It’s been about 5 years since I last visited my childhood home.  It’s a compulsive hoarders home now, thanks to Mom’s mental disorder.  Lynn and I snuck in while Mom was out and did a tiny purge of her hoard.  You’d never even be able to tell we’d spent 2 hours working on a 4×4 foot area just putting spare papers in recycling bins.  We removed 4 bags of trash and yet, it didn’t make a dent in her hoard.

How bad could it be?

I took photos while we were there of the general state of things.  Given so many years have passed without anyone else stepping inside, I can only imagine how high the stacks are.  Oddly enough, I found the CD of photos as I cleared out my basement decluttering my own junk.

Merely Existing

I knew the photos were going to be bad, but they still took me by surprise when I loaded them up on my computer.  If you’ve never seen photos from inside a compulsive hoarders house before, brace yourself.  I know you’ll probably wonder how could anyone live like this?  I don’t know if you can call it “living”, actually.  I think having to survive in such a space is reducing to merely “existing.”

A view of a living room of a compulsive hoarder

A view of a living room of a compulsive hoarder

 

The dining room of a compulsive hoarder

It’s hard to tell, but this is a dining room.

This was my home once.  I lived here with my sister through all my childhood, and only left when I went away to college.  I have good memories of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, and watching Sunday morning classic movies on PBS.  And I’m willing to bet there are physical remnants of all my memories still left inside that hoard.

Now, we stay with Lynn when we visit my hometown.  Mom comes over to Lynn’s house to sit with us for a while and we make thin small talk.  I’m curious to try to get over to my old home while Mom is out again.  I probably won’t get in because neither Lynn nor I have a spare key.  But I want to see how the old place is holding up…or quite likely, falling apart.  On the other hand, do I want an even worse mental image of my home if I should see it in such disrepair?  It’s like when you visit an ailing relative in the hospital right before they die, and they’re frail and forgetful…they’re not the vibrant and fascinating person you remember anymore.

I do want to know how my Mom is existing, though.  It’s important to me to understand what her daily life is like.  No matter the mental disorder, it pains me to think of her living in such conditions.  I wish I knew how to make it better…and I wish she actually wanted it better, too.


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!

 


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.


It’s shocking.  And appalling, terrifying, heartbreaking, dangerous, and irrational.  And you probably know someone affected by it.  I’m talking about compulsive hoarding.

What is compulsive hoarding?

According to The Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, it’s defined as:

a disorder characterized by difficulty discarding items that appear to most people to have little or no value. This leads to an accumulation of clutter such that living and workspaces cannot be used for their intended purposes. The clutter can result in serious threats to the health and safety of the sufferer and those who live nearby. Often people with compulsive hoarding also acquire too many items – either free or purchased.

Essentially, a hoarder just can’t bear to throw or give anything away because they perceive it as having value, even if no one else thinks it’s worth it.  For instance, most people would have no trouble throwing away a lone sock with a hole in it, or empty takeout food containers.  But a hoarder finds all sorts of excuses to keep those items.  That sock could be used for dusting!  They’ll find the other one the day after tossing the first one!  Or that salad clam shell container could store spare clothespins, spools of ribbon, spare socks with holes in them!  The possibilities are endless!  But rarely does the re-purposing ever happen.  Instead, those items remain in a pile of other items.

This is my Mom.  She lives like this, surrounded by a house FULL of stuff.  It’s a mass collection of vintage sewing & crafting patterns, unused gifts, bolts of fabric, porcelain doll parts and molds, lace, and other ‘useful’ craft supplies.  It’s all my deceased fathers belongings…he’s been gone 6 years.  It’s all the toys I didn’t take with me when I moved away from home.  It’s the chemicals and materials my father left behind with his home statuary business.  It’s a deep freeze full of meat with freezer burn.  And so on.

I identified her as a hoarder after seeing an exposé on the Oprah Winfrey Show about 8 years ago.  Seeing the video on her show had me riveted.  I learned there was a name for Mom’s excessive clutter.  I was stunned it wasn’t unique to her!  Mom wasn’t just messy; she has a mental disorder!

Mom won’t admit it though.  Or even if she does recognize it deep deep down somewhere, she’s not willing or able to do anything about it.

And so here we are.

Time For A Decision

I’ve started this blog to deal with my emotions on this situation.  I am a happily married woman, with 2 beautiful daughters, and great career.  I live 3 hours away from my Mom, and feel totally incapable of helping her.  I also have a sister, Lynn, who also struggles in her relationship with Mom.  Lynn works in the mental health field, but it’s so different when you’re on the other side of the desk.  She’s afraid people will judge her for not doing more to help Mom deal with her mental illness…but how exactly do you do that?

We’re quickly reaching a fork in the road.  If we go left, it means continuing to sit back while we watch our Mother bury herself with her belongings, slowly eroding any personal connection we still have with her.  When she’s deceased, we’ll have the heartache of the cleanup of her 3000 sq ft house.  If we go right, we arrange to have an official visit her house, likely resulting in a condemnation.  She’d be so angry she would most definitely sever all ties to us, but hopefully it’ll save her life.

Either way, I’m losing my Mother.

Why Get So Personal?

I’ll be posting lots of back story on my life as a hoarders daughter, and also writing about the on-going saga.  Lots of personal reflection, and hopefully I’ll get some guest posters, too.  I also hope to post organizing tips, for those of us who want room in our lives for people instead of stuff.  I promise to always be honest…I’m making a big leap to put all this information out there.  Names have been changed to protect those involved.

I hope this helps bring some public awareness and understanding of Compulsive Hoarding.  I hope it connects with others in similar situations who feel overwhelmed and alone.  I hope by getting all this off my chest I can find peace and clarity.

Thanks for coming along on my journey.