Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Warning: Rant

So I was surfing about reading a bit about hoarders after posting that last article, and came across something. It's this idea:

That hoarders appear to love their stuff more than their children.

I see this one a lot these days; sure, it's good that hoarding is getting attention as a thing, finally. That extends to the various hoarding TV shows out there, which I have not actually myself seen, as I just know they will send my brain to a bad place. I still have the occasional dream, you know, where my father is back here, sitting in the living room (the same room I now have my home office in, i.e. where I work) with the TV on very loudly and I know that nothing, nothing will move him. They are horrible. It feels like being crammed back into this tiny little box, this tiny little box that was my life before my father had his stroke and went into a nursing home.

I don't like to think about what it was like then. I avoid the TV shows, like I said; I have also avoided reading Randy Frost's book on hoarding, though I am very tempted to get it and do a chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of it (or, rather, a chapter-by-chapter excoriation of the author and his conclusions. Dr. Frost is not very well-liked in children of hoarder circles). That I have gotten enough distance from living under my father's hoarding that I can barely remember what it was like sometimes is, I think, a very very good thing.

So as I said I'm glad that hoarding is finally getting attention first as a thing that exists in this world and secondly as something serious, some form of mental illness. That's all good.

But it's only a start. Because right now the common wisdom on hoarders is Oh no those poor people suffering from such a debilitating mental illness!!! Well, that, and a bit of voyeurism, too—plenty of people are still happy to laugh at hoarders because they're crazy, right?

Fair enough, I'm not a psychologist. The only formal 'training' I've had in the subject was a couple of classes in high school and college, which I'm pretty sure don't actually count, especially since the college course was on Freud. (Incidentally, the most succinct description of old Sigismund I've ever heard is 'dickhead', since that is all he ever thought about.)

But that doesn't mean I don't have valuable experience with hoarders, or, more specifically, decades of experiences with one hoarder in particular, my father. And from what I have heard hanging around on a children of hoarders support group, my father was bizarrely enough both very extreme and very typical. And yes, there are support groups for children of hoarders. Because it's abuse.

And that is what the current narrative on hoarding is lacking. That for the family the behavior of the hoarder is abusive. Children living within a hoard are being abused. By definition. Look up the definition of hoarding, and then the definition of child neglect. They overlap quite neatly, really. One factor in qualifying as a hoarder is that basic needs cannot be met because of the accumulated stuff—i.e. the fridge is broken or full of rotting food and can't be used, the kitchen can't be used for preparing and/or eating food, the bathtub is full of books, &c., and then that's before we even get to the common hoarder behaviors of letting the plumbing break and then never fixing it. That wouldn't seem to strictly speaking be part of the hoarder thing—after all it's not about saving things per se—but it is frighteningly common behavior for hoarders to never fix things once they break. And all that, the broken plumbing, the bathtub that isn't accessible, the fridge that can't be used, is also one definition of child neglect. So let me repeat: if someone meets the definition of a hoarder, and there are children in that hoarded environment, those children are de facto being abused. Period.

And of course it's barely, really, about the hoarding itself. The need to save things is just the outward symptom. Underneath it are almost always issues of control. Well, that, and a sort of narcissism that means that since the hoarder doesn't see things as a problem no one else possibly could. And that's part of what's wrong with that 'common wisdom' narrative; that hoarders are suffering from the hoarding.

As far as I can tell, they almost never are.

I do think from what I have seen that there are a variety of causes that lead a person to be a hoarder. Sometimes, yes, something happens and a person just spirals into something and they no longer care about their environment. But that's a little different, I think. I'm not sure I'd quite call that hoarding, though the end result may look the same. But for the most part, from what I've seen with both my own father and the countless accounts of other hoarding parents on that support group, hoarders are like sociopaths. It's simply, in most cases, a fundamental brokenness in the brain. It can't be fixed. I'm not even sure it can be mitigated, any more than pedophilia can be. Yes, that's harsh. It is also, as far as I have ever been able to see, true.

And as far as I can tell, hoarders like the hoarding, and they like the hoard. To them it's a good thing, a worthy thing, a righteous thing even, like in my father's case. It makes them feel good.

