My Mom seems to find very odd things funny.  I assume it’s related to the denial that comes from compulsive hoarding.

She recently shared a gem which leaves her laughing and me terrified.  Her house is crumbling around her, and now, it’s:

A House with No Escape

Backstory: Mom’s house is an unusual design.  It’s essentially a bungalow but on the second floor.  The first floor of the house has a small apartment, and a large double garage.  Dad used to run his business from the garage, and it has huge & heavy rolling doors.  The front door is in the middle of the apartment and garage, and to get upstairs there are 36 steps.

I know this hallway by the front door is filled with stuff.  It was 50% filled 11 years ago.  The last time Lynn saw my Mom open the door, she said it couldn’t open all the way.  So, it was already a serious situation.

The Door Won’t Budge

Mom tells me the door has been sticking.  I get that.  With changes in weather and humidity, doors tend to do that.  But Mom’s front door is sticking so much, she sometimes can’t open it.  I know she’s tried sanding it down, oiling it, and a few other tricks, and yet, there would be days she’d come home and not be able to get in the door.  She’d push, and nudge, and probably curse, but it wouldn’t push open.

That’s when my senior citizen mother would have to try to raise the heavy-duty garage doors.  And then climb over all the stuff left in the garage from Dad’s business which was never cleared away after his death.  7 years ago.

Last Straw

So, finally, Mom got tired of doing this difficult task.  After struggling with the door again, she lost her temper and kicked it.

Wouldn’t you know…it opened right up!  My Mom is SO amused by this!

And while the idea of my elderly Mother turned ninja is amusing to most, I’m cringing.

I’m cringing because not only is the door sticking when she wants IN to the house, but also when she wants OUT of the house.

That’s right.  Should there ever be a fire, and by pure Act of God my frail Mother makes it past burning walls of stuff, down 36 smoldering wooden steps, and down a smoke-filled hallway, she still won’t be able to open the damn door to get out.

How’s that for a haunting image?

Jumping out a window is not an option, as all her living space is on the second flood.  There’s a back porch, but those wooden stairs have been withering in the elements for years.  I wouldn’t trust them to hold my purse.  There’s the garage, but again, the path is cluttered, and the doors are heavy.

Ninja Mom

I expressed as much to her.  She still chuckled, and revealed she did indeed have trouble getting the door to open from the inside.  So she tried kicking it again, and yes, it opened.  But think about that.  The door swung open toward her after being kicked.  This whole set up is compromised and needs repair, but since she was able to Hi-YA it open, she considers it problem solved.

She refuses to take this seriously.  And my fear of her being caught in a fire just got deeper.

 


The thought of moving when the house is filled to the rafters is pretty daunting.  Actually, that’s a huge understatement.  Should my Mom ever decide to move, I know I’ll be paralyzed with the enormity of the task.  I DO know that not everything should get thrown away, and lots of what Mom has collected is worth at least some money.  Hopefully, I can talk her into having a sale before moving…I’ll cross my fingers on that one.  Hoarders are loath to give up their stuff, even in exchange for cash.

How to Plan a Moving Sale in Small, Easy Steps

I’ve got some suggestions for managing a moving sale: there’s a LOT to think about!!  And remember, you shouldn’t have to do this alone.  These steps work for anyone planning a move, not just compulsive hoarders.  Stay tuned in the next week or so, and I’ll have even more ideas for how to handle a move when dealing with compulsive hoarding.

Thanks to Northstar Moving for this fantastic infographic.

Managing a Moving Sale Infographic


That’s the question that plagues all of us right?  When you’re full of the urge to clean up and are standing there beside the trash can with something with “potential” in your hand…what do you do?  Put it back and keep it indefinitely?  Chuck it before you change your mind?  Put it aside to either sell or give away?  Sometimes, the options are overwhelming.  I get it.  I’ve been there, too.

Today I’m presenting a guest post from Natalie, a storage expert from London, England, while I work on decluttering my own basement.  Again.  She offers some direction for decision making as you sort through your own stuff this fall.  I especially like the 2 Month Test.  If you have any additional suggestions for making decluttering easier, please leave a comment!

