‘Watching Oprah, topic of hoarders came on. I thought, ‘Oh wow. This is my mom. This is an actual mental illness.’: Woman shares journey with family of hoarders

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“Some people are drawn to minimalism because they saw a documentary about the benefits of living with less. Some are drawn to minimalism because they’ve never known any other way of living. But for adult children of hoarders like me, we’re drawn to minimalism because any other way of living causes intense anxiety, and even seeing a tiny corner of clutter brings us right back into the living environment we endured as children.

My mother is a hoarder. And I don’t mean that in the way society tends to joke about hoarding. She’s not just a ‘hoarder’ who owns twenty pairs of shoes. She has a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, something that is usually brought about by heredity or an unhealed trauma in a person’s past. In my mother’s case, her hoarding is caused by both. My grandmother is also a hoarder. A Depression-era woman whose motto was always ‘Waste not, want not,’ my grandmother instilled the belief in my mother that there was value in keeping things for someday. There was value in taking other people’s discarded items left out for the garbage. There was value in putting things away for later because you wouldn’t want to regret throwing something away. Among other things, my grandmother raised her two kids to be unhappy individuals in general, which led to my uncle running away from the family and never being heard from in forty years. I believe this is the trauma that caused my mother’s hoarding—it was like a death in the family except nobody died— along with all the other cynical ideas my grandmother instilled in my mother’s head about people and life and the world in general. My grandmother is an intensely critical, negative, pessimistic human being, and my mother decided to stay enmeshed with her by moving into a house across the street from her childhood home.

cluttered basement
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf

The proximity to my grandmother perpetuated my mother’s hoarding throughout my childhood. One day, I looked up to see my grandmother opening our gate, placing a floor lamp I recognized as our neighbor’s garbage next to our garage door and walking back to her house. She would do this regularly and it always baffled me—if you want other people’s lamps that ‘are good lamps and can be fixed someday,’ why not keep them over at your house? Why present them to your daughter so she can keep other people’s garbage in her already garbage-filled house? Among the most memorable items bestowed from hoarder to hoarder, a five-foot fake tree from someone’s garbage down the block. ‘That’s a nice tree for you.’ An actual barrel of clothing that belonged to my grandmother’s neighbor who had passed away decades ago, because who doesn’t need someone’s barrel of clothes? All of her estranged son’s hunting gear that’s been in my mother’s garage for decades. ‘We don’t have room in ours.’ And a big polar bear that someone was throwing away because there was an obvious spill on it. This polar bear got cleaned up somehow and presented to me as a gift.

Life as a daughter and granddaughter of hoarders has been exhausting, depressing, isolating, angering, and hopeless. Living amongst towering stacks of newspapers, magazines, containers, boxes, trinkets, old lamps, old rugs, old dishes, and just inexplicable crap, was seriously frustrating. Everything was a struggle. Mom could never find anything, so I would jump in and try to fix the situation for her. Not being able to let my eyes rest anywhere in my childhood home and see space, order, or peace, was a constant source of underlying anxiety. All of this happened without awareness—in my mind, we were a happy little family, and mom just had a lot of stuff. I had anxiety attacks before I knew what they were, and I wasn’t even aware hoarding was a thing until I was a teenager. I remember watching an episode of Oprah with my mom and the topic happened to be hoarders. To myself, I thought, ‘Oh wow. This is my mom. There’s a name for this. This is an actual mental illness.’ But there was no recognition for my mother. She had always believed she was not a hoarder, or not as bad as the hoarders you see on TV—that she simply needed time to organize her things, and she just never had time. Her denial only perpetuated her hoarding and her anger towards my dad and me when we tried to help her throw some things away. We just wanted her to see how peaceful life could be without the emotional weight of all her hoarded belongings suffocating her.

cluttered room
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf

One of the worst things that happens to children of hoarders is their personal space gets swallowed up in the mountains of clutter, and that eventually leads to feeling like they’re just another one of their hoarding parent’s belongings. As a child, I didn’t have a room or a bed of my own for very long. My mother’s stacks of books, newspapers, recipes, bags of clothes, old furniture, and random items started to slowly take over my bedroom until it was completely swallowed up. Soon it was impossible to even step one foot in my room because every square inch was packed to the ceiling. It was for this reason that I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag, on a leaking air mattress with her, on a recliner, on a loveseat where I couldn’t stretch out, but mostly on the couch. I had nowhere to call my own growing up. There was stuff everywhere and nowhere to just be myself and breathe. My grandfather built me a beautiful playhouse when I was 8 years old. It was lovely and it had flower boxes and I did homework out there. It was a perfect space for a little girl to enjoy. And I enjoyed it for all of a few years before my mother’s stuff once again took over. When a hoarder commandeers space, it’s never presented as a violation. It’s always an opportunity to help them out. You feel like you’re doing the right thing because Mommy needs space because Mommy’s run out of space in her house, and Mommy needs to store more stuff in your playhouse. You almost welcome it, because maybe this means Mommy will be happy now. Currently, there are two trampolines, that fake tree I mentioned earlier, about 30 grocery bags of newspapers, an old plastic pool, and a three-seat wooden school desk that, once again, someone down the block was throwing out and my mother kept it because it seemed like an antique.