It's like an addiction in a lot of ways, though I don't personally see it as an actual addiction. It's destructive behavior that brings them some kind of comfort or control. And there's a narcissism there, a selfishness there, that means they don't see or don't care that their behavior harms others.

So that brings me back to that first statement, that common wisdom one:

Hoarders appear to love their things more than their children.

It is said, I think, with good intentions; however I call bullshit on it. And bullshit of a particularly nasty kind. Because not only is it flat-out not true, it snidely puts the onus on the children to be more understanding while pretending to offer said children sympathy.

I mean it sounds nice, right? It sounds sympathetic—Oh you poor children to grow up with a parent who seems to care about the stuff more than you. That must have been so hard.

But it's right there in that word appear. Because the implication is that But of course your hoarder parent loved you. True, it doesn't look it. But if you, the child, could get over your [of course unreasonable] anger and really look at your parent with compassion you would of course see that your parent did love you. Of course they did. That's what parents do.

I really, really, hate this crap.

Without even going into the crap assumptions that all parents are good which given the statistics on child abuse is kind of an obvious no it still doesn't work. Love isn't complicated. It can complicate situations, sure, but the idea itself isn't complicated. I've found that if you have to do any kind of linguistic or emotional gymnastics to define something as love then it isn't.

But anyway love isn't measured in words; it is measured in actions. If a hoarder can't get rid of the junk for the sake of his or her family, then yes, that hoarder loves the junk more than the family. If someone cannot change their behavior when they know said behavior is harming their family, then yes, they love the behavior more than the family. And it's not like hoarders don't know their families are suffering. Trust me, families and children complain. A lot. Hoarders are not ignorant of the effect their hoarding has. In fact I'd say in a lot of cases that's the whole point. Because it really does come down to control. And for a lot of hoarders out there, making their families miserable is the very best type of control they could ever have.


Casey Hamilton said...


Gladys said...

I heartily agree. They are NARCISSISTS - on the freaking sociopathic side of things. It IS abuse - and it's intentional. It's devious. And sly. It's done intentionally and fucking ON PURPOSE - and complaints and discomfort and fear is the whole point.

I actually DO watch some of those shows. I have never, ever felt pity for the hoarder. Every one of them has appeared selfish, mean, and conniving.

Children do not abandon a parent for no reason. I'm exceptionally glad my father is dead, I hope his last heart attack hurt like a bitch. this whole 'blame the children' thing is crap.

Thanks to both of you - for writing and for being a voice. Plus, you know, it's interesting as HELL to watch you guys haul your dad's crap out of there.

Michigan Laura said...

Welcome back! I've missed your posts. I had almost given up hope. I was afraid the hoard had swallowed you whole.

lisa merito said...

AMEN! You said a mouth full of truth.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thalia said...

Deleted that last post because it was borderline hoarder-sympathetic and I'm just not in the mood today.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

WOW---I really liked reading this....
and as a reader of the blog and a watcher of all the shows on the subject....

YOU ARE SO RIGHT!! It is abuse, thru and thru!!
no decent food, prep space or eating area....
no way to get "clean"....
no respect for feelings of others in the house....

I give you two HUGE kudos for trying to reclaim the house and yard.

Would be nice to see you two on some National network show about hoarding and the toll it has taken on YOUR mental health!!

All the time taken to clean the yard and you two could be pursuing other hobbies or vacationing...

LOVE what you have done, envy you the skills to do what you are doing....

A reader from the Chicago area...

p.s. I also followed Sidney on her mother in law between us blog and Hoarder son. I loved, just before she passed, Sidney was posted on HS site and really spoke her mind about the hoarding mentality.
I think the more the Children of Hoarders speak up, and LOUDLY....the more everyone becomes aware of the mental illnesses out there!!!

Thalia said...

Your assumption was correct, Anonymous.

Though let me just pull one thing out:

'My parents were hoarders who (except for the hoard) were decent, loving people.'

This sentence does not make sense.

Thalia said...

