I’m supposed to be working, trying to read an email from Amy, who contacted me looking for hope. Her mother’s world is being hammered by the cruel reality of uncontrolled hoarding. Like Amy, my mother is a hoarder, and my personal knowledge and experiences draw family members, friends, and even those who hoard to me for help, hope and even healing.
I hear my girls’ laughter bubbling through their bedroom door and down the hall as they play with their Fisher-Price dollhouse.They are laughing and playing, and I can hear the clink of plastic as they arrange and re-arrange the furniture in the dollhouse. Although I know that I am supposed to be working right now, I want so badly to just peek in and watch my daughters play.
In this moment, I am reminded of the bridge that adult children like myself represent. At one end of the bridge is a childhood filled with memories — no, nightmares! — of a home overflowing with stuff, detritus, treasures and trash. At the other end is the carefully protected joy of the next generation, our own children, who will never experience such an environment. For me, although my career has taken me into many hoarded homes and nightmarish childhoods like my own, I work hard to keep my children from these experiences.
I sneak down the hall and look inside the door. Before me are two beautiful little girls in a bright, sparsely decorated room lying on the floor playing with a pink dollhouse. Their joy can’t cut through the numbness with which I have acquainted myself as an insulator. Instead of smiling, I am grimacing. Their laughter has drawn me into the painful memories of the past.
The past is back again, and I wonder if I will ever heal enough so that those memories can’t find their way back anymore.
It must have been 1982, the last year that my presents were under the Christmas tree in the corner of the great room within the old townhouse. Growing accumulations of my mother’s craft supplies, papers, books, and random items prevented us from reaching the tree in the years that followed. The string lights we’d hung on it when it was first decorated, possibly two years prior, must have been of the highest quality. They faithfully lit up twice daily for nearly a decade, when we once again were able to reach the tree in its corner.
That year, Mother assembled a dollhouse from a kit, placing it on a chair to the left of the tree. It was sad and sparse, almost an ironic symbol amid the clutter of our home. The whole of the miniature house was bland and naked, au natural, save for one wallpapered wall in its living room. Not a single part of the dollhouse, not the roof, exterior walls, door, floors or stairs were painted or decorated. Inside, there were maybe three pieces of furniture in it, and no dolls to play with.
Mother intended for me to respond with glee to this wooden dollhouse. Instead, I’m quite certain my response was flat. This was not the house I’d dreamed of, where dolls would live amongst beautiful decorations and miniature pieces. It was not the home of dreams coming true amidst carefully chosen pieces, fabrics, and colors. I wanted a dollhouse that could be the home our house was not — a home devoid of stairs dripping with bags of forgotten treasures and “great deals,” beds surrounded by “supplies for a rainy day” that never came, and a kitchen with failing appliances that could not be reached for use anyway.
Suddenly, my mood seems to have struck my daughter. Her giggles fade, turning to curiosity, “Mommy, are you okay?” I am retracted from this surreal visit back in time to the adorable little girls playing on the floor before me. For a moment.
The floor! I cannot remember once as a child lying on the floor to play with my dollhouse, or any other toy in my home. We had enough bare floor to navigate from one place to another, but never to sit down on, to play on, to sweep or vacuum. Perhaps this is why I never played with that dollhouse — a lack of floor space, and not the lack of furniture or dolls.
In years long gone, my mother would brag about the effort she put into making that house for me, working into the wee hours to surprise me for Christmas. She was blissfully oblivious to the pain such gifts caused me until just a few years ago. It would have been easier if she had simply woken up to the pain growing up in our hoarded home had caused me, continues to cause me. Mother’s lack of insight is common in hoarding behavior — destroying relationships, childhood wishes and family dreams with a terrifying and haphazard deftness.
In the past three years, my mother has become available to me in a way that I never thought possible. The mental health struggles that robbed me of a healthy childhood have been mediated by treatment and intervention. When I left my childhood home and Mother, I carried with me a piece of the chaos and the hoarding. I knew that someday Mother’s hoarding would become my problem, my responsibility, my burden to bear. Unfortunately, healing came long after her world fell apart and the struggle to clean up the hoard came.
Healing comes slowly sometimes. It comes in bits and spurts. Nearly two years after we’d cleared out the hoarded house and moved Mother into a clean apartment, we began family counseling.
“I did everything I could to give you the best of everything, Punkin,” my mother told me during one session. “It was all about you.”
“It never felt like it was about me.” The boxes of my mother’s old clothes that blocked my toy box screamed out to me that my life was never about me. And if the stuff hadn’t spoken so clearly, my mother’s rage and screaming fits would have done the job adequately. “If only I hadn’t kept you,” she would accuse.
As an only child, I recognized the blessing that no other children had to face the same treatment. Being an only child meant that when it got really bad, there was no one else to share the weight of Mother’s anger and blame. Some days, I was the parent and caregiver. Often, I was the scapegoat. I spent other days balancing the roles of clown, enabler, and invisible child. I learned quickly that each of these roles had appropriate usages; I learned even more quickly that I couldn’t know which one was best.
My familiarity with these multiple roles as an only child who survived the hoard is an asset today. I use this knowledge, familiarity, and intimate understanding to help the families and individuals our organization, Lightening the Load, supports as they overcome hoarding behaviors. This expertise is why individuals like Amy look for me, and the healing I’ve received is what I want to share with them: hope.
These various roles and the dysfunctional dynamic of the family affected by hoarding are at the heart of the film, Clutter (launching on iTunes and all other leading VOD platforms on May 8 ). Written by Paul Marcarelli, the film gives a fresh perspective of hoarding through the experiences of the Bradford family. The journey into not only the family home but the interpersonal relationships represents the shame-filled, dirty truth of family dynamics and the lasting effects of growing up with a parent who hoards.
I recognize the struggles of these siblings as my own. The oldest Bradford child, Charlie, attempts to balance the contradictory desire to love his mother, make her happy, and fix her problem. Lisa, the middle Bradford child, is typical of the scapegoat and clown roles, a personal life marked by violence, chemical abuse, and dark humor. Yet none seem to free her from the effects of her mother’s hoarding. Penny, the youngest of the Bradford clan, rounds out the siblings. Beautiful and poignant in her role as the voiceless and invisible child, she attempts to fix her broken world and family through her dollhouse and home staging career, seeking to please those around her at any cost. I know these siblings and their roles intimately, personally.
My children will not know these roles. Not ever. I will fight everyday to become the parent they deserve, and to protect them from this type of pain as best I can. I will instill in them the hope and knowledge that we can do more than simply survive; we can overcome and thrive. When I return to my desk, I respond to Amy’s plea for help with her mother’s hoarding and the family dysfunction, and I realize that my experiences have made the bridge between the past and the future strong and stable.
Dear Amy, before I tell you about how we might be able to help your mom, I want you to know one thing. Your mom has created this situation on her own. You are not responsible for it, no matter what she or others have told you. You didn’t make her become a hoarder, a clutterer, or a mother. The first step in the process is for you to know this. It isn’t easy. I have to acknowledge it myself on a daily basis. You’ve made it this far; you’re a survivor. But rest assured, there’s help, healing and hope available. We are here!