When Hoarding Kills
When I moved out of state several years ago, I never imagined what I would be leaving behind. For the most part, I considered my family "normal" with only "normal" family dramas from time to time. It wasn't until I returned home for a visit that I realized just how wrong I was. MY MOTHER IS A HOARDER!
Not only is mom a hoarder, but she is suffering the painful physical affects of her recently diagnosed cancer. Mom is slowly becoming incapacitated and she is becoming more and more unable to manage caring for herself and her home.
The past year has been very difficult for my family and that of my siblings, but nothing like the heartache our mother is living. After what we have all been thru, I can safely say it out loud now. I can give this whole mess meaning. I understand. I can give it a name.
The "normal" family we were all comfortable in has just fallen apart at the seams. I believe that at least a few of us were disillusioned by mom's personae on the surface. Yet others knew and denied what they saw. Eventually nearly everyone who remained a part of mom's life was aware of her dysfunction, although most never mentioned their suspicions.
I remember the day I called my sister and sort of "felt her out" on the topic of hoarding. We discussed a reality show about hoarding which I had recently watched on television. I could sense that she knew more than she was saying, so I decided to just come out and ask her what she thought. My sister already suspected moms living conditions may not be good, although she lives out of state and had not seen it for herself. This sweet girl, the youngest sibling in our family of 9, was always shielded from truth and pain when it came to family problems. As were the rest of us, she was in denial.
Before long we were all talking about what we had discovered. I have said repeatedly that I don't understand. But in reality, I do understand what mom is going thru. I do not understand why no one did anything sooner. Moms problems progressed with her hoarding and filth, because of the hush hush attitude of our family.
It will never help mom to get angry and it will not change the fact that mom is sick. But I am angry. There, I said it. I am ANGRY! I have watched my mom become sicker, and watched the pain and all the physical changes she is experiencing daily, as she fights cancer and fights the mental anguish she is dealing with in her acceptance of the situation which her mind has created, called "hoarding".
Not only is mom a hoarder, but she is also fighting the painful disease of cancer. Mom's quality of life is not what it could have been had she not been a hoarder. I remember the mom of years past, who was conscientious of her family, her home, and herself. I am sad beyond belief.
I am writing this because I hope that someone, somewhere out there, who is experiencing the same things, may learn from this experience and do something before it is too late. From everything I have read on this topic, hoarding is a mental syndrome, mental illness, mental dysfunction, and it affects the entire family. Children of hoarders are left in a very helpless situation unless they take it into their own hands and just forge ahead and take charge.
In order to take the proper steps to make the necessary changes to a parent's living standards, one must understand that an uncooperative person will never allow any changes to take place. Don't ask me why, I really don't know. Other than what I have learned thru reading, I have no formal skills in the area of mental health issues. I will just make it simple and repeat what I have come to believe thru my own personal research of this subject.
Hoarders lack something in their lives, which causes them to fill their void with "things". I believe both depression and trauma play a large part in it. There is no room for blame if you plan to do something about a loved ones hoarding. It takes a lot of compassion as well as a firm loving hand and an understanding of the hoarders feelings in order to make any progress. All the literature I have read states that you can't clean their home without their knowledge of it. Apparently, that will only further traumatize the hoarder, and the problem will eventually return double-fold. The hoarder generally becomes even more depressed by losing those things which they perceived as a sense of security filling the original void. I agree with the concept, but in the case of mom, we simply had no choice.
I know I come across as somewhat wishy-washy in my statements, but that is because of the confusion hoarding causes within the minds of those who love the hoarder. Do we do what we have learned and raise the issue with mom regularly, hoping she will make the decision to change her lifestyle? Or do we go against the grain and every professional journal taking charge of this without moms cooperation?
I suppose I should go backwards in time somewhat and fill in some more of the details. I believe this all began about ten years ago. Mom was married to a wonderful man who suddenly past away. She loved him very much. He was her life. Our mother was going to retire in a few months and her entire life changed in a matter of months. Mom had worked hard in her lifetime. Between her family and her job, she never had much time left over for many close friends. Both grandpa and gramdma had died a few years earlier and moms other siblings had passed as well. All of moms children had married and we had children of our own. For the first time in her life, mom was alone. Truly alone to deal with the quiet.
