IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Grew Up In a Hoarder House Before People Knew About Hoarders
I really wish that television shows about hoarding existed when I was a child. I used to sit cross legged amongst the trash and feel so alone.
I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t love my parents, I do, and many others have had childhoods a thousand times worse than mine. However, growing up surrounded by garbage wasn’t exactly ideal.
My parents are not bad people. They are hoarders and I think that they always will be.
Growing up, I used to think that we were the only people who lived that way. Plastic wear, paper plates, clothes, broken electronic items, abandoned home improvement projects, trash bags and mail, mail, mail were all piled high around us. We used the phrase "We need to clean up" way too often.
Cleaning usually consisted of my mom and dad stuffing items into garbage bags or clear plastic tubs and setting them aside. For some reason or another, the items would eventually find their way back on to the floor, table, couch etc.
My parents were also famous for their house paths. There was a path to everything, a path to the kitchen, a path to the couch, path to the washing machine, path to the basement, where my beloved cat lived because according to my Dad, she was “too dirty” to live upstairs.
Up until about school age, my sister and I believed that it was normal to hear crunching and the breaking of miscellaneous junk under your feet as you walked through the house.
Once in school, we began hearing stories of children coming over each other’s homes to do homework and even having slumber parties on the weekends. I never told my parents, but I secretly wanted to invite friends over to play. My imagination ran wild, dreaming of sleepovers filled with fun snacks and kiddy films. It was an impossible dream.
The truth was that all the popcorn throwing and movie watching wouldn’t save my friends from tripping over the mounds of black trash bags littered throughout the house. Heaven forbid a trash slide happening just as they were on their way to the bathroom. Needless to say, there were never any play dates at my home.
My grandparents’ home was my safe haven. Their place wasn’t spotless, but it seemed that way to my sister and I. My grandparents encouraged unexpected company and didn’t hide when the doorbell rang. They didn’t eat on TV dinner trays because all the tables were filled with mail. You knew what the color of their carpet was.
They filled their drawers with clothing instead of trash and we didn’t have to sit on top of lumpy plastic bags when we played on the floor. We even invited children from the neighborhood inside their home to eat fun snacks and watch kiddy films. It was nice to pretend like we were normal for a while.
Years spent at their home, filled with their love, was truly a dream. We were lucky to have them for as long as we did. My grandfather passed away first. It was unexpected and horrible. My grandmother passed away several years later, her death was painful and drawn out and left me with an even larger hole in my heart.
Around the time of my grandmother’s death, my parents became financially unstable and we were forced to leave our home and move into a fixer-upper in a bad section of town. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, I think that we all hoped for a fresh start and perhaps a clean house.
I can recall one truly embarrassing moment happened just as we were making the transition to the new home. After a school trip, my sister’s best friend needed a place to wait until her parents arrived. No one was answering her house phone and the school was closing. One teacher had a brilliant idea. She recommended that we take the friend back to our place and wait for her parents to call.
We were between a rock and a hard place. We had to take her home with us. My sister and I took the longest walk up the porch steps that day. My mother went inside first and was undoubtedly attempting to clean off a place for us to sit. I made an ill-fated attempt to keep the friend on the porch by pointing out how nice the weather was and how I would much rather stay outside and play. No such luck.
The friend went inside and you could have picked her jaw up off the floor. We tried to distract her with a TV program but she could only focus on the mounds of trash around her. We claimed that the house was such a mess because we were in the midst of a hectic moving process. She probably didn’t believe us. It was horrible.
Once we did move, we took all of our precious garbage with us. I remember my father taking all of the drawers filled with trash and stuffing them away in a truck only to be carried to the new home. We probably packed about five boxes in total. The rest of our things were carried over in bins and garbage bags. We didn’t even know what we were taking.
My parents claimed that this house would be different. “We’re going to keep this place clean” they said. During the next five years, their promises were but mere memories as we watched the empty new house become even worse than the previous.
Years of mail continued to pile up, useless, broken things were collected, weeks of stinky dishes filled the sink, my father would continuously bring home items he found at work, claiming that each one was useful. Worst of all, my sister and I began to display these habits as well.
We too would keep our rooms littered with trash and broken objects. My drawers were now filled with useless items while I kept my clothes on the floor. I did my homework and projects on the bed because there was no space on the table. My sheets stayed filthy for weeks, inches of dust collected on the back of my TV, rotten food could be found underneath my bed and spilled things were rarely wiped up.
