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’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!

 


Ever wonder about a compulsive hoarders vehicle?  Is everything packed away in the house, or does it spill out?  When the hoarding reaches a higher degree, it can’t be contained.  Here is Mom’s van.  Her compulsive hoarding follows her every where she goes.

A hoarders van is packed to the ceiling.

Packed to the Ceiling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s packed to the gills.  If she were ever in a car accident, even a minor one, I’m sure she’d be crushed by the projectiles.  And be projectiles, I mean the following (but not limited to):

  • at least 9 packs of Bounty dryer bars
  • an open box of laundry detergent powder
  • a dog crate (with dog)
  • a domed cake carrier with uneaten cupcakes from last year (I SO wish I was exaggerating)
  • case of bottled water
  • a multitude of junk food boxes, bags, and wrappers
  • full bags of laundry
  • lots of shopping bags from thrift stores
  • gifts given to Mom destined to never make it into the house
  • boxes of stuff given to her by other people clearing out their clutter

I snuck out and took these photos with my phone while she visited this past weekend.  Mom would be SO furious if she knew I did that, but I wanted to show you how extensive her compulsive hoarding, fueled by compulsive shopping, really goes.  She drives around like this alllll the time.  I can only imagine the impact it has on her gas mileage, and wear & tear on her brakes, tires, and shocks.

No leg room for passengers in compulsive hoarders van

No leg room for passengers

Is it stuffy in here?

Then there’s the air quality.  Lynn refuses drive in the van with Mom any more.  There’s no leg room.  Debris has to be swept off the seat.  I’m sure even finding the seat belt is difficult.  How does Mom see out her windows?  Carpooling?  Forget it!  And, what’s that smell?

Shoehorn Tight

I helped Mom put the dogs crate back in the van.  The wall of stuff is so tightly packed it held its shape when we slide open the door.  There was a niche carved out for the dog crate and I really had to put my shoulder to it to get it in.  We closed the door and it didn’t latch, so we opened it up again and if there was ever a use for an industrial sized shoehorn, this was it.  Finally, we wedged the crate in another inch, and got the door to fully close.

Waving Goodbye

A final kiss, a last minute scramble for scrap paper to write directions, a missed moment of hesitation if I should say “something”, and then off she goes.  A jumbled tonne lumbering down the street on the way home.  To her nest.  To her comfort zone.  And to my dismay.


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.