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Voices of COHP

Sarah S.


Hoarding isn’t something that happens in an instant. It’s a gradual shift from buying a few extra items on sale, to having nowhere to put the extra items, to eventually not being able to see the kitchen table because it’s so covered in papers, plants, and anything else that becomes trapped in its orbit.


When I was in primary school, there were no problems with seeing the top of the kitchen table. My mother had piles of excess in the basement, but it was mostly fabric for projects, some of which she actually made. While the homemade clothes weren’t always as cute as they sounded and my mother haunted bargain shops, the condition of the house was presentable.


The emotional state of those in the house was anything but stable, though. I was a pathologically shy child, so afraid of one of my teachers that I actually made a puddle under my seat rather than ask to use the toilet.  My younger sister picked the skin off the bottom of her feet and plucked out her eyelashes. We were both convinced terrible things would happen if we did not get over 90% on school tests and were berated for sub-par results. My father was a workaholic because he wanted to avoid my mother, and he plucked out his sideburns.  But we looked like a functional family, with my mother volunteering at my school and being active in the community.


My mother started working again when I was about ten, though a few years later she became chronically tired. Many doctors’ visits later, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, disorders which left her unable to work for several years.  When she had no energy, cleaning was far down her priorities list, especially since she had never enjoyed it.  Some rooms in the house became cluttered and filled, but a lot of the house was clean enough for company, if there was advanced notice and time for a bit of tidying.


A few years later, my parents agreed to host a Christmas party.  This provoked conflict and stress, since my father insisted that the house look presentable, but my mother did not want to discard old magazines and other ‘treasures.’  It was a struggle for both of them, but they pulled off the event and never attempted anything similar again.


Around this time, neither of my parents realized that I had disordered eating.  I would compulsively count the calories in my breakfast, skip lunch, and eat a normal dinner.  They still noticed if I didn’t do well in my classes, but academic success had become so ingrained that I would never have dreamed of handing in an assignment late.  In retrospect, I was probably trying to exert control over some part of my life.


The situation deteriorated further still when my father left.  He was unable to deal with my mother’s emotional drama, but has gone on to have two more marriages plus begin excess buying and accumulation himself.  About six months after he left, I moved away for university, but my sister faced days of silence from my mother if she visited my father.  Perhaps worse, my mother wrote him pleading letters, which my sister had to deliver. My mother did not cope well with the separation, and her accumulation of stuff gradually accelerated when my father wasn’t there to stop her compulsions.


Possibly the worst for me and my sister was the environment’s effect on our romantic relationships.  My sister married at eighteen and moved to another city, though her relationship was far from healthy.  Her husband left her when she was 22.  Fortunately, her next long-term relationship has worked out well. 


I, on the other hand, had about 20 years of controlling or manipulative boyfriends, interspersed with long periods alone and some one-night stands.  The worst was a long-distance relationship with a controlling man who had a history of bad breakups.  After I ended our relationship, he cyber-stalked me for months, travelled overseas to stalk me for a few weeks, and eventually emailed compromising pictures of me to my supervisor, who fortunately knew about the situation and was very sympathetic. Maybe the terrible events were enough to finally make me change my dating criteria, since my current relationship is the best of my life.


In the meantime, my mother’s hoarding was escalating.  She had recovered enough to work part-time after being on long-term disability for several years.  However, she felt isolated as many of her former friends were more loyal to my father.  She befriended a wool shop proprietor and, after the friend needed money, applied for a line of credit.  It wasn’t a big deal when she owned her house debt-free after the divorce, but it started a slippery slope of giving friends money.  This led to her taking out a first and eventually second mortgage on her home.  Being involved with the knitting shop was also an excuse to buy with a purpose, and after her previous sewing addiction, she soon became hooked on knitting. Buying wool was like her cocaine fix.


When the knitting shop owner died unexpectedly, my mother felt that it was her mission to keep the business going.  She and another friend, who has hoarder tendencies, bought it and steadily poured money into it until they no longer could afford its rent.  Then the shop shifted to the living room of my mother’s already crowded house. 