Guest Post: To Keep or Not to Keep

Spacing woes plague every household. No matter how meticulously you plan your storage, you end up with stuff littered around. Add to this an obsessive-compulsive prone person, life can become a living nightmare. Stuff scattered all over the place becomes an eyesore and hampers the free movement (physical or of the eye) around the house. A messy house attracts negative energies and may make the inhabitants irritable.

A perfectly organized home is highly desirable, but an unachievable target. Especially, owing to the hoarding mentality today, the problem is even graver. We don’t want to throw away stuff and we don’t have an appropriate place for storing it. Packing up boxes and shoving them over the loft is no solution. You finally have to let go of things that are no longer required. Here are a few tips and tricks that can help you get rid of the clutter:

Bring it on

The first step to the solution of the problem is to accept the problem. Let go of procrastination and delve into the task head on. However, keep your targets realistic. Aim for a cupboard or a drawer per day. Set aside a specific time that you would solely dedicate to the de-cluttering.

Dealing with the devil

If you are a woman, you might secretly agree to the fact that it is your stuff that occupies the maximum place in the house. The infinite clothes, bags, shoes, and accessories always pose a storage problem. You cannot cramp up your bags and shoes, hence they occupy even more space. Here, you have an old formula, only until now you’ve not been sticking to it- every time you buy something new, throw away something old. This may be highly painful at times, but the key is to be strict. You weren’t going to wear that old fashioned skirt again anyway!

Sports stuff

Every home has some sort of old sports gear that keeps on eating up space, without being used, year after year. Whether it’s a board game or old baseball bats or a fishing set, it’s best to get done with them. If you have some functional sports gear you no longer use, you can donate it to a kids’ orphanage (add to your karma account). At the same time, there might be things that are no longer of use or do not function anymore. For these, call up the local recycling agency and they’d be happy to take care of it. If you have some heavy gym equipment that is no longer of much use, it is best to call a removals service to get rid of it. We don’t you to sprain your back while following our advice!

Homeless Oddities

You would find a number of things like old books, CDs, magazines, stationary, electronics etc., which have no apparent use to you, yet they stay in your house forever. Of course, some of these have an emotional value to you- some may be gifts, some may be too rare to be thrown away, but the majority of them can go to junk. Anything broken can be chucked away immediately.

Crockery

Apart from that tea set that belonged to your grandmother’s grandmother, you can do away with a lot of idle crockery in your house. Nevertheless, you never have the heart to throw away some precious glassware. Spark up your kinder side and gift them to a friend or sibling. In fact, you can get into a deal with them to share crockery. This way, you’ll have more variety without being bothered about the storage issues.

The two-month test

Even when you are done with dealing most of the above mentioned stuff, there would still be items you neither have the heart to throw away nor have the space to put them. For these, you have to be strict with yourself and let them undergo the 2-month test. Box up all such stuff, mark the date on the box, and put it away. If in two months, you don’t open the box for anything in it, you can safely chuck it away. It would be best to give away the closed box as it is. If you open it, chances are you’d come across something that will tempt you and you’ll succumb to keeping it again, re-launching the clutter cycle.

Storage Rentals

My home city, London, England is dotted with self-storage companies, but it is a better option to first manage the clutter and go to a storage facility as a last resort. It may come in helpful in a situation where you have your heart set on new type of furniture, but are not being able to sell your old one at the desired price. You can temporarily store the furniture in a storage facility.

 

 

 


Fall Cleaning

Summer is drawing to a close, and Fall brings crisp air and gentle breezes.  It’s the perfect time to open all the windows and get in a little Fall Cleaning.  Everyone seems to get the urge to do a big sweep through the house in the Spring.  That’s great, and I encourage that habit!  But don’t overlook the chance to do this again before winter.

Think of all the new things you might have brought into your home over the last season.  Different sports gear.  Beach toys.  Stuff from the cottage.  A whole new warm weather wardrobe, even!  Do you have a new collection of family reunion t-shirts, wedding bombonieres, and travel tchotchkes?  How about all the art your children made at camp from Popsicle sticks and glitter glue?

