Deeper Cleaning: How I Came to Accept My Mother’s Hoarding Disorder

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Deeper Cleaning: How I Came to Accept My Mother’s Hoarding Disorder

By Brian Michael Riley 07/12/18

About 50% of all hoarders have blocked access to their fridge, bathtub, toilet and sinks. 78% have houses littered with what could be deemed garbage. My chances of finding a spot to sleep were next to nil.

Image: 
Older mother sits with adult son on couch. They look like they're mid-argument.
What went wrong? How could Mom go back to hoarding after such encouraging progress?

For the second time in my life I was saying goodbye to my mother and moving to California, and this could have been a very sentimental moment if it we hadn’t found it so damn funny. With all of my worldly possessions packed up into two great Jenga towers of luggage, Mom and I were doing our best to control the fits of laughter while maneuvering these teetering carts of death toward the terminal. It was the irony that had finally gotten to us. There we were—wrestling with this stuff that could at any second escape our control and come toppling down on top of us—when for the past two months we had been living through a very similar scenario; but one that had been nowhere near as funny.

And one where my mother’s life had been quite seriously at risk.

My mom suffers from a clinical hoarding disorder. According to a recent survey by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), about 5% of our entire planet’s population struggles with this condition typically characterized by the cluttering of a home with personal possessions to an often debilitating degree. A type of anxiety disorder, hoarding is still working its way into the medical books, but thanks to a steady stream of reality TV shows featuring the worst case scenarios of the condition, social awareness of hoarding has reached an all-time high.

These were the shows that I YouTubed as I tried to better gauge the house that I had walked in on during a surprise visit to Mom’s. Compared to the episodes I watched, my mother and her hoard weren’t ready for primetime just yet—though at the rate she was going, next season was quickly becoming a strong possibility.

Mom had turned her two bedroom, single level ranch style house of around 1,400 square feet into a storage unit, filling it up with everything from groceries on clearance to thrift store finds too good to let go. As toys, crafts, books, tools, plants, snacks, clothes, shoes, bags and boxes slowly rose to the ceiling, my mother’s home began to look like the bottom of an hourglass, only the sand was her stuff—and once filled up there’d be no easy reset.

Once her cover was blown, so to speak, she felt the time had come to not only admit she had a serious problem but to finally accept some help dealing with it. And as fate would have it, Mom’s epiphany just happened to coincide with a major shift in my own life. After 15 years of working through my own addiction (drugs and alcohol) I was moving back to California, clean and sober. But, since there was a two-month gap between the lapse of my lease and the end of my teaching year, I just happened to need a place to live.

So we came up with a plan.

I would spend those final two months living at Mom’s house, helping her get the clutter under control. At the same time, we would go scouting for some professional help, agreeing that therapy to address the hoarding was in Mom’s best interest. We had a plan: by the time I left Connecticut, Mom would have regained a sturdy foothold on the road to recovery and I could move away, assured that I had done my part in helping.

And it worked, too. Until it didn’t.

In that previously mentioned survey by NAMI, about 50% of all hoarders have blocked access to their fridge, bathtub, toilet and sinks. 78% have houses littered with what could be deemed garbage. My chances of finding a spot to sleep were next to nil, though the toilet wasn’t too tough to get to. A garage sale seemed like the perfect solution for opening up some much needed space. Plus, instead of just throwing things out (and to be fair, a lot of Mom’s stuff did have some value) this would give my mother and me an opportunity to really start working together as a team, as opposed to simply strangling one another—which started to have its own appeal once we realized what we were up against.

Hoarding is a disease based very much on feelings. Boston University Dean and Professor Gail Steketee LCSW, MSW, PhD, who has been studying the condition since the mid-1990’s concluded that “Hoarding may induce feelings of safety and security and may reinforce identity.”

In other words, Mom’s things helped her feel safe.

Her stuff was in many ways who she was.

So emotions began to run high as we debated on what in the house could be sold. At first we were able to work for just a few hours before Mom had to quit, visibly shaken, promising better endurance for the next attempt. Sometimes a span of days would pass where no progress was made at all. Because my mother had the final say on every item’s fate, during these times of indecision there was little more for me to do than just sort through the piles. This part of the process was most challenging for me.

Finding myself truly face to face with my mother’s disorder, I often spiraled into great bouts of anger and deep depression. Getting lost in the work for hours, I would start dissecting a section of the hoard, piece by frustrating piece, trying to make sense of it. It was during these times that I began to realize my mother was in the grips of a very serious and complex mental illness.

Hoarding has been listed as a symptom of OCD for years. As defined by the Mayo Clinic, people who have obsessive compulsive disorder experience unwanted thoughts that incline them to perform an action repetitively—usually outside of their control—in hopes of alleviating stress, when in actuality the behavior is only compounding the discomfort.

Did this explain the bags upon bags of clearance items and price-reduced canned goods? The gathered pile of expired and stale holiday candy? The drawers of zip ties, rubber bands and Tupperware lids. That infuriating metropolis of 7 Eleven cups always collapsing off the microwave. The balls of yarn, rolls of fabric, reams of paper, baskets of shoes. Bed sheets, power cords, energy drinks, sun catchers. Nesting shelves, cleaning fluids, shampoos and conditioners. Paper plates, napkins, condiments—bags of them. If I was disturbed while sorting them, I had to imagine what it must’ve felt like to always need more of them.

