Family Rooms: Hoarding, Addiction, and Love

By Brian Michael Riley 02/20/18

There’s no denying the healing power of the latest in shiny merchandise. What better way to fill that emptiness inside than with an unbeatable bargain or full price indulgence?

A drawing of a house full and overflowing with stuff.

I was aghast and I remember thinking exactly that. This is that look. That expression when someone says their jaw dropped to the floor. Eyes popped out of their head. I was paralyzed. Not only was I trapped in my mother’s hallway in complete amazement, I was stuck there quite literally, confronted with a blockade of bags, boxes, and piles of her accumulated stuff. My only option was to go back the way I came in and face my mother. That would also mean facing the fact that her hoarding was dangerously, frighteningly out of control. In light of all the work we had done the problem was bigger than ever. Like the layers and mounds of chaotic clutter that pressed against me from every side, Mom’s illness had grown to suffocating proportions. My brain reeled to understand just how we had gotten to this point.

Fifteen years prior in California, my marriage had crumbled under the weight of my own disease and there was no choice but to return to Connecticut and move back in with my parents. I was an alcoholic according to the Dear John letter my wife left on the oven, but it would be some time until I humbly accepted that title in the rooms of recovery. My father was less than thrilled to have me and my booze moving back into the bedroom that he had refurbished as a den. Mom, however, couldn’t have opened her arms wider for her “baby boy.” The transition took some serious readjusting.

Not only did my childhood home feel much smaller than I remembered, the house actually seemed to be running out of space. Dad confirmed this again and again with bitter frustration. He was being buried alive by Mom’s “junk.” This was a bit of an exaggeration, though he did have to rearrange his recliner once or twice in order to fully see the television screen. At one point he built a shed out back and moved a bunch of Mom’s stuff into it, humiliated when a relative asked if we were prepping for a yard sale. The only time I recall seeing my father smile through all this was when he joked how our little family sure knew how to keep the “fun” in “dysfunction.” What he didn’t joke about, however, was the deteriorating condition of his marriage. He didn’t know how much more of Mom and her reckless collecting he could take.

Avoiding an examination of the source of my alcoholism at all costs, I would ruminate endlessly over my mother’s steadily intensifying habit. Had she always been a hoarder? There was a story my grandmother often told about how, when Mom was a little girl, relatives would move all of their knick knacks out of reach before visits. From my own childhood I remembered family and friends touring our house in wonder, lovingly razzing Mom about her overwhelming displays of trinkets and “tchotchkes.” Yes, she had always been a pack rat.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how this compulsion had really taken off after I left for college and then, ultimately, California. Even I had been stunned during visits home with my new wife and son, seeing the shelves, bookcases, and hutches through fresh eyes, embarrassed by the ever-thickening mass of Dollar Store decor.

Ah ha! It was suddenly obvious and painfully so. My mother had been suffering all these years from empty nest syndrome! After losing me, her only child, she went about filling that void with beloved possessions. What’s more, now that her marriage was troubled, the collecting had increased exponentially. It wasn’t really our cold and emptying home she was filling up but the ever-expanding hole in her heart. Yes, I had it all figured out (though it was tough to pat myself on the back while juggling a fifth of Jack Daniels and divorce papers hot off the press).

The more I ignored my own demons, the more unmanageable my life became and it killed my parents to watch my deterioration. So, for the next decade, my recovery took center stage. Mom learned the local AA meeting schedule and she spent countless nights selflessly carting me between every Dunkin Donuts and church basement within a 20 mile radius. This gave our family some much needed breathing room, especially Dad. Even though the focus was off our tightening quarters during this time, the fact remained that space was still running out. My addiction was the one being acknowledged, not Mom’s. It was during this period of duress that I was hit with perhaps the biggest, most sobering realization when it came to my mother and her purchasing habits: Ever since I could remember our favorite pastime together had always been shopping - and it still was.

There’s no denying the healing power of the latest in shiny merchandise. What better way to fill that emptiness inside than with an unbeatable bargain or full price indulgence? For every bottle of booze or can of beer I let go of, Mom and I would hunt down the perfect substitute. We were no strangers to this game. A mother at 16 with an emotionally inaccessible husband of 17, she took pride in being able to shower her baby boy with anything he wanted from the very beginning. Presents had always equaled love in our relationship and now was no exception. By the time I had one year of sobriety under my belt and was ready to move out on my own, I had no problem completely filling a studio apartment with all the goods I’d been gifted.

Then life itself became very full. Suddenly I was back in my son’s life. I was employable. Of course my parents were thrilled. With tremendous pride they lent their support in putting the pieces back together - and with ignorant bliss I assumed the worst was over.

Difficulties began appearing elsewhere in the family, though. My grandmother on my Dad’s side was in need of attention now. Nearly a century old, Kay had outlived her savings and could no longer afford a live-in nurse. As self-sacrificing as ever, Mom moved into Gram’s spare bedroom and took over as the full-time caregiver. In this roundabout sort of way Dad was finally getting his house back. Mom’s hoarding was no longer a problem. Or, to be exact, it was no longer his problem.

