Dirty Secret

A daughter comes clean about her mother's compulsive hoarding.

Compulsive Hoarding: Beyond the Crazy Cat Lady

Compulsive hoarding: separating the facts from fiction.

I'm the daughter of a compulsive hoarder. Four years ago, I'd have chewed off my own arm rather than admit that fact to anyone besides my husband. But then a series of health crises made my mother's secret too difficult to shoulder on my own. Desperate, I joined an online support group for children of hoarders (I was shocked to find it, but there are support groups for just about everything). I told one friend, then another. And something bizarre happened: every time I told someone my secret--really my mother's secret, yet like most children of hoarders I'd taken the shame of her mental illness upon myself--I felt less responsible for her and less burdened by her hoarding. Better.

After that, I decided to write about my experience, and my memoir, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding, will be published next month. My goal was to put a human face on compulsive hoarding, to help people to see past the stereotype of the crazy cat lady. On this blog, my goal is the same. I want readers to understand what hoarding is, why it happens, and to whom. I also plan to elucidate the various ways hoarding affects families--it's not only in the ways one might expect.

For today, I'll start with Hoarding 101: what hoarding is, and what hoarding is not.

Hoarding is not laziness. It is not selfishness. And it is not an "addiction to stuff." (A common misconception I'll explore in more detail soon.)

Hoarding is largely an information processing problem. If you were to walk into my mother's house, you'd see a living room packed with dressers, desks, and bureaus, every piece of which is piled high with possessions. Were you to walk over to one of the hulking dressers and open up a drawer, you'd find that it was empty--except for the one drawer housing dozens of pairs of second-hand eyeglasses she hangs onto "just in case." The stacks of sweaters and book lights and spools of yarn and graying sneakers sit on top of the furniture because if they're put into drawers my mother won't be able to find them.

And it turns out there's a chemical reason for this: Brain scans of hoarders show decreased metabolic activity in the parts of the brain related to memory, emotions, and decision-making.

My mother, like most hoarders, doesn't trust that she'll remember where something is if she can't see it. That's why everything has to be left out, preferably on top of a pile (though the top of the pile soon becomes the middle and then the bottom as more and more clutter accumulates). Memory problems are one reason many hoarders hang onto newspapers and magazines--without them, they might forget information inside.

If you've seen any of the television shows, you know that hoarders experience extreme anxiety when forced to make decisions about their belongings, and that attempts to clear out the clutter for them frequently end in a massive meltdown. Why? Because compulsive hoarders have a uniquely emotional relationship to their things.

Say someone gave a hoarder a gift of jewelry in a small box. The hoarder will keep the jewelry and the box. Throwing the box out would tarnish the memory of the day he or she received the gift; it would be disrespectful to the person who gave the gift; and it would be disrespectful to the box itself. Yes, I'm serious. Often hoarders anthropomorphize objects, even assigning feelings--the box would be hurt if it knew it was as worthless as garbage.

And believe it or not, most hoarders are perfectionists. If the hoarder can't do a job perfectly, he or she would rather just not do it at all. But that doesn't mean the junk mail or newspapers or magazines will stop coming, or that the hoarder will stop shopping. Things will find their way into a hoarder's home. They just won't find their way out.

It's for these reasons, in part, that hoarding is extremely difficult to treat. And hoarding is almost always accompanied by a comorbid condition--depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder are among the most common--which complicates matters even further. Unfortunately there's no magic pill to make a hoarder well. Not yet, anyway. Until there is, here's what I and other children of hoarders can do: understand the disease, accept our loved ones as the flawed creatures they (and we all) are, and take care of ourselves as best we can.

Thanks for reading. I welcome comments and questions!

Jessie Sholl is the author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding.

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