I said to my Mother “When you’re ready to accept my help, let me know.  Until then….”  I trailed off.  She replied, “Until then, I’m dead to you, is that it?  Well, so be it.”

Those were the last words we shared before she hung up on me.  And I can’t help but wonder if those are the last words I’ll ever hear from her.

It started off innocently enough.  The regular Sunday night phone call to catch up on the week had grown increasingly shallow over the past few years.  Mom, on her cell phone, would undoubtedly be browsing in a store somewhere, and I’d get to hear commentary about other shoppers she observed, or comparisons on various household products.  Tonight was about coloured toilet paper.  I asked for updates on doctors appointments, but specialist appointments are always “some time next month” and “no, I haven’t heard back on test results.”

Eventually, conversation turned to her house.  “Wouldn’t you know it, ANOTHER bird got into the house!  It woke me up this morning fluttering around my room.  And there were 2 raccoons in the wall behind my headboard fighting.  You wouldn’t believe the racket!”  If you’re new to reading Not Just Clutter, let me assure you my Mom is not an animated princess who can command woodland animals.  Nope.  She simply lives in a rapidly deteriorating house where raccoons and other wildlife find refuge.  This is where things start to go south.

Since Dad died 8 years ago, she hasn’t been able to keep up maintenance.  She needs to move out and sell the property (and really, it’s the property that has value, not the house).  It’s not safe or healthy.  The whole place is falling apart and is packed to the rafters with her hoard.  Clearly, somewhere has crumbled enough that all sorts of critters are finding their way in.  She’s had trouble with raccoons for years.  And that bird?  That’s the third on in as many weeks.

I’ve been trying to encourage her to make more actionable plans to move out of this house.  She really resents this though, and any time I gently mention it, she finds a way to turn things around.  Like, mentioning the doctor thinks she has a heart problem.  Or she suspects her cancer is back.

Or she’ll try to deflect and say she’s working on things slowly in her own way.  “I’m not going to worry about it, and it’ll all work out in the end” is a common refrain.  But I worry.  Knowing all her ailments, including a frozen shoulder, shortness of breath, and limited mobility, I’ve offered to go help her.  I told her “Let me be your muscle.”  I know she can’t carry much, if anything, up and down stairs, so I’d be happy to be the pack mule if she points out what to move.  But she refuses any help and has her priorities all skewed.

If I lived in a house overrun by wildlife, I’d fill a suitcase and get out.  Instead, she insists she has to organize her craft supplies first.  I can’t possibly help her with that either because I “don’t know the difference between worsted weight, cotton, polyester, or wool” yarns.  I reminded her the birds are probably pooping on it, and the ‘coons are nesting in it.  She was pretty indignant after that.

I’ve tried my hardest to be patient.  I’m the one who always tries to be diplomatic.  I just couldn’t hold it in any more tonight.  I kept calm and rational, but I laid it out honestly with her.  I called her out for making excuses and procrastinating.  I told her I can’t understand why she won’t accept my help, when all I want is for her to be in a safe, comfortable home.  She insists she wants to do it independently because if she accepts help then she’s a failure.

I said imagine if you came across a person fallen to the ground, and you put your hand out to help.  If that person reaches up to accept your help off the ground, are they a failure?  Do you judge them?  I’m just reaching out my hand.

She accused me of making her more depressed.  Then she accused me of conspiring with my sister to make her miserable.  And THEN she said maybe it was best if we just cut ties all together.

That’s when I told her to think about my offer and get back to me when she’s ready to accept the help.  I don’t know what the next step is.  I’m so torn.  She’s so stubborn she might let her pride lead her, and she won’t call me again.  If I call, then what?  Go back to the same vacuous relationship where we talk about coloured toilet paper?  Do I pretend everything is ok?  Do I ignore my nightmares of her dying in her house because she couldn’t find her way through her hoard in a fire?  Do I keep pressing her?  If I don’t call, she’s alone.  No family left.  That’s not the kind of daughter I want to be, but at some point, I have my own mental health to think of.

Either way, hearing my own mother say “I’m dead to you” is a harsh way to end a phone call.


Today is the 1st anniversary of Not Just Clutter!

I can’t believe it. When I first sat down to write the first post on Not Just Clutter, I never imagined what this blog would mean to me. And I REALLY never expected it to mean anything to anyone else. I wasn’t sure anyone else would want to read about compulsive hoarding disorder.

