This weekend, while watching clickbait-y videos on depression, YouTube suggested suggested an episode of Jasmine Harman’s Extreme Hoarders. This sounds kind of clickbait-y and sensational and it is, but the show’s titular host is very kind and understanding. Herself having grown up with a hoarding mother, she has the patience of a saint and genuinely cares about it as a mental health issue. I have only watched two episodes and already I feel like I have been through quite a bit of post-traumatic shame and anxiety from my own experience growing up with a hoarded, messy house. I don’t think I would have been able to sit through even that much if I hadn’t been on the right side of two years of talk therapy.
I remember the shame and confusion as a child of having to make excuses about why I couldn’t have friends over, and then the anxiety and frustration from attempting to explain my dissatisfaction to my mother in the best way I was able to at the time, only to have her respond with such anger! My mother has never been good with emotional intelligence through her own life experiences and choices, and I did not understand or know how to deal with such defensive aggression. She guarded both her life, our lives and by extension her things with many unspoken rules. It was incredibly stressful and embarrassing. If I brought the subject of cleaning or moving things, she would tell me to “worry about my own room” and tell me to “find another family to live with if you are so unhappy.” I was taught that my basic human physical and emotional needs were unreasonable things to ask for and it hurt in a deep way that I am still trying to unravel, with the help of medical professionals and medication.
My siblings and I were frequently ordered to clean our rooms but were not allowed to throw many things out, yet were not afforded a means of discarding them in other ways either. When I was sixteen I actually snuck out in the middle of the night to take a garbage bag full of old useless objects that I didn’t didn’t want or use, she wouldn’t even notice but I knew she wouldn’t let me discard (she never noticed them being gone) to a dumpster at the fire station (there were no charity shops within walking distance). These were all things that would get pulled out and questioned if I put them in the kitchen garbage such as:
- old promotional makeup bags from department stores
- craft items (sequins, rocks, old paints)
- stuffed animals
- plastic knickknacks, like those from inside Kinder Surprises
- old socks and underwear
As a further example, my brother and I shared a weekly task of cleaning the mudroom (entryway in the basement). We had to sort and rearrange piles of old, dirty shoes that no one used anymore but were not allowed to throw out. In order to sweep and mop the floor we had to move all these shoes out of the room, then move them back in afterwards. In this way, every chore was made difficult by the amount of clutter that had to be moved in order to clean the underlying surfaces.
Though we lived in a five bedroom house in the suburbs, my two younger sisters had to share a bedroom for over ten years because my mom did not want to clear the things out of the fifth bedroom. Those things eventually got moved into the garage and the rec room, which meant that we could not use either of those rooms for their intended purposes anymore. There was a small space in front of the downstairs television that could be used for an armchair, but the space could not be used properly. My father reached quite a high level of piano and enjoyed practicing, but he wasn’t able to access the piano anymore because of the stuff in front of it. The room that was supposed to be for relaxing and enjoying hobbies instead became just another storage closet.
To add to my confusion, my mother has always been fond of beautiful homes and house-fixing shows of the sort shown on HGTV. She would actually watch shows about hoarders! I don’t know if she was self-aware enough to be watching them for the purpose of feeling less alone or to feel better about her comparatively lesser degree of hoarding compared to a reality tv show. Since I saw our messy house, and I saw that these tv shows with people with messy houses, I had asked if maybe she wanted to be on one of those shows once while walking home from school. She said that if I ever contacted one of these shows she would kill me. So. Healthy fear of the hand that feeds maintained?
Looking back, I can see that my anger and frustration was completely justified, and it was her anxiety and insecurities that lead her to lash out at her children from an age when they were only curious as to why we had rooms with closed doors full of things that we weren’t allowed to touch or look at. Even though I have moved out I still can’t shake that feeling of shame around my upbringing and even current living space.
Now, all but my youngest sister has moved out of our parents house. I have told my mother explicitly that I do not like visiting because the mess stresses me out, and her reaction is always “okay.” There is an ongoing cycle of anger and pretend forgetting that repeats as it has for years, with no sign of progress or future resolution. I have to set a time limit on how long I go home to visit for because I know it will start to stress me out considerably. Even with these boundaries I usually end up in one of my siblings rooms, napping or attempting to nap as an escape from the chaos. It hurts now and it hurts then to know that her maintaining control over her things is more important than my happiness as a child or improving relationships with her adult children.
To circle back, in the show Extreme Hoarders Jasmine Harman tries to uncover the psychological reasons behind each persons hoarding by bringing in mental health professionals to talk with the subjects about their lives in order to discover the life events that lead to such an emotional attachment to things. It seems that (from only watching two videos, but I think I see a pattern) hoarding stems from anxiety and a need to control ones surroundings as a way of coping after traumatic experiences.
From what I know about my mother, I know this pattern to hold true for her as well. For the first time I feel that I am able to feel a little bit of pity for her. It is nice to feel something besides resentment and anger. Unfortunately she has shown no sign of being open to any sort of outside help, including speaking to a therapist. Knowing that I can only be responsible for myself, I have had to set the boundaries mentioned previously in order to protect myself and continue with my own healing. Maybe someday things will change.