Do you have a place for it?  Can you MAKE a place for it?  Fall is the perfect time to do a big purge not only to make room for the newer stuff you want to keep, but also to make room for the inevitable onslaught this holiday season.  And if you just can’t bear to give it up, here are…

15 reasons to encourage you to declutter

15 Reasons to Declutter inforgraphic


For many of us, putting up wallpaper or repainting our walls might mean an afternoon of pulling furniture away from the wall and adding some quick colour to our room.  Minimal disruption.  Or if you’re not handy, you might be smarter to hire an expert tradesperson to help with a significant project.  What if your house is so crowded, the tradespeople have trouble doing their job?  What if piles of stuff put these people in jeopardy for falling and injury?

Working in a Hoarder’s House

This is the first in a series of posts told from the perspective of people who have been affected by compulsive hoarder, but who are not relatives.  These are the emergency response workers, police, fire fighters, trades people, service people, and case workers who must enter hoarded homes and put themselves at risk.  To start us off, I present the insights offered by a skilled house painter.  This person (who has requested anonymity in respect for past clients) has an amazing perspective of compulsive hoarding you might never have considered.  I was fascinated when this person emailed me and started to share this story.  With permission, I present it as a guest post…an inside look into what it’s like to work inside the home of a crowded mind.

A View From the Trades

by Paint N. Brush

While it’s true that many hoarders avoid allowing trade and service people into their homes, quite as many actually do.  I’ve worked in the trades for twenty years, primarily doing interior painting and wallpapering.  I would estimate that thirty percent of my clients have been hoarders.  An additional fifteen percent were clearly on their way.  I think that is a huge statistic.  My perspective is, I believe, somewhat counter to the usual notions of hoarders.  My clients have all been well-to-do, have not yet isolated themselves completely, and are for the most part quite high-functioning individuals.  They have not quite arrived at what one can foresee as their inevitable endpoint of total, quiet, desperate chaos.  I seem to catch them at the disastrous turning points of their lives.

They share very interesting commonalities:  All have been highly intelligent, driven, gifted in one or several of the arts, and began as “collectors” of things.  Many of these collections do have actual market value, as opposed to collections of paper cups or plastic margarine tubs.  But all have in fact have begun that insidious overlap from collections of dozens of vases never used, to cupboards packed with junk.  All are in variant stages of goat trails throughout their homes.  All say that if they can just get the house straightened out, if they just had a week to themselves, everything would be fine.  If I, the tradesman, could just get that wall cleaned and painted right away, the trajectory of their lives will miraculously self-correct because they then will be able to move all those boxes over there from here and they’ll have something resembling a room.  All are in various stages of serious, really severe unhappiness, which they do express via either action or word, more often through actions – compulsive spontaneous shopping,  sudden brief spurts of rage, frequent expressions of frustration usually directed at the wrong people.  They have an utter inability to experience the feeling of happiness.  I’m not talking about “being happy”.  (Nebulous phrase.)  I’m talking about an actual inability to FEEL happy, to feel even a brief moment of true delight in the course of their day.  They will say they’re happy, they’ll use the words, but there’s nothing real behind it.  All are causing deep tensions within their families, all have first-degree relatives with addictions in other forms – alcohol, food, drugs – all are successful in their careers, all are constantly frantic.  All claim to have had “perfect” childhoods.  That is the word they use.  (I don’t believe that for a minute.)

My contracts in their homes have all been either long-term or intermittent over long periods of time.  Consequently, an interesting result takes place – the tradesman becomes part of the furniture.  The household gets so used to your presence that they come, go, and play out their lives without a thought to your presence.  I’ve come to believe that it’s a comfort to them to have us there, once they know we are trustworthy.  But for us it becomes a window into hoarder worlds which can be distressing, saddening, and hopeless, no matter how much financial comfort or family presence they might enjoy.