Now don't get me wrong. Mom had beautiful grandchildren and wonderful grown children with loving spouses. Mom was not technically alone, but for the most part she was alone since she chose to remain at home the majority of the time. Mom hasn't driven in years and was more comfortable being in her own home than asking for assistance from others. Mom never wanted to inconvenience anyone. Mom has for the most part been very independent most of her life. As her children, we were all active in her life for the most part, until a few years ago. Mom chose to be alone.
I'm sure we all have different reasons for any relationship issues that may exist with mom today. There are a few of us who don't have any real problem with mom, but many of the others have had disagreements with her over the years which they felt were irreconcilible. I don't think it matters a whole lot what the issues were, only that they existed. Over time, mom just found it easier to hybernate inside her secure place, in her home, where she lived under the rules which she drafted and was bothered by no one but her cat.
Speaking of the cat. I have read about cats and hoarding. There is some connection there as well. A large percentage of hoarders have replaced their love loss with the love of animals. It seems to be so prevalent that nearly all hoarders seem to have animals, some having so many animals that they have actually taken over the home. My mother has 3 or 4 cats. She loves those cats like they were her kids. There you have it. I wrote it without even realizing what I said until I went back and read it. Mom needed to feel loved and she filled that void with unconditional love from her cats. By the way, I love cats! Do you think it's a problem?
My last statement raises another issue.
As I write this story, I'm shooting from the hip. I love to write and I often do. I generally sit here writing randomly about whatever is on my mind and rarely make changes to the final draft, other than grammar, spelling and punctuation. I guess this explains why I occasionally interject my stories with personal thoughts and don't feel guilty about it. It helps keep it interesting to the reader and I feel it helps the reader understand my mindframe. Let's face it. Either you like this style of writing or you don't. This particular style is meant to permit the reader the opportunity to feel my pain as I include every detail I can recall, hopefully gaining your compassion and your attention, and possibly helping you help your loved before it is too late.
I love my mother very very much. I consider our relationship functional, caring and considerably loving. I would like to point that out to you because I don't ever want anyone to misunderstand how much she means to me. I never comsidered my mother disgusting or pathetic because of her hoarding, but instead feel sad for her because I feel like I can truly see how she ended up this way. That is not to say that I don't think it is just plain gross, but my view of her is not that. It is of sadness.
To continue with my story, when I joked earlier about whether or not it was a problem to me because I too loved cats, I realized that while I was reading abpout hoarding there were many similarities in my mother and myself. This is something else I would like to point out. We ALL have the potential for becoming hoarders, regardless of how we currently live. I am a fanatic when it comes to housekeeping and my personal self. At one time, my mother was the same. This doesn't just happen overnight. It is something that occurs after years of depression and void, until circumstances evolve which cause the type of lifestyle which any one of us could slip into at any time.
From what I understand, hoarding is a mental state which cannot be easily controlled and before the person realizes what is happening, it is already out of control. It is an embarrassment to the person who is living in this nightmare and it is something which most times they cannot bring themselves to ask anyone for help with. A hoarder doesn't want others knowing they live this way.
Because of the social outlook on cleanliness and personal care, hoarders eventually find themselves becoming more and more reclusive, secluding themselves from everyone and everything, Obviously they cannot invite others into their home and let them see how they live. That's where the point of this story comes in. What if your parent were a hoarder and they became ill? What if they could no longer care for themselves and no one was allowed to enter their home? I'm sure you get the picture.
When mom fell ill, she knew she was sick but wouldn't allow anyone to share in it because she knew what that meant. Exposing her secret to everyone meant she would have to face it head-on and possibly endure ridicule and additional heartache. That's the mindset of a hoarder. I am not saying I feel that way, but a hoarder thinks along this line. That's how hoarding can kill. A hoarder may just as well allow themselves to die than face the music when others discover what they have tried so hard to hide. Mom could have died in that mess inside her home, but fortunately we saw what was happening and we acted on it before it went that far.