Okay, I've restored your second comment, anyway, because I thought of something:

Anonymous said:

'Your experience was totally different than mine. And there ARE people out there whose hoarding parents are simply totally fucked up and doing best they can. They DO have a mental illness. I was going to say that doesn't make it any easier for the kids, but I guess it does at some point. Your dad was a hoarder who was also a fucking asshole (I'm thinking about your Christmas macaroon story). My parents were hoarders who (except for the hoard) were decent, loving people. And don't for one second think it wasn't sheer hell for me and my siblings, or that I'm in denial. My experience was just a lot different than yours. I assume you'll delete this too, but maybe it will at least give you something to think about.'

First of all, mental illness does not mean grown adults are not responsible for their behavior. They are. If one's mental illness is harming others, an adult is obligated to takes steps to stop the harm.

Second, you said 'it was sheer hell.' You also said, in the first comment I deleted, that 'hoarding IS abuse.' Do you see how this doesn't work? You grew up in a hoard, yes? You were abused. The hoard didn't just magically appear all on its own. This is not a passive voice thing. Your parents created the hoard. Your parents created the abusive situation you were in. Your parents abused you. Your parents were (are?) abusive. That is simply not compatible with being 'decent, loving people.' Decent, loving people do not abuse their children. Again, love is measured in actions, not in words. I'm sorry, but if you grew up in a hoard your parents created, those parents are abusive.

Thalia said...

Other Anon (from the Chicago area)--I saw that; was that the bit where Sidney delivered a smackdown to Randy Frost? Heh.

Rosa said...

Preach, girl. It's not a rant, it's hard truth.

For me - my dad is an alcoholic - I started putting the seems in there, or taking the word love out completely, just because I gave up. I gave up trying to figure it out. It's totally possible he did/does love us. It just doesn't matter - he is an asshole, being around him is really hard on me, he's never going to acknowledge any of the bad effects of how he was as we grew up, so who cares if he loves us? It's irrelevant to how things actually went down.

So, where I used to say "He loves booze more than us" now I say "He CHOSE booze over us" or "It felt like he loved booze more than us."

Because who the fuck knows how he felt, under all that behavior? Not me, and I don't have the energy to try to figure it out or argue with someone else about how someone it turns out I barely know "really" felt. But I sure as hell know how *I* feel.

I know you don't buy the addiction thing, but a big part of why I like reading your story and other COH is that the effect of growing up with a hoarder parent is so much like growing up with an addict parent, but still different enough that it doesn't trip that little comparison voice in my head trying to say since we didn't have it as bad as some other person, I don't have the right to be angry or hurt. It's, like, the same story with enough different details I can feel it but it doesn't gut punch me.

Anka said...

I'm the adult child of two hoarders (I moved to another country in part so that I'd never have to deal with my widowe(re)d father's hoard, and I love this post (and your blog). It's a breath of fresh air. Thanks to growing up in the hoard, and giving in to societal pressure to try to help my father take care of himself for a decade, my give-a-damn is busted. I have no sympathy for hoarders whatsoever. I can't. There was a time when my parents' hoarding almost ruined my life. My father has some undiagnosed personality disorders in there (my guess is NPD and ASPD) and actually hoards mountains of garbage. He is proud of his hoard because he thinks it makes him superhuman. He really does love his hoard more than he loves his family, no question, since he really doesn't love us (he visibly enjoyed watching us suffer when we used to visit). When she was alive, my mother (undiagnosed NPD and BPD) wasn't much better as a hoarder--she was just slightly cleaner than my father and tried to convince people--and was semi-successful-- that the hoard was her children's and husband's fault. (Husband, yes--children, HELL no.) Anyway, it's AMAZING to see this point acknowledged--that they do love the hoard more than they love us--and to see the sympathy where it belongs--with the helpless children who grew up in this chaos.

Anonymous said...

So, I thought my comment would make you think, but actually, yours made me think. You are right. How could they fucking do that to their kids??? I moved 1500 miles away the minute I graduated from high school, and never looked back. My dad died, and now my mom is living in a place (unfortunately not very far from where I live) where she can't hoard. (Of COURSE they left the original hoard for the kids to clean up).

