Sunday, May 30, 2010

Advice to a Fifteen Year Old Child of a Hoarder

One of the members of the Yahoo Group for Adult Children of Hoarders just sent me an email with a comment on my previous post.

The comment had so much good advice that I think it deserves a post of its own. Here it is (posted with permission from the original author):
Advice to a Fifteen Year Old Child of a Hoarder

I could have very well written that post some 39 years ago when I was 15. Augh! How is that EVEN possible that much time has slipped away! I probably did write something like that in the form of a journal entry when I was 15. Although, at that time there was nobody to read it (or so I thought). At that age, I thought that NOBODY could have possibly understood.

It is so good that you are reaching out at this age to others, though! Life is so short and I SO wish I had been able to speak out earlier on in my life and started shedding light on a subject that kept me TRULY in the dark for far too long.

You are at a GREAT advantage of having the Internet to talk to such a wide group of people and to know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Seriously, I used to think I was a mutant – a secretive hoard dweller who lived a duel life. I was always the guardian of THE SECRET and, man, was that DRAINING! I mean, it’s hard enough to just BE a teenager and deal with all of the crap those years throw your way, let alone having to essentially BE the adult in your interactions with your mom. Sigh.. and there was always that nagging fear that, somehow genetically destined to become my mother. As much as I loved my mom, I truly did not want to BECOME her, you know?

I hear your “wise beyond your years” voice clearly in your message. I can tell that, although you are suffering, ashamed and frustrated beyond belief, you have a good head on your shoulders. As such, I feel that I can talk straight to you and not sugar coat the facts too much. Please, if you get NOTHING else from my words, please read, re-read and try to TRULY “get” this first morsel of hard-earned wisdom:

1. In life, the ONLY person you ever have any control over is yourself.

You can choose to let your mom’s condition define you and always live in the shadow of her mountain of crap or you can become the absolute happiest and healthiest person YOU can be in spite of it all... You cannot change your mom. You can’t. That is up to her and ONLY her. You have a bit longer to live there and I know that environment is pretty awful. There IS a wonderful, clutter-free life possible out there waiting for you.

2. Your mom isn’t doing this to make your life miserable.

Folks are still debating about the details of this, but I think we can all safely say that NOBODY (in their right mind, that is) would choose to live like this. She’s sick. I know it’s hard, but please remember that.

3. It sucks to be a child of a hoarder.

Life isn’t fair sometimes. It simply SUCKS to be a COH. You are the daughter. She is the mom. Yet, part of you has never truly gotten to be a kid for very long I suspect? You never get the benefit of being “taken care of” in every sense of the word. Life is full of such secrecy, shame and a whole bunch of other emotional landmines when you’re a COH. Later on, society is gonna tell you it’s your duty to take care of your mom. That sucks too! HOW can you take care of someone who doesn’t acknowledge there is even a problem? HOW can you clear their homes when they fill it up as quickly as you clean it up? HOW can you reason with someone who is NOT reasonable? HOW can you make sense of the senseless? Man, it just sucks — pure and NOT so simply! Sad chuckle. I guess that doesn’t make you feel better, but it SURE does feel good to say out loud that it sucks. Try it. Write it! Say it out to a friend. Move OUT of the shadows and put some light on that truth, hon.

4. You are MORE than a COH.

So, I’ve given you all of this “it sucks” stuff and you probably are well aware of that already. The good news, though, is that you TRULY have the possibility for a great life ahead of you. You can move beyond your childhood home. For now, it may only be in your mind. That’s what I did. I wrote and drew during those late teen years and got in touch with all of the emotions I was experiencing. I SO wish I had other folks to talk to at that time. I studied like hell, got a college degree and found a niche for myself beyond my childhood home. Now, people come to my home and say I should charge for the sanctuary they experience here. I mean, how COOL is that?! I am JUST NOW beginning to reach out to others via my writing, though, after SOOOOOOOOO many years of hiding. I can’t tell you how happy I get when someone says that something I have written brings them joy or a bit of “ah-ha”. That is BEYOND COOL.

Perhaps I’m delusional (a distinct possibility), but I do believe that fellow COH are some of the most articulate and truly smart people I have met. Many COH seem to truly “get” that it is the “small things in life” and the people that we love that bring the greatest joy. Things do NOT replace people. That is NO minor truth, you know? Yes, our empathy meters tend to run on the high side sometimes. However, when I look at how so many people bump about life like emotional zombies, I think that might not be such a bad thing…

Find your passion and grow it! Don’t hide in the shadows, afraid of what someone else will think. You are WORTHY of being seen, loved and appreciated.

5.True friends won’t judge you.

I know this whole secret seems like the HUGEST, darkest, ugliest thing in the world that you are keeping from friends. And, my journal from when I was a teenager reminds me that at your age, EVERYTHING seems (and IS) intense. Trust me, EVERYONE has secrets. Everyone has a family member (or in my case, the whole tree) who is a tad nuts. If someone is a true friend, they won’t judge you. Oh, they MAY roll their eyes and they might keep their distance (at first as their brains try to wrap around the idea), but true friends won’t dump you because your mom is a hoarder. More people are getting familiar with the concept of hoarding, in great part to the whole current trend of reality tv. It’s not like she collects body parts in her freezer, right? She doesn’t have small children caged in your basement?