In addition to not having any space to myself, the intense anxiety I lived with and continue to struggle with, and the hazards of living above a black-mold infested basement, the biggest impact hoarding has had on me is the fact that I attached my self-worth to my ability or inability to fix my mother and her house. This has been by far the most damaging thing to come from my life as the daughter of a hoarder. I was parentified as a child, made to believe I was responsible for my mother’s emotional needs. As a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to see her finally happy. I would attempt to help her clear out rooms. I would spend 11 hours with her cleaning the garage. I would draw a picture of red flames and place it on the kitchen table after helping her clean it off—I’d say the table is fire now, so any papers or things you put on it will get burned up. Strategies like that didn’t work of course, and what’s worse is that any attempt at helping her always resulted in getting blamed. My dad and I once cleared out a bigger pathway down the basement when we needed to have our washer and dryer replaced—meaning someone had to come down the basement. Meaning my dad would be the one to bring that someone down there because my mom never could face the embarrassment of anyone else seeing a basement that is packed from floor to ceiling except for the two-foot pathway from the base of the stairs to the laundry area. We worked all night long. My mother did not help us. A hoarder’s basement is like quicksand—you move one thing and 60 more things immediately cover up the space you just created.

cluttered basement
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf

My dad and I were emotionally exhausted. We have stood by her all these years, hoping that we’re supporting her more than enabling her, and walking on eggshells, and trying to save her from her house. Living amongst the physical manifestation of her mental illness has taken such a toll on our own mental and emotional and physical health. My dad has had a chronic cough for years and once he had a 10-month sinus infection that doctors couldn’t understand, as two rounds of antibiotics did nothing for him. I suffered from chronic bacterial and fungal ear infections as a teen and young adult. There’s no doubt that the massive black mold growing up the walls in our basement caused these ailments. Even with our mental and physical health being affected by her hoarding, it wasn’t a catalyst for her to change her ways. Nothing seemed to wake her up. We are not professionals—we only do what we think is right when we try to help her dig herself out of this mess. And every single attempt at helping her throughout the years has been thwarted by her resentfulness towards us for wanting to throw everything out and live a normal life in a normal house. She’ll respond with, ‘I can’t find anything since you guys moved it all. You just want to take all my stuff and burn it. Well throw me out too, why don’t you.’

Hoarding is, at its core about control, even though the hoarder’s environment looks completely out of control. Being the daughter of a hoarder meant being isolated because no one could ever come over. No sleepovers, no dinners with friends, no movie nights. So as I struggled to keep friendships or even have them at all, my mother got resentful of that too. I had become one of her possessions. You can imagine what happened when I started dating. She felt she was losing control over me. She felt abandoned. She treated me horrendously because I was dating—as an adult—and she used her powers of guilt and manipulation to make me feel like I was betraying our mother-daughter relationship. We’d fight until two in the morning at times. It always ended with me crying on the bathroom floor again. Our enmeshed, codependent mother-daughter relationship meant she had complete control over me, and I felt just as trapped in our dysfunctional relationship as I did growing up in her suffocating house. I knew the answer was to move out and yet I couldn’t do it. My independence came secondary to appeasing her. It’s as if I told myself I couldn’t move forward with my own life until my mother’s hoarding was under control and she was finally happy. I needed her to be well, and her house to be a home before I felt I had permission to go out and live my life.

Last summer, I found myself with more free time due to the pandemic, so I spent all my time and energy helping my mother throw away some newspapers—an entire pick-up truck full to be exact. Of course, she had to throw some blame my way—’now that you finally have time to get something done…’—just perpetuating this idea that this project is mine, that the state of the house was always my fault and the reason it wasn’t getting cleaned out was my responsibility. Nonetheless, it was amazing. We were actually working together with very few breakdowns and getting something accomplished. Moldy newspapers and magazines dating back to the ’80s, unopened mail that was caught up in the stacks—she was actually agreeing that this stuff had no business taking up space in her house.

As much as I was thrilled to be getting something done with her—after all this project getting off the ground was what I’d wanted my whole life—I started drinking. I was never a big fan of alcohol. I never drank underage, I was always too busy with my pre-pandemic schedule to have time to enjoy alcohol. But there was something about the enormity of this project, the overwhelming realization that even with all this work being done we were still miles and miles from being ‘done,’ that made me reach for alcohol as the only thing that could make this project happen. I would bring manageable little stacks of newspapers out to the deck so we could work in the fresh air and she wouldn’t get overwhelmed. Did we have to tear out her name and address from each magazine and catalog from 1996? Absolutely. But that was a price I was willing to pay because we were actually getting something done! So with each trip down the precarious box-lined stairwell to wrangle up another armful of magazines, I would reward myself with a refill of wine. It became my incentive for tolerating the hopelessness of what we were doing. I knew for every stack we threw away, there were three plastic containers about to be brought right back down for ‘someday’ and for every dozen empty paper bags she allowed me to toss, there were a dozen more boxes she’d want to keep by the end of it. It seemed so futile. It was taking so much of our time—I was reminded of how much time was stolen from our family because of hoarding. We had to always move giant boxes of magazines if someone had to come in the house, we spent so many hours just trying to find some way to fix this, and we were in way over our heads. This house, like my mother, seemed unfixable.