I think this situation is kind of like what battered women go through -- part of them love their abusers for the times when the abusers were kind and funny and thoughtful, but when you think about the abuse, that outweighs the good times.

I don't know why I have been thinking about all of this so much lately. (It's not just because I follow your blog). But a few weeks ago I recognized the visceral reaction I have whenever my mom asks me to do something with her. The truth is, that while part of me does love her, part of me HATES her too. She totally fucked up my childhood and that of my siblings. And, as you know, those scars never leave. Like this kid on a hoarder show said, "Because of you I will never be normal." You are right, Thalia, she KNEW better, and still couldn't be bothered to do what it took to take care of her kids.

Thanks for your blog, and thanks for making me think.

Anonymous said...

from Veronica in CA:
Brilliantly written and it's great to see the simple truth on this issue. Our dads are remarkably similar, and my childhood was much like the way you've described yours. I'm now 60 years old and just starting to come out of my shell. It took me 35 years after cutting all ties to my hoarding father to realize it wasn't my fault. As a kid, you believe everything your parent tells you day after day. His behavior and words affected my entire life. I'd love to know what I could've accomplished as an adult if he hadn't rendered me so meek.

Congratulations on working it all out much, much sooner than I did. Shaking off that horrible albatross at a young enough age that you can still pursue your own dreams without fear, without questioning yourself. As a young talented woman, you have many accomplishments to look forward to.

TC said...

About 3 or 4 years ago, I started watching the various hoarder shows on tv. My parents are hoarders. My husband felt that I shouldn't, since it was like watching a train wreck - we both knew it would never turn out well. But I was fascinated because I wanted to get some idea what kind of whacked thoughts were going through my mom's head (she's the worse of the two). I started reading about hoarding, found your blog along the way and started to write myself.
Then it occurred to me that the thing that I hated the most about their hoard was not that I couldn't have friends over when I was a kid, can't find most of my belongings that were left there when I went to university, and that my own kids will never be able to stay over at their grandparents (and craploads more issues). It is that I will have to clean up their atrocious mess when they die. No one is going to magically show up and do it for me like on tv. That just about put me over the edge. I think this is why your blog resonates so much with me.
I completely agree with you that hoarding is child abuse. It is also disrespectful, antisocial behavior that affects the poor folks that are my parents' neighbors and their property values, my extended family and my own kids. And I will have to clean it up.

Oscar said...

Interesting post. I think you're right about it being about control. I've often thought that there's something fundamentally aggressive and hostile about hoarding, because of the way hoarders appropriate for their own exclusive use the space that they're supposed to be sharing with their family members, squeezing them out or preventing them from having any space to pursue their own interests.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this awesome post. I'm getting married in three months and my HP has made it as miserable as she possibly can. The happier I am, the more miserable she gets. I've found I just have to pretend I'm not happy to tolerate her miserable-ness. For every "woe-is-me" I come back with a "YAY IS ME" and it makes her madder. I think she loves me, but I know she loves her stuff more. Sad, but it's true. I was never abused, per say, I just never got what a kid needed. A clean space for friends and healthy relationships.

Thanks for your awesome blog. :-)

Anonymous said...

I really think that true hoarders have more than one problem. My parents were kind of pack-rat-ish; when we moved them out of the house we'd all lived in as a family, we had to empty a huge basement full of unneeded household things. For many many years whenever they didn't need something, they'd just put it in the basement, until the basement was pretty much wall-to-wall junk. I think at one point there were four sofas down there. They also had a walk-in attic that was equally brimming with things that should have been tossed long ago, or given away, or whatever.

Did that make sense? No. Was it a pain to clean out? Yes. But the living quarters of the house were always safe, clean, and pleasant. My parents may have had a problem with THINGS, but they didn't have a problem with PEOPLE. Whatever issues they had with getting rid of sofas, they were normal otherwise, and so they kept the house clean and made us clean our rooms and so on, and so our lives were fairly unremarkable, except for having a lot of old sofas in our basement.

