Monday, November 29, 2010

Goals For Our Blog -- and a shout-out for the book, "STUFF."

Hello, friends.

I thought I'd take a moment to talk a little more about what we will try to do on our blog.

1.  Tell our own stories and try to make a safe place in the "comments" section for other people to tell their stories of growing up with hoarders.

2.  Find resources to help us all deal with the hoarders in our lives -- constructive and practical tips we learn from professionals and pass on to you, so you can help your loved ones get their lives in order if they want to.

3.  General tips and resources to keep our own lives manageable.  Some scientists think that the mental conditions which can lead to hoarding may be genetic.  Others recognize that people who grew up in hoarder's homes do not learn effective housekeeping and object-management skills as children.   Some of us automatically want to live as opposite to our childhoods as we possibly can.   Others fumble to try to learn good management skills.  And others struggle because we inherit the anxiety and OCD disorders which can sometimes be triggered -- often during times of stress or trauma -- to begin the hoarding response.  I hope the household management tips we share, however small, are useful to you.

This weekend I started an excellent book:  "STUFF: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things" by Dr. Randy O. Frost and Dr. Gail Steketee.  I have read many books on hoarding and organizing, but this is the first book which has deeply resonated with me as to why hoarders can attach such importance to objects that others would find useless, and the connections they make not only to these things, but between themselves and the outer world.  It gets inside the hoarder's mind in a respectful but very analytical way, and although it is a book relying heavily on psychological and academic terms, the terminology is well explained and it is written in such a way what it is not too academic for the average reader.  

I'll write more about it when I am finished, but I feel so empowered by this book that I wanted to mention it before I was even finished reading it.

Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving and that this week brings good things to you.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chaos Control Tip for the Day: Bedding

Ever go into your bedding closet, shelf or drawer only to find a jumbled pile of folded but mismatched fitted sheets, flat sheets and pillowcases in various prints and bed sizes?

Here's a foolproof way to keep that under control.  First, match up all your sheet sets, making sure the bed sizes also go together as well.  If you are trying to get the most out of mismatched sheets -- let's say you have a good flat sheet whose fitted mate wore out long ago, and you've paired it with a fitted sheet whose mate also disappeared, and added a couple of lone pillow cases .... put that "set" together the same way. 

1.  Wash and dry each set of sheets by themselves, all together.   

2.  Fold them immediately upon taking them out of the dryer.  They will have fewer wrinkles this way. 

3. Fold all the items except one pillow case.  

4. Stack the folded items neatly, insert them into the unfolded pillow case, and tuck in the loose ends of this pillow case.   Place this "packet" of matching sheets into the closet, shelf or drawer where you normally store them.  You now have a set of matching sheets.

No more rummaging for matching sheets and pillowcases!

Do this every time you do the laundry and you will never have tangled-up sheet mayhem again when it is time to change your beds.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Please Welcome Our New Co-Author!

Hi! My screen name for this blog will be "Maggie," which is my middle name.  I am "Julia's" cousin and both her mother and my grandmother shared the hoarding gene.  My mother has it to a lesser extent, but she has it.  

Julia's mother hoards moderately -- enough to be very,very embarrassing and inconvenient, but not enough to be a health hazard -- a fire hazard, probably, but no real filth.  My grandmother (who raised me during part of my childhood) was an astounding hoarder.  I'll tell my full story later.  For now, I'll tell you that when my grandmother died we took over two tons of hoarded paper alone out of the house (junk mail, newspapers, etc).  That's right, more than two tons of JUST PAPER!

It took three fillings and dumpings of a large industrial dumpster to remove the rest of the "junk," and there was still plenty of salvagable items for an estate sale and later, a garage sale for the remnants.  My grandmother died with nearly $100,000 (US) in credit card debt, mostly for items she never used and just stuffed into her house, right up to the ceiling.

We decided to make this blog a joint effort.   I hope we can all help each other and share our stories.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Julia's Story

I am the adult child of hoarders.

My mother has greater issues with this than my father did. I would classify my father as a moderate packrat: if something broke and he couldn't fix it right away, it went into the garage or attic because he might find time to fix it one day. If something was useful, but not needed at the moment, it met the same fate. Not too many of these items were ever repaired or used, but they were at least stored out of the way. My father's family had a tough ride through the Great Depression, and I always attributed his fear of waste to growing up during those hard times: "eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was one of his mother's favorite sayings. We were far from wealthy ourselves, so having "supplies" made a certain amount of sense.

In addition to the potentially useful and possibly fixable things, my father also kept jars full of screws and nails, string, partial cans of paint, and all sorts of useful miscellany, because it might have a purpose and save us a dollar or two someday.

That made a certain amount of sense, and often those things were quite useful to have around.

He was also worried about losing track of potentially important paperwork, so every receipt, utility bill and bank statement since he came home from World War Two were tidily bundled into neatly labeled boxes, large and small. As the information in the boxes became outdated, the boxes moved to the attic or garage, just in case of the highly unlikely event that someday he might be audited, or that someday the bank or a utility provider might need proof of a bill being paid fifteen years previously.