Somehow, you found me. I opened up and shared my personal life without any idea of what would happen. I actually thought I might get some backlash from people disgusted by compulsive hoarding. It’s been a whole year, and not one negative comment (touch wood). And while I don’t get a lot of comments in the posts, which I understand for your own privacy concerns, I DO get direct emails from other children and loved ones of hoarders. You confide your stories in me, and I respect your trust. I’m glad you know you’re not alone, and that there’s someone to empathize.

It’s Not Just About Me

So, once I realized I was reaching others, Not Just Clutter stopped being just about me and my Mom. It became a catalyst for conversation. For creating understanding. For stopping stigma. For generating awareness about a misunderstood and often reviled living condition. For expanding on mental illness in general.  Now, I look for ways to bring you any information I can find about compulsive hoarding, like new research, or studies looking for participants.  I get insight from other relatives of hoarders, and try to give a lighter view, too.

Year in Review

I first started this blog with a post about Mom’s phone. Or rather, her lack of a phone. I was frustrated with not being able to communicate with her because her land line phone stopped working and the clutter prevented her from finding and fixing the problem. Eventually, she got a cell phone. And then lost it. Found it, and lost it again. Then she bought a second cell phone. She still has that one so far. All this time, I thought she would have cancelled her phone service for the broken land line. I learned recently she’s still paying that bill because she hopes someday to resolve the issue. Uh huh. Wait, was that a pig flying past my window? No, just some B.S.

And wasted money.

There have been a few feeble murmurings about cleaning up. Mom has talked about packing up some stuff to take to charity. That hasn’t happened. She DOES continue to shop at a charity thrift store, weekly.

Others have noticed her hoarded van. Someone who works at the thrift store actually mentioned it to my sister, Lynn, one day. This person said to her “Your Mom is in here all the time. Wow, is her van ever packed! I hope her house isn’t like that, too!”

What does one say to that?

She keeps her house at 60 degrees all winter because the oil bill is already insanely high. Almost $900 for 3 weeks here recently.  She can’t get service or repair people to finish a job.  She takes her dirty clothes to a laundromat because she can’t get to her own washer and dryer.  She makes a lot of sacrifices for her stuff.

Mom is no closer to accepting she has a problem, but at least this blog is helping me cope.  I feel I’m able to release a great deal of stress by typing it all out.  There’s something very gratifying about hitting Publish.  Vulnerable, true, but cathartic.

With Heartfelt Thanks

I appreciate you joining me on this journey.  Maybe you’ve got a similar path to follow.  Good luck to you.  Maybe you’re just curious about compulsive hoarding.  That’s ok, too.  Don’t hesitate to ask me questions, leave your comments, or send me your emails.  We’ll see where things stand next year at this time on Not Just Clutter.  Who knows what might happen.


The morning alarm goes off.  You reluctantly roll out of bed and start the daily grind…again.  You stumble bleary eyed to the washroom to brush your teeth.  Maybe you need a little encouragement to get you going!

Motivate Yourself into a More Positive Mood

How?  Here’s what I did this weekend.

Chalkboard surrounding a plain bathroom mirror

A little pick me up

Put your craftiness to good use

I’ve mentioned before that my Mom has so many crafty skills and supplies that she never seems to finish anything before moving on to her next project.  I am dangerously close to committing the same crafty crime, so I decided to use up some of my supplies while perking up my frame of mind.

Close up of the words Be Brave, written on a chalkboard

Be Brave…

I used a roll of chalkboard contact paper I bought at the dollar store.  To cut it, I used a digital cutter called the Silhouette.  I LOVE this machine, and have used it in many different ways.  For this project, I used a simple but elegant frame shape cut in half.  After sticking it to the wall, I simply wrote in a message for Maddie.  She needs a little encouragement to try difficult tasks right now.  The beauty of using chalkboard vinyl is that it’s easy to wipe off and write in new messages as needed.  Even better is I’ve used up some of my craft supplies that have been sitting around for a long time.

Close up of inspirational words on chalkboard beside bathroom mirror. You can do hard things.

You really can. Don’t give up.

I made this about 2 years ago with the same Silhouette machine.  I used blue vinyl instead of chalkboard, and applied it directly to the mirror.  It’s held up really well with all the cleaning a bathroom mirror gets.  It’s a reminder to myself, as well as my children/husband/guests, that we’re valuable just the way we are.  I know it’s helped me when I’ve been in a bad mood on a Monday morning.  It’s hard to photograph a mirror, so looking at it from this angle is tricky.  But it’s clear when looking at it straight on.

