Voices of COHP
I grew up in a dirty hoard, but the stuff didn't reach to the ceiling (yay). I'm struck that public perception about hoarding is mostly about the stuff. In my experience, the hoarded stuff itself is lowest in importance, for COH. The more important issues are the hoarder's need for control, the fiercely difficult personality, and the mind-boggling lack of insight.
To this day, I usually find my mom's behaviors to be irrational. After any conversation with her, it takes me a moment to re-orient myself, to separate her irrational statements from her reasonable statements. Then I need to formulate responses, helping her when appropriate, but more often setting boundaries on her peculiar requests or assumptions. Discerning, responding, and setting boundaries is a skill that gets better with practice, but which always requires energy and alertness.
As adult COHs, we have collectively experienced a range of behaviors, many of which have been irrational, and disorienting. As children growing up, we probably instinctively knew something was wrong, but we didn't have the perspective or safety to name the requests as irrational or too demanding.
From the safe distance of decades, some of the behavior is quirky and funny, even when it was not at all back then. I feel sadness about the family losses and missed opportunities, but I laughed pretty hard when first typing this up. I am sharing this in the hope that others will relate to those conflicted emotions and complex experiences we have had as both children and adult children of hoarders.
My mother controlled all kitchen access. I don't remember opening a refrigerator door ever in my childhood, or getting water from the tap, or even getting a cup or glass or snack from a cabinet. Mom provided all things to, well, all of us.
She controlled laundry access. We rarely had clean clothes, and yes that is as disgusting as it sounds, and yes, I had to be creative in school so that my clothes would not get dirtier and especially so my clothes would not be visible in the gym locker room.
I remember thinking in my teen years that I didn't really DO anything other than school activities (homework or musical instruments). Home-related activities were mostly passive, or at least involved minimal physical movement or control, like reading or TV (we were allowed to talk on the phone and we had an ahead-of-our-time early generation computer terminal, too).
Mom didn't allow any cleaning, of anything, or discarding, of anything. There was never any discussion about trash, since she handled, or didn't handle, that activity. Looking back, I don't even know if our house had curbside trash pickup or whether we owned a large garbage can.
She would yell at us if we dropped anything on the floor. Once on the floor, whatever fell had to stay on the floor permanently. If it was an important item, then she would begrudgingly pick it up delicately, and she would clean it and return it to us. I resented the ridiculous inconsistency between her 30-minute U.S. mail cleaning sessions or her cleaning an item that one of us had dropped onto the floor, yet all around us was a dirty hoard.
My mother hated to receive U.S. mail from my dad's (her husband) family across the country. She concocted an elaborate ritual to anticipate and to deal with such a dreaded occasion.
About an hour before the daily U.S. mail delivery, she would position one of us two boys so that we could watch the street behind our house, down the hill. We could see the mail truck complete its deliveries around that street's cul-de-sac. Although we were allowed to continue our homework from that view, we had better not miss the mail truck down below.
Once we spotted the mail delivery and notified her, we had about fifteen minutes to relax. Then we would once again be put on duty, this time to spot the mail truck's arrival on the street next to ours. Whoever was in this important assignment had to be especially vigilant now, since the critical time was nearly upon us.
Once the mail truck passed in and then out of view in the neighboring street, then we had to freeze in whatever location in the house we were. No movement of any kind was tolerated. Then, the mail truck would turn off the neighboring street, and putter up the hill, approaching our mailbox!
The mailman would put mail in our mailbox, then circle around our cul-de-sac for a few minutes, and then exit our street.
Mom was then poised to deal with the anticipated mail from across the country. As she approached our house's front door to go to the mailbox, she warned us again, "DO NOT MOVE! DO NOT MOVE! DO YOU HEAR ME! DO NOT MOVE!"
By the way, she also controlled all family members' exits from and entrances into the house for at least ten years.
Anyway, we were sufficiently "trained" that we knew not to move at this critical time. Mom went to the mailbox. When she returned, if the mail was just routine bills and advertisements, then everything went back to normal (uh, hoarderland normal).
But if any mail from those relatives had arrived, then our house became a red alert zone. Mom started sobbing and crying, took the mail into the powder room and spent 30 minutes in there "sanitizing" or whatever mini ritual within the overall ritual she had. Of course, we boys didn't really know what was going on in there, since we were sticking to our location, trying to ignore her ever increasing wailing.
At the conclusion of these powder room activities, our house got back to normal.
When my dad arrived home from work, mom would tell him that mail had arrived. By that time, she was more resigned and disgusted by the day's events. She would hold the letter up for my dad to read. I don't think he ever actually touched that mail or ever got to review it again, but at least she granted him one-time access.
By the way, mom controlled all mail and documents, so I don't know how my dad kept up with the finances. I'm guessing now that all info was filtered by her to my dad.
I never learned what these rituals were all about. My dad once told us boys that mom said that his sister’s husband’s brother picked his nose and wiped it on a curtain (not in my parents’ home, though).
Apparently from that incident, all things related to his side of the family became “dirty.” Thus the 30-minute sanitizing when mail did arrive from any member of that family. Mom “trained” my dad’s relatives that their correspondence was not welcome, although she was/is not assertive enough directly to say anything like that, but I’m sure she figured out how to train them remotely. So they did not send mail very often. But they did send mail occasionally. My dad said that they caught on, and that they figured out that they could torture my mom by sending mail to us.
When we moved in 1972 and visited our new house, then under construction, apparently one of the construction workers was barefooted. After that sighting, I was never again allowed to play on a floor, and that might actually be the reason why we weren’t allowed, even ten years later, to touch anything fallen on a floor.
We also avoided all references (words, or images, and quickly got up and turned the TV channel if an image appeared) to monkeys or gorillas. Somehow primates triggered that same “picked-your-nose” reaction (we would flare our nostrils as kids to mock our mom, to look like primates, but we never got caught), and I guess primates walk around without shoes, thus bringing us full circle back to the 1972 house construction worker.
We literally couldn’t even talk about or touch a banana, because, you know, primates are associated with bananas.
Somehow, after I moved away permanently, my mom got over the whole monkey and banana thing. I have watched TV with her and seen a commercial featuring a gorilla, and I felt that old fearful instinct, but my mom didn’t react at all.
The million-dollar question from a safe distance of 35 years is why did we let ourselves get bullied by all these strange rituals?
I knew as a teen that sure I could just outright defy the rules and (gasp) pick up a pencil that had fallen on the floor. But that simple action would have precipitated a hellish sequence of wrath, and that would have made the entire family even more tense, and nobody wanted that. But a protracted revolt was beyond my imagination.
As an adult COH now, I understand the sequence of how to get a drink of water from the tap. But as a teen, I had no business being in the kitchen, I didn't know where the clean glasses (versus the disgusting, dirty glasses) were, and after I drank some water, I wouldn't have even known where to put the used glass.
How much imagination would have been required to bring about meaningful change as an in-resident teen child of a hoarder? I really wasn't imaginative growing up. I don't know if that's by personality, but it's likely that my "training" encouraged me to just keep my head down, don't ask questions, just study and get good grades (which I did). I'm sure there is an entire body of literature out there somewhere about learned helplessness in dysfunctional families.
My mother never cackled out loud like Cruella Deville in 101 Dalmatians. But her quest for, and easy attainment of control was absolute, unyielding. In retrospect, I think it was dark, too. I don’t know whether it was motivated by malevolence, but it was comparable to the various types of abuse I have discussed with other COH.
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