Imagine if you’d like to rejuvenate and paint your livingroom.  To do it properly, you would like to clean, sand, and paint all your woodwork trim in that room.  That’s windows, doors, door casings, baseboard trim, sometimes ceiling trimwork too.  You would like a crisp cleanly painted ceiling.  You want to clean your walls, patch any defects, and give them new life with a new color of paint, which you will have to hand-cut in with a brush around every window and ceiling edge and doorway, then roll the walls with a roller.  TWICE.  Walls always, always have to be done twice to be done right.  Oftentimes all the trimwork must also be painted twice.  You would prefer this room to be empty of objects when you undertake this.  You would prefer dropcloths on the floor to take roller spatter.  (There is ALWAYS roller spatter, no matter how good you are at this.)  This work takes an organized mind.  You can’t cut the top walls in while the ceiling paint is wet.  You can’t do baseboard tops while the bottom wall is wet.  And so on.

Now imagine this same room, same project goals, crammed end to end and top to bottom with valuable antiques, boxes and boxes and boxes of junk, dozens of houseplants, a huge flat-screen T.V., heavy-framed paintings on the walls, enormous dust-laden cobwebs on the ceiling, pet fur, pet paraphernalia, and dirt, dirt, dirt.  Normal household dirt, but never addressed because one can’t move within the room to clean, so the dirt is really, really bad.  Paint won’t adhere to dirt.  Never has, never will.  You must clean first.  There is no place to move the stuff, nowhere to put it, because the rest of the house is packed too.  There is no floor space.  You can’t see the floor at all.

My highest injury rate has been in hoarder homes, bar none.  There is no room to move or maneuver yourself, your ladders, your paint cans, your wallpaper safely.  In twenty years I have had only one breakage of a homeowner item, which seems like a miracle to me, but I myself have experienced significant bruise, breakage and falls for the sake of those blasted items.

I’ve learned that with hoarders the job will never be done.  They always want more, and I’m retiring from the trades because of it.  I feel for them, it’s very painful stuff to see.  My hoarder clients are the personalities I’ve been most fond of in many, many ways.  They touch my heart.  But they drive me crazy,  and I must finally opt out.  In some subconscious way they look to me and other tradespeople to be the repairmen of their emotional lives – which they confuse with their physical possessions – and that is not a possible thing to do.  Sadly we can’t repair that for them, much as we might wish to.

 


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.


Bell Let’s Talk Day Recap

Thanks to everyone who might have participated in Bell Let’s Talk Day yesterday.  For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I was using #BellLetsTalk as often as I could.

Why?  Because a Canadian company (Bell Canada) is donating .5 cents to mental health research for every tweet and text using that hash tag.  My Twitter feed was alive with people sharing their support and stories!!  I loved it!  Yesterday was a big day, but we should all be committed to keeping the conversation going every day to stop the stigma of mental health.  This goes not just for compulsive hoarding, but for ANY mental disorder.

Bell Canada Let's Talk Logo

Final tallies aren’t in just yet…but the last time I checked, Bell was reporting 85, 536, 167 texts, tweets, and long distance calls that all qualified under #BellLetsTalk.  Multiple that by .5 cents each, and that’s well over 4 million dollars raised!  In ONE day!!  In ONE country!!!

I bet that will put some minds at ease, huh?  ;)

Guest Post: Squalor Holler

Today I have a guest post up at Squalor Holler.  Yep, that’s right…there are a whole bunch of fellow bloggers sharing their experience as children of compulsive hoarders.  And Sarah at Squalor Holler has a great series going on her blog sharing the stories of fellow COHs.  And today is MY day!

So scoot on over to read more about my interview, and be sure to give Sarah some love in the comments.  She’s doing her part to keep the conversation going.


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.


When I was about 12, I really got into making miniatures.  I’d sculpt teeny tiny plates of food, and painstakingly carve expressive characters out of FIMO.  I joined a miniatures enthusiasts club and everything.  No, it didn’t make me more popular.  I even started building a complex Victorian doll house, but I outgrew my interest before finishing the project.  I’m certain it’s still in my old room at Mom’s house, hidden behind 20 years of other hobbies and collectibles.  Imagine seeing compulsive hoarding on a miniature scale!

