Voices of COHP
My mom suffered from hoarding disorder. When I was very young, the clutter wasn't too bad; the main consequences for me were that my parents never made me make my bed or clean up my room. I remember playing with Transformers and G.I. Joes on mountains of old magazines and broken toys. When the action figures broke, they would become part of the pile.
It was, in many ways, a happy childhood. In those years, I associated clutter with safety, comfort, and even a sense of wonder. I learned to appreciate the textures and shapes of old things, the constantly changing patterns of an ever-expanding landscape of clutter. I developed what you might call an aesthetic predilection for crap. In short, I was at home in the mess.
Things changed around the time I hit puberty. The clutter level rose past the point of respectability. It was tacitly understood that my friends would no longer come over to play – not that I would have wanted them to, since by now I was ashamed of how we lived. Although the sensations of comfort and safety I felt around clutter weren't entirely gone, they were buried under a layer of guilt and anxiety that I soon internalized. Like the eyes in a spooky painting, my mom's hoard seemed to follow me wherever I went.
Where was my dad in all this? I don't know what kinds of discussions or arguments went on behind closed doors. What I remember is that whenever my mom asked for help with a household task such as changing a lightbulb, he would reply, "I'll do it as soon as you clean up the house." And that was that.
My dad died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was a junior in college. My mom's hoarding intensified thereafter. Significant portions of the house were now inaccessible because of the clutter. Around this time, a group of my oldest and best friends from high school learned about the condition of my childhood home. At their suggestion, and with a lot of encouragement and support from them, I decided to clean up the house without my mom's permission or knowledge. This took place before any of the TV shows about hoarding made the condition more widely known; for all I knew my family was the only one in the world that lived this way. I had never heard the word "hoarding," and I certainly didn't know what a "forced cleanout" was. When we came up with a plan to clean up my house, we just called it "The Plan."
Months of meticulous planning went into The Plan. On a flimsy pretext I arranged for my mom and younger sister (then in high school) to visit my grandmother over a long weekend. When my sister, who had no particular desire to go on a surprise vacation, balked at the last minute, I took a chance and let her in on the secret. We opened up to each other about the distress and shame we had felt growing up in an unclean house. Through tears, we agreed that The Plan would proceed.
There was a thunderstorm the night the flight was scheduled to leave. My mom wanted to call off the trip, but my sister dragged her to the airport. The flights BEFORE and AFTER the one I'd booked for them were canceled, but somehow theirs made it through. That was what a superstitious person would call “a good omen.”
A rotating cast of friends descended on my house over the next 3 days like a swarm of benevolent locusts. We sifted through 25 years of stuff. Everything that could be donated, we sent to the Salvation Army or the public library; everything else went into one of several 30-cubic-yard dumpsters that we parked in the driveway. When the dumpsters were full, we hired a dump truck whose driver happened to be passing by the house; when the dump truck was full, we went on a “Phantom Dumpster Run” in the middle of the night, furtively (and illegally) cramming dozens of garbage bags into the trash containers behind a strip mall. We threw out a lifetime's worth of memories that weekend.
The 72 hours over which The Plan took place were the most emotionally and physically intense of my life. The house seemed possessed by a malevolent spirit that actively opposed and mocked our efforts. Every inch of space we cleared was bitterly contested by this demon of detritus. The struggle resulted in some choice moments of dark comedy:
· One friend was tasked with cleaning out a freezer that hadn't been defrosted since, well, ever. He chipped away at the thick layer of permafrost with the doggedness of an arctic geologist. He eventually retrieved a solid chunk of ice the size of a small dog, an empty 1-gallon ice cream tub that had been entirely submerged in a glacier, and a brick of chicken breasts that was over a decade past its expiration date.
· An over-stuffed shelf had collapsed in a hallway, blocking it off completely. Over the course of roughly eight hours, a team churned its way through a chest-high pile of twisted metal, romance novels, and assorted bric-a-brac. When the hallway was at last clear, there remained one final item to be picked up: a book titled “Clutter's Last Stand."
· At one point, I heard someone call out, “Ev, I found your dad!” The cardboard box holding his ashes was tucked away behind a pile of papers in a bathroom.