I missed my old school and friends. The neighborhood was dangerous and I no longer had the safe haven of my grandparent’s home. We were together too much. The trash stressed us all out and we all fought, a lot. My sister can recall the day in which a family friend stopped by unexpectedly. According to her we all stood by displaying awkward smiles, as the friend and his family stood in the doorway, shocked. It’s scary to say, but I’ve blocked this memory out.
Luckily my parents were able to get back on their feet after five years and once again we were moving. After moving to the new house, my parents’ hoarding stayed the same, but I was different. By this time my sister and I were in high school, and despite the fact that we still had messy rooms, we were more successful in the cleaning department than our parents.
We slowly began to tweak our gross habits. For the first year, I was obsessed with keeping the place in good condition. If the house wasn’t completely clean, I was adamant about keeping people away or at least on the porch.
If I visited someone else’s place, I was compulsively clean. After meals, I would catch myself wiping up crumbs that weren’t there. As the years went on, the condition of the house slowly began to dwindle down. I hated having company. If someone absolutely had to visit, usually our parents’ friends, we would all have to clean until exhaustion. Sometimes it took hours. Sometimes it took days.
Afterward, my parents would beam, seemingly proud to keep their secret. During our mad cleaning sessions, I noticed that my parents would often get distracted or overwhelmed. They would then take “breaks” and eventually abandon the project, many times leaving my sister and me to pick up the slack.
Often times, they would blame the mess on us kids. They would state that they just didn’t have the time to clean because they held jobs and contributed to the bills, unlike us. One summer, after buying into this delusion, my sister and I decided to help them out.
We set out to clean the entire basement by ourselves. We spent five grueling days throwing away garbage, sweeping and organizing. We worked tirelessly from early morning until night. Our Dad would periodically come down and ask us why we were throwing away valuable things like ripped electrical cords and a broken karaoke machine.
For the first time I could see the extent of his illness. He would become angry with us as we bagged up old toys and broken stereo parts. We didn’t care. We were on a mission. We thought that we had won as we proudly set bags out for trash. The basement was airy and the smell of garbage was finally going away. This joy was short lived.
Items that had been thrown away began to reappear in various places around the house. I of course noticed this but I figured that there was no way that the basement could return to its previous state, not after all of our hard work. I was wrong. The basement not only returned to its previous state but became worst. We now speculate that our father hid the bags in the garage, secretly went through them and snuck most, if not all of the items back into the basement and various other places in the house. Discouraged and hurt, we vowed never to attempt that type of cleaning again.
College saved me. It was the greatest gift that my parents ever gave me. I again had found a safe haven. For the first time in my life, I was able to flourish academically. I had a place to study and a clean place to eat. I could invite friends over and I welcomed unexpected company.
Saturday was my cleaning day. I happily took garbage to the dumpster, vacuumed the carpets and did my laundry frequently. Before college, I found the family home messy, but livable. Once college was a part of my life, I could barely stand the place.
During school breaks, I was happy to see my parents and be homework free but I secretly longed for my nice clean dorm room. I couldn’t understand how my parents could live amongst the trash.
After four years of college. My sister and I like many college grads, are back home. After living on campus we decided that we could not go back to the old ways of living. We are not perfect but are proactive in keeping our bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and bathroom in livable condition. It tends to be exhausting because we are forced to clean for ourselves as well as our parents.
The other rooms such as our parents’ bedroom, basement and garage are by far the worst rooms in the house. Items are piled high to the ceiling and are prone to crashing to the floor. I refuse to help them clean these areas because I know that it will all be in vain. Nothing makes me angrier than when they claim that “we” are neater now. It’s obvious that they have not changed a thing.
It may seem perverse, but I find comfort in TV shows/documentaries about hoarding. It would have done me wonders as a kid. It feels good to know that we were not the only ones living like that. I also see that there are kids that had it much worse than I did growing up.
I like to keep hoarding shows playing on the living room TV, forcing my parents to watch them, hoping that they will be inspired to seek help. My father refuses to admit that he is a hoarder and claims that he never has the time to clean. My mother is less delusional. She states that she doesn’t know how to keep things neat and admits that she has a problem but will not seek help.
I have come to the conclusion that I cannot help them. Hoarders must be proactive in their recovery. They cannot be forced to purge their items. It will only make things worse. I hate to say it, but I see no recovery in sight for my parents.
I look forward to the day I move out but I fear that once alone, their hoarding will reach monstrous proportions. I wonder if a child of a hoarder is reading this piece. I hope so. Please know that you are not alone. I encourage you to find a clear place in which you can relax, study, sit, pray, dance or whatever makes you happy. Do not let your parent’s illness become your illness and please be patient. Things will not always be this way.