I think there are some people out there, like my parents, who have problems making good decisions about whether to get rid of things, but are otherwise OK, and they're not hoarders. Then there are people who have personality disorders that make them, unscientifically, crappy human beings but have no issues with things. They're unpleasant, but they're also not hoarders. When those two categories intersect, that's when you get hoarders. They're people who like stuff too much and like people too little.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I also add:

Some hoarders (maybe not all, that's not my place to say) are BULLIES.

When a family member or friend speaks up, the hoarder BULLIES them into silence, and into compliance. They BULLY the children into not saying anything to anyone that could help them. They BULLY everyone they can in order to protect their hoards.

I personally believe that hoarders are mentally ill. But I'll tell you something: many times--at least to the layperson--mental illness is *indistinguishable* from being an asshole.

Maybe being an asshole is a side-effect of compulsive hoarding disorder, or maybe assholes are more likely to be compulsive hoarders, I don't know. But to the family member, there's really no difference.

Thalia said...

Just a quick note to TC, if you come back here:

NO, absolutely NO, you are under no obligation whatsoever to clean up after your parents. Not legally, and not morally. Absolutely not. It's their mess, and you are not obligated to clean it up when they die. You really, really, aren't. Not even in places that have the so-called filial obligation laws. It's not your problem. It really isn't.

It's not your mess, and not your problem.

TC said...

Thanks, Thalia.

Barb said...

You know what I'd like to see, "Hoarders: The Aftermath" where the crews go around and help families clean up hoarded properties after the hoarder is gone. I'd love to see the therapists working with the fallout to the innocent victims of hoarding.

J said...

I just wanted to say keep doing what you do, and fuck the people who try to blame you or downplay the things you've suffered. I've been both sexually abused by one family member and neglected for a hoard by another, and so I get to see the lovely parallels in the way other adults excuse the inexcusable carried out by their peers. We're trained like dumb pet animals to value filial bonds over our own basic well-being and excuse all the mistakes our parents make, and that is horrendously wrong-- and IMO, one of the big reasons why the world is so fucked up today, and why so many people foolishly follow exploitative authority figures to their detriment, and sometimes to their graves.

Abusers can't possibly be as bad as their victims say: They're family, they're married men, they're pillars of the community, or... or...

Hoarders can't possibly be as bad as their children say: They're elderly, have had hard lives, are mentally ill, need to be taken care of, or... or... Never mind that in many cases the hoarding began in their 30s and 40s, long before they could be considered to be elderly or needing of care from their children-- some of whom have never known anything other than a hoarded home, emotionally inaccessible parents, doorbell dread, dirty clothes, cold food, loneliness. If someone beats their children and breaks bones because they heard the voice of God tell them to, do we excuse them of their abuse simply because they are also mentally ill? What a load of crap.

What you are doing is good. It is good for us, and I hope it is good for you. Keep writing your blog for as long as it is useful to you, and don't let self-appointed armchair experts who haven't lived it tell you anything you suffered is your fault.

To hell with anyone who demands that the victim cater to the victimized.

To hell with anyone who demands that the victim keep quiet.

Peace to you and all other COH.

J said...

Er, obviously I meant "victimizer"... Should proofread my rants better before hitting submit.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog, and for helping me get angry. My father in law had the Volkswagen addiction. I'm sure he also had borderline personality disorder. Your words are enormously therapeutic for me; I had a huge 'aha' moment reading about demand resistance. My dad was also a hoarder, but my mom kept him in check in the house. The farmstead, on the other hand - yes, we're hauling scrap metal every summer.

I can admit to you that I'm glad my father in law is dead, as he was such a destructive person. I can also admit I'm relieved my dad is dead, as I no longer have to worry about taking care of him and his stuff.

Something happened to me when I started reading your blog. I began to feel free. I've read every entry for your insight. I join in your rants. I was so sick of trying to sympathize and understand when I was hurt by this. I minimized it for so many years.

Please keep posting! You are more important than you will ever know. I wish you all the best.

Anonymous said...