Barbie trashes her dreamhouse

Working From Home, 2011, Carrie M. Becker

One day, I stumbled across photos by Carrie M. Becker on Flickr.  She has a whole collection of images titled Barbie Trashes her Dreamhouse.  Here’s what she says in her profile:

I have a love of all things miniature. As a young adult, I collected small Japanese toys from a company called Rement. During the summer after completing graduate school I had some down time and decided to use my commercial photography skills to shoot my miniature collection as though it were “real”. Also during that time, I also frequently watched shows like “Hoarders” and “How Clean Is Your House?” With that in mind, this past summer I began creating the images that are presented here, though I reflect their inspiration as a mirror and not a judgement. For me, this series is about creating a small, but perfect world where the viewer cannot distinguish between what is reality and what is fiction.

When I saw her detailed work in a miniature scale, I was really blown away.  I know how long it takes to create a simple scene in miniature.  And I know what a compulsive hoard looks like.  Carrie has created these highly authentic miniature worlds of compulsive hoarding with an accuracy that’s eerie!  But brilliant!  Look at the image above…the post-it notes on the computer monitor, the cardboard boxes as attempts for organizing, and my favourite, the motivational SUCCESS poster on the wall!

Art Imitates Life

The Living Room, 2011, Carrie M. Becker

Hoard in living room

Living Room

Compare Carrie’s image above with one just under it sent from guest poster, Sue. See the barely exposed coffee table in the middle. The endless boxes. The stuffed bookshelves and curios. These are images from 2 totally different sources, but you can see how similar the theme seems to be no matter what hoarders home you’re looking at.

But at least in Carrie’s miniature world, it’s exactly that…miniature. You can see here how her scene fits on a little pedestal.
Working From Home, installation detail, 2011, Carrie M. Becker

This one just astounds me. You can practically feel the grime on the laundry set. My nose wrinkles at the thought of mildewed clothing wrapped in plastic.
The Laundry Room, 2011, Carrie M. Becker

A Miniature World

Carrie has other themed small scale sets and they don’t all depict compulsive hoarding situations. I definitely recommend looking through her Flickr sets.  She’s been featured on Huffington Post and TIME.com.  She has her own website, carriembeckerart.com, and you can also find her on Facebook.

*All photos have been shared with Carrie’s permission.  When I found her art, I contacted her through Facebook and asked if she’d mind being featured on NotJustClutter.


Is this the start of something good?

So Mom has started to talk about selling the house again.  Can you imagine having to move a compulsive hoarder?   She got her most recent property tax assessment and is delighted to learn they’ve appraised her home for a nice chunk of change.  I gently reminded her that it’s unrealistic she’d get that much.

She talks about getting a dumpster.  I don’t even know how much that costs in her city, but I know it’s going to take more than one.  I offered to help her sort through some stuff, but she’s still resisting help until she has a chance to go through things herself.

There are a lot of items she talks about wanting to keep because they’ll be great in the new house.  But then there are also items she’s identified as wanting to get rid of, like the living room sofa set.  Which is fine by me.

I am pleased to hear her talk about this, even if it’s just words.  I think maybe she’s getting glimmers of self-awareness, or she’s tired of being penned in by her hoard.  No matter what, I hope this is the start of something positive.

On the other hand

Mom tells one story to me and a different story to Lynn.  I’m not sure Mom knows that Lynn told me.  Ya follow that?  It means she’s giving me the brave face while there’s something else going on that’s actually pretty serious.  I can’t really talk about that yet.  Yes, it’s that serious.  And in this case, Mom shows no self-awareness.


Gift giving and receiving with a compulsive hoarder is complicated.

My Mother loves gifts.  I don’t blame her; who doesn’t love gifts?  I’ll tell you who.

Me.

Actually, let me clarify that.  I appreciate a well-thought out gift.  My husband Will is especially good at picking out something perfectly suited to me, and I love everything he’s given me.  He doesn’t go overboard with quantity and that’s just fine with me.

