- Mental Health
Growing Up With a Hoarder
I confess that I am fascinated by reality shows about hoarders. Sometimes, a situation on TV will trigger a memory of the cluttered three bedroom house where I grew up as an only child with my mom and dad. My mom tended to hoard. My father ignored the mess and was out of the house a lot.
Something depicted on TV may also help me to understand my mother's strange behavior while I was growing up. I can relate to children and adult offspring of hoarders as they describe their feelings of isolation from peers, shame, anger, and frustration. My mother’s hoarding was not nearly as severe as the homes we see on TV, but it still had a negative effect on me. Here is the journey I had growing up with a hoarder, and the insights I gained along the way.
The start of the hoard
My mother always tended to collect things. She ran a dancing school from when I was about five to age seventeen and sewed the costumes herself for yearly recitals. She kept costumes and all the stuff that went with them such as sequins, tambourines, elaborate headdresses, rhinestones, and net for tutus. Extra stuff piled up on top of the bureaus in her bedroom.
Then stuff clogged the aisles around her bed. I can only imagine what my father thought when he had to crawl into bed from the bottom and could not use the closet on the wall next to his bed. My mother covered everything with blankets. We had an extra bedroom and storage area that eventually became full of costumes and related stuff. Stuff started to appear in the living room and was covered with blankets when kids came to the house for dance classes.
My parents had a troubled marriage that broke up when I was 18 years old. The more they fought, the more my mother hoarded. My mother escaped her stress by working long hours at her job, teaching dance several nights a week, and preparing for recitals or performances. There was little time for housework and de-cluttering. Every piece of paper that entered the house stayed there. The surfaces of the living room were piled with ads, flyers, ancient bills, and newspapers. I learned that I could discreetly dispose of useless paper when she was out of the house,
I hated the mess and longed to clean it up. I was forbidden to do so, however. My mother told me that she was forced to do chores when she was young and she was not going to make me do them. I came to believe that she did not want me to touch her things. She never seemed to have time to sort laundry, and would just put the wash on a blanket on the floor. I did ironing when she was out, and she never seemed to notice when the drawers of linens were fuller and clothes were hung up.
Relatives rarely came to the house. When they did, my mother prepared for the visit by packing her precious stuff in boxes and putting them away. When storage areas were overflowing, she started to put boxes in the damp, unfinished basement. It could take up to a week to make the house presentable.
The boxes started to rot and spill contents on the damp floor. I hated the mess. If I tried to clean, she yelled at me. The worst thing for me was hoarded food. I could not throw food out unless something was growing on it or it started to smell. I think my mother did this because she endured a food shortage in Europe during World War 2.
Thrown out of the house
When I was around 15 years old, I felt I could not stand the hoard anymore. My mother was out of the country for several weeks, so I set to work. My dad was out most of the time and did not care about what I was doing. I went through piles of papers and discarded garbage bags of paper (this is before the days of recyling) and useless junk. I tackled the dreaded basement, where boxes had been rotting for years with costume materials, fabric, and old photos. Some were postcards of European movie stars. Many had been on the damp basement floor for years and were black with rot.
To my surprise, I found paper garbage bags that I had thrown out several years ago stashed out of sight. It seemed that my mother had taken the bags out of the
garbage so that she could go through them and make sure that I was not throwing out anything valuable. The bags only contained discarded paper and magazines. I had a delightful afternoon going down memory lane as I went through the papers. I wish I had kept the teen fan magazines because they would be work a fortune now.
My mom came home while I was at school. She was not there, but left me a note that raged at me and threw me out of the house. I was in shock. Where did she think I was going to go? I did not have any close relatives that I could turn to for help. I weathered the storm by laying low for a few days. Finally, my mom told me I could stay, but to not touch her things again.
How hoarding affected me
I often felt torn between my desire to clean up the mess and my fear of being punished. My mother could say cruel, cutting things, yell at me, or the worst, slap me across the face. I crept around with a pounding heart to do some cleaning while my mother was at work. This situation sparked feelings of rage and frustration inside me. I also felt helpless as the hoard kept growing.
I also felt shame when my school friends came over and looked askance at the piles of paper and costume accessories. They did not understand that I faced dire circumstances if I attempted a major cleanup. Since my mother did not allow me to do “chores,” I felt that I never learned how to take care of a home properly, and developed a big inferiority complex about my housekeeping skills that lasts to this day.
The whole situation was so infuriating and frustrating for me. My mother was in denial that the clutter was a problem and became very hostile if anyone touched her things. She was always looking over my shoulder to make sure that I did not throw out anything she considered valuable.
I sometimes felt that her hoard was more important to her than I was. She never seemed to consider how I might feel about living like that. I felt devalued. I never got any acknowledgement or thanks when I cleaned up. If she noticed, she usually yelled at me for touching her things. Dealing with issues around the hoard could also deplete my energy and left me emotionally exhausted.
I have never felt like a competent housekeeper because I did not have an example to follow growing up. I hate clutter and tend to purge my belongings from time to time.
Reasons Why People Hoard
I have seen more than my share of shows on hoarding as well as experiencing its negative effects. I have come to the following conclusions.
Some people hoard because they:
- Use the hoard as a barrier to feel safe and protect themselves from hurtful emotions or people
- Avoid feelings of anxiety that come when they try to part with their things
- Are incapacitated by depression
- Are chronically disorganized and too overwhelmed to begin tackling the clutter
- See value and usefulness in items that most of us would consider garbage
- Have a deep attachment to things because of some quality the objects have, i.e. knickknacks that belonged to their mothers or the positive memories they create
- Are keeping materials to do projects that will probably never get going
- Are holding on to things in the belief that someone needs them or that they can be recycled
- May get an emotional boost from shopping and collecting certain items
While I recognize the negative impact of my mother's hoarding, I also know now that she had a type of mental illness. I am happy to say that after she purged and sold my childhood home and moved in with my family, her hoarding tendencies decreased dramatically.
We lived together in peace for the last five years of her life. I like to think those years were happy ones for her.
© 2015 Carola Finch