Dear Thalia, Thanks you so much for calling it like you see it -- it is true and refreshing. I can so identify with your issues though hoarding was not the main problem with my parents. One was clinically mentally ill and the other alcoholic. My siblings are stuck in the "they did the best they could" phase and I'm out there saying they should have done differently. Here is my definition of love: it is something that a person does, not something a person says. Saying it is crap without the doing. Took me 50 years to realize that.

I got to your blog from quilting. Miss seeing your inventive and lovely blocks.

Sorry for Anonymous, but I don't have a blog.

julienne said...

Thalia, you quilt? Awesome! If its not too intrusive, can you point us where to see your blocks?

Anonymous said...

Could you point me in the direction of where the problems with Randy Frost's books are discussed ? I read Stuff and thought it was pretty good, but I am curious about what others see as the issues with his work.

Mel V. said...

Little late to the conversation here, but wanted to give a hearty AMEN!

In my opinion, when there's a parent with untreated mental illness in the house the kids will always suffer. Whether or not you consider it child abuse depends on the situation and your personal definition of abuse, but when a parent has a distorted view of reality and claims to be healthy, it's going to harm the kids.

And yes, hoarders, addicts, and many others on that spectrum clearly put their compulsion above their family. One of the anonymous posters above has an excellent point about people who have issues with stuff, but keep it confined enough that it doesn't hurt people - those are the ones that love their kids more than they love their stuff. My dad probably loved me with everything he had to spare as his addiction slowly took over his life, but there's no question that it came first, even when it was small. And eventually it blotted out everything else.

Is he an abusive asshole to be avoided, or a person afflicted with an illness who deserves sympathy? Yes. I know his life is pretty miserable, and this shit is damn powerful and hard to fight. At the same time, he can stay the fuck away from me. He saw warning signs of the damage he was doing to his family and chose not to heed them, and I hold him responsible for that. I hope he recovers, but I don't plan to hang around waiting for it.

Catt of the Garage said...

You have completely opened my eyes to this. Now every time I see something about hoarders or hoarding, I'm thinking, "what about the kids?"

I can't be the only one who has had their eyes opened by your blog. And every person whose eyes you open could potentially do a hell of a lot of good. You should be proud of that.

Nancy said...

I have enjoyed your blog. Although I did not grow up in a hoarded home, I was strangely attracted to the shows about hoarding. My father is a classic NPD. I finally figured out the reason the show captivated me. It showed on television children pouring out their feelings of frustration to their parents and the camera captured the parents not caring at all! That is emotional abuse.

Like hoarders, narcissists (and addicts) are all selfish. The just live in their head, and tell themselves whatever they want to tell themselves regardless of the evidence. If they loved their children, they would act lovingly. Then, to have the other parent stand by and just say "that is how they are, accept it". Is infuriating! You have been repeated asked to deny your feelings, which all have been ignored. Hoarders and NPD teach their children not to make any emotional demands on them.
My mother in law is a hoarder. Also narcissist, but I can see her hoarding from a bit of an outsider's point of view. She uses the clutter to protect her from having relationships, and if she doesn't have real relationships, she can't fail. No risk of intimacy, and no chance about being "wrong". Hoarders are always "right".

It isn't about the stuff. It is about creating distance and controlling. It's abuse when it alienates your children.

One thing I don't understand about the shows is that when people are addicted to alcohol, they are removed from their homes and forced to face reality. On the hoarder shows, it is like watching them pick at a scab bit by bit. They should be forced to deal with people and the consequences of their behavior, instead of rehandling every piece of crap they decided was important. It's all a distraction. cause we all know where the stuff ends up.

You have helped others realize what their feelings are, and help validate them. Thank you, and rant away!!!

Periwinkle Paisley said...

I have always said that all hoarders are bullies. There are few absolutes in the world but this is one. Whether it's outright bullying or more underhanded and sneaky emotional blackmail it is always there. And anyone who trots out the old adage that a bully is just insecure and that's why he or she is a giant asshole, that person needs a boot to the head imo. Hoarders are only ever unhappy when someone calls them on their bs and then it's YOU causing problems. I sincerely hpoe you get a decent amount of $$$ for your Dad's junk. You deserve it.