Not long after Mom moved into Gram’s house, the rooms started to transform. Tidy bookshelves and windowsills grew congested with plants and trinkets. The kitchen table went from seating four comfortably to two, that is if you were up to contending with the crafts, magazines and whatnots for space. Once my grandmother passed away, all semblance of her quaint and minimalistic home was lost. Between the sparse furnishings grew pyramids of shopping bags and unopened bargain buys, the furniture itself used as storage racks for clothes of every season. Living on her own for the first time in her life, my mother was free to live exactly as she wanted.

Thankfully I was able to relate - and hopefully I’d be able to help. Unlike Dad, whose fits of anger and disappointment only seemed to inspire even heavier bouts of hoarding from my mother, I took what I thought to be a more reasonable and compassionate route.

Back when Mom and I were frequenting those nightly recovery meetings, we came to really appreciate our Friday night routine together. So much so, in fact, that we kept going week after week to that same coffee shop and same musty church basement. In the spirit of recovery I slowly drew Mom’s hoarding addiction into the light. Never pushing, never harping, I was encouraged when she admitted to me that there was a problem and she wanted to do something about it. Though she never accepted my offers to help sort through the stuff, my mother assured me that she was taking care of it on her own. As a display of trust, I stopped visiting the house. We settled on updates now and again over dinner.

Eventually I went to my father with news of my progress. He had all but given up on the situation and he still sounded doubtful. Disheartened, I didn’t bring it up again until just recently.

About two months ago I was headed home on the interstate and realized that not only was I almost out of gas but I was starving after an all morning event. While I filled up the car, I called Mom to let her know I happened to be in the neighborhood and could I stop by for a quick sandwich? There was a brief pause—a delay in cell service, I assumed—but then yes, of course I could stop by.

As soon as I arrived at the house I needed to make a beeline for the bathroom, located just past the kitchen. I immediately noticed the usual shopping bag chaos around the pantry and fridge but quickly brushed it off as unpacked groceries on a Saturday afternoon. The pile of wares in the hallway outside the bathroom were more questionable, but not really. I knew that Mom had been making regular drop offs to nearby consignment shops and this stack was probably next to go. In the bathroom, I paused for a moment by the sink, splashed some water on my face. I took a few calming breaths. Staring at myself in the mirror I knew damn well what I was going to find when I left the bathroom.

That pile of stuff outside the door was just the first of many. The entire hallway was packed with stuff. Bags, boxes, and stacks of clothes left only a thin walking trail from room to room. The rooms themselves were unrecognizable. Gram’s former bedroom was like a storage unit after an eviction - completely stuffed with everything from winter boots to lawn decor, bedding sets to canned goods, children’s toys to cleaning supplies. In the reading den, a clothes rack had taken over, draped so high with additional coats that it would have toppled over if not for the towers of boxes beside it. I followed the narrow trail through more rooms, each one more shocking than the last. My mother’s illness had become an avalanche and I was trapped deep inside it.

I was paralyzed. A wave of confusion turned to one of rage, then sadness. How could I go back and face her? I couldn’t. All those months of heart to hearts, the check-ins over dinner, all of them lies. Mom hadn’t been working on anything but filling Gram’s house halfway to its ceiling with junk! Humoring me to keep me happy, to just keep me quiet, she allowed her hoarding to go completely unchecked. This in light of how cool I’d been about it. How loving and even-keeled. Well, that was the answer right there. No more mister nice guy. I would go crashing back down that hallway, explode into the kitchen and roar at my mother about how disappointed I was in her. I would confront this insanity head on, demanding she snap out of it, open her eyes and take a look at what she’s done to not just one, but two houses now! What she’s done to her marriage! How she’d lost Dad because of this disease. And what about ME?

Me, me, me.

And who was I?

I was a freshly sober alcoholic barely able to manage his own life, never mind someone else’s. A year in the rooms of recovery did not make me an expert on addictions. My biggest lesson to date was that I suffered from a disease rooted in selfishness and self-centeredness. I had spent my life as the spoiled only child of a woman who spent the entirety of her adult years (as well as half of her teenage ones) serving others with little to no regard for her own happiness. What I knew most of all was that I knew very, very little about anything - especially about the condition of hoarding. With shame I started back down the hallway.

Over the weeks to follow I would learn a great deal about my mother and her affliction. Perhaps some traumatic event was to blame for Mom’s hoarding. Maybe each and every item she collected was sentimental and vital, reminding her of better times long ago or even promising her greater happiness in the years to come. There could have been some weight to my empty nest theory or it might have been nonsense. It was no longer my responsibility to try and figure it out; it never was. My energy would be better spent in helping Mom find the proper resources to help herself, if that’s what she wanted - and she did seem to want that. Admitting she had a problem proved it. That step was taken long ago. The next step was up to her, to be taken in her own time.

As I came out of the hallway into the kitchen I lifted my eyes to see Mom busy at the counter, putting together what was sure to be the perfect sandwich for her baby boy. When she heard me come in, she froze except for her shoulders which lifted and lowered with a shaking nervous breath. Finally she turned to me, embarrassed and afraid. After clearing off two places at the kitchen table for us to sit, I asked how I could help.

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photo me.jpg

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 and find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest