Spaces Used for Intended Purposes

Isn't that what a bathtub is for?

Isn’t that what a bathtub is for?

This is a picture of my Mom’s tub a few years ago.  I live several hours away and only visit a couple times a year.  I don’t stay at her house; there’s no room for me and my wife.  It is a 4 or 5 bedroom house with 2.5 bathrooms, architecturally.  Functionally, it is a 1 bedroom house with 1.5 bathrooms and 5 storage units.  I don’t drop in randomly, and my Mom knows I have judgements about her hoarding.  My sister and I have offered to help clean it up.  Since this picture, I’ve pleaded with Dad to get professional help for Mom, I’ve offered to go to counseling with them, repeated offers to help out in any way I can.  I’m totally ignored.

Denial is such a huge part of hoarding.  It seems to be what puts it firmly in the ‘mental illness’ category.

In the official signs and symptoms of hoarding, spaces in the home unable to be used for their intended purpose are a key sign.  Now, if this tub were the only area of clutter, that may be understandable.  But at that time it wasn’t, and it still isn’t.  Here’s what the garage looked like that day, and I’m sure it’s the same now (6 years later) if not worse.  There’s definitely no car in the garage, and hasn’t been for over 20 years (since I got in trouble for organizing it enough to get 1 car in the 2 car garage).

A Hoarded Garage

My mom and dad’s garage has been hoarded full of stuff like boxes, old clothes, shopping bags, and unused furniture for years. The only thing not in there is a car.

I understand that some people do projects in their garage, such as setting it up to be a woodworking shop or art studio.  But I don’t think this qualifies as even modern art (cardboard sculpture?).

I’m pretty certain my sister and I will end up cleaning this up.  It has been like this for years, and it would be amazing if it wasn’t full of spiders.  If mice get in there, it will be horrible.  Of course, this is a fire hazard.  The main circuit breaker is behind this pile on the wall.  It appears that most of these are empty boxes, but in standard hoarder fashion, they are mixed with full boxes, shopping bags, old clothes, some furniture from grandma’s house, and who knows what else.

I’m sharing these pictures partly to help myself process the situation but also to let my readers know for sure that I come from a real hoarding background and am still struggling with how to “Help Hoarders Stop Hoarding” in my family.

I haven’t heard a peep from my Mom or Dad about my concerns or offers (I’ve done this in writing and on the phone).  But it was my Mom’s birthday a few days ago.  I couldn’t bring myself to send her any physical gift, so I sent her an iPad game via e-mail and called her for a chat.  She has a huge collection of glass–blue glass, red glass, etc.  Years ago I was excited to give her a blue glass vase.  I think it disappeared into the hoard.  There’s no room for her to really display things nicely and store other things appropriately.

When I asked Mom what she did for her birthday, she replied that she’s “really into” St. Patrick’s Day this year, and had gone to a new antique mall in town to buy some green glass.  “Really into” means “buying more crap” by the way.  Christmas decor must be 10-20% of the hoard.  Other holidays are probably catching up.  Oh joy.

I learned many of these behaviors:  procrastination, collecting, impulse buying, leaving piles of stuff around until you don’t even see them as piles.  But I changed.  I worked on myself, I worked on my hoarded areas.  Now I treasure order and organization, and take care of clutter and piles quickly.  They make me uneasy, and clear areas make me happy.  This took reprogramming my emotions, anxieties, and priorities.

It feels so good when spaces are open and able to be used for their intended purposes!

Well, trying to motivate my parents didn’t go so well…

My mom is still a hoarder, she’s in her 70’s.  My dad is her enabler.  His areas of the home are tidy, but you can see the invisible line.  His side of the bed, his closet, and his office area are all sparse and tidy, but just over the boundaries teeter towers of clutter.

How does he enable Mom’s hoarding?  Alcohol and television, the two great numbing agents of modern society.  He’s also trained himself to not see things.  I know because I have this ability too.  It’s not X-Ray Vision, it’s just X-Vision.  One of the things I “X” out is things in bags.  Shopping bags, especially the plastic ones, become invisible to me.  If you want to hide something, just put it in a plastic grocery bag and leave it on a counter.  I’ll most likely ignore it.

When I started to declutter and fix my hoarding problems, one of the things I did was to take everything out of bags.  The other big thing was nothing could be stored in boxes except banker boxes (file boxes with handles, all the same size).  I made shelves so I could have an organized wall of banker boxes.  I would just look around for cardboard boxes and bags and determine to empty them and get rid of them.  It worked very well.

