I've recently been trading some emails with a fellow who is the father of several kids and is the husband of a hoarder. Jim (not his real name) is looking for advice on how/whether to have an "intervention" to help the family. He also wants to understand what might happen if the intervention fails.
I've included an edited version of our conversation below. If you'd like to offer some advice to Jim, please do so in the comment section. Alternately, please send it to me via email, and I'll relay your advice to him.
"I'm in my 40s, married almost twenty years to a hoarder, and we have several pre-teen kids. I've only just begun to understand this disorder.
I've thought of joining the Children of Hoarders support group, but the site says it's only for the kids. The Friends of Hoarders group is mainly for folks who know some hoarder down the street, but not really for the people living with them. Sorry to dump on you, but I found your blog, and I'd love some help.
I've kept our house livable mainly because of the simple fact that I have a good job, so it is a big house. I'm starting to lose the battle, though. For most of our marriage the hoarding was less severe, but over the past year, it has been accelerating, and I can't keep up with the mess anymore. The closets are full, and so is the garage. I love my wife, but now her hoarding is starting to affect the kids. Or maybe it has affected them all along, and I haven't been paying attention to the right things.
How do you know when it's time to give up? If a good lawyer says I'd get custody of the kids, should I separate? I'd love some advice, or even a suggestion of where to go.
- I've managed to keep the downstairs of our house pretty decent...Not great, but livable. The upstairs, where the bedrooms are, is a no man's land, though. The beds are accessible, but you are basically walking on clothes for the rest. We rarely have guests, because we are embarrassed by the mess. I'm afraid that this is stunting the kids socially. Is that what others experienced, or did they manage to come through?
- My oldest kids (almost teenagers) are both struggling in school with things like finishing assignments and organization. I think it is related.
- I really do love my wife, and I'm sure that she loves the kids. I'm just not sure whether she loves us enough to give up the stuff.
- I'm working with my pastor, and we are planning an intervention. He has done several with alcoholics, but neither of us have done one with a hoarder. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Has anyone done this? How did it go? What lessons were learned?
- Lastly, if this all fails, and we get nowhere with the intervention, and we have to go to court, does anyone have any idea how likely my wife is to receive full custody of the children? There's no point in separating from her to protect the kiddos if they'll just be stuck with her without me around to buffer things a bit.
Sorry to get so personal with someone I've never met, but there it is... In a way it's safer, since I don't know your real name and you don't know mine."Here is some of what I wrote back to Jim:
"I wish that there were an easy answer. The best that I can come up with is the advice that I've given in the past to people in difficult family situations, whether hoarding was involved or not: a parent's first obligation is to his/her children.
In practical terms, your children need safe, clean places to eat, sleep, study, bathe, etc. Particularly as they get a little older, children also need space that they control; space that is free from someone else's clutter. If you and your spouse are unable to achieve that together, then I think that a separation can definitely make sense, even though it is likely to be painful.
From the things that people have posted in the Children of Hoarders group, and also from some of the recent research on children of hoarders, growing up in a hoarding environment can affect a child in ways that last well into adulthood. A lot of children of hoarders report serious issues with self-esteem, a feeling of being different (in a bad way) from everyone else, an inability to form close, healthy relationships with others, etc., and a lot of C.O.H. say that they were socially marginalized or bullied in school because of their living conditions.
While you are considering your options, I do suggest that you keep in mind that changing a hoarder's behavior often takes a long time. For an adult, that might not be a very big deal, but for a child, it can be an enormous problem. Kids quickly go through a lot of stages when they grow up, and going through those stages while feeling very insecure or socially isolated can be devastating. As adults, you and your spouse may not have changed a lot in the last five years, say, but think of the transitions that a kid makes between five and ten years of age, or between ten and fifteen, etc., and then think of the burden posed by passing through those transitions with a feeling that things are more important than themselves, that they need to hide the way they live, that they may be getting bullied, etc.
You might want to take a look at the Friends and Families of Hoarders and Clutterers group on Yahoo. It's not quite as active as the COH group, but it does seem like it might be a good fit. I'm a member there, and I know a few other COHs are, too.
There are also monthly online chats at ChildrenOfHoarders.com that you might want to check out. You can participate anonymously, and it could be a great opportunity to ask for advice.
No matter what, good luck and best wishes!"If anyone has any other advice to give to Jim, or if you think that my advice is not on target, please share your comments on this post below or feel free to send me an email. Thanks!
Update #1 (September 10, 2012): Before I posted this story on my blog, I outlined Jim's situation in general terms to the participants of the COH Chat held on Sunday, September 9, 2012. I've summarized the resulting comments from that chat session in another blog post, "Family Intervention Follow-Up."
Update #2 (January 13, 2013): Thanks to the anonymous family law attorney for the interesting comment below about steps to take in preparation for an intervention! I've elaborated on it a little bit in a new post.
Update #3 (January 13, 2013): Thank you, "Escaped the Hoard," for your very kind post about my site and for linking to this post!