As I pointed out earlier, both medical and mental professionals warn against this. Quite possibly they are right...to a point. But, I feel in moms case and the case of any other hoarders who are physically ill, you have to step in and do something or this person could and likely will die in the mess.
So how did mom get sick? Who knows what causes cancer? I surely don't. But the one thing I am certain of is that people don't get sick for no reason. Living in deplorable unsanitary conditions has got to play part in it. How could you not get sick from living like that? Filth doesn't cause cancer, but it also means not eating healthy and many times not getting the medical care necessary when you are ill.
By now, you are probably wondering where all the pictures are which you have likely seen on websites about hoarding. I already decided I am not going to humiliate my mother by posting photographs of her living conditions on here, although no one will learn from this story who she is. But in order to make my point, I am going to describe her home. Please take a moment to pay close attention to the things I am about to tell you, and later read my list of warning signs which are intended as awareness for those who may have a loved one in this situation. See if there are any similarities and decide for yourself whether or not to act on it if your loved one is showing the signs of hoarding.
When you first approach moms house, the porch is lacking in any kind of order. There are old plant pots scattered about and yard tools everywhere. An ashtray is flowing over with cigarette butts while several bags of garbage collect in one corner under a window. There are a few dirty coffee mugs and snack wrappers lying around, and for the most part it just looks like she needs to give her porch a good spring cleaning. Compared to the inside of her house, mom's porch looks clean.
There are sheets and such draped over most of the windows. There is a broken window in one room which she would never allow any of us to fix for her. We now know why. You can only see inside moms home if you step up on something and peak thru the one uncovered window which is quite high off the ground. She doesn't cover this window, but I imagine it is because she feels safe enough that nobody would go to the length to peek thru it, and besides, she needs some light in there.
As you open the front door, the first thing you notice is the stench. It is beyond anything in your wildest imagination. It has the odor of a combination of cat urine, feces, mold, stale air, and just plain ole filth. It will literally knock you over if you enter. It is unusually cold inside. At first you think it is because she didn't want to cause more smell by heating the place, but before long it is discovered that her furnace had not been working for a number of years. I'm sure you understand the ramifications of calling a repairman!
For as far as you can see inside, you cannot distinguish anything from anything else. There is so much stuff that you cannot walk thru the house. You can't even walk inside the front door without climbing piles of stuff. There is cat feces everywhere, and insects of some nature buzzing about in the mess. At first there is a feeling of disbelief and the thought that maybe she trashed only this portion of her home. It is really hard to accept that the entire house is in this condition.
The kitchen is to the immediate left. There are boxes brimming with who knows what, sloppily stacked to the ceiling in the entrance to the kitchen. She has blocked off the kitchen so no one can get in there. Right now, I am wondering who she thought would go in there, since no one was allowed in her home.
After removing dozens of boxes, I made my way thru the kitchen door. Immediately, I was faced with having to climb up and over more mess. I couldn't even see a corner or see across the room because the garbage was so deep. Reality begins setting in at this point. Moms entire house must be like this, and what am I going to do? Should I try to wade thru all this garbage and assess the severity of this situation, or should I just turn around and run?
I make my way thru the kitchen. There is more garbage in this kitchen than I have ever seen in my entire life. I am not exaggerating! There are literally piles of dirty dishes and empty food containers on every inch of the cupboards clear to the ceiling! The sink is sky high with moldy dishes and gunk. There is cat feces everywhere and mold growing from everything! I could not believe my eyes! How could mom live like this?
I got out of there as quickly as I could and made it past the living room to the hallway. Believe me, it wasn't easy. The hallway appeared to have a narrow path that she had cleared in order to get to the bathroom. I followed it to take a look. To my horror, the condition of the bathroom exceeded that of the kitchen! The toilet was brimming over with feces! There wasn't much actual garbage on the floor, but every inch was covered with cat feces several inches deep. The sink and tub were growing a thick black hairy mold, and the toilet lid which couldn't close entirely was growing more of the same mold. It was the most disgusting gross mess I had ever encountered in my life. I backed out of the bathroom and stood there for a moment and began to cry. All of a sudden all I could do was think of mom and what she must have been feeling every moment of every day in these conditions. An immense sense of sadness came over me and I bawled.