When I was a kid, any holiday involved a mountain of gifts.  When you’re little you think this is fabulous!  Windfall!!!!  Then I got older and (just a touch) wiser.  I realized though the gifts were plentiful, they were either:

  • poor quality
  • unsuited to me
  • had strings attached

Poor Quality

It was quantity over quality.  I started to fall into this trap too until one Christmas I exchanged gifts with my college boyfriend.  I wandered department stores and dollar stores, and picked out all sorts of whimsical things that made me think of him.  I gave him about a dozen little presents, and he gave me a gold promise ring.  It finally dawned on me that while the pile of presents seemed impressive, it wasn’t about the stuff and more about the emotions.  I might have spent as much as he did but while I received a symbol of our relationship, he got a pile of cheap trinkets.

Unsuited to Me

Mom & I haven’t been as tight as we used to be, so we don’t know each other as well as we should.  Her mental illness has changed her, and I’ve matured since her hoarding took over.  I know when she walks through her favourite thrift store she buys things because they make her think of me, but they’re bizarre.  Like, the country-style apple quilt wall hanging she found.  It was originally from Cracker Barrel and she told me:

“I know something like this would be worth at least $60 brand new.  I just couldn’t pass it up when I saw it for $12!”

The quilt was perfectly nice, in mint condition, and would probably look great hanging in someone’s home.  Just not mine.  I don’t have a country theme in my home decor, and I’d never expressed the desire for a quilted wall hanging.  So this was money spent on a gift for the wrong person.

Strings Attached

SO many “treasures” have been shared with me over the years.  On the surface, Mom is very generous.  But if Mom considered these items especially interesting, she’d declare the caveat “Don’t ever get rid of this.  If you don’t want it anymore give it to me.”  That tells me she really picked this out for herself, and only felt comfortable giving it away if she thought she’d get it back some day.

The Butterfly in a Jar my Mom really bought for herself but gave to me.

The Butterfly in a Jar my Mom really bought for herself but gave to me.

My birthday was recently…we won’t worry about which one it was. ;)
Mom asked me a few weeks ago what I would like for my birthday.  I told her nothing but her happy birthday wishes.  I know she’s on a tight budget, shipping is expensive, and I really don’t need anything.  Lynn & I had already discussed stopping gifts between each other and I mentioned all that to Mom.

I could tell she was hurt.  She thinks we don’t want to uphold any traditions.  That’s not true…it’s just the traditions I’m interested in don’t involve consumerism.  And I get the sense she’s upset if she doesn’t give a gift to me, I won’t give a gift to her on her birthday.

She’s right about that.  I don’t want to buy gifts for her any more.  Anything I’ve given her in the last several years hasn’t been used.  It ends up in the back of her van or in some pile at her house, never to be seen again.  I’m tired of wasting money and effort when it’s not appreciated.  And if I did want to buy her something, what would it be?  She has triplicate of everything because she’s lost the originals.  We’ve thought of buying her services, but she won’t let anyone into her house for housekeeping, repairs, etc.  We mentioned the idea of donating to charity in her name once and she was offended.

So, I’d rather not bother with the whole gift exchange thing.  I know it sounds cold, but I just can’t do it any more.  I don’t want her to buy me trinkets I’ll have to donate away or throw out, and I don’t want her to spend the few dollars she has left on a gift for me when she keeps her thermostat set to 60 in the winter to avoid a high heating bill.

What I really wish for

What I’d like from her is a memory we can share.  Perhaps go to lunch, or see a movie.  Sit down and do a craft together.  Take a drive and look at the scenery.  Too bad she lives 3 hours away.

She called me last night to sing me Happy Birthday.  And so we chatted and hearing her voice was gift enough for me.

How do you handle gifts with a Compulsive hoarder?

I’m curious as to how other children or relatives of hoarders handle gifts.  Do you still exchange?  Do you keep those things “loaned” to you…those gifts given but wanted back?  If you’ve found a solution to gift giving and receiving when a compulsive hoarder is involved, I’d love to hear about it!