Vinyl lettering on mirror. You are beautiful today.

Remember this, always.

What messages speak to you?

This is such a quick and easy craft.  The vinyl is removable if I ever tire of the look.  The beauty is writing whatever words inspire you personally.  What words would you use to remind yourself of your value, your inner beauty, your worth?  How might you use this idea to encourage others in your household?  The possibilities are endless!

When you’re feeling low or need a little pick me up, try this to help motivate yourself into a more positive mood.


Isn’t it about time we end the stigma of mental illness?

One of my main goals for writing my Not Just Clutter blog is to help dispel the misconceptions of compulsive hoarding disorder.  By sharing my personal story, perhaps others will realize hoarders are not uneducated lazy slobs.  Compulsive hoarding is complicated, heart-wrenching, and utterly baffling, but by trying to understand the nuances of hoarding, we can break down the stereotypes of not just this disorder, but of all mental illness.

Stop the Stigma

1 in 5 Canadians will experience some sort of mental health illness in their lifetime.  The chances are pretty high you know someone struggling with mental health.  Maybe they’re anxious about paying the bills.  Maybe their mood swings from low to high to low before lunch time.  Maybe she’s wrestling with post-partum depression and feels guilty for not bonding with her newborn baby.  Maybe he’s new to Canada, having escaped with only the clothes on his back from his war-torn home country.

Maybe it’s you who feels like you’re barely keeping it together every single day.

And you hide it.

You hide it in shame.  You shouldn’t have to.

Chalkboard image of Stop the Stigma of Mental Illness

Teen Suicide

Last week, I was sent reeling when I learned of the death of a 16-year old girl.  This girl had been in my home several times, caring for my daughter, Maddie.  I knew her to be smart, sensible, and compassionate.  Talented and athletic.  With a broad smile you couldn’t help but reflect with her around.  She had plans, and her whole future ahead of her.  We lost touch when she moved away from town, but I always considered her to be a positive role model for Maddie.  It’s tragic enough that she died so young.  It’s unspeakable that depression got a hold of her, driving her to suicide.

As a mother, I couldn’t help but imagine my own daughters at age 16, and wonder how I’ll possibly save them from the same fate.  My heart weeps for this girls family and friends.  I only knew her a fairly short time, but it was enough to be affected by her for life.

More than One Mental Illness

Sometimes, someone might be suffering from more than one mental illness.  I know of someone with schizophrenia as well as depression & anxiety.  You might think the schizophrenia is what affects this person the most, but it’s actually well controlled by medication.  The anxiety is a daily struggle though.

A fellow child of a hoarder talks about her post-traumatic stress disorder and dysthymic disorder on her blog Hoarding Child. I didn’t even know what dysthymic disorder was until she shared it with me through Twitter.  A day later, another friend confided she also dealt with it.  I had no idea.  I respect the trust these people put in me.  If they couldn’t trust at least one person with this, would they feel alone?  Be a person other people can trust to tell, and together we’ll stop the stigma.

My Mom

My Mom has a laundry list of health problems, mental and physical.  I suspect they’re all related, and feed the compulsive hoarding.  How could one possibly deal with chronic pain for over 20 years without depression, post-traumatic stress, and other complications?  I remember one of the lows Mom went through when I was in my early Twenties.  She leaned heavy on the table, head in hands weeping.  I wrapped my arms around her without a clue of any other way of helping.  She told me she wished someone would drag her out to the field and just shoot her.

We weren’t exactly sympathetic back then either.  “Chin up.  Don’t let yourself get in a funk.”  What did we know?  I was talking about this very memory with my Mom last night.  And you know what?  She doesn’t ever remember saying that…she insists she was never so low she wished to die.  But I tell ya…that’s not something I’d dare make up, and I’m certain my ears work perfectly.  She’s either in denial (no surprise there), or her memory has gotten foggy in the last 20 years.

So there.  That’s 5 people within my inner circle who are dealing with mental illness; they’re just the first ones I thought of.  I know there are others, and I’m ok with that.  They’re not raving lunatics brandishing axes, nor are they speaking in tongues.  They’re not standing on street corners preaching about the end of the world.  They’re not homeless, own excessive amounts of cats, and I’ve never seen them go “postal.” (there’s a stigma that’s gotta go)

They’re just people dealing with a wicked twist of fate.  Imbalanced chemicals in their brains and suddenly everything changes.  No one asks for it.  No one deserves it.  Maybe it’ll be me next time.  I’m lucky to have a support system to help me.  My husband, Will, is rock solid.  I hope he knows I’ve got his back, too.