Within a few minutes I came to my senses and realized that since I was already in there, I needed to see the rest of her home and get out. I held my shirt up over my mouth and nose and climbed over things to get to her bedroom. Moms bedroom didn't seem to have the same smell that the rest of the house had. The door had been closed, so I imagine she may have kept it closed regularly because she didn't want it to be overcome by the odor and additional cat feces. The floor was stacked high with boxes and piles of dirty laundry five feet deep. I couldn't even see moms bed. I wondered for a minute if there was even a bed in her room. I kind of kicked some things over and moved some boxes aside, enough to see the bed. Moms bed was entirely covered with dirty laundry, books and magazines, old newspapers and who knows what.
There was not one inch of that small room where anyone could sleep, let alone sit down and rest their feet. I wondered where mom was sleeping. I turned around and shut the door. I walked back down the hallway to the office. Moms house is small but was at one time a very nice home. No one would believe this. I was in shock. Is this really the mother I have known all these years and what is this all about?
I went inside moms office. There was a desk you could barely see, and like the other rooms, the odor of cat feces just about knocked you out. This room was the same condition as the rest of the house. One room left to see. I opened the door to moms guest room and I finally discovered where she had been living. The bed had been removed, apparently because she needed the room. There was what appeared to be a brand new and gorgeous recliner in one corner, surrounded by garbage, cat feces, dirty dishes, and ash trays spilling onto the floor. I saw neat little stacks of books beside her lamp table and a small tv which had showed no signs of any dust on the screen. There was a half empty bottle of windex on top of the television, along with a roll of paper towels. It was clear she was attempting to keep "her area" clean!
I had to leave. I couldn't stand it another second. I knew I would break down if I stayed any longer. I left as quickly as possible and drove home without the radio playing, and ignored several calls on my cell phone. I was reflecting on the horror I had just seen, not knowing what to feel, who to tell, or how to handle it. I arrived home and immediately showered and went to bed. I needed to go to sleep and think about it the following day. It was just too much to absorb.
When I woke up, I lay there for a short time thinking about it and wondering if I had dreamed it. Was it real? Did mom really live like that? Then I thought maybe I should go back and take a second look so I have a clearer picture rather than possibly exaggerating as I explained to my siblings what I had seen. I didn't want to make it seem any worse than it actually was. But it was bad. Very bad. And I knew it was no dream.
I thought about it for another day or two, then decided to make the dreaded call and expose mom. I called one sister and told her everything. She said I must be exaggerating. I told her I wasn't; but I still think she believed I was, although she apologized and listened. Inside I was thinking that I had just relieved myself of this responsibility. My sister admitted she didn't know what she could do since she was living out of state. I figured I could leave it in her hands to share it with our other siblings, since I had notified her. I feel guilty today, because I too was in denial and I ignored it for months. I was scared. Who do I tell? What do I do? During that time I absorbed myself in reading anything and everything I could find on hoarding. I even got scared because I read so much about not taking charge, but allow the hoarder to make the choice to do what was needed. I believed it was beyond that point, but I was afraid for so many reasons.
I worried that mom's home would be condemned. I worried that she would end up in a nursing home or someplace she wouldn't be comfortable and that it would be the end of her. I worried about the dumbest things, but the majority of my fears came from what I read. Basically, everything states it has to be up to the hoarder to make the change. I worried about mom being embarrassed when everyone found out and I didn't want to be the one to do that to her. I suppose it could be compared to having a child on drugs and knowing about it but doing nothing. You don't say anything, because you don't want to be the bad guy, or the one who let's the world in on the problem. It is being co-dependent. Allowing someone to continue with destructive behavior, because you don't want to bring reality into it. So you keep quiet.
I'm not really sure how the rest of the family found out about mom, but it's probable my sister told someone, who told someone else, who told someone else, and you get the process. Thru the family chain. No one had gone in there yet, except for me. Everyone wanted to see for themselves. I wasn't too concerned for mom though, because the majority of us lived outside the area. I thought maybe I could talk to mom before any of the others did and reason with her in some way to leave there.
