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.


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!


I’ve gotten some interesting feedback from my post about teaching children about hoarding.  I wrote how I felt I am failing my daughter by not coaching her on better organizational habits earlier.

You Responded!

I was delighted to read your comments!  Thank you to all who took the time to leave a note on the blog or email me in person.  You were all reassuring that I haven’t ruined my kids just yet!  Phew! There’s still time to teach them about personal organization!

Knee Jerk Reaction

I suppose I’m being extra cautious.  Living so close to someone with a mental illness makes you paranoid (wait, isn’t that a mental condition too??? ).  Perhaps it’s similar to those with an alcoholic parent and forbidding their own children to ever toast with wine at holiday dinners.  I’m probably being hyper-sensitive, but I know I’ve read in several places that compulsive hoarding can be hereditary.  Diabetes also strongly runs in the family…some future I’ve got facing me, huh?

Nature vs Nuture

Genetics aside, I think learned behavior goes a long way.   I don’t want to go overboard and insist on unattainable perfection.  I can’t maintain that myself anyway.  But if I can begin to instill the proper techniques for organizing personal space, encouraging attachment to people instead of objects, and how to begin and finish any project, then I think I’ll be giving my girls some great life skills.  And hey, it doesn’t hurt to practice them myself, right?  I’m sure Will would agree, as he eyes my creatively chaotic craft room.

Your Suggestions for Teaching Kids About Personal Organization

You had some great ideas for helping kids learn about organizing, and learning how to let go of treasured toys.

  • take photos of toys before donating them, and put photos in an album to preserve their memory
  • designate a set number of keepers.  Let them choose which keepers, but don’t go past the number.
  • designate a box for toys and don’t let it go past the top.  If it doesn’t fit the box, it can’t stay.
  • trim pieces from favourite blankets, clothing, or stuffed animals and sew them into a memory quilt or pillow (careful this doesn’t add to your own long list of projects *cough*)
  • Remind them of children less fortunate, and encourage a social conscience.

Feel free to keep sending your ideas, and I’ll add them to this list.  I’m sure I’m not the only parent in this boat.

I also just came across the Overindulgence website.  It discusses dealing with spoiled children, the feeling of entitlement some kids seem to have, and gives a few ideas about giving chores.

My own purge continues

Going back to my craft room for a minute, I worked on clearing that room out, too.  Yes, I’ve been on a purging kick the last 2 months and it’s feeling great.  I didn’t realize exactly HOW great until I sat down at my sewing machine and did a quick little project.  I mentioned this to another creative kindred spirit, my best friend, and she said “Rae, I think that’s how we feed our soul.”

How we feed our soul.  Yes.  Yes, I think that’s it.

And because my craft room is the dumping ground for when we don’t know where else to put something, I had crowded out my opportunity to feed my soul. And I was starving.  Funny how having too much can make you feel so empty.

Have you carved out a space all your own?  How do you keep it clear for spontaneous use?  I’d love to hear about it!

In case you’re wondering, Mom is still without a phone.  We’ve not spoken since I saw her about 3 weeks ago.  That seems like a long time to go without hearing from your mother, doesn’t it?


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?


Every 6 weeks or so, our town has large item trash removal.  That means you can put out up to 3 larger items that don’t fit in normal trash.  Pressboard furniture, rolls of carpet, and things like that.  We often forget when these days are and always think afterwards “Geez, we shoulda put out XYZ.”

This time, we remembered at the last minute.  The weather was beautiful, the kids were playing in the front yard, and we took a good look in our garage.  We’ve known for a looooong time we need to clean it out.  We’ve never parked a car in it, and it’s an obstacle course of lawn mowers, bicycles, boxes of stuff that didn’t sell at our last garage sale, and bits of wood leftover from past projects.  Writing this blog has made me more determined not to be a victim of stuff, so I hardened my heart a little to clear some space.

I knew if we put out some stuff, they would come.  You know…the curbside scavengers, the dumpster divers, the scrap metal collectors, the roadside rescuers.  Our town has a healthy bunch you can count on, slowly cruising the residential streets in pick up trucks looking for treasure.

Our town offers metal appliance pick up, too.  You have to call and arrange a time, but they pick it up for free and dispose of it properly.  We put out an unwanted stove and scheduled a pick up, but someone else scooped it within the hour.  The town never even had a chance!

So I was comfortable knowing that anything I put out wasn’t going to really end up in a land fill.  And if it wasn’t picked up by bed time, I probably would have pulled it back in the house.

Out went the 80s style metal bed frame.

Out went the wood directors chairs with flaking paint and stained canvas seats.

Out went the umbrella stroller with the wonky wheel.  Our youngest child is happier walking anyway, and when we got this stroller it was already second hand.  (Bonus: when we unfolded the stroller to put by the road, we found our missing camera!)

I set the chairs and stroller up so people would see them easily as they drove by, and then went in for dinner.

An hour later, the metal bed frame was gone.  The other items were gone by bed time.

I’m SO glad those items got picked up.  Hopefully they’ve found an appreciative owner.  And we’ve reclaimed space in our garage!  Now we need to get rid of the bits of wood still kicking around, organize the various yard toys, put up hooks to hang the bikes/trikes/sleds, and take those boxes of unsold books to a shelter or get the Diabetes Clothesline to pick them up.

THEN we’ll finally have a clear garage.  Baby steps, right?

It feels so fantastic to finally have those items gone!  Why was I hanging on to them?  Lots of reasons, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, too.

Guilt

My parents bought me the metal bed frame for Christmas the first year I lived on my own.  It was my first queen size, and had 4 posters.  It felt so grown up and mature.  And when I married, we continued using the bed until about 2 years ago.  There was nothing wrong with the bed, but it was no longer our style after we brought a good quality wood bed with a classic design.  I tried selling it online and at our garage sale, but since no one even looked at it, I’m guessing it’s no one else’s style either.

Good Crafty Intentions

The director’s chairs fit my personality.  I work in the television industry, and I loved the quirkiness of having these chairs.  They’ve been shuffled from the basement to the garage countless times, waiting for me to strip them down and refinish them.  I was going to sew new backs and seats for them.  I just never got around to it, and really…I don’t need any more chairs, especially those with pinchy hinges.

Nostalgia

My baby isn’t a baby anymore.  It’s liberating to move baby items along, but it’s also sad.  I’ll never have an infant to push along again.  She’s a toddler now, and marches to her own drummer.  I respect that, but I miss the early days, too.

That said, I’m sure looking forward to the future. There will come a day where I have a place for everything and everything in its place. When I can employ any space for its properly designated use. Where I can acknowledge my life’s value in my actions, not my belongings.

Already I feel more free.