It wasn't until the penultimate night of The Plan that we finally broke the hoard's spirit. The main living area of the house was covered with wall-to-wall carpet that hadn't been vacuumed in at least a decade. Its color was presently somewhere between booger and vomit, though it had originally been an attractive shade of gold (as we discovered when we moved a credenza that hadn't budged in 20 years). After clearing the clutter, it seemed we were faced with an impossible choice: leave the carpet in place, a disgusting reminder of the way things used to be; or rip it up and somehow install new carpeting in the less-than-24 hours we had left.
A friend used a blade to loosen an inconspicuous corner of carpet. We gathered around, breaths bated, and he peeled back the edge… to reveal an absolutely pristine hardwood floor, as shiny as if it had been waxed yesterday! My friends and I, laughing with relief and joy, took turns ripping out hundreds of square feet of putrid carpet. As the dark and dingy fabric gave way to the highly reflective wood, the house literally became brighter. I can think of no better symbol for the sense of renewal and rebirth I felt.
For my mom, however, the forced cleanout was a fresh trauma on top of the recent unexpected death of her husband. When I picked her and my sister up from the airport, I tried to break the news as gently as I could. We stopped at a diner, and I told her about The Plan. We talked about how hard the last few years had been for both of us. We were in tears by the end of our meal, though I don't think she fully grasped the scale of the carnage: nearly all her possessions from the last quarter-century were gone forever.
When I unlocked the front door and stood aside to allow my mom to enter the newly empty house, the beautiful bare hardwood floor seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. To me, it was a blank canvas pregnant with possibility; to her, it was the sudden and complete destruction of her emotional support system.
My mom broke down. She asked where everything was – over and over and over again. “Where's my bed?” – “Where's the sofa?” – “Where's the dining room table?” It was as if she were caught in an infinite feedback loop. When I tried to soothe her with a hug, she struck me (something she had never done before). I didn't know what else to do, so I left. I drove to a friend's house to spend the night. I remember saying out loud, to myself and to the world, “I would do it again. I would do it again. I don't regret it. I will never regret it.”
Roughly two decades have passed since that night. It only took a year or two for my mom to fill up the house again. She was pissed at me for throwing out her stuff, and I was pissed at her for bringing it back. Though the anger and resentment on both sides gradually faded, I don't think she ever fully forgave me. She died in 2015, leaving the hoarded house to my sister and me.
So, given the aftermath, was The Plan worth it? I can certainly understand how someone facing a similar situation nowadays might decide against a surprise cleanout. I did not face legal consequences for The Plan, but a more litigious parent certainly could have opened a police inquiry directed at me or my friends for destruction of property. Also, we know a lot more about how to treat Hoarding Disorder now than we did twenty years ago. Involuntary cleanouts virtually never alter hoarding behavior because the stuff is a symptom of an illness, not its underlying cause. Treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy and harm reduction are far more effective and far less traumatic than simply throwing out a person's possessions. Finally, a forced cleanout is guaranteed to strain family bonds to the breaking point. Not only did I obliterate whatever trust remained between my mom and me when I threw out her stuff, but I also left my high-school-aged sister in an intolerable living situation with a damaged, bereaved parent.
But these objections are, in a crucial sense, beside the point. The Plan may not have changed the trajectory of my mom's life, but it was the critical point of mine. No longer was I a helpless little boy or an anxious, awkward teenager slowly sinking in an ever-rising tide of trash: I was an adult whose parent had a problem. The hoard was my mom's, not mine. The story of the time my friends & I conquered the hoard is the glowing background for all of the good things in my life now. Hell, I told my wife about The Plan on our first date because I thought she should know the most important thing about me. I hate that I had to hurt my mom and sister to become an independent person, but I do not – I cannot – regret cleaning up my childhood home.
Ev Clark is a photographer and tutor who lives in Virginia. He is working on Treasures of the Heart: photographs of the prized possessions of people who have hoarding tendencies. He hopes to reveal the variety of human experience, depth of feeling, and startling beauty that hide behind that ugly word, “hoarder”.
See Ev's work at The MYCOHP Visions' Gallery and at http://www.everittclarkphotography.com
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