You’re Not Alone

Whatever you’re feeling, please know you’re not alone.  People love you, even people who don’t know you.  The young girl I know who commit suicide last week will never know how the community pulled together to support her family and friends.  When the mommy community in my town learned of this girls death, they immediately began an outpouring of concern and unbiased support.  People who’d never met the girl, or her family, stepped up to provide food, money, and even clothes for the parents to wear to the funeral.  Friends set up RIP Facebook pages with fond memories, smiling photos, and declarations of admiration.  There’s no mistaking this girl was deeply loved.  And she didn’t realize it when she needed it most.

What can we do?

Good question.  What can we do?  We need to be open-hearted for others to talk to us.  We need to listen when friends share their struggles with us.  Reserve your judgment and criticism, and show compassion instead.  We need to talk for ourselves when others are willing to listen.  As fellow citizens of Mankind, we all need to be supportive of one another.  When many carry the weight of a few, the weight is suddenly more manageable.  Do your best to avoid adding more weight with tasteless jokes and sweeping generalizations.  As individuals, we don’t need to have all the answers, but we DO need to persist when we have unanswered questions.

National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

Very recently, a new voluntary standard has been released to give employers a guideline for promoting employees’ psychological health and preventing psychological harm due to workplace factors.  Brilliant!  It’s about time we started giving mental health as much attention as physical health.  They so often go hand in hand.  Bell Canada has shown its commitment to this initiative by including mental health training for all Bell managers, and implementing a return to work program for employees affected by mental illness.  Let’s see how many other corporations bring this on board.  Watch for activity on Twitter with #Bell_LetsTalk (Bell Let’s Talk Day). Using social media, Bell hopes to raise money, but more importantly, awareness for mental health research.

Bell Canada Let's Talk Logo

Continue the Conversation, Stop the Stigma of Mental Illness

This is an on-going story.  It’s being written every day, and you’re a supportive character.  And maybe, some days, you’ve a lead role.  I don’t know how the plot might twist and surprise us as we go, but there’s always hope for a happy ending.


Well, it’s the last day of the year, and I’m happy to say we’ve got most of our Christmas clutter under control.  It’s taken daily cleaning, tidying, and purging over the past week but it feels good.

How big was the Christmas pile?

Historically, Christmas in my family means a MOUNTAIN of gifts. Not just one or two per person, but several gifts for everyone.  Full stockings, too.  The stuff of dreams for a kid, but as a child of a hoarder whom also happens to be a parent, I see things differently now.  It’s a lot of Christmas clutter.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was still a decent sized pile under the tree before my Mom and Sister added their contributions, and then there’s Santa, of course.  The sheer volume wasn’t all because of my compulsive shopping and hoarding mother.  I can’t blame it all on her, but her influence from my childhood certainly played a role.  I just can’t seem to break the cycle, even though I’ve tried.

Christmas Tree with lots of gifts

3 Separate Gift Piles

It took a couple hours to open everything Christmas morning.  My 2 year old, Quinn, almost had a meltdown about halfway through.  I think she was overwhelmed and stated “I don’t want to open any more presents.”  She made it though, but I thought for sure she was going to fall to the floor with exhaustion.  It would have been hard to find her again under the scraps of wrapping paper.

The Waste

And the paper!  Oh, the paper!!  It makes me ill to think of the wastefulness of wrapping paper.  I wish it was recyclable in my area.  I know there are other options, like reusable gift bags and boxes, or wrapping them in fabric.  I should do more of that next year.  I also said that last year.  In short, we filled 2 large garbage bags full of wrapping paper, and toy packaging.  The bane of toy packaging deserves its own post some day.

The Other Waist

Let’s not forget about the food clutter.  We had so many treats laying around, it was hard to resist grabbing one or two while walking past and eating mindlessly.

Stack of peanut butter cookies

Peanut Butter Cookies

I realized I wasn’t even enjoying some of the cookies…I was just eating them because they were there.  I feel a New Year’s Resolution comin’ on.

Don’t eat anything unless I truly love it and it nourishes my body or spirit.

Can you help hold me to that, readers?  Did you make a resolution regarding any sort of clutter in your life?

