Saturday, February 5, 2011

We all have hoarders in our families. One woman wrote about it

A friend of mine sent along a Web link to a review of "Dirty Secret," a book written by a woman whose mother is a hoarder. My friend knows that I have a sister who is a hoarder. My mother has those tendencies. So do I. What's the definition of a hoarder?
According to book author, Jessie Sholl,  "Hoarding was defined by two American doctors in 1996 as 'the acquisition of, and failure to discard, possessions that are useless or of limited value, resulting in clutter that renders living spaces unusable and causes significant distress and impairment'".
Yep. That would be it. I attribute my sister's condition to her manic need to accumulate and control as well as her compulsive attention to detail... magazines with recipes she'll clip some day, paper documents from five years ago, receipts, unopened mail. It all just piles up. She loves cats, which adds to the chaos.
In her book, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean about her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding, Sholl describes a house crammed to the point that she could not walk around inside. Dirty with unwashed dishes, food, cat boxes piled around.
A story comes to mind. After many years of helping my sister clean but getting a lot of resistance, she agreed to let me work on the kitchen, which pretty much matched the description in Sholl's mother's kitchen. Spoiling food, dirty dishes, clutter, garbage to the point that the kitchen was unusable. I filled a couple of big black trash bags with garbage. I got the dishes washed and finally could see the floor to wash it. It had been untouched for several years and was sticky and gritty from filth. My sister began going through the things I'd put in the trash bags and came across a little pink plastic cup. Something you'd throw away at a party. She went into a rage, shouting at me that "this was the last connection she had with our father from when he was in the hospital." God, I thought! I was told that I could not be trusted to clean in her house.
That was the last time I did. Like the book author, it was a relief to not care anymore. To go there knowing there could be an incident at any point over something inside my sister's house. The clutter described by Sholl is pathologic. It's crazy stuff except the person is living a rather normal life on the outside. The chaos is inside where most people don't see it. Maybe it has something to do with inner turmoil. I don't know. It's nearly impossible to help. An offer to clean is viewed as a threat. It was very hard for my sister to let me move anything, throw anything away.
I have no idea what's happened to her house now that she's living in another town with our mother. I know no one is living in it. A friend joked..."Maybe she put up a sign up that says, 'This house is full.'"
People magazine said "Sholl explores the psychological reasons why being merely a pack rat can erupt into full-blown hoarding." By the end you're sympathetic to both mother and daughter and understand how a parent's obsession can become a child's torment. I am sympathetic to my sister's condition. I do wonder what will happen to her and my mother. Mother's farm house now is headed in the same hoarder direction. Moving around inside is getting more difficult every time I visit.
Sholl's book  reveals that many families struggle with a hoarder.  Her memoir published by Simon and Schuster," writes reviewer Kira Cochrane, "is a window into a world that is, at once, strange and strangely familiar. Hoarding has been recognised in children as young as three – some of whom won't allow their used sticking plasters to be thrown away – and is thought to affect up to 2% of the population. And while it is often held at arm's length (hoarders dismissed as "crazy cat ladies", for instance) traces of such behaviour are common." Cochrane said that when she mentioned hoarding almost everyone "seems to have a story, from a friend whose uncle's house was too messy to enter to another whose grandmother kept everything, right down to a bulging bin bag labelled "pieces of string too short for practical use".
Signs in myself
Meanwhile, I look for signs of hoarding in myself....and I admit that I have tendencies. Most of the storage space in my house if full. I have to work to not let my desk pile up, magazines pile up, books pile up, old clothes linger too long in my closet and to let shoes (they are the hardest to get rid of) stay around after the heels are worn off. The garage is worse with bags of seed, garden things jamming up every corner.
Why am I telling you all this? Because hoarding is scary. The hoarder is not really coping but no one can do anything about it. They need support of their families but that's hard to do when they push you away and seem oblivious to the way they are not coping.  Powell's Books in Portland is selling "Dirty Secret" for $10. Amazon.com has it  for $9.10.

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