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 feel so honoured to have been given to opportunity to write a guest post for Psychology Today.  Recently, the same doctor conducting the studies about compulsive hoarders and their relationships touched base with me and we’ve been having some great conversation about the lack of resources on this topic.  Truly, people like me, the hoarders son, and other children of hoarders have limited help in sorting out our feelings and relationships with our hoarding loved ones.

Raising Awareness

Dr. Amy Przeworski, from Case Western Reserve University, wants to raise awareness…and I’m hopeful when I hear mental health experts like Amy getting involved.  I wrote a guest post about what it’s like to be on one side of the wall of stuff while my Mother exists on the other.  I hope you’ll hop over to read my post on Dr. Przeworski’s blog…and stick around to read more of her own posts.  She speaks of anxiety and other family mental health issues worth reading.

Find me on psychology today

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-worry-mom/201209/outside-the-wall

 


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?


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!

 


I dreamt I was in my Mother’s house.

When someone’s compulsive hoarding is so extensive it invades someone else’s dreams, you know it’s significant.

In this dream, I go to my Mom’s house to take photos.  I want to collect images not just for notjustclutter.com, but to really see how she’s living.  Maybe if she sees the photos she’d realize there’s a problem. I’m also a photographer, so it’s in my nature to want to visually document the legacy my Mother is hoarding. In the dream, I need to take the photos in secret, so I sneak in.

And not in the standard dressed-all-in-black-in-a-svelte-catsuit sneaky way.  No.  In this dream, I’m also trying to navigate a bicycle along the goat paths.  Don’t ask me why.  I don’t love riding bicycles.  The dusty stationary bike over there in the corner agrees.  But anyway, here I am, struggling with my trusty Nikon around my neck and a mountain bike.

As I’m moving through the house, I feel confident that I’ll be able to hide pretty quickly should Mom come along.  Piles are at least shoulder height.  I’m so preoccupied with hauling the bicycle over a stack of vintage lace pattern books and cases of RC Cola, I don’t hear her coming down the hall.  Suddenly, I sense her on the other side of the door while I cower in the chaos I once called my childhood room and it’s too late to hide.  Everything is just too jam packed.  The door begins to move.  It doesn’t exactly swing open, but nudges against a jagged wicker doll bassinet.  My heart is racing.  When she finds me here I’ll never be forgiven for invading her space.  She’ll disown me and play the “I once beat CANCER card, let me have my things” card.

I hold my breath.

 

 

And wake up.


I’ve recently had some peers read my blog and comment how they recognize hoarding tendencies in themselves.  It’s easy to think that hoarding is something only common in seniors, but the road to compulsion can be long and gradual.  Perhaps it started with a junk drawer in the kitchen.  And then maybe a closet stuffed so full it the door barely closed.  And suddenly, here you are with piles past the windows and goat paths from room to room.

Peter Walsh, the organizing expert from TLC’s Clean Sweep, posted this article the other day.  What’s Your Clutter Style? It’s an interesting read, and you just might find yourself reflected in his definitions.  I know I certainly did.  Is it possible to have 5 different clutter styles?  If I have so many clutter styles, does that mean I’m “hoarding” clutter styles?  ;)

According to Peter, the 5 different styles of clutter are:

  • The Behind-Closed-Doors Clutterer
  • The Knowledge Clutterer
  • The Techie Clutterer
  • The Sentimental Clutterer/Family Historian
  • The Bargain Shopper/Coupon Clutterer

I’m looking around my office, which serves as my craft room, too.  I’ve got a closet full of fabric and computer parts.  A few drawers of patterns and more pattern books on the shelves.  USB keys and random cords in various bins and baskets.  Several thousand photos I’ve taken of my family (in print and digital formats).  I’m not necessarily a coupon clutterer, but I appreciate a good bargain when I see one…that might be why I have a stack of empty picture frames under the desk.

It’s a slippery slope, I think.  By starting this blog, I’m really going to have to take a closer look at my own “saving” habits.  I have many interests, but can’t really fulfill them because I don’t have an organized space.  I’m feeling a hard core purge coming on.  Spring Fever might have something to do with it.  It’s only early March, and the weather is so mild here I’ve already spotted robins and crocuses this week.  It’s a good time to open the windows, open some trash bags, and open my doors to having visitors.

So, what do you think?  Do you see yourself in Peter’s descriptions?  I’d love your feedback and comments.

 

 

 


It started off well enough.

My husband and youngest daughter just celebrated birthdays. Hers comes the day after his. So we planned just a small celebration by inviting my Sister and Mom to our home. They stayed over for a night, and we shared cupcakes and hugs.

New cabinets will solve everything!

I told Mom we were planning a kitchen renovation, with all new cabinetry. I told her we were donating the old oak cabinets to Habitat for Humanity. Her eyes brightened up and she exclaimed “I could use them when I spruce up the apartment at the house for when I sell!”

Really?

Mom’s house is an odd type of building. It’s large, but built in a big box shape. The second floor is essentially a bungalow, but not on the ground level. The first floor has an apartment and a huge garage where Dad ran his businesses. We used to rent the apartment out, but at some point, Dad took over the apartment with his concrete stuff. It’s packed with fiberglass molds, chemicals, concrete dust, and goodness knows what else. It’s dumpy and totally unsuitable for living in now. But Mom thinks she’ll be able to “spruce” it up. She’s totally blind to the fact that this house, even if it wasn’t ruined, is just too bizarre of a construction to be at all desirable in today’s real estate market. Putting in oak cabinets isn’t going to even make a dent. Somehow, I was able to change the subject before I had to tell her there was no point in even considering this as an option.

A conversation gone awry.

Lynn knows I feel like I never have a chance to have a good conversation with Mom anymore. I’ve always seemed to have a closer relationship with our Mom, and while Lynn has a very frank and to-the-point approach, Mom seemed to prefer my softer style of speech. I guess I just always try to be diplomatic and sympathetic. It’s a good quality, usually, but after years of dancing around the issue, I think I’m going to have to be a little bolder in my discussions with Mom.

So anyway, I brought up the issue of the phone after lunch. I approached it lightly.

“So, how’s the phone issue coming? Have you been able to work at getting under the desk?

“I have, but the boxes of paper are very heavy so I’ve been going through them one by one,” she said. “Good thing, too. I’ve found a few of your fathers papers. I’d hate to get rid of anything important.”

I can’t imagine how long this process is taking, especially since her energy levels would only allow her to tackle this job for maybe 20 minutes at a time. I asked “could you do a quicker sort just to get in to the phone jack to fix that problem, and THEN go through the papers as you put them back?”

And there is was. The watery little smile Lynn had told me she sees whenever she tries to talk to Mom about it. She’s right…it IS annoying. Mom’s eyes are glazing over and I can tell I’m losing her.

“Rae, I am doing my best. Don’t bug me about it like everyone else. Tell you the truth, I don’t even miss having a phone anymore.”

Ouch.

“That’s cold, Mom. You’re telling me you don’t even miss talking to me?” I plea.

“Well, YOU might call, but your sister never does!” Mom looked at Lynn accusingly. That’s when Lynn got up from the table and left the room.

“This isn’t about Lynn! It’s about me, and how much I love you and miss you! You’ve been months without a phone and you don’t seem to care how it’s affecting any one else!” I’m starting to get desperate to make an impression.

It wasn’t enough. Mom declares the conversation over, leaves the table in a stony silence, and I’m left to brood.

Some birthday celebration.