No Vacation from Cleaning

Prior to my Mom & Sister coming to stay with us, Will and I cleaned the whole house.  We tidied away whatever toys the kids had laying out around the living room, scrubbed bathrooms, stain-treated the carpet, emptied all the garbage cans, polished all the surfaces, and put holiday decorations up.  It’s all the stuff we normally do, but we go a little more hardcore for special occasions.  I don’t know why.  Within minutes of company arriving, their luggage, bags, coats, shoes, and purses are scattered everywhere.  Their dogs, their crates, and all their accessories crowd the hallways and entrances to rooms.  I love my family, and we enjoy having celebrating the holidays with them, but house guests certainly add to the Christmas clutter.

The next few days were spent shuffling things around to get meals prepared.  And we spent a lot of time cleaning the kitchen over and over with all the extra dirty dishes being generated.  This frustration over last Christmas was the main motivator for renovating our kitchen.  It was easier to spend time in the kitchen this year, but I’d still rather be playing with my kids and their new toys than do 3 loads of dishes a day.

Christmas Clutter Aftermath

To make room for the new stuff, Will & I took half a day while the kids were in day care to declutter.  We went through toy boxes and their closets.  We filled 6 boxes and 2 garbage bags of old, forgotten toys.  The car was PACKED when we drove to the charity boxes we normally go to when we’re not expecting the Diabetes Clothesline any time soon.  The charity box happened to be empty but we completely filled it with our car load.  It’s a weight off my shoulders every time we do this.

Now everything has pretty much been put away.  The cardboard boxes have been flattened for recycling.  The new clothes have been hung.  The new craft supplies have already been used or put away in the craft closet, and the toys have migrated to the kids rooms (mostly).  It sure feels good to have our home sorted out again.

What was Christmas like for you?  How did you spend it (if at all) with your hoarding relative or loved one?  Did you exchange gifts?  Did you do a big clean before AND after Christmas?  And…do you have any Clutter Resolutions?


I had the honour of reading a novel by Kristina Riggle, called Keepsake.  I first met Kristina via Twitter.  I noticed she had written a book about a hoarding character, and so we struck up conversation.  Kristina kindly offered to send me a copy of her novel, and I’m pleased to share my impressions of Keepsake.

Book Review: Keepsake

If you’re interested in the effects of compulsive hoarding on various relationships, look for this novel in stores.  It’s the story of a compulsive hoarder, who also happens to be divorced, and raising 2 sons.  She’s estranged from her teenage son, and after her 6 year old gets hurt in her own home, the authorities order her to clean up.  Not so easy.  This is a monumental task, so she needs the help of her minimalist, super neat sister.  Obviously, there’s stress, confusion, frustration, fear, and yet there’s still love and hope.

Cover of Keepsake, by Kristina Riggle

Cover of Keepsake, by Kristina Riggle

A Little Doubtful

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I cracked into this book.  I knew the author didn’t have a first hand experience with a hoarder, so I wondered how accurate could she possibly be.  I was pleasantly surprised…Kristina’s research did her well, so I happily present my review of Keepsake.  There were several moments in this story that I could have written myself.  Like this quote from the son of the main character, Trish, who is a compulsive hoarder.

 “You’ve cleaned before, Mom.  And know what happens?  You buy a bunch of storage bins and you decide you can’t part with anything & nothing changes. ~Drew “

I can’t tell you how many storage bins my Mom has.  Her line was always “If I just had somewhere to put all this stuff, I could finally get organized.”

I know now that this is called churning, and perfection is certainly involved, but to see such a similar truth reflected in Kristina’s book felt authentic.  Even more when I read this:

“You have no right to come charging in here telling me how crazy I am and touching things that don’t belong to you. ~Trish”

Lynn and I heard the same thing after we confessed to doing a mini-clean up 6 years ago.  And again when we wrote her a joint letter to explain we thought she is a compulsive hoarder and we wanted her to consider getting help.  She was SO mad, and nearly disowned us.

A family i can relate to

Like my real life relationship with Mom and my sister, Lynn, the family in this book is just as mixed up.  Our difference is that my Mom has no self awareness and at least the main character in Keepsake comes to terms that she DOES have unresolved issues.  The walls she built of stuff threatens to separate her from the people who love her, and she either has to deal with it or lose them all together.  I recommend you read the book to find out what happens to Trish, Drew, and the rest of her family.  And I recommend you continue to read Not Just Clutter to find out what happens to mine.

