Here's the scene: I was at a small party a week or two ago, and everyone was having a great time. Awesome food, a glass of wine or two, in a lovely, lovely home. People were laughing, telling jokes, sharing stories, and maybe even exchanging a little gossip here and there. A perfect Sunday afternoon.
I was having a nice chat with several of my fellow party goers. A couple of other people were engaged in conversation just a few feet away. Without warning, someone in that other conversation - a smart, beautiful, charming woman who had recently published a book - jumped into our conversation. She asked me, with a big smile and loudly enough for all to hear,
"Hey, Joe! You had fleas when you were a kid, right?"
...including me! This was not a horrifying moment of humiliation, but a moment of friendship and bonding. In fact, amidst the laughter, I enthusiastically replied, "That's right! You guys had fleas, too?"
You see, this wasn't just any old party. Everyone there was a child of a hoarder. Every one of them understood.
Rather than being something straight out of a childhood nightmare of exposure and ridicule, this was a moment of shared experience, a moment where survival in the face of abuse and neglect was something to be celebrated.
Instead of feeling like a freak, I knew that I was surrounded by people who had endured the kind of experiences that I had endured as the child of a severe hoarder. Even though these experiences at various times threatened me and others in the room with destruction, somehow, we were all standing there: people who were enjoying themselves, people who were worthy of love, people who had accomplished much in life, people who went on to build happy homes with their spouses and their children, people with interesting and exciting careers...people who, despite some deep, invisible scars, were normal. Maybe even superlative. Maybe that means that I can be okay, too.
If you are a child of a hoarder (COH), I encourage you to connect with other children of hoarders, either online or in person. A great way to get started is to visit the Children of Hoarders website, its Yahoo Group, or its Facebook page. Over the last couple of years, several members of the online community have started meeting face-to-face with other COH, and many have said that meeting other COH in person can be an overwhelmingly positive experience. I agree. It's hard to describe what it feels like to realize that, without knowing it, you've dropped a lifetime of defense mechanisms and are enjoying yourself without worry or reservation. It is remarkable to see other COH also shed the burdens that they have been carrying for so long, even if it's only for a little while.
Before I wrap up this post, however, there was one question at the party that was a little bit awkward for me to answer. The conversation had turned to our parents' choices of professions. While no formal studies have been carried out to substantiate their observation, members of the COH online community have long suspected that an unusually high percentage of parents who hoard work in the helping professions, particularly nursing. Unsurprisingly, several of the party goers remarked that they had a hoarder parent who was a nurse. When I was asked about my mother's profession, I said, "Housewife," since that is what she would have said herself. However, "Housewife" didn't really sound right, for any number of reasons, so then I started to say, "Homemaker." That was even worse. Frankly, our house was anything but a home. Mom probably was more of a "homewrecker," and I felt like most of the people in the room knew enough of my story to realize it. Awkward. Indeed, the only awkward moment of the afternoon. (I emphasize the awkwardness was entirely from me examining how my mom defined herself. My friends could not have been more supportive.)
Strange, isn't it? At a regular, non-COH party, I would have had the exact opposite reactions to the question about the fleas and the question about mom's profession. I would have answered, "Housewife," without a concern or a second thought. On the other hand, I would have been mortified if I had been asked about fleas. Eventually, I'm sure that I will be confident enough to answer either question in the same way, forthrightly, under any circumstance. Not yet, but someday. Someday soon. The work continues.
PS. For those of you who haven't guessed, the "smart, beautiful, charming woman who had recently published a book" is none other than Barbara Allen, author of Nice Children Stolen From Car, available in paperback or Kindle format at Amazon. For a quick preview of her excellent writing, check out an excerpt from her book over on her blog. Yes, the excerpt is about fleas.