Hello.  It’s been a while.

I took a breather from Not Just Clutter to sweep some clutter from my own mind.  I felt a little too wrapped up in worrying about mental illness and any hit of clutter, that I stepped back for a while.  It was a good thing for me.  I was able to focus on happier things for a while, and put my energy into other areas of my life.

But if you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, you might be familiar with a series of posts called Case of the Silent Phone.  That’s what’s prompted me to write again.

It’s been 4 weeks since I’ve heard from my mother.  If you’re new to Not Just Clutter, my Mom only has a cell phone.  No land line, just a cell.  And for a while after getting it, Mom frequently lost her cell phone.  In fact, I think she’s had 3 phones in the last 18 months and it’s NOT because she’s always on the cutting edge of technology.

I call my Mom every Sunday.  3 weeks ago, my call went to voice mail.  I assumed she would call back within a few minutes.

2 weeks ago, I got voice mail again.  I thought maybe she lost the phone, or it’s not charged up.

And tonight, voice mail.  I’ve left messages every time.  I just don’t know what to think.

It could be that she’s lost the phone or the charger.  Or she’s feeling depressed and is refusing to answer any calls.  Or maybe….I don’t know.  My mind goes a million places.


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.


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.


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.