Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat from that dream where you're standing on one side of a wall while a loved one is on the other side in distress? You scramble at the wall, desperate for something, anything, to grasp and climb your way to the top. The cries on the other side become muffled and disjointed. You're frantic, yet no matter how far you climb, the wall grows higher and higher. It feels so hopeless. You don't exactly know what's happening on the other side, and you're not even sure you want to see it, but if you don't try your loved one will be lost forever.
Like most compulsive hoarders, Mom lacks the insight to acknowledge this is a problem. Which, in itself, is the problem. She's totally baffled as to why my sister and I have an issue with her clutter. We once tried to seriously talk to her about how we feared her hoard was affecting her health. With the mold, dust, off-gassing, and lack of air circulation, it HAS to be contributing to her respiratory issues.
She was so angry we dared comment on her "housekeeping skills" she threatened to disown us. She threw every guilt trip at us possible; even the "I-survived-Cancer-and-this-is-how-you-treat-me" card. I was devastated. This was my Mother. We'd always been so close, and easy companions for each other. It wasn't unusual for my sister to be at loggerheads with her, but Mom and I had never quarrelled. I was really hurt she was choosing her stuff over her daughters.
And yet, she's not concerned. She tells me it's nothing she can't handle and I shouldn't worry about her. Well, I do. I worry her house is so full of stuff it'll collapse under the weight. I worry she has no way of exiting the house in case of fire. I worry she's unable to maintain the functions of her home and suffers because of it. Mostly, I worry she'll fall and hurt herself, and no one will ever know to help her. I fear she'll die alone, surrounded by her stuff instead of her family.
While I can't discuss her hoarding disorder with her, it's pretty much all my sister and I talk about. And that's exhausting and depressing. We struggle to remember Mom as she was before her hoarding habits really took over. We compare the stories and lies she tells us. We commiserate over how difficult it is to have a genuine relationship with the woman who raised us. There are times I can tell my sister just wants to wash her hands of the whole deal…I understand that. We both know we'll have to deal with clearing out the house after Mom dies. It'll come with a load of guilt and grief, not to mention time and money we don't really have. When people finally learn how Mom was living, will they turn to us and ask "why didn't you do more to help her?"
How DO you help someone who doesn't want help? Who is insulted you dare suggest they need help? We're left at a crossroads…do we push the issue to get her house condemned and have her never speak to us again? Or do we wait it out, and try to at least have some connection with her while she's still alive, knowing the hoarding is slowly killing her?
So I continue to climb this wall. It's hard to find a foothold, and my muscles are getting tired. I can barely hear my Mom on the other side anymore…she's muffled and vague. The wall reaches up to the sky, but I've got to keep trying.
Follow Rae Smith's journey on her blog, notjustclutter.com, or at Twitter at @NotJustClutter.
The experience of children of hoarders
Also, like Rae, many children of individuals who hoard, report a difficult relationship with their parent. Unfortunately, there is virtually no published research on how hoarding impacts family members and therefore little is known about how to help family members in their struggle. Future research is needed in this area before progress may be made. However, children of individuals who hoard are joining together in online communities to provide support to one another and take down the wall of secrecy surrounding hoarding.
For information on hoarding, see Keeping the Clutter.
If you are the child of a hoarder, here are some resources that may be helpful: