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!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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