That’s NOT to diminish what you are going through, though. No, not at all. It IS a bad situation – without a doubt. But you do have to keep it all into perspective. I know that’s hard. There ARE worse things than being a hoarder. It does sound like you have a reasonable relationship with your mom and that’s a good thing. You have something positive to hang on to and to build on.

Most of us COH are JUST NOW (or very recently) stepping out of the shadows and finding light on this matter. You are SO ahead of the rest of us by asking for advice at 15.

Sending you a cyber hug and a wee song from Lady Gaga that speaks to my heart. Maybe you might find a bit of solace in it too. The video kinda sucks for this song, but I do so love the lyrics.

Don’t give up - Virginia

Virginia, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

What Would You Say to a Fifteen Year Old Child of a Hoarder?

An anonymous, fifteen year old child of a hoarder recently commented on my very first blog post. I've copied the comment and parts of my response below.

If you are a child of a hoarder (COH), and you are older than fifteen years old, what do you know now about hoarding and being a COH that you wish you knew when you were fifteen?

Here is the original comment:
I'm fifteen year old and my mom is a hoarder as well. People have no idea how hard it is to grow up like this. We have pathways to each room of the house. My room, the bathroom, and the kitchen are the only room without useless clutter. I can't have my friends over, and I haven't had a birthday party since I was seven because of all this mess. I've known my bestfriend for SIX YEARS and she's never stepped foot in my house. Never once... It's very depressing. My mom is great and I love her to death, but this has to stop. I don't know how I can get it through her head! She blames things on to me when they ARE NOT my fault. "You won't help me clean the house! That's why it's like this!" Nothing in the livingroom is mine except for probably clean laundry that I don't know is in there.. She was never like this when I was younger.. She started renting a building, she always wanted to have a store. So she'd go to yard sales, thrift stores, ect. buying needless junk. She'd say "Oh, I'm buying this for my store!" Yeah right.. She's been renting that building for about six years now, $300 a month.. Ugh. I just don't know what to do. I'm going to be a sophmore in highschool next year. I'm going to be sixteen in September. I atleast want to have the house cleaned up and be able to have friends over... Sigh, I don't know what to do...

Here is what I wrote back to her:
Everything that you wrote sounds so familiar to me, right down to the part about mom saying, "You won't help me clean the house! That's why it's like this!" My mom used to say things like, "The house would be fine, if I could only get some cooperation from you people!" To her, cooperation seemed to mean sitting next to her for hours while she picked up a stack of magazines that the cat knocked down, stopping to read every one of them (or at least as many as she could until she got tired), and then maybe putting one or two (out of a pile of hundreds) into a recycling bin, which somehow would never make it out the door. I only let a friend in my house once as a kid, and I was punished for it. I never had a friend in the house as a teenager, and now, years later, some of my old classmates still think of me as "the kid who never let anyone in his house."

When I was fifteen, I thought that I was the only person in the world who was growing up that way, and I was so ashamed of my house. On the bright side, you know that you aren't alone! While it's sad that there are a lot of us "children of hoarders," at least we can reach out and support each other!

There are a few things that I wish I knew when I was fifteen:

1) Hoarding is a psychological condition that usually is very difficult to treat. It's not a matter of a hoarder being lazy or sloppy. It's a matter of not processing information the same way that most other people process it, and it's very hard to change the way someone is "wired." Don't expect your mom to change her behavior overnight!

2) Someone on a support group for children of hoarders once said, "Remember, our parents living conditions never were, are not now, and never will be, our fault. We didn't cause it. We don't need to carry any guilt for it." So true! Since the worst of my mom's hoarding started after I was born, and I knew that when my older sisters were little, the house was messy, but it was manageable enough that they could have birthday parties and friends visit, I was convinced that the mess was my fault. It was quite a relief to learn later that it wasn't my fault! Unfortunately, even after learning that, it took me years to realize that I couldn't fix the problem by "helping" to clean up or fix up the house. Again, my mom has a psychological problem; she is not lazy or stupid.

3) You have a right to live your own life, to have your own goals, and to pursue your own happiness. Do not get caught up in trying to "fix" everything in your mom's house if there is no sign of real progress, particularly if you notice that trying to help your mom interferes with you doing important things in your life that you want to do.

4) I wish that I could say that there is a good chance of getting the house quickly to a state where your friends could visit. There probably isn't, at least not without support from others, including professionals. Also, to be successful, your mom has to want to change.
What do the rest of you think? What kind of advice would you give to an anonymous, fifteen year old child of a hoarder?

Update: After writing this post, I received a very thoughtful comment about it via email. It was so good that I decided to add a whole, new post about it!