The big difference between my parents was that my Dad could actually find the scrap lumber and the jars of nails and screws, and he almost always put his hoarded objects out of sight. Perhaps we might need them one day, but they didn't need to be in the living room.

All in all, I'd say my Dad was responsible for only 15-20% of the "stuff" in our house.

My parents had a traditional 1950s American marriage. Dad did the "manly" things like home maintenance, yard work and car repair, and Mom did the "ladylike" tasks of managing the household, child care and the family social agenda. Mom was raised to be dependent on men to fix things, carry things, paint things, and so forth, and Dad was all too happy to change the fuses, fix the a leaky toilet valve, change light bulbs and mow the lawn. This would come back to haunt her after Dad died. Luckily, Dad taught me to do most of the practical "handyman" things around the house.

During their working years, they both worked hard at their jobs. They were good parents. My Dad was hardworking, practical-minded and goodnatured. My mother is a kind, generous and witty person, and she never left the house without being impeccably dressed. Nobody did. Our clothes were always clean and ironed. To look at us as a family, outside of our home, you would never guess that our house was a live-in storage unit.

I really don't remember our house being more than a little bit cluttered when I was a small child -- what most folks would consider "a little untidy." I remember that the kitchen and bathroom were always hospital-clean. As for the rest of the house, I remember that there would always be a hurried dash to dust the furniture, collect up newspapers, put away laundry, run the vacuum and mop the floors before company came over, but after a couple of flurried hours, the house always sparkled. Mom would get out the cocktail glasses and canape dishes, Dad would fire up the barbeque grill, and friends and family would stop by. We had company a couple of times a month back in the Sixties.

My mother is extremely sentimental. I remember that in those days, she had hatboxes, shoeboxes and Grandpa's old cigar boxes stacked in the closets and cabinets -- boxes full of her "mementos." The boxes were still in the closets then.

My mother has a sentimental attachment to almost everything. But back then, "mementos" mostly included things that made a certain amount of sense, like high school yearbooks, photos of family and friends, memorable concert programs, letters from her brothers at sea during World War Two, and postcards sent by friends and family on vacation.

My grandfather died, and, several years later, when Grandma became ill, we partially moved into her house to help care for her in those last months. After she died, my mother inherited the house, because her older brothers and sisters were all well-established in homes of their own. We moved from our rental duplex into Grandma's place.

I think that's when the hoarding began.

First, we added a normal houseful of "stuff" to what was left of Grandma's belongings after Mom's brothers and sisters laid claim to pieces of furniture and other household goods, which were equitably distributed in the weeks after the funeral. And after the various furniture, china and dishes were sorted out, Grandma's other "stuff" went into boxes so we could move into the house. Grandma, having also survived the Depression, had packratted a lot of potentially useful fabric, buttons, Mason jars and all sorts of oddments, to keep them from going to waste, but her house was always neat. Her "stuff" was in the closets, attic and cupboards.

Boxing up Grandma's things was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, and I clearly remember my Dad telling me in later years that, some months after we had moved in, and were still clambering around the boxes, he offered to help sort out Grandma's clothes and such for donation to charity. But my mother just burst into tears and said, "I just can't do that right now." And the tears resumed every time the subject was raised. So the boxes stayed.

My mother was extremely close to her mother. Out of her whole family, my mother was the only one who stayed home until the very day she got married. Mom and Grandma did almost everything together. Mom and one of her sisters were the only ones of her siblings giving regular care to my grandmother during her illness, and Mom certainly was the one who seemed the most devastated when Grandma passed away.

The "stuff" began to accumulate in earnest a few years after Grandma's death. Mom became increasingly unable to throw things away, and the reasons for keeping things made less and less sense:

"Mom, why don't you throw this old magazine away?"
"That was my mother's."
"But it's just an old magazine."
"There's a recipe in there I want."
"Why don't you cut it out and put it in the recipe box?"
"It's full."


"Why are you keeping junk mail from all these church groups asking for donations?"
"I can't throw that away. It has prayer leaflets in it. You can't throw prayers in the trash."

It became harder and harder to navigate around our house, but the kitchen and bathroom remained spotless. My Mom would regularly mop and vacuum the navigable spaces in our house, and scrub the toilet, sink and bathtub, all the while ignoring the heaps of randomized stuff piled everywhere else around her.

I stopped inviting friends inside and spent most of my summer either outdoors, prowling the neighborhood and riding along the levees on bicycles with my friends, or holed up in the library near our house. When the weather was bad, I stayed home in my room. While it was partially occupied by a large wardrobe and a large trunk packed full of my grandmother's things, the rest of it belonged to me, and I kept it tidy. I liked the clear, open surface of my desk, my uncluttered nightstand, and my tidy little bookcase. I liked that the floor of my closet was clear except for shoes, and that the items on the top shelf were in good order. Grandma's packed-full trunk sat at the foot of my bed, and I used the lid as a surface to accommodate my school knapsack and a few stuffed animals.

