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.


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.


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.


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?


Ever wonder about a compulsive hoarders vehicle?  Is everything packed away in the house, or does it spill out?  When the hoarding reaches a higher degree, it can’t be contained.  Here is Mom’s van.  Her compulsive hoarding follows her every where she goes.

A hoarders van is packed to the ceiling.

Packed to the Ceiling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s packed to the gills.  If she were ever in a car accident, even a minor one, I’m sure she’d be crushed by the projectiles.  And be projectiles, I mean the following (but not limited to):

  • at least 9 packs of Bounty dryer bars
  • an open box of laundry detergent powder
  • a dog crate (with dog)
  • a domed cake carrier with uneaten cupcakes from last year (I SO wish I was exaggerating)
  • case of bottled water
  • a multitude of junk food boxes, bags, and wrappers
  • full bags of laundry
  • lots of shopping bags from thrift stores
  • gifts given to Mom destined to never make it into the house
  • boxes of stuff given to her by other people clearing out their clutter

I snuck out and took these photos with my phone while she visited this past weekend.  Mom would be SO furious if she knew I did that, but I wanted to show you how extensive her compulsive hoarding, fueled by compulsive shopping, really goes.  She drives around like this alllll the time.  I can only imagine the impact it has on her gas mileage, and wear & tear on her brakes, tires, and shocks.

No leg room for passengers in compulsive hoarders van

No leg room for passengers

Is it stuffy in here?

Then there’s the air quality.  Lynn refuses drive in the van with Mom any more.  There’s no leg room.  Debris has to be swept off the seat.  I’m sure even finding the seat belt is difficult.  How does Mom see out her windows?  Carpooling?  Forget it!  And, what’s that smell?

Shoehorn Tight

I helped Mom put the dogs crate back in the van.  The wall of stuff is so tightly packed it held its shape when we slide open the door.  There was a niche carved out for the dog crate and I really had to put my shoulder to it to get it in.  We closed the door and it didn’t latch, so we opened it up again and if there was ever a use for an industrial sized shoehorn, this was it.  Finally, we wedged the crate in another inch, and got the door to fully close.

Waving Goodbye

A final kiss, a last minute scramble for scrap paper to write directions, a missed moment of hesitation if I should say “something”, and then off she goes.  A jumbled tonne lumbering down the street on the way home.  To her nest.  To her comfort zone.  And to my dismay.


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.


It started off well enough.

My husband and youngest daughter just celebrated birthdays. Hers comes the day after his. So we planned just a small celebration by inviting my Sister and Mom to our home. They stayed over for a night, and we shared cupcakes and hugs.

New cabinets will solve everything!

I told Mom we were planning a kitchen renovation, with all new cabinetry. I told her we were donating the old oak cabinets to Habitat for Humanity. Her eyes brightened up and she exclaimed “I could use them when I spruce up the apartment at the house for when I sell!”

Really?

Mom’s house is an odd type of building. It’s large, but built in a big box shape. The second floor is essentially a bungalow, but not on the ground level. The first floor has an apartment and a huge garage where Dad ran his businesses. We used to rent the apartment out, but at some point, Dad took over the apartment with his concrete stuff. It’s packed with fiberglass molds, chemicals, concrete dust, and goodness knows what else. It’s dumpy and totally unsuitable for living in now. But Mom thinks she’ll be able to “spruce” it up. She’s totally blind to the fact that this house, even if it wasn’t ruined, is just too bizarre of a construction to be at all desirable in today’s real estate market. Putting in oak cabinets isn’t going to even make a dent. Somehow, I was able to change the subject before I had to tell her there was no point in even considering this as an option.

A conversation gone awry.

Lynn knows I feel like I never have a chance to have a good conversation with Mom anymore. I’ve always seemed to have a closer relationship with our Mom, and while Lynn has a very frank and to-the-point approach, Mom seemed to prefer my softer style of speech. I guess I just always try to be diplomatic and sympathetic. It’s a good quality, usually, but after years of dancing around the issue, I think I’m going to have to be a little bolder in my discussions with Mom.

So anyway, I brought up the issue of the phone after lunch. I approached it lightly.

“So, how’s the phone issue coming? Have you been able to work at getting under the desk?

“I have, but the boxes of paper are very heavy so I’ve been going through them one by one,” she said. “Good thing, too. I’ve found a few of your fathers papers. I’d hate to get rid of anything important.”

I can’t imagine how long this process is taking, especially since her energy levels would only allow her to tackle this job for maybe 20 minutes at a time. I asked “could you do a quicker sort just to get in to the phone jack to fix that problem, and THEN go through the papers as you put them back?”

And there is was. The watery little smile Lynn had told me she sees whenever she tries to talk to Mom about it. She’s right…it IS annoying. Mom’s eyes are glazing over and I can tell I’m losing her.

“Rae, I am doing my best. Don’t bug me about it like everyone else. Tell you the truth, I don’t even miss having a phone anymore.”

Ouch.

“That’s cold, Mom. You’re telling me you don’t even miss talking to me?” I plea.

“Well, YOU might call, but your sister never does!” Mom looked at Lynn accusingly. That’s when Lynn got up from the table and left the room.

“This isn’t about Lynn! It’s about me, and how much I love you and miss you! You’ve been months without a phone and you don’t seem to care how it’s affecting any one else!” I’m starting to get desperate to make an impression.

It wasn’t enough. Mom declares the conversation over, leaves the table in a stony silence, and I’m left to brood.

Some birthday celebration.