Months passed, and my siblings were still talking about it from time to time. By this time, everyone had done their own reading and discovered the same warnings I had. It seemed that all of us had the same opinion that mom had to do this on her own. We could not attack her about it because she may just reject all of us entirely and our efforts would then be futile. After all, if the professionals were saying not to take charge, they must be right.
No one had the nerve to say anything to mom, including me, For this I feel horrible. I think about it daily.
After a while, I came home for another visit. I called mom and non-chalantly asked whether her living conditions had improved any since the last time I was there. She asked me what I was talking about, and I decided to just change the subject. Months passed and there was no mention of hoarding, even between my siblings and I. Most of that time was spent reading everything I could find about hoarding, as it continued to rip at my heart.
About a year later, early one morning, I received the telephone call we all fear. It was my brother and mom had collapsed. Rather than thinking about moms condition, my first thought was where was she? Did the medics have to go in and get her? Who has seen her mess? I knew now that something had to be done. I started calling all of my siblings and insisting that we get together and do something about moms house. We were divided on it. Half of us agreed and the other half refused to, since the professionals warn against it. I knew this wasn't going to be easy. I called everyone every day for a week. The resistance was more than I could bear. I finally called mom and told her what we planned to do. She was irrate. She wanted absolutely no part in allowing us to enter her home or touch anything that belonged to her. For days following, mom would not speak to me. I cried again.
Another week or two passed and moms condition seemed to worsen. The doctors diagnosed her with cancer. We knew her time was limited. If it was the last thing I was going to do, I was going to see to it that mom spent whatever time she had left of her life comfortably and clean. After all, mom birthed and raised all of us and took care of us until we were on our own. Why shouldn't we turn the tables and take care of her now as she fights this awful disease?
Those siblings which agreed with me purchased airline tickets and made arrangements to travel home and meet with me to clean moms home. When the day arrived to get started, things took a turn. The disagreeing siblings (who lived locally) decided to take it upon themselves to take charge and leave the others of us out of it. I truly believe it was because of the embarrassment they were trying to avoid, once others outside the family heard about this and how several of us had to fly across the U.S. to come take care of things, and how the local siblings wouldn't participate. I believe it was all about saving face. At least in the beginning. I'm not entirely sure I believe that now, but I have mixed feelings on how it all came about.
I thought about finishing this story tonight, but decided that I will make a list now of "red flags", "signs of hoarding" next. I am prepared to continue with my story if I get any interest in what I have already written. There is a lot more information, including the actual details of how moms house was cleaned, moms journey to recovery from hoarding, and first and foremost moms fight with cancer.
Before I say good night, if you have read this far already, I must have held your interest or at least peaked it slightly. Likely you know someone who is a hoarder, or perhaps you are a hoarder yourself. I'm not here to judge anyone, but I am here to share a very sad story which doesn't have to happen in your family. My mom is sick. Very sick. I am so sad that mom lived like this for so many years. Never again!
"Red Flags" and "Warning Signs"
Frequent purchases from HSC and/or QVC-obsessive buying of needless items in order to fill a void.
Frequent UPS, FEDEX, and mail deliveries-excessive purchasing, again to fill a void.
Curtains/blinds never open/sheets covering windows-not wanting others to see the condition of their home.
Unsanitary appearance-not showering because the plumbing quit working or they just don't care any more to be clean.
Wearing same clothes repeatedly-appliances aren't working or they don't have anything clean to wear because they aren't doing any laundry.
Purchasing new clothes regularly-to replace the dirty clothing they don't launder.
Knowing the delivery personnel by first name-they know them because they make excessive deliveries.
Not allowing family members or friends to enter their home-not wanting to be exposed.
Not answering the door when people drop in-they are afriad you will want to enter.
Waiting until you leave after knocking and run out after you and pretending they were sleeping and didn't hear you knock-preventing you from seeing the house when they open the door.
Piles of garbage or bags of garbage outside the home-their attempt at removing a portion of the mess.
Personal odor-not practicing personal hygiene.
Becoming reclusive-preferring to be alone and not feeling worthy.