What didn’t work so well was me trying to get my parents to be responsible about the state of their estate.  I wrote them a letter about two things which were causing me great anxiety:  their lack of a will and the state of their home.  I thought I had some solidarity with Sis.  As mentioned in my first post, she told Mom that her granddaughter wouldn’t be visiting as long as the dangerous piles of stuff were around.  I figured that if we each pushed a bit and backed each other up, we would be able to promote real change.

Well, my parents never acknowledged the letter I wrote to me.  They did tell other relatives that I had written the letter (that’s how I know they read it), and mentioned that it upset them.  But did they call me up and talk about it?  No.  Total denial.  When I saw them, they just pretended everything was “normal.”  No discussion, no progress.

I was disappointed a couple months ago when Sis let her daughter spend the night and Mom and Dad’s house.  She caved.  My aunt noticed this as well.  I’m sure that Sis needed some alone time with her husband.  So much for solidarity, however.

To open up real communications with my parents, I knew I would have to make the next move.  I had waited about 2 years for them to respond to my written plea.  Leaving 2 voicemails for Sis, hoping to talk with her first, I got an e-mail from her saying she’d call me the next day.  It’s been 2 weeks, no call, no e-mail from her.

I wrote to my Dad.  I apologized if I had hurt his feelings.  I told him I love him.  I let him know that I was willing to talk things through and work to heal our communication.  I also let him know that the cluttered house and estate planning were still important issues for me.

After 2 weeks of no response, I was uncertain if he had even gotten that e-mail.  I sent it again, with a note asking for some sort of acknowledgement.  A couple days later I got a reply from him.  He had been thinking of responses, but was afraid of saying something he’d later regret.  He let me know he loves me, but thinks I have isolated myself over trifling issues.  Everyone else in the family is happy and loving, he wrote.

My mother is a master of white lies.  That and gossiping about people behind their back.  She has a “Shit List.”  I learned this when she wanted more communication from her sister (my aunt).  She’d say “your Aunt is on my Shit List.”  I told my aunt about this a while ago.  She wasn’t surprised, but was disappointed in my Mom.  Mom hadn’t confronted her directly about her feelings and desires, she just talked about her behind her back.

I’m sure I’m on Mom’s Shit List now.  She probably has no idea that she inspired me to create a Shit List as well.  My parents are the only people on my Shit List.

My “crime” was to confront them directly about my feelings and concerns.  I guess the unwritten rule is that I’m only supposed to talk behind their back about it, and pretend everything is OK when we get together for holidays.

I let them know in my original letter that I found it difficult to truly relax and enjoy vacations together with these unresolved issues causing background anxiety.  It didn’t feel right to me to either avoid or force confrontation during a vacation.  So I let them know that until these things were taken care of (i.e. writing a basic Will and fixing a few things in their house), I wasn’t very interested in vacationing with them.  I pointed out that making a basic will takes just a couple days and a short appointment with a lawyer, so instead of spending a couple days visiting me, I’d really prefer they prioritize that.  Afterwards, I’d be happy to celebrate with them.

I truly don’t care what I get from their estate.  I realized that if they both die (like in a drunk driving accident), my sister and I have to fight the State through the probate process for the right to go clean up their incredibly cluttered house.  So at a time when we should be grieving and honoring the best memories of our parents, we’d be involved in a stressful clusterflock of bureaucratic paperwork before being allowed the privilege of spending weeks hauling Mom’s clothes, holiday decorations, craft items, etc. to the Goodwill or landfill.  Sounds fun, huh?

In other words, I realized that my parents were spending virtually every evening having 3-6 drinks (of alcohol) each while watching a few hours of television, and have no intentions of cleaning up their clutter or creating a will.  Procrastination until death.  This means that their “plan” (actually a lack of a plan) is to leave this stuff for their kids to deal with.  That’s me and my sister.  Yes, the sister who won’t return my calls.

I’m very close to just cutting ties with my parents and sister.  The last time I wrote to my Dad, I told him I’d be very willing to drive up and go to therapy with them.  I send him a link to an article in their paper about hoarders needing psychological help, with phone numbers of specialists.  They live in a big, progressive city, so there are plenty of resources around.

Yes, for me it has come to this–therapists need to be involved.  But my parents have always frowned on those who need therapy as somehow lesser beings.  In fact, they have a fridge magnet (of course the fridge is always dripping with layers of notes and comics and magnets, etc.) that says:

I don’t need therapy, just another martini!

That was probably the final straw, suggesting that we all go to therapy together.  He hasn’t written back.  You know, he might regret communicating.  He doesn’t seem to realize that not communicating is even more regrettable.