There are 2 new studies about compulsive hoarders you might not know about.  They’re being conducted by researchers at Case Western Reserve University.  These online surveys explore the relationship between someone with OCD or Hoarding tendencies and their relatives or loved ones.  Researchers hope the information gathered from these surveys will help improve therapies for OCD and hoarding (Goodness knows we need that!), and to also create an awareness of the complexities of the relationships surrounding those with these disorders.  You must be at least 18 years old to participate.  The bonus (other than science learning more about hoarding) is that entries are eligible for a draw for a Target gift card. You can choose to remain anonymous, and the site outlines their privacy procedures right up front.

I was approached by Dr. Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.  She reached out hoping to bring more attention to her studies, and I’m so glad she did.  Currently, there’s no formal information out there about the effects of compulsive hoarding on relationships, and she seeks to change that.  Our goals are aligned, as that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog.  I sometimes compare having a relative with hoarding to having a relative who’s an alcoholic.  I don’t dispute alcoholism is terribly serious and harmful, but the stigma isn’t as severe as it is for hoarders, and there are WAY more social supports in place from rehab to 12 step recovery to groups like AA, Al-anon, and Alateen.  Other than the Children of Hoarders website and blogs like mine, relatives of hoarders are still mostly on their own,

Two Studies, Different Approaches

The 2 studies have different veins…one is for the relative or loved one of a hoarder.  I completed this one, and encourage anyone in similar shoes to do so.  It didn’t take very long, although I found some of the questions about OCD unrelated to my situation.  You can skip anything not relevant to you, but your personal experience is valid!!

The other survey is for people who hoard or those with OCD to complete.  You can imagine how difficult it is to get enough people for this one…most hoarders have a lack of insight.  They don’t see themselves as having a hoarding problem, and so simply wouldn’t even attempt to answer this survey.  I know the researchers need at least 40 more entries to get a solid base for their research, so I ask if anyone reading Not Just Clutter who IS a hoarder and are stuggling with getting better to reach out and complete this survey.

Study Links

For individuals with OCD and/or hoarding: http://psychology.case.edu/research/fear_lab/participate.html

For relatives and significant others of those with OCD and/or hoarding: http://psychology.case.edu/research/fear_lab/participate.html


I recently got a great comment from a reader named Sue.  She responded to my post The Case of the Silent Phone part 5, and tells us her experience as the daughter of a hoarder.  Her advice about how to clear out a hoarders home was so valuable, I asked Sue if I could feature her words as a post instead of as a comment.  She also shared photos of her father’s home during her clean up process.  I also appreciate her ideas for helping my daughter learn to sort out her beloved stuffed animals.  If you are facing the overwhelming task of sorting through a compulsive hoarders house, I urge you to learn from Sue’s experience.
Thank you, Sue, for sharing with Not Just Clutter.  I look forward to updates from you.

Guest post: How to Clear out a Hoarders Home

My primary approach dealing with Dad’s house was to put like things together. It was all about categorizing things rather than dealing with them as individual items.
I disagree with some of the standard organizational advice that says to work your way through a pile picking up each item and not putting it down until you make a decision about whether to keep, donate/sell, or toss.  I understand the purpose of that advice, which is to encourage the hoarder to actually think about each item rather than just blindly put it back on the pile where it becomes invisible again.  But I think that there is a better way to approach it, which is to start by focusing on the things that you can decide immediately about.  So I would start (or encourage the hoarder to start) by looking just for things that can be thrown out (or just for things that can be donated, or just for things that have a known place where they belong and can be put away).  I think it’s too overwhelming to try to think about each individual item against the background of a pile or room filled up with hundreds or thousands of equally “individual” items.  I think it works best to 1) first remove as much of the stuff in the pile or room as possible whose fate is EASY to decide: obvious trash, obvious donate things, obvious “put away elsewhere” things.  Then 2) look at the remaining items in the pile or room, and look for the patterns, the categories. 
Hoard in living room

Living Room: notice the partially cleared coffee table, which took a great deal of work just to get that far.