My room was neat, but I was afraid to invite friends in because it was necessary to go through the rest of the house in order to get to my room.

I always went to my friends' houses. They never came to mine. Nobody ever asked me why.

Back then, society didn't have a word for "hoarding." Messy people were just considered to be terrible housekeepers and were whispered about behind their backs. If it happened at your house, you just didn't talk about it. You spent your playtime outside, on your bike.

There were other kids who didn't invite people over. Nobody ever asked them why, either. Maybe some of their parents were also hoarders. Or maybe they were alcoholics. Nobody talked about it, and back then, nobody consciously realized that keeping the secret was part of growing up in an alcoholic's or a hoarder's household. You just didn't talk about it.

One good thing about being a kid was that you didn't have to talk about your parents' lives. You could stay outside indefinitely, riding your bike and playing with the neighborhood kids. There were no "play dates." That hadn't been invented yet. Kids chose their own friends, and after school we played board games on each other's front porches, hung out at the candy store reading comic books, or roamed the neighborhood or park looking for a pick-up ball game or other things to do. You went home when the streetlights came on.

High school was harder. Dating was difficult. I could usually spend a few hours shoveling out the living room to get just that room presentable enough to invite someone in, but Mom wouldn't let me throw anything away. I had to put the things in boxes, and put the boxes in other rooms.

I always hoped like hell my date didn't need to go to the bathroom, and dreaded the idea of them navigating their way through the rest of the house to do so.

Within a few days, everything I'd removed from the living room always migrated back in.

I moved into the dorm to go to college, spending a weekend at home about once a month. By the time I returned home after freshman year for my summer job, more than half of my room was occupied by boxes and shopping bags full of Mom's "stuff."

I remember only partially unpacking when I returned from college that summer, because I suddenly had half a closet and less than half of a room to call my own. During that summer, I left most of my clothes and belongings in a suitcase, a trunk and a few boxes, and just took out what I needed most: clothes to wear to work, toiletries, a few books, and casual clothes for hanging out with friends when I had spare time.

My room had seemed a little cluttered over periodic visits and Christmas break, and at that time I'd hoped that Mom was simply shuffling things around -- perhaps she was finally getting around to sorting out Grandma's things. But as I settled in that summer, I realized that was not what had happened. Instead, my mother had simply colonized the empty space I had left behind.

That was the last summer I spent at home. I got a student apartment near the university after my second year of college. From then on, when I visited my family, I rarely spent the night, unless someone was ill or it was near a holiday. Because I lived about two hours' driving distance away, I was available for emergencies and didn't have to spend the night unless it was truly necessary.

My father's health began to fail when I was in my twenties. And as Dad's health began to deteriorate, so did the state of home maintenance. It was embarrassing for Mom to invite repairmen in, so I did what maintenance and repair that I could manage myself. I'm fairly handy at most things, but major repairs that require an extra pair of hands (or a professional license) were postponed.

During those years, the hoarding became worse. I'l talk about that in my next post.


Welcome to "Behind the Door." If you're here, you are probably the adult child of a hoarder or you are currently trying to help a loved one who hoards. Or maybe you hoard. Whatever your reason for being here, please know that this is a safe place to post your comments and concerns, express your frustrations, congratulate yourself on a small victory, or just drop by and chat.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with this blog. At first, I thought it would be a good idea to keep a journal to keep track of my progress as I wrangle with the emotional rollercoaster of helping my elderly mother manage her "stuff." Then I remembered that, in spite of the outpouring of emotions and tangled prose that went into my high school and college journals, I hardly ever revisited those little volumes ... so perhaps keeping a journal just for myself woudn't be all that helpful.

But I have kept a few other leisure and professional blogs over the years, and it has dawned on me that having feedback from other people with the same interests (or the same problem) is tremendously helpful.

So instead of a journal, I chose to blog about my personal experience with hoarding, and I also plan to post helpful links and tips I find along the way.

I call this blog "Behind the Door" because that's how so many of us grew up: behind closed doors and drawn curtains, ashamed and humiliated at the conditions our families chose to live in.

Many of us are still "behind the door" because we do not wish to publicly identify a hoarding loved one, either because our loved one is in denial of their condition or because we do not wish to embarrass them. Those of us who are still "behind the door" are most in need of a safe place to tell our stories and make comments without fear of our loved one discovering their story being told in public. Many of us live lives of quiet anonymity on this subject. A lucky few may be able to discuss it with a sympathetic spouse or friend who understands that hoarding is a disease and that a ruthless one-time housecleaning won't stop the problem.

A dear friend who has been involved in Adult Children of Alcoholics for many years doesn't know this yet, but she gave me the idea to make this a place where people can comment anonymously if they wish.

Feel free to join me here. I hope my small effort is helpful to you in some way.