Who knows…maybe if you have a hoarder in your life, letting them “find” this novel would help open some communication.  Even if you don’t know a hoarder, this is a well-written story of a complex family dynamic in a modern world.  And who can’t relate to that?

If you’d like to know more about the author, visit her at:

http://www.kristinariggle.net/

 

Disclaimer: While Kristina did send me a free copy of her book, I was under no obligation to write a review of Keepsake, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own.  I did not receive any other compensation, nor do I expect any.


Thanks to holiday preparations and being extra busy at work this Fall, I haven’t checked in as often as I used to.  I didn’t realize I had so many readers comments waiting for moderation!

If you left a comment, I’ve replied!

Even with using an anti-spam plugin, I get a great deal of bogus comments.  Imagine my surprise when I logged in and saw 9 readers comments waiting to be approved.  And really insightful, honest, and heartfelt comments at that!

I’m glad to create a place for you to feel safe and comfortable to share your thoughts.  Please continue to do so.  I’m SO motivated knowing the conversation is starting.  THIS is how we improve the general understanding of compulsive hoarding as a real mental disorder.  THIS is how we turn the looks of disgust into compassion and empathy.  THIS is how we work it out for ourselves, and feel a little less alone.  And for those who aren’t ready to reply, I encourage you to continue read the comments from those who’ve shared so much here.  There’s a lot to be learned.

Thank you for your comments and your emails.  They are treasured gifts.


Thanks to all those who expressed concern when I shared that something major was happening with my hoarding mother.  What I thought was going to result in Mom getting in big trouble ended up resolving very mildly.  I’m almost disappointed…while I don’t wish extra hardship on my Mom, I hoped this was finally going to force her to clean up her hoard.  Crisis averted for now.  I still can’t post the details just in case, but I do appreciate the warm wishes you all shared with me.


As you might have been able to tell from my hashtags from Twitter, I attended a blogging conference called Blissdom Canada.

What’s a Blog Conference?

Blissdom Canada was all about bringing together like-minded people and helping them improve their writing, photography, marketing, and all other skills required for blogging.  I went to Blissdom Canada for a few reasons:

  • to connect with other bloggers who write about mental health
  • to connect with other bloggers who deal with personal and really niche topics
  • to improve the “findability” of Not Just Clutter in search engines
  • connect with potential sponsors or brands that add value to Not Just Clutter

Connecting with other bloggers

I was really happy to have a chance to share my story with other bloggers, and hear theirs, too.  Everyone deserves the chance to express themselves.  That’s the great thing about the blogosphere.  And I was surprised to meet so many people who had a hoarding relative, or who wanted to know more about compulsive hoarding.  It helped validate why I continue to put all these personal details out there for the world to read.  I was really moved by some of the stories I heard at Blissdom Canada.  Compulsive hoarding touches more people than you might realize.  Which leads me to…

Improve my Findability

When I started Not Just Clutter, not a single person knew about it at first.  Slowly but surely over the last several months more and more of you are finding your way to me.  I want to be a resource for hoarders and their loved ones, and can only be that if I show up in search engines.  Attending Blissdom Canada gave me some tips for improving that, so hopefully I’ll start to see more comments and interaction on the site.  If you find Not Just Clutter to be useful, please share with others and leave your comments.  I encourage you to find me on Twitter and Facebook.  Your input is just as valuable as mine.

Some one at the conference suggested showing more photos.  While that works well for other topics, is that something you want to see on this blog?  Would you find value in photos of hoards?  I’d like to hear what you think about this.

Connecting with Brands

Don’t worry.  I’m not selling out.  I tell my story to improve public awareness and compassion for compulsive hoarders and their families.  I lay it all out there so other children of hoarders know they’re not alone.  I write about my relationship with my Mom so people understand how this mental illness  affects real people.  If I do connect with a sponsor, it’ll be related to compulsive hoarding, compulsive shopping, organizing your life, or relationships affected by mental disease.  Perhaps even a charity; here I go on and on about the 1st World Problem of too much stuff, when most of the world’s population has too little.

The Future of Not Just Clutter

I’ve returned from this conference motivated to continue.  I met with so many other talented writers, and their passion was infectious.  It was great to be surrounded by a huge group of Canadian women who all understood what if feels like to share a personal story.  Sometimes it feels a little raw to write about these problems in my family.  I’m vulnerable and exposed and live with the fear that someone will recognize me and tell my Mother I’ve been airing her dirty laundry.  I started this blog to get it all off my chest.  Cheap therapy for me, in a way.  And as people began to find my blog, leaving comments, and emailing me their personal stories about the hoarder in their lives, the more I realized Not Just Clutter has an important role to play.  I’m humbled to be a part of it.  Thanks for sharing my journey.


