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 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.

I’m a Virgo.  Most of the time, I’m ok with my home looking well lived in.  Children leave toys out mid-game.  Craft projects are in progress.  And there’s always a DIY home improvement going on somewhere in the house.  But when the perfectionist, pragmatic Virgo in me rears her head, I go on major cleaning streaks.  I’m talking get-out-the-toothbrush-to-scrub-the-corners Virgo Clean Streak.

Virgo Clean Streak

Every once in a while this happens.  Probably not often enough.  And by now, Will knows enough to stand back and let me charge full speed ahead.  It happened this weekend.  I just couldn’t stand the state of our basement any longer.  Since I use our 4th bedroom as a craft room/office, we don’t have any where pleasant for guests to stay.  And Will doesn’t really have office space of his own, either, which impedes the launch of his new business.

How to decide what to keep and what to toss

We have a whole basement and it was uselessly filled with stuff.  So I rolled up my sleeves, put on some tunes, and started working my way through everything as realistically and unemotionally as I could.  And you know what?  It was easier than expected.  I must be at some sort of threshold because what I processed over the weekend had proven too difficult to deal with in earlier attempts to clear the basement.  I allowed myself to be honest about whether I really needed or wanted all this stuff.  Anything I really wanted to keep went into ONE laundry basket, and everything else went into boxes for donation or garbage bags.

There were a few moments where I wavered and wanted to keep some things.  Like my Mom, I can see the “potential” of future projects.  But I kept reminding myself that reclaiming this space was more important than vintage sheet music for decoupage, or a stacks of plastic party drinking cups left over from our wedding…9 years ago.  I want to transform this space into a place to build memories and experiences.  That has more value to me now than dusty boxes of trinkets packed up from our old house and never reopened when we moved here.

As I thought of that, it got easier and easier to move items into the donation boxes and wish them well in their future homes.  And the more I let go, the lighter my heart felt.  My mood improved.  My skin cleared.  Well, maybe not, but I certainly felt a glow of accomplishment to see the stack of boxes by the door growing.

What Did I Find?

In the clear out, I found a number of things to give to friends of mine.  A book about dogs goes to a co-worker who just got a Huskie puppy.  The bassinet that cradled my babies the first few months of their lives is going to a friend expecting his first child next month.  And for myself, I found the CD of images I took about 5 years ago at Moms house when Lynn and I snuck in to do a quick “tidy.”  I’ll share those in a future post.

Grand Total

In the end, Will and I loaded 11 donation boxes into the car.  I filled 2 large bags of trash.  I reorganized 7 mishmashed plastic and cardboard boxes of hand-me-down clothes for my little Quinn into 3 locking Rubbermaid containers, and found a whole bunch of baby clothes I didn’t even know we had.  That gets shared with another co-worker having a baby girl in October.

What Next?

There’s still some stuff to shuffle around and reorganize.  I’m sure I could purge even more if I get another Virgo Clean Streak.  Will needs to pack up all his wine-making supplies for a while.  There’s a cold cellar to rip out and move to a different area.  And if we can clean enough open space, we’ll frame in new walls to make new office space and accommodations for guests.  Put up shelves to get what’s left up off the floor.  Wall off the furnace.  Ultimately, make this a warm and inviting space to spend quality time.  And as much potential all that stuff had, the potential of the space is even greater.

Getting rid of all that stuff was SO liberating.  I feel like I lost 100 pounds.  In fact, I put on my skinny jeans to celebrate!

 


It’s been a few weeks since Mom told me she was getting a cell phone.  I was excited at first, but that wore off as day after day passed and still no call from her “new phone.”

I’m guessing she has procrastinated and has found other things to do instead.  Compulsive hoarders have a tendency to delay making decisions out of fear of making the wrong decision.  I’ve seen it time and time again with Mom.