But what I really needed was to seek out that professional help Mom had agreed to from the beginning. In addition to the increasingly alarming nature of the collected stuff, according to a report by Compulsive-Hoarding.com, “A hoarder's problem will not be solved by someone else throwing away or organizing their possessions.”

Another invaluable online resource, HoardingCleanup.Com, offered an impressive roster of psychiatrists and psychologists dealing specifically with the disorder. Fortunately, we found a local doctor with whom Mom felt comfortable with right off the bat.

Then, suddenly, positive results were coming in from every front.

Once the garage sales got started, they quickly gained momentum and we were setting up the driveway with Mom’s wares every Friday through Sunday. So by the time my departure date rolled around we had become old pros—and one hell of a team. There was nothing at the airport but sincere gratitude and a shared sense of accomplishment. We had done it! We’d beaten the monkey off of Mom’s back, shoved it in a box and sold it in front of the house for a dollar.

No, fifty cents!

Seventy-five!

Okay, seventy-five, sold!

Over the following months, as I worked on getting my own home together, I would check in with Mom to see how things were coming along. She continued with the garage sales until the weather no longer agreed. The therapy continued unabated. Her psychiatrist was big on baby steps, discouraging Mom from taking on too much at once. Instead, the piles were shrinking through consistency and perseverance, my mother showing him photos from week to week. Also, my father was visiting the house regularly so he was able to give me a report every now and again. 

According to an article in Psychology Today, “willful ignorance” occurs when a person knows the truth, or at least fears it, but chooses to ignore it altogether. Turning a blind eye was an especially easy behavior for me to indulge in from 3,000 miles away, so I was flabbergasted when one night my father called and told me that Mom’s house had reverted to its previous state of congested disarray and that her hoarding was back with a vengeance.

What an awful moment of deja vu. Were we really right back to where we had started, just like that?

Though my 12-step meetings and sponsor helped calmed me down with some much needed perspective, for the first time in recovery I found myself resenting the solution that was being offered—which was, as always, acceptance. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” blah blah blah.

No.

I refused to accept it. I would not sit idly by while my mother sat on the one spot she had left on her sofa, watching a TV she had to crane her neck around piles of junk to see—the same piles that were slowly but surely burying her alive. Somebody had to take charge of this mess. Who was responsible? I blamed her, her doctor, my father, myself. I blamed thrift stores, dollar stores, America, God.

What went wrong? How could Mom go back to hoarding after such encouraging progress? This had been the strongest attempt at complete recovery from her disorder so far.

There was a night I called Mom up ranting and raving, horrendously demanding to know exactly what was the problem—and her timid response to me, plain and simple was:

“It’s hard.”

That was a mouthful. And it’s actually the one thing all the research and professionals in the field agree on. Recovery from hoarding is incredibly difficult. The statistics tell us it’s downright unlikely. A study conducted by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on patients with various forms of OCD, including hoarding, found that after five years only 9.5% of hoarders achieved and maintained full recovery from their condition.

But then this begs the bigger issue—and it’s where my eyes opened.

When we’re looking at recovery from hoarding, are we also looking at recovery from OCD? This experience showed me that my mother isn’t just struggling against shopping and filling her house up with stuff—but she’s battling an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unlike my substance abuse where complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol is the solution (though of course there’s lots more to it), my mother is dealing with a behavioral disorder. And when it comes to long lasting recovery, therapy continues to be the key.

Compulsive-Hoarding.com told me that if a hoarder’s space is just cleaned out, “The clinical compulsive hoarder will simply re-hoard even faster and fill up their home again, often within a few months.” However, that NAMI survey showed that as much as 70% of hoarders responded positively to cognitive therapy.

So Mom is on the right track.

It’s just that the odds are not in her favor.

But so far she’s beaten a lot of those odds, hasn’t she? My mother’s already admitted to having a problem when NAMI reports that only about 15% of all hoarders do so. And she’s in therapy where her recovery has the highest likelihood of success. How many attempts will it take before Mom finds long term recovery? Nobody knows.

All I know is that recovery from hoarding seems to be an inside job and that’s the stuff that really needs to be worked through. Once I accepted that about my mother and her hoarding condition I knew the best thing to do was leave that work to her.

Find info about hoarding here:

https://namimass.org/hoarding-and-ocd-stats-characteristics-causes-treatment-and-resources

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Brian Michael Riley is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction whose work has most recently appeared in the likes of Every Day Fiction, Page & Spine, Gay Flash Fiction and Deadman's Tome. Also an illustrator, cartoonist, director, and educator, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his girlfriend and their many, many pets.

A grateful recovering addict and alcoholic, Brian considers his articles with The Fix to be part of his Step 12 work, conveying a message of hope to his fellows in recovery as well as those that support them. You can connect with Brian at www.brianmriley.com and find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest

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