Monday, September 10, 2012

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!


Hoarder's Son said...

Here is some advice that I received via email from a commenter who wishes to remain anonymous:

"What I'm wondering is what happens if he takes action himself, and if he's tried that.

To expect his wife to change or cooperate is, IMO, totally unrealistic - I think that the intervention is just about guaranteed to fail. If the house is going to get cleaned up, he's going to have to do it all, and enforce it all, every single day of every single year until the kids are old enough to move out. So is she the kind of hoarder that will call the police and have him thrown out the instant that he starts picking things up, or will she just shriek and tantrum, but in the end the floors will be clear?

And, yes, absolutely, if he were assured of getting the kids, he should divorce or separate and make a non-hoarded home for those kids. Even if he gets only partial custody, they could have a clean room some of the time, have their friends to one of their homes, sometimes get their homework done. Unfortunately, even hoarding mothers tend to get the kids, right?

...and he should personally take precautions to make sure that there are no more kids, rather than trusting his wife to take care of that. He doesn't want to restart the 'how long until the youngest kid has the right to move somewhere clean' clock to zero."

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim, My brother and I did an intervention with my mom after my dad died. My mom was extremely humbled. She knew her situation had to change...she is 77 years old this year. My brothers kids were there and our very close friends were there. No one could go into my mom and dad's house because of the extreme hoard my mom had acquired. It was horrible. My brother got my mom into an assisted living place where she will stay until she dies. My brother and his best friend from high school and several of us pitched in to clean up the trash my mom discarded on the floor for God knows how long. The rest of the house was so packed, it took about 6 1-800-got junk trucks to clean up a 1500 sq. foot house. My brother have all the classic children of hoarders problems. If you love your children, do what you can live with because your children are going to have problems for many years of their life. I was diagnosed with a mental illness in my 20's but because I was determined not to live like a mentally ill person, I'm much better today than I was in my 20's. I'm a diabetic since my mom put me on Weight Watchers when I was 7 years old. But, I have had to work on my emotions all my life. It's been a painful existance!!!

Anonymous said...

If you feel that there is even a small chance that you may leave her, take pictures of the house - before and after the intervention, if she allows it. Do what is best for the kids. Living in a home like that leaves children feeling hopeless, vulnerable, & unable to have their own healthy relationships later in life. In many cases I believe it leaves the kids predisposed for depression.

I grew up with all of these feelings & as I have dated, I found myself feeling unworthy of the love given to me or rebelling against my partner. I also leaned toward partners that suffered their own addiction(s). I have dated people with pretty much any addiction you can have and all I have ever done is smoke cigarettes and drink occasionally! I was setting myself up for failure with each of my partners, until I met my current partner. I have slowly learned what a happy, healthy relationship is like and how to enjoy it. It took me almost 16 years dating to "get it."

I wish you and you family the best of luck, no matter what path you choose to take.

Anonymous said...

I am 44 and my mom is 66. I wish I had stop helping her 20 years ago...she would have had a chance to learn for herself. If she won't admit the problem and get serious help I suggest leave before she is too old to get help. My mom started getting lung problems and every cold would turn into pneumonia. Her issues have seriously effected my marriage because I have spent so much time and money trying to clean up after her. Life is too short to be stuck in cleaning the house! Either get it cleaned up so you can enjoy your kids and their friends or get out and put her in the smallest place
possible. Every time I cleaned my mom out and moved
her she just filled another place up! Try to imagine the
great memories you can make, before you know it it will
be time for prom pictures....the kids will hold you
accountable as well for not ensuring a healthy
environment for them. Don't be tricked by her pride or if she turns nasty. Stick to your guns as if her stuff was a drug. Eventually it has very similar consequences. My mom has been evicted and lost everything, but she still will not get the help she needs. It is a horrible condition. Good luck to you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

I 100% completely relate to your post here, but I have no advice. I am married to a man who is a hoarder, we have children together, and every day I dream of taking them away from here to a place with organization and structure. A place where I can actually relax at the end of the day where there is not a continual list of things that needs to get done just to keep the liveable spaces liveable. What stops me? Fear. The fear of the damage I will cause my children by leaving their father.

Just 2 weeks ago, I begged him to please stop buying crap a plea that has taken place numerous times over the past 10 years. I watched Sunday as he came home with yet another "treasure" and put it with other similar items. My home is an embarrassment. I battle depression most of the time just trying to survive in this environment. Nothing I can say or do will get him to stop buying stuff or clean up the mess he has created here in what used to be a beautiful home.

I am about at the end of my rope and as heartbreaking as it will be, I know my only option at this point is to remove myself and the kids from here in hopes he will realize what he is doing and decide he wants to get help.

Not sure it will work, and I am praying for courage and strength to make the right decision for my kids. It is just not an easy situation to be in.

Anonymous said...

I am a family law attorney. My advise is to:

1. Talk to the children and find out how the hoard has affected them. Be proactive and don't wait for them to come to you because they may think you have given up.

2. Schedule family counseling with a therapist.

3. Write a letter to your wife about the hoard. Be very descriptive of your past efforts to clean-up as well as the negative effects on the children. Inform her about the date for family counseling. Tell her the consequences (separation) if she does not participate in counseling AND the clean-up. Give her a timeline and all the help she will need to clean up. Set a clean-up day after you have given her time to clean it up herself (which will never happen). Send the letter to her by email, registered mail (return receipt) and by process server to assure she could say you never say she didn't receive the letter.

4. On the scheduled a clean-up day have close family and friends there to help. Pull EVERYTHING outside. Divide everything into piles to: recycle, trash, donate or keep. If she wants to donate something you know is trash, tell her you will donate it then take it to the dump. Choose your battles.

5. Record the hoard before her clean-up, after her clean-up, before your scheduled clean-up day and after.

6. Stick to it, through the anger, tears, threats, etc. Hold your ground. Clean it up. Keep it clean.

7. Set rules for the house. If the rules states no clutter in the living room, don't go to bed with clutter there. Take a picture of it then move it.

8. If all fails get a good lawyer and you should get full custody. You can put terms in the custody agreement that the children will not visit the mom over her house unless it is clean. The term "clean" will have to be defined in the agreement.

Hoarder's Son said...

Thanks to the anonymous family law attorney for a very interesting comment! I've used it as the basis for a new post, titled, strangely enough, "Another Comment on Interventions".

Scott County Family Law Attorney said...

I have read your blog , nice blog.Be very descriptive of your past efforts to clean-up as well as the negative effects on the children

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this blog and comments, and would like to say thank you for shedding some light on it. I am a 36 year old COH. I just got off the phone with my father to set up a time to speak to them both. I have tried a heart to heart before, and there have been 3 clean up parties so far, but those spaces are now cluttered again. They are caretakers for my 89yo grandmother, who is also a hoarder. I am now worried that they are draining her bank accounts for more "stuff". I am an only child, so I have only my husband to support me in my quest to help them. I have felt so ashamed for so long that I cannot seem to help them. Please keep me in your thoughts this evening as I try yet again to help them come to grip with this illness. I would love some perspective as I feel I carry a burden that noone should be meant to carry... Thank you for posting this, it helps me realize I am not alone.

Vicki Kemsley Parry said...

Think of all she DOES have to offer her children. Sometimes people who are hoarders are also very intelligent and have a LOT to offer. Divorce might do just as much damage to the children as her hoarding. Hire a house cleaning service to help keep it under control.