds, lace, and other ‘useful’ craft supplies.  It’s all my deceased fathers belongings…he’s been gone 6 years.  It’s all the toys I didn’t take with me when I moved away from home.  It’s the chemicals and materials my father left behind with his home statuary business.  It’s a deep freeze full of meat with freezer burn.  And so on.

I identified her as a hoarder after seeing an exposé on the Oprah Winfrey Show about 8 years ago.  Seeing the video on her show had me riveted.  I learned there was a name for Mom’s excessive clutter.  I was stunned it wasn’t unique to her!  Mom wasn’t just messy; she has a mental disorder!

Mom won’t admit it though.  Or even if she does recognize it deep deep down somewhere, she’s not willing or able to do anything about it.

And so here we are.

Time For A Decision

I’ve started this blog to deal with my emotions on this situation.  I am a happily married woman, with 2 beautiful daughters, and great career.  I live 3 hours away from my Mom, and feel totally incapable of helping her.  I also have a sister, Lynn, who also struggles in her relationship with Mom.  Lynn works in the mental health field, but it’s so different when you’re on the other side of the desk.  She’s afraid people will judge her for not doing more to help Mom deal with her mental illness…but how exactly do you do that?

We’re quickly reaching a fork in the road.  If we go left, it means continuing to sit back while we watch our Mother bury herself with her belongings, slowly eroding any personal connection we still have with her.  When she’s deceased, we’ll have the heartache of the cleanup of her 3000 sq ft house.  If we go right, we arrange to have an official visit her house, likely resulting in a condemnation.  She’d be so angry she would most definitely sever all ties to us, but hopefully it’ll save her life.

Either way, I’m losing my Mother.

Why Get So Personal?

I’ll be posting lots of back story on my life as a hoarders daughter, and also writing about the on-going saga.  Lots of personal reflection, and hopefully I’ll get some guest posters, too.  I also hope to post organizing tips, for those of us who want room in our lives for people instead of stuff.  I promise to always be honest…I’m making a big leap to put all this information out there.  Names have been changed to protect those involved.

I hope this helps bring some public awareness and understanding of Compulsive Hoarding.  I hope it connects with others in similar situations who feel overwhelmed and alone.  I hope by getting all this off my chest I can find peace and clarity.

Thanks for coming along on my journey.