How do you say “let’s not exchange this year?”

A little while ago, Lynn & I discussed not exchanging gifts for Christmas amongst the adults.  She and I are capable of buying anything we need and want, and we just can’t swallow buying gifts for a compulsive hoarder anymore.  There are budgets to consider, and we thought this might be best for everyone.  But then Mom learned of this, and thus began the guilt.

The Gifts

I know I’ve written a lot about gifts on notjustclutter.com already, but this is an ongoing issue in my family.  Mom firmly believes that Christmas and other family traditions are deeply routed in gift giving and receiving.  I would rather our traditions be experiential, and memory-forming.  For instance, I love that we sit as a family and decorate gingerbread men and houses on Boxing Day.  We chat, we share, we praise each others creativity despite clumsy icing bags, and it’s good fun for the kids.  I remember that more than what I unwrapped, or even what I gave to others.  I don’t want to see the art of gift giving turn into obligation.  I don’t want to see anyone feel left out around the tree on Christmas morning, either, while the kids tear into their brightly wrapped boxes.

The truth is that if Mom wasn’t a compulsive hoarder, I would want to guy her gifts.  I like to put thought into presents and she has so many interests, I usually had a good time looking for something to suit her.  But she is a hoarder, and has so much stuff that anything I give gets lost in the mountain.  Like a large canvas family portrait I gave her a few years ago…did that actually make it up on the wall?  Don’t think so.  How about the new computer desk chair she asked for and Lynn gave her?  It’s still at Lynn’s, in the box, 3 years later.  And that Kobo we bought her for Mother’s Day 2 years ago?  She tells us she’s still working her way through the books we loaded on it for her, and sometimes she still just loves a paperback.  But she’d admitted to another friend that she lost it, and now I know my own Mother lies to me.

The Guilt

After Lynn told her what she and I had decided about exchanging, Mom called ME to vent.  She’s unhappy we want to just give up that tradition, and she’s mad she wasn’t included in the decision making.  She wasn’t included mainly because when we DO try to discuss it with her, she shuts down and gets defensive…like she is now.  I’m a peace maker, and always end up trying to please everyone.  I empathize with both Lynn and Mom, but I’m the one who tries the hardest to compromise.  I hate seeing Mom upset, even when I can logically tell this is a guilt trip.  I try suggesting we draw names so we’re just buying for one adult and still respecting budgets, etc.  She didn’t like that idea either.  Essentially, she claimed:

“You and Lynn have already decided on this, so fine, have it your way.  But just know that it won’t feel like Christmas to me.”

Well, that’s great, Mom.  Thanks for announcing so far in advance that you plan on being a lead balloon during our family togetherness time.  You stomp your foot and cross your arms with a pout, and the rest of us will decorate gingerbread men.

Is there a solution?

If there is a way to better deal with gifts and guilt with hoarders, I’d love to hear it.  I’m at my wits end.  I want to be glad I have my loved ones around me, and we’re all healthy and happy.  That’s what I really want for Christmas.  Forget the stuff.  Forget the wrapping, ribbons, and bows.  Forget the generic greeting cards, and the over-packaged plastic toys, batteries not included.  I’m asking Santa for family unity.


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.


Well, that didn’t last long.  Time for an update on the Case of the Silent Phone. Mom has already lost her new cell phone.  She got it at the end of April, and now it’s lost in her pile of possessions.  Apparently, it’s been lost for 2 weeks already, AND it’s the second time she’s lost it.  I can’t say I’m surprised.  I knew from the start it was going to be difficult for her.  She’s got hoarded piles on every surface and no where to create a dedicated space for it.

I didn’t hear from her for our regular Sunday chat, but thought maybe she was just sleeping.  Then I called on the anniversary of Dad’s death to let her know I was thinking of her, and figured maybe she was just feeling low and wanted to be alone with her grief.  It makes a whole lotta sense now that I know the cell phone is lost.

At least, I got to see her today.  She told me she just can’t imagine how she lost the phone.  And how she lost another important piece of paperwork she’d filled out and promptly lost.