cluttered garage
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf

So I turned to drinking as my coping mechanism. The more overwhelmed I became with the enormity of the project—and the fact that my grandmother’s hoarded house across the street would be our next project—the more enticing alcohol became. My mother didn’t like my sudden new habit, so of course, I hid bottles under magazines in the recycling bin so she wouldn’t know I was actually on my second bottle, not my second glass. The more I drank, the more I felt like we could maybe get through this massive cleaning project and she would be happy at last, and everything would be fine. I couldn’t begin working on it without promising myself I’d be drunk by the end of the day. Even just looking at the piles and avalanches of stuff in my mother’s moldy basement seemed less horrifying after I was happily into my fourth glass, so cleaning became synonymous with drinking. I would fill a tumbler with ice and just keep pouring myself drinks through the afternoons, feeling like the more I numbed myself the less traumatizing this project would be. Part of my drinking problem stemmed from the fear that since both my grandmother and mother are hoarders, there’s a chance this generational curse doesn’t end with them and their two packed houses.

cluttered bedroom
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf

What if this is my future? My mother never planned on being a hoarder, what if I continue this hereditary nightmare? I already have a skin-picking disorder related to OCD known as dermatillomania. Is that just a gateway to becoming my mother? As I wrangled stacks and hauled boxes of newspapers, I drank more and more as my mind drifted to all the things that were sabotaged in my life because of my mother’s hoarding. Friendships. My relationship with my boyfriend that I kept a secret from her for four years when I saw how she was going to treat me for somehow betraying her. Having a bedroom. Sleeping on an actual bed, alone. Having a normal childhood. Having a decent mother-daughter relationship. Witnessing a decent marriage. It was so painful to look around at all the random piles of a lifetime worth of collected garbage and realize how long this had been going on, and all the emotional damage she had done to me and my dad—the two people who were willing to sacrifice our happiness just to help her dig herself out of this mess.

I’m still digging myself out from my mom’s hoarding, as the effects of growing up with a hoarder are long-lasting. She has always refused help, but I’m breaking that tradition by going to therapy and prioritizing my mental health. I’m facing my anxiety disorder, depression, skin-picking disorder, and the emotional effects of parentification and growing up in an enmeshed, co-dependent mother-daughter relationship. I’m trying to get sober. I’m trying to rewire my brain to see the truth—that it has never been my responsibility to fix my mother, and that the generational curse of hoarding stops with me. I believe all the mental health struggles I face today are caused by the trauma of growing up with two hoarders in my family, and yet I’m still trying tirelessly to help mom see that the benefits of owning just what you need and nothing else, outweigh the stress of letting things go. I’m still trying to help her make some serious progress on her house.

If I could give children of hoarders like me a piece of advice, it would be to prioritize your own mental health and your own goals and dreams in life. This is your life. Your hoarding parent’s mental illness has never been your fault, and it will never be your responsibility to save them from their house or from themselves, and as heartbreaking as it might be for you to consider untethering yourself from their house and their illness, remember that only they can decide they want to heal, and by letting go, you’re not giving up—you’re saving yourself. This is why I created Little Glass Shelf on Instagram. I want children of hoarders to know they’re not alone, provide encouragement, awareness, and support through sharing my experiences, and post quotes that inspire a minimalist lifestyle.

cluttered bedroom
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf
Little Glass Shelf is inspired by a trip I took with my mom ten years ago. We stayed in this cute little hotel room that had only a little glass shelf above the pedestal sink for storage. I remember telling my mother how fascinating it was that for our whole trip, that little glass shelf held absolutely everything we needed. She didn’t have access to the hundreds upon thousands of items she ‘needed’ at home, but she had just the right amount of things to be content.
I wanted her to realize that she could live like this always—it didn’t have to be just vacation mode. She could pick out the things she truly needed, wanted, and actually used, and discard the rest starting with her bathroom shelf, then her kitchen cabinets, then her living room, etc. If people applied the little glass shelf method to all the rooms in their cluttered houses, they could finally find simplicity, peace, and contentment in owning less.
That’s why my Instagram account is equal parts photos of my mother’s hoarding, and minimalist inspiration, tips for organizing, and quotes from people like The Minimalists and Joshua Becker. I want to raise awareness for the effects hoarding has especially on children of hoarders, as well as provide moral support for anyone affected by hoarding who needs to know they’re not alone.”
cluttered bedroom
Courtesy of Little Glass Shelf

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Little Glass Shelf from Chicago, Illinois. Follow her on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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