Find Categories

In my Dad’s house the common categories were: books, clothes, keep/sell/give to friends, thrift store, bridge (dad was a bridge teacher and most of the papers in the house were related to that), music (cds and tapes were all over the house), empty boxes, magazines, personal/photos/financial records etc.  I designated a place/pile/room for each category and just plowed through the piles sorting into the new piles.  Thus, all clothing went in one room (after I cleared a bed to have some room to pile clothes), office type supplies went piled on or near the desk, and anything I thought I might want to keep (even to sell later online, etc — anything I wasn’t going to dispose of directly from the house) went into a third room (again, after clearing to have initial room to work). Empty boxes went into the garage.  Just like you would do with an already-organized house, everything needed a place, even just a temporary place.  Sometimes the “place” for lightweight furniture was out on the lawn with a “FREE” sign — I got rid of a lot that way.

Remove Volume Quickly

A secondary rule was to focus on the easiest ways to remove volume from the piles. In dad’s case this meant first pulling CLOTHING and BOXES (mostly empty) from piles that were otherwise mostly paper. Like many hoarders, my dad accumulated boxes, thinking that they would magically solve his organization problem, but instead, they became more OF the problem…  Going through the papers was much more tedious and fiddly — he would have old family photos mixed in with junk mail, so I couldn’t just toss big stacks of junk mail, unless I was willing to risk losing some good stuff with it (and by the end, I did some of that too!). But at first, you want the encouragement of seeing the piles shrink dramatically, by taking out the things that have the most volume to them.  Things that were clearly garbage or recycle or thrift store, I tried to remove as soon as possible, just to open up a little working room!
Compulsive Hoarders Office

The Office: A Nice Roll Top Desk to hide the clutter

Sometimes I would sit down and focus on a certain room or a large pile, one piece at a time. Other times I would bounce around from room to room, each time finding something that “belonged” somewhere else. It seemed to work well to take whichever approach I was in the mood for that day.
I worked my way through the piles this way, sorting into these new piles, until — after many days of this — a semblance of order began to appear.

look for Subset Categories

Then I began to focus on subsets — from among the office supplies I could then see, for example, that there were at least twelve staplers.  A whole moving carton full of pens and pencils.  From among the clothing I stacked pants here, shirts there, and filled a laundry basket to overflowing, just with belts (!!).  Once I could see things organized by categories and how much there was of various things, it was easier for me to decide how to proceed with keep/donate decisions.  I think this would be even more important if the hoarder is participating in the cleanup and some appropriate amounts and types of things are going to be kept for their use.

Set a number limit

I also think it’s important, when helping a hoarder, to establish an agreed-upon appropriate number of each type of item to be kept, just as you mentioned with the stuffed animals for your daughter. When your mom sees, for example, a nice lamp that works, it might be hard for her to decide, as a standalone decision, whether she’s willing to let that particular lamp go.  But if she has already agreed that given the layout of her house, she needs, say, ten lamps, then once she sees, visually all together in one place, that she has thirty lamps, I think it would be easier to pick her ten favorite and be more agreeable (hopefully) to letting the others go.
Piles of Paper

Piles of Paper

I admit that I never tried the above approach with my dad.  His piles were mostly paper and clothing, and I wasn’t able to assemble things in a way to see how many he had of different kinds of clothing because they were too well hidden in the piles or inaccessible due to other piles.  I was only able to get to that point after his death when I had complete freedom to plow through the house and move things around.  But I do think it would be a good approach to take, if a hoarder is able to think rationally about their things (which some can and some can’t, from what I’ve seen).

Focus on the person, not the stuff

I know these things that make sense to us, don’t always work for the person with the hoarding mindset. But there is only so much you can do, if the person is otherwise competent and able to legally make their own decisions. There does come a point where it truly does become easier to wait until the person is gone, rather than argue over every little thing. Sometime you just want to not upset the relationship by always having it focus on the stuff. It all depends on where the person is at mentally and emotionally, and how much help they truly want.

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?