Friday, September 28, 2012

A Christmas Conflagration

I'm always excited to hear that another child of a hoarder has started to blog, but I was downright giddy to learn that a friend, Lisabeth Grey, has started blogging over at Not My Hoarding Mother. To welcome Ms. Grey to the blogosphere, another friend of mine, Sidney, from the fabulous My Mother-in-Law is Still Sitting Between Us blog, and I are both featuring excerpts from Not My Hoarding Mother on our blogs this week.

Over at Sidney's blog, you can read the tale of "The Derecho and the Elderly Hoarder." (A "derecho" is a powerful, straight-line wind storm that can leave as much damage in its wake as a tornado.) Here, I'm happy to share Lisabeth's all-too-true story about a fire at a hoarder's neighbor's house (as opposed to the more typical fire at a hoarder's house). The setting is Christmas Eve, but instead of calling the story A Christmas Carol, let's call this, "A Christmas Conflagration."

Without further adieu, I yield the soapbox to Ms. Lisabeth Grey:
I called [my hoarding mother] the evening of Christmas Day (which is her birthday as well) to wish her a Merry Xmas and Happy Birthday. She received my cards, and our conversation was normal for us. A little background... I took the geographical solution after high school, and since moving out of state in 1999, I have only been home two times, and to the same town maybe three times. Our contact is now limited to phone for my self preservation. Anyway, I hear this loud pounding noise [through the phone] and she whispers, "Did you hear that? What is that?"

Like I know!?!?

Long story short, it is her neighbors, trying to kick her front door in, since her next door neighbor's house is on fire, vehicle gas tanks are exploding, ammunition is going off, and her grass is on fire. Now, her property has had no mowing for months, no raking, and her fence is locked, double storms over the windows, the water hose is shut off from inside, and she disconnected the doorbell because it scares the cats—11 nearly feral cats inside—and the front door is completely blocked off, goat paths only and stuff piled at least waist high to ceiling high EVERYWHERE. The neighbors are stomping fire in the yard, throwing stuff on her roof to put out burning leaves, and desperately trying to get her attention and get her out.

She opens the side door and sees the neighbors house, and I can hear her reaction, and she finally tells me what is happening. I tell her to "Call 9-1-1! NOW! NOW! NOW!", to turn on the water hose, and then I hang up. She lives in a rural Appalachia, no fire hydrants, on a dirt road, etc. The closest fire stations are four miles and seven miles respectively. The Cliff's Notes on the situation: the folks next door had just sat down to holiday dinner when the homeowner heard something, opened the garage door, and saw fire. He got his wife, two daughters, and three grandkids out. Barefoot, no purses, no wallets, they lost all vehicles, including those in the driveway... And the house is a total loss. Burnt flat. Several houses nearby have fire/heat damage, and the grass in my mother's yard is burned within ten feet of her house. She has siding and roof damage, but her roof was already trashed from hail a few months ago...that she has been delaying repairing.

In the two days since... This is where my angst comes in...
  1. It has become all about HER and her INCONVENIENCE of it all, and her fear and drama
  2. She is obsessing on it, yet does not acknowledge the level of danger that was incurred by her HOARDING and paranoia
  3. She is now firmly ensconced in the museum of petty grudges, as she and the neighbors who lost their home have not spoken for nearly 40 years (and guess who initiated THAT???)
I have posted on my FB about it, and when I find out who is collecting for her neighbors, I plan to send a donation and post that too since many of my FB friends are in that area. My HP is against this and has:
  • pointed out they don't speak and it was their fault
  • criticized their child rearing
  • criticized the woman's decision to be a stay at home mom
  • criticized the woman's pride in her yard
  • criticized the woman's choice to color her hair at 60 something years old
  • pointedly stated that they did not contribute to the flower collection for my father when he passed in 1989 (she nastily, and in the most ugly way ever, REFUSED IT anyway!)
The list goes on and on. I informed her that none of that matters, and they could be the worst people ever, but they LOST EVERYTHING, and I am doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Now in every conversation, I can almost hear her mind working, trying to figure out how to control my donating cash to them.

My heart breaks for the neighbors' family. They raised their kids and are helping raise their grandchildren. Just nice folks.

Narcissism sucks. Hoarding sucks. And I am flatly just sick of it.