Redecorating

Then we got to chatting about the carpet in her house and how much she’d LOVE to replace it with hardwood.  Uh huh.  I know the carpet IS hideous.  I lived with it, too.  It was great when I accidentally smushed Play-Doh into it as a child and no one was ever able to tell; maybe you’re familiar with it, too, if you remember the 70s.  But now, there’s probably only 1% of the carpet showing in all the house.

Extreme Makeover

She did admit her house needs a lot of work.  Ha.  Let me repeat that.  HA!  And that the best thing to happen would be for the house to be struck by lightning.  Yup.  That’s what she wishes for.  For her house and home of 33 years to go up in a big ball of flames.  Can you imagine?  My childhood memories in a pile of ash.

Lynn said to her “You’d never make it out in time.”

Mom got that thin smile she effects on when conversation takes this kind of turn, and smugly insisted “Oh yes I would. No problem at all.  I’d just tuck the dog under my arm and away I’d go.”

Sigh.  How do you answer that when you know it simply isn’t true?

And, how would I even know, when she has no way of calling to tell me?


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’m a Virgo.  Most of the time, I’m ok with my home looking well lived in.  Children leave toys out mid-game.  Craft projects are in progress.  And there’s always a DIY home improvement going on somewhere in the house.  But when the perfectionist, pragmatic Virgo in me rears her head, I go on major cleaning streaks.  I’m talking get-out-the-toothbrush-to-scrub-the-corners Virgo Clean Streak.

Virgo Clean Streak

Every once in a while this happens.  Probably not often enough.  And by now, Will knows enough to stand back and let me charge full speed ahead.  It happened this weekend.  I just couldn’t stand the state of our basement any longer.  Since I use our 4th bedroom as a craft room/office, we don’t have any where pleasant for guests to stay.  And Will doesn’t really have office space of his own, either, which impedes the launch of his new business.

How to decide what to keep and what to toss

We have a whole basement and it was uselessly filled with stuff.  So I rolled up my sleeves, put on some tunes, and started working my way through everything as realistically and unemotionally as I could.  And you know what?  It was easier than expected.  I must be at some sort of threshold because what I processed over the weekend had proven too difficult to deal with in earlier attempts to clear the basement.  I allowed myself to be honest about whether I really needed or wanted all this stuff.  Anything I really wanted to keep went into ONE laundry basket, and everything else went into boxes for donation or garbage bags.

There were a few moments where I wavered and wanted to keep some things.  Like my Mom, I can see the “potential” of future projects.  But I kept reminding myself that reclaiming this space was more important than vintage sheet music for decoupage, or a stacks of plastic party drinking cups left over from our wedding…9 years ago.  I want to transform this space into a place to build memories and experiences.  That has more value to me now than dusty boxes of trinkets packed up from our old house and never reopened when we moved here.

As I thought of that, it got easier and easier to move items into the donation boxes and wish them well in their future homes.  And the more I let go, the lighter my heart felt.  My mood improved.  My skin cleared.  Well, maybe not, but I certainly felt a glow of accomplishment to see the stack of boxes by the door growing.

What Did I Find?

In the clear out, I found a number of things to give to friends of mine.  A book about dogs goes to a co-worker who just got a Huskie puppy.  The bassinet that cradled my babies the first few months of their lives is going to a friend expecting his first child next month.  And for myself, I found the CD of images I took about 5 years ago at Moms house when Lynn and I snuck in to do a quick “tidy.”  I’ll share those in a future post.

Grand Total

In the end, Will and I loaded 11 donation boxes into the car.  I filled 2 large bags of trash.  I reorganized 7 mishmashed plastic and cardboard boxes of hand-me-down clothes for my little Quinn into 3 locking Rubbermaid containers, and found a whole bunch of baby clothes I didn’t even know we had.  That gets shared with another co-worker having a baby girl in October.

What Next?

There’s still some stuff to shuffle around and reorganize.  I’m sure I could purge even more if I get another Virgo Clean Streak.  Will needs to pack up all his wine-making supplies for a while.  There’s a cold cellar to rip out and move to a different area.  And if we can clean enough open space, we’ll frame in new walls to make new office space and accommodations for guests.  Put up shelves to get what’s left up off the floor.  Wall off the furnace.  Ultimately, make this a warm and inviting space to spend quality time.  And as much potential all that stuff had, the potential of the space is even greater.

Getting rid of all that stuff was SO liberating.  I feel like I lost 100 pounds.  In fact, I put on my skinny jeans to celebrate!