My mom's a hoarder

She's filled her house with stuff 4 feet deep and the family can't handle it.

By Cary Tennis

Published July 3, 2007 10:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have recently returned from a visit to my family and am stricken with guilt. My mother has turned into a major hoarder and has filled the house and surrounding areas (front porch, side of house, in front of the garage, in her car) with stuff, to the point that it is a major life and safety issue. There is a small path from the front door to the main points (kitchen, bed, bathroom) but every other horizontal space is piled at least 4 feet deep with stuff. This has been going on for a while (obviously), but it has definitely reached well past the tipping point. My dad has threatened, cajoled and finally succumbed to some pretty major depression. He's no angel, and yes, some of the crap is his, but the definite majority is hers.

She is incredibly defensive about "her stuff." If my dad says he's going to start throwing it out if she doesn't do something, she just says then she'll throw his stuff out. And of course, she keeps on buying. There are piles of books she bought for her classroom (she's a semi-retired teacher) that have ended up sitting out in the driveway, ruined by rain, because she has no more room in the house to put things but won't throw or give them away.

My siblings live within a couple hours of them but have chosen to mostly ignore the problem, probably because they rarely visit to see how bad it is. I live halfway across the country, which puts me in the position of staying with them when I come to visit and therefore makes me actually more aware of the situation than they are. This last time I had to stay in a hotel because there simply was no room for me at the house.

I have been blunt. I told them they're living like crazy people, I told them this is a safety issue, I told them whenever I get an unexpected call from them I gird myself for the news that someone has been crushed by a pile of crap, or the house caught fire and they couldn't escape. But nothing seems to faze her. She buys books about getting organized, and guess where they end up? Oh, sorry, who knows, they're probably under a huge pile of crap. She talks as if she's interested in cleaning up, but action, or lack thereof, speaks much louder than words.

The hard part is that it all has meaning to her. It's things for classes, it's things for projects she thought of five years ago but hasn't gotten around to quite yet, it's books, it's information, it's interesting stuff.

I have read some about hoarding and OCD and she would certainly seem to fit the pattern, and I've told her to talk to her doctor about this as well. But she's an adult, I can't tell her what to do. I told her that if I didn't see some improvement by the next time I came, I would send her and my dad off for a couple weeks and I'd take care of it, probably not to her liking but it would get done. She just sort of weirdly giggled. But the more I think about it, the less that seems like the right answer. It would make me feel better temporarily, but since it would not address any of her issues, like why she feels the need to surround herself and what does this stuff really mean to her, I can only assume that it would slowly be re-created by her.

I know she needs therapy, but how do you get someone to go when you're their child, live halfway across the country, they are living on retirement with health insurance but who knows what's covered, etc.? Plus it tires me to think that almost every conversation I have with her revolves around this, that I'm angry and frustrated with the situation and her lack of control (which I know also points to some major issues, bordering on mental illness) and that every visit turns into a complain and vent fest.

The situation is so indicative of many much larger problems -- it ramped up after her mother died, my parents' somewhat passive-aggressive relationship, communications problems, possible OCD -- that I'm at a loss as to what to do. Should I just go ahead and clean out, to give them some literal breathing room, a fresh start? Perhaps the situation is truly too overwhelming for my mom to deal with. Do I try to have another serious conversation with her? My past experience again has been a lot of talk but no action, or brief spurts of action that are soon overwhelmed. I've suggested an intervention, but I know she'll feel like she's being ganged up on, which I guess she would be and maybe that's the point. Or do I just let it go like my siblings seem to be able to do? This seems like a huge shame and makes me feel really sad.

Any thoughts or direction would be helpful.

Cleaning Out My Closets As We Speak

Dear Cleaning Out Closets,

It's clear that your mother needs outside help. To get her that help, you need to create a plan of action. That plan may involve several people and agencies -- a social worker or therapist who is expert in this area, someone who can help with physical disposal, someone to help with home maintenance, someone to be your eyes and ears as you try to manage the situation from a distance, someone to help manage the reactions of other family members as they step in to help or thwart these actions. You may need the help of others as well, depending on how much physical deterioration has occurred in the house and how much progress can be made with your mother's behavior.

You are correct in sensing that just cleaning out the house wouldn't solve the problem.

"Living with or knowing a hoarder can be exasperating," writes social worker Matthew Robb in this excellent