Not allowing a family a key for emergencies-insuring no one enters their home without their knowledge.
Not allowing photographs of themselves-guilt due to knowing how they appear.
Declining a friend or family member who requests to stop by-not wanting them to see the house.
Never inviting anyone to their home-not wanting anyone to see the mess.
Mentioning a broken fixture or failing applicance but declining help with repairs-not wanting anyone to see the mess.
- Making excuses-always having a reason for everything, but deceiving everyone because they feel they must or be exposed.
This is by far a complete list, but this is the list I have come up with as I sit here thinking back. I will include more in Part 2, if I get enough positive response for it.
If your parent or a friend is showing any of these signs, it would be in their best interest to keep a watch on them and see if hoarding is the reason. If the person is ill and is hoarding, they may just die in the mess if someone doesn't have the courage to step up and openly acknowledge the situation and take charge. If the hoarder is not ill, I may advise to listen to the professionals.
I believe once you read part 2, you will understand more of my reasons why I distinguish between the two approaches. I believe in moms case, taking the steps necessary to clean her home regardless of her wishes, is what has saved her life. Mom is alive. Mom is very sick, but alive. She could easily have ended up like many other hoarders and died in that mess. It may have been months before someone found her.
Please leave me an honest, detailed comment about your feelings on this story. I will be watching and working on Part 2, if anyone is interested. Please pray for my mother.
My belief is that it is an acquired trait handed down thru generations. Does that explain hoarding? No, not really. It is what it is but it is triggered by something. Perhaps a traumatic event in ones life, causing a depressive disorder and leading to a compulsion of collecting to fill the void. That is the best explanation I can come up with (and it's all mine, by the way).
It's a matter of possession as well. One loses something important to them and shortly afterward this person must find something new to hold on to. Its human nature, although it can be handled properly or misdirected into a slovenly lifestyle.
We talk about hoarding causing isolation, feelings of guilt and anxiety. These are all behaviors which are elements of the hoarder. But are the behaviors just acquired thru hereditary factions or are the behaviors the result of having this problem to begin with?
This is a rough topic for anyone close to someone who hoards. It's a vicious circle of which not one answer alone can explain it. Hoarding is BOTH a hereditary AND behavioral sickness. Kinda like the chicken and the egg. Which came first and which was directly affected by the other?
Hoarding is an emotional deficit. A reason for misunderstanding between family members. A cause of a families disintegration. The death of the family as it once stood. How sad.
There's really not one specific answer to any of it, yet the one thing I know from my experience is getting outsiders, strangers involved is the worst thing that could be done. Handle it yourself and get family involved. The hoarder needs support. They need to feel loved and they need to fill the void that the loss of the crap will cause them to experience, just like the yearning for a loved one, the death of a child or spouse, a beloved pet, a mother or father, a sibling.
This is not the only trigger but any means, it could also be due to a job loss, home foreclosure, car accident or serious illness. Any one of a number of "losses" could easily trigger this behavior. But the one thing I am certain of is there is a connection with having experienced a traumatic event and usually having to do with a loss of some sort.
It is my ideal that filling the void with love and support thus overcoming that loss, may just be the key to overcoming their need for hoarding.
You often hear people state how they had a falling out with their sibling or parent. The relationship may have dwindled to nothing and one day you hear the news. So and so died and it was discovered this person lived in squalor.
I feel like adding a new list here as more ideas keep flooding my mind.
PERSONALITY AND TRAITS of THOSE MOST LIKELY TO BE "CLOSET" HOARDERS:
1. A person who has experienced a serious loss, such as:
a.) loss of a career
b.) the loss of a loved one, parent, sibling, spouse, child or pet, by death or illness
c.) the loss of their home thru foreclosure
d.) a serious financial loss or loss of income
e.) a difficult "break-up"
2. A person who either lives alone (or with usually no more than one other person)
a.) someone living with a handicapped spouse or child (likely to easily ignore the behavior)
b.) someone with deep seated control issues (having the ability to "control" their living space, preventing others from setting the boundaries)
3. Someone who has experienced a life-altering event and never sought support.