The co-owner of the shop moved in for a week after she left her husband.  The friend is still living in the house over seven years later.  Possibly she has squatter’s rights because she has lived there so long, though if she wants the property and to claim the mess, she is welcome to it.  What was a spacious three-bedroom home for one person has become a hoarder house for two women whose health is declining. 


Maybe eight years ago, my sister and I went back to collect a few last things we wanted to save.  My mother had a look of pure anguish on her face when we took a few objects that were unquestionably things from our childhoods out of her house.  The things seemed more important to her than we were.


Neither my sister nor I have been in the house in more than four years, but when we were last there, most rooms were impassable.  There was a dog penned in the room where the wool shop had been, and the house smelled like urine.  Perhaps there was a table under the pile of stuff in the kitchen.  My sister will not take her children there because of the health risks.


In addition, my grandmother passed away three years ago.  Any of her belongings that relatives did not want ended up in my mother’s house.  That included my grandmother’s clothes, even though my grandmother was probably 20 or 30 centimeters shorter than my mother. 


To complicate things, my mother and her friend probably hoard animals.  The friend who co-owned the knitting shop owns a farm with her ex-husband.  Neither my sister nor I have been to the farm, but my mother has mentioned having 50 horses, plus dogs, barn cats, and possibly other creatures.  Based on my mother’s comments that strangers had asked about the horses’ welfare in winter, my sister and I hired a private investigator to check out the situation.  We lived hours away (I lived in Asia then) and feared our mothers’ wrath if caught.  The investigator reported that the animals were listless and seemed in poor condition.  However, based on a vet’s analysis of video he took, their condition was not bad enough for the Humane Society to take action.  What could they do with 50 horses, anyway?


Despite the craziness, my sister and I both speak to our mother regularly.  We maintain a sense of normalcy, even when my sister receives expired food as Christmas presents and my nephews wonder why Grandma smells funny.  However, we pretend the hoard doesn’t exist and don’t speak of it to my mother.  Perhaps our continuing relationship is because of the childhood indoctrination that we have a duty to do our best, even in difficult circumstances.  I’m sometimes jealous of people who have ‘normal’ relationships with their mothers.


For the past twelve years or so, I’ve lived overseas, at times twelve time zones away.  Even if I were closer, I couldn’t make her change her ways.  However, my sister and I have contingency plans in case my mother loses her house to bankruptcy or her health declines.  Neither option includes a financial bailout as we can’t afford it, plus the debt would probably accumulate again swiftly. 


Unfortunately, probably my biggest issue with my mother is not about the hoard.  Both sides of the family have a history of depression, suicidal ideation, OCD, and other diagnoses.  Therefore, genetically, mental health issues were to be expected.  My frustration is that my sister and I had no idea how to have a positive romantic relationship and difficulties with social relationships.  Possibly this happened because we were used to seeing my father’s acquiescence to my mother, both my sister and I went along with unhealthy situations. 


Luckily, we’ve both found supportive partners.  However, I’m afraid to introduce my boyfriend to my mother as he is an obsessively neat person.  I’ve become a minimalist, especially after multiple moves between countries, though my cooking skills are definitely better than my cleaning ones.  While I don’t think I will become a hoarder, I worry that I will become overly manipulative or controlling in relationships, like my mother.


You have the power to change your life.  You can move far away like I did, but the situation will still be there if you return for a visit.  However, mental health effects of the hoarder environment will follow you, especially an emotionally abusive or controlling one.  The biggest change might be acknowledging that you are a person who deserves to be in a relationship with someone kind who accepts you for who you are.  Certainly, I ended up with some very manipulative people.  Some social situations or voicing dissenting opinion can still be challenging.  I’m sure I will still have some lingering effects for the rest of my life.  However, I’ve been honest with my boyfriend about my mother’s situation.  Hopefully, when they do meet, my fears about his reactions will be groundless.


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