She has a pile of boxes heavy with papers under the desk…the very same boxes she needed to move to check the phone jack on the wall.  She was attempting to go through these boxes paper by paper in case there was something important in there she shouldn’t throw away.  This meant ALL the papers got kept when only a handful should have been filed and the rest recycled (or shredded for privacy, which is another way of delaying because, um, she doesn’t have a shredder.)  The result of her dithering is a desk still jammed with paper boxes and no way to access the phone jack.  She’s still paying for the phone service, by the way, and because she wanted to keep the same phone number has maintained a more costly business line they had for my Dad.  The phone company also requires 30-60 days written notice of cancellation, so we’re looking at a loss of about $400 since November.

When I began this post, I thought about my own trouble making decisions.  My husband and I do research for a long time before making most decisions.  It’s a good thing to know what you’re getting into, but eventually you have to s*** and get off the pot (sorry for the crudeness).  My husband and I planned to get a new front door for over 18 months.  We had contractors come give us quotes.  We drove around the neighbourhood looking at other people’s front doors.  I visited several door & window stores looking at options.  If Pinterest had been around then, I’m sure I’d still be pinning to a “Front Door” board!  There were SO many options, we couldn’t pick just one.

Then, one day, Lowes had a sale on doors.  We walked in, pointed at one we both liked, and it was installed a week later.  We loved it!  It brighten the face of our house, is more energy efficient, and has better ventilation.  Why hadn’t we just done that from the beginning?  We make life too complicated sometimes.

Just Make Up Your Mind!

I want to be better at making decisions.  I think it could be a learned skill, and I want to model decisiveness for my daughters.  So I Googled “how to make decisions” or something like that, and saw a wealth of information out there.  It seems there are some common factors why people can’t make up their minds:

  • Too many advisors
  • Too many choices
  • Fear of worst case scenarios
  • Analysis paralysis
  • Talking yourself out of a decision

But there are some things you can do to help yourself.

  • Set a deadline for making the decision
  • Accept you might make a bad decision, be ok with it, and learn from the failure
  • Manage your emotions

It seems people make decisions with their hearts more than their heads.  Emotions aren’t rational and can confuse you from making a good decision.  If you struggle with a bossy heart, consider these:

  • Imagine a blank slate in your head.  Don’t allow any other thoughts or feelings and start from scratch.  (I’ve seen this work…I mean, it works for a character in the Pokemon graphic novels I’ve been reading with my 6 year old, Maddie, so surely…..)
  • What’s your body telling you?  Take a breath, calm your nerves, and still your movements to focus.
  • Visualize the outcome of your decision, and evaluate what would work and what wouldn’t.  Is it really so bad either way?
  • Ask do you need it, or just want it?  This is especially important for hoarders, or compulsive shoppers.  If it’s a basic need, it’s easy enough for your brain to make that decision.  But if you want it, well, that’s desire.  Desire is an emotion.  Emotions colour our thinking with all sorts of confliction, and we find we’ve talked ourselves into buying/eating/bringing home something we really didn’t need.  It could lead us to a temporary high, and then the all-too-familiar emotion, remorse.  And that…is just a bad decision.
  • Practice makes perfect.  Apply these methods often to get better at them.  Decision-making opportunities come up daily…sometimes, several times an hour!

You might find other useful ideas online.

I’m going to have to give these ideas a try.  Let me know if they work for you.  And remember, not all decisions are life or death.  What to have for lunch, what colour socks to wear (I choose black almost always), what route to drive to work…these are examples of ordinary low-risk decisions.  I want to get really good at making up my mind in these situations, and I’ll be better prepared for bigger, higher-risk decisions.   No more dithering or waffling.  No more sweating the details while missing the bigger picture.  No more fretting over beautiful, energy efficient front doors while the old ugly one lets in drafts.

In the meantime, I realize I can’t fault my Mom her indecision.  I recognize it’s part of who she is.  It’s part of her illness.  And perhaps she was never taught the skill of quick decision making.  I know she didn’t teach it to me.  I’ll find the patience next time I’m waiting for Maddie to choose between Raisin Bran & Cheerios at breakfast time.  We’ll work on the wants vs needs issues if they arise.  I’m sure they will.

While I can’t control the choices of others, I am in full control of my own choices. Knowing that is empowering.