—Excerpted (with minor edits) from "My Worst Fear Was Almost A Reality", by Lisabeth Grey.
Thanks for sharing your story, Lisabeth, and welcome to the blogosphere!

I hope that all of my readers will pay Lisabeth a visit at Not My Hoarding Mother, and I invite any other COH bloggers to get in touch with me if they would like to be a guest author here at my little corner of the neighborhood.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Family Intervention Follow-Up

My last post, "A Family Intervention?", centered on a request for advice from a man who is the father of several children and who is married to a hoarder. "Jim" wanted advice on how/whether to have an intervention to help the family, what might happen if it failed, and, in the last resort, how likely he would be to get custody of the kids in the event of a separation.

Before I posted his 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 here:

  • First, there was wide agreement that Jim should start documenting the family's living conditions and his attempts to address the situation immediately, if he hasn't already started to do so. He should be taking pictures of the home, and he should be keeping a diary of his efforts to maintain the home for the children. He should also document his attempts to work with his wife to provide a safe, healthy environment.
  • There also was a consensus that if the basic physical necessities were not being delivered, then the children should be removed from the home immediately. For example, if the house is a fire trap, with exits blocked, etc., then the situation must be addressed without delay. Additionally, if the situation has deteriorated to the point where there are chronic problems with plumbing, heating, or electricity, then the children should be removed from the situation immediately. (Note: it was not clear from Jim's emails that physical conditions in the house had gotten quite as bad as that. My sense was that they hadn't reached that point yet, but that they were on their way.)
  • Whether or not there is an intervention, and whether or not Jim leaves (with or without the kids), most people believed that getting counseling for the kids would be important.
  • Several people recommended having a family discussion, or at least discussing their home lives with the kids. Chat participants mentioned their own confusion when they were children about living in a hoard house and how those feelings of confusion and isolation impacted their development. Of course, if Jim speaks with the kids, it is hard to imagine doing it without his wife being involved somehow, so it is probably best to do it as a group or with a trained counselor to guide things along. One idea was to have members of the family judge where rooms in the house might fit into the International OCD Foundation's Clutter Image Rating (PDF file).
  • Regarding custody of the children in the event of a separation, the chat participants thought it would be very unlikely that the hoarding parent would get full custody, unless the non-hoarding parent had some serious personal issue that he didn't disclose. The consensus was that the non-hoarding parent would get at least shared custody, if not full custody. As one person put it, "Better that the kids live at least part time in a normal home [than in the current hoarding environment]." Another chimed in with, "I would think any sort of stability in dad's home would be better than living with hoarder mom 100% of the time."
  • At the same time, courts do solicit the opinions of the children in custody cases, and it is hard to predict the results of that process. Thinking back to when I was a kid, I desperately wanted a different situation, but I wouldn't have wanted to "abandon" my mom (the hoarder). In retrospect, I know that it would have been far better for me to have been removed from the hoard house, but "younger me" would have wanted to stay to try to fix things, at least in part because mom was such a disaster, and dad seemed to be able to take care of himself. In other words, as a kid, I thought that the slim chance that I could help mom was greater than the damage she was inflicting on me. I was mistaken, but I'm not sure I could have been convinced otherwise when I was a kid. Who knows how that would have played out if I were questioned about it in court? Bottom line: without dad in the house to shield us, mom's problem would have been 100x worse, and I shudder to imagine being a teenager in my mom's hoard without dad in the picture.
  • Another comment from a chat participant: "It is not just her living there, there are SEVERAL other people in the house. I think that is why they need to act. Even if makes no impact with her, it makes impact with them." 
  • Finally, although I said in my original post that a parent's first obligation is to his/her children (and I absolutely stand by that advice!), that doesn't mean that the father should ignore his own needs for a clean, safe, healthy environment. As one of the participants said, "It's not healthy for the dad to keep living with mom and sacrifice all his happiness, too!" Yes, very true. I have often wondered about the kind of life my dad might have led outside of the hoard. He was a terrific fellow, and he died too young to find out, in part, I think, because of the stress of living in the hoard and shielding his kids from the worst of my mom's psychological issues.
Many thanks to the folks in the chat who shared their thoughtful advice!

A Family Intervention?

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. 
  1. 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?
  2. My oldest kids (almost teenagers) are both struggling in school with things like finishing assignments and organization. I think it is related.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
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. 
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 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!