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Voices of COHP



There are times times when we see ourselves through another person's eyes, and the view makes us cringe with embarrassment.  I'm 60 years old and there are memories from a half century ago that still make me want to burst into tears.


In junior high gym, we were asked to remove our shoes and socks.  A gawky girl named Debby came up and slid her pristine foot next to my scraggly toe-nailed, dirt encrusted foot.  She looked down.  I looked down.  This is the first I remember such a stark comparison of my physical features to those of another.


Suddenly, it all came rushing in.  I'm hyperaware that my nails are unkempt, my hair greasy, wild, and tangled, my teeth crooked and yellow.  I'd always been uncomfortable but this was new.  I hated it.  I hated myself.


It also began a lifetime of comparing myself to others.


Even now, I compare myself to you.  Some of you grew up digging through the garbage cans for food to eat.  Well, no.  I didn't grow up with this kind of hardship.  We were fed.  My mom was no cook, but she was responsible and took care of us as best she could.  The boiling bags got boiled, the Swanson TV dinners got cooked, there was food to eat.


On rare occasions when I ate at someone else's house, I was envious at how good their tuna casserole tasted.  My mom didn't have that kind of creativity.  How food came to exist from ingredients was a great mystery for many years.


Filth took hold before the hoarding ever took root.  We lived in a trailer, the screens crudded with sticky pollen and dirt.  


My little sister became an animal lover early on, bringing in badly behaved stray dogs and cats.  So there were fleas.  And animal hair.  Piss and crap on the floor which was routinely ignored until Mama finally cleaned it up.  


It wasn't my dog so I stubbornly refused to deal with it.  Yet, I did manage to acquire a parakeet, a gerbil, a hamster.  I rarely cleaned their cages, and no one tried to make me do it.


My parents had the characteristic lack of energy of all depressed people.  The zoolike smell of saturated litter took over the whole trailer.  


We had periodic flea epidemics that no one else seemed to suffer from but me.  They ate me alive.  I itched, scratched, bled, and generally could not stop picking at myself.


Summers were unbearable. I hated the dogs that brought the fleas in.  I hated my sister for bringing the dogs in.  I hated my parents for not stopping her from bringing the dogs in.  


There was no shortage of hate nor lack of targets for it. I hated myself and my inability to change any of the uncomfortable facts of my life. My emotions switched back and forth between rage, helplessness, and despair.


Other families sat at the kitchen table to eat, but we couldn't. Three chairs piled high with newspapers, mail, random objects. The fourth chair was where Mama sat to do the bills. She was a meticulous recordkeeper. She had to be. There wasn't much money to work with.


Despite my dad's expensive drinking and smoking, we always had electricity and the lot rent was paid on time.  In a strange way today, I see this certainty that I'd have a roof over my head as stability.  At the time, I just saw it as being stuck living in a trailer.  


I was deeply jealous of people who lived in houses without tires underneath.  When we drove past their neighborhoods, I could only imagine how beautiful the interior of those houses must be.  But it was an alien world, largely inaccessible to the likes of me.


To say that I was socially maladjusted would be an understatement.  If I wanted something, I stole it.  Surely, people with houses had scads of money and if they missed an item, they could replace it easily.  Soon after the theft of some records from a junior high school friend, I was no longer invited to her house.  I knew why, but no one pressed the issue with me.  


I was simply erased from the list of people you wanted to have around.  My reputation degraded.  An anonymous person wrote “Have a good summer and don't steal anything!” in my junior high yearbook.  My cheeks burned with recognition of my misdeeds.


As of high school, the 550 foot square trailer we lived in was messy and had far too much stuff in it but it still didn't qualify as a hoard yet. (That would come later.)  No one who wasn't family came to visit simply because my parents were absolute hermits.


Fantasizing about being popular and having lots of friends kept me mentally busy but I didn't make too many attempts to bring my desires into reality.  Whenever I did make an effort, I got shoved back into my place and fast.


At 16, I got a job in a store that had a lot of kids on the crew who went to school outside my district.  This was my chance.  None of them knew what a pariah I was in my own school.


I maneuvered a guy there to give me a ride home from work.  He was the kind of guy that I really wanted to impress. His father was a colonel and they lived in a brick house in a nice neighborhood.  I had known him for 3 days and already had all kinds of plans for our life together as a couple.


After the drive home, he politely accepted my offer to come inside the trailer.  We accessed the doorway by means of the stairs which consisted of concrete blocks shoved haphazardly together.


So giddy was I at the prospect of having a friend over that I hadn't considered what I'd do with him once we got inside.  Couch was full of dog and was that dirty laundry?  Okay, no couch.  Chair also crowded with books and papers. Kitchen table piled high.


Normally I'd go in my room after work, but I couldn't think of bringing my new boyfriend in there. Not only did I share the room with my sister, but the bed was junky and unmade.


Thinking fast lest he get away, I strode over to the fridge and grabbed two cokes.  He took the one I placed in his hand.  Then I took a few steps into the living room, did a graceful pirouette, and sat straight down on the floor.


He had no choice but to follow suit.  We chatted about work for a few minutes when I became aware of a snorting and snuffling sound somewhere behind me.  The dog playing with his chew toy, no doubt.


But something had changed in my future husband's face as he talked with me.  He broke eye contact several times, seemingly distracted by whatever was going on behind me.  I talked more and faster, trying desperately to keep him engaged.


But it was useless, he wasn't even interested in his coke which remained unopened.  Instead, he held the can with two fingers and placed it on the floor.  His face was looking weird, distorted somehow as though he were being tortured.


My mind reeled, what could be wrong with him? Finally tiring of my prattle, he sort of started to stand and said he guessed he'd be on his way. Sure, I said brightly, see you around work. He made his exit with a half wave and didn't look back.


When I turned from the door, I got a direct view of what he'd been seeing from his position on the floor. The dog behind me was chewing something all right, but it was not a toy.


She had gotten into the bathroom trash which was only a brown paper bag beside the toilet and pulled out some pads.  Period pads.  Used period pads.  Bits of it were strung out and strewn in great hunks all over the floor.


My heart sunk and I felt ill as I stood there scratching my flea bites and wondering why I couldn't get a break.



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