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Voices of COHP


Elizabeth A.

 
I grew up in a community that was fairly affluent.  My parents had graduate degrees.  My family was upper middle class. 
 
I went to school with kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers and other professionals.  My dad was a lawyer.  My mother, also highly educated, chose to stay at home and not to work.  My mother was the hoarder.  Mental illness doesn't discriminate.
 
From the outside, my siblings and I seemed to come from a functional and supportive family.  I had all the advantages that could be bought— I took music lessons and went to summer camp.  
 
I knew a lot of families like mine that were financially comfortable, where a mother stayed home and focused on caring for everyone. 
 
But their homes and families were nothing like mine.  It didn’t make any sense at all.  When people say that hoarding looks like the parent cares more about the “stuff” than the children, I get it.  It definitely seemed that way to me.  
 
Everything about my childhood home was confusing. I look at pictures from my childhood and I'm surprised by how much worse it got.  Still, we were too ashamed to have people over back then.
 
When I was too young to understand her mess was the reason, my mother simply made excuses for why I couldn’t have anyone over. 
 
I had a party for my eighth birthday and it was a major undertaking to make the house presentable.  By the time I was twelve, I understood that our house was just not a place people were allowed to visit.
 
The mess was largely newspapers and mail and bags from lots and lots of shopping trips.  My mother always blamed the mess on me, my siblings, and my father.  But whenever we tried to clean, she became upset that we were messing things up and making her lose things. 
 
She would cover the whole couch with piles of newspapers so only she had space to sit down.
 
My parents argued constantly. 
 
My father resented the mess.  It made no sense to him.  I remember hearing him complain about my mother’s spending and the credit card bills.  
 
He was also increasingly frustrated by my mother’s religious obsessions. 
 
She often lashed out at him, telling him he was "evil" and "possessed by demons."  I don’t think he ever realized the impact her religious fixations had on me.
 
My mother had grown up in a small town Methodist church.  She was raised with religion that promoted a positive sense of community, the value of taking care of other people. 
 
As an adult, my mother was attracted to religion that was more divisive and angry. 
 
Televangelists were the constant background noise of my childhood.  My mother saw herself as special and felt validated as a Christian "persecuted" by demonic and secular forces seeking to undermine her faith. 
 
My mother believed that the world was full of dangerous secular influences, threatening her and trying to poison her children.  This persecution complex reinforced (and made worse) all the control issues related to her hoarding. 
 
My mother frequently accused me of being possessed by demons.  
 
Resisting her control was evidence that Satan was in me.  She said she was fighting spiritual warfare.  
 
I grew up with a mother telling me and believing that I was evil.
 
She controlled what I saw on TV and listened to on the radio.  She was rarely violent.  Her abuse was mostly emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, which is hard to recognize as a child, and even sometimes, as an adult.
 
My mother and I argued a lot during my adolescence.  I don't recall specific arguments but whenever I resisted her control she accused me of being a rebellious teenager or possessed by demons.
 
Disagreement wasn't ok.
 
I had few friends and was only allowed to participate in extracurricular activities she approved of.  Looking back on it, I accepted her label that I was "rebellious" but I never successfully rebelled against anything. 
 
I hated the house and her fire and brimstone televangelists.  She insisted that raising me was a terrible burden. I was her scapegoat, and “so much more difficult” than my older siblings.  
 
She complained she was not equipped to deal with a child so "troubled," "demonic," or "rebellious."
 
As the youngest, my childhood was surely different from my older siblings because our mother’s illness, and the house, had gotten so much worse.  
 
Long after I left home (and even after years of therapy), it was still difficult to recognize some of the more dysfunctional aspects of my childhood. 
 
Parts of it still feels like part of MY identity, something wrong with ME, rather than a consequence or expression of my mother’s illness. 
 
For example, when I was about twelve, my mother decided that she did not like sharing a bedroom with my father so she started sleeping on an extra bed in my room. 
 
For several years - when most children are developing an independent sense of self and crave privacy - I was forced to share a bedroom with my mother.  
 
Her intrusion into my space had no explanation.  She could have had her own room and still she invaded mine and took that privacy from me.  
 
Only much later coming to know other COH, would I learn how common this is.  Doors are removed, beds and rooms are overtaken by stuff, often under some entirely avoidable and irrational pretext, bewildering or unquestioned by children.
 
Coercive control, surveillance, deprivation of privacy is often described in our communities.  As a child, I was alone with my confusion.
 
My father protected me from many of the worst of my mother’s impulses. 
 
He was confident that my siblings and I would be successful in life and encouraged us to believe this, too.  In retrospect, he is the only reason I was able to escape and build a healthy sense of self-esteem. 
 
Like many hoarded children, my mother tried to prevent my escape.
 
When I was in high school, my mother argued I should stay home and attend community college because I was “not ready” to be away at a university.  My father insisted and he was paying for it.  Getting away saved me.
 
My father never spent money on himself, he talked a lot about “investing” in me and my siblings. 
 
I realize now that my mother’s hoarding was a huge drain on our family.  We were very lucky that my father earned enough to compensate for the cost of her illness for so long. 
 
The last years of my father’s life were miserable because of all the money my mother had wasted.  He felt like he couldn't leave the house or afford to live separately.
 
When he started using a walker, most of the house was unsafe for my father. 
 
As his mobility worsened, my mother could control him like she had controlled me.
 
Just as she decided to move into my room, my mother decided to put a clothing rack in the hallway, blocking my father’s access to the bathroom. 
 
She forced him to use portable urinals in the living room.  She claimed this was better and “easier," despite the humiliation.
 
Elder abuse was more apparent to me than the abuse I had suffered.  I could not ignore or minimize it.
 
I began to research hoarding.  I read all the books and articles I could find trying to understand what had happened to my family.  Understanding was no match for my mother's illness.
 
I also tried to intervene.  I did a few harm-reduction type cleanups (limited to space that my father needed) and connected my mother to a therapist, assuming she would be relieved and accept professional help.  
 
Solutions seemed so simple and obvious but were nonetheless impossible.  
 
The hoard gave my mother an excuse to control my father and make him more vulnerable and dependent on her.
 
I alerted every kind of public authority about the terrible conditions my father suffered, but no one would do anything.
 
My father had become completely dependent upon my mother to meet his physical needs and no one understood the danger of her illness.
 
In desperation, I reached out to my mother's pastor.  Despite the danger to my father, he accused me of trying to embarrass my mother.
 
My mother once called the police and accused me of “stealing” her underwear.  The police are not qualified to address mental health issues. 
 
Social services admitted they didn't have the resources to intervene, that the abuse wasn't bad enough.
 
My father didn't leave.
 
My father’s last years were awful and might have been even worse if we had done nothing.  Our interventions were not a solution, but I don’t regret trying on my father's behalf.  
 
In most situations, I would never recommend trying to intervene to help a hoarder refusing help, but vulnerable dependents are a completely different matter.
 
The last time I saw my mother was at my father’s funeral.  I am estranged from my mother and older siblings who enabled her while my father suffered so much. They are are responsible for her now.  
 
I have made peace with all of this.
 
I am not responsible for my mother's choices and she is no longer harming anyone but herself.
 
Periodically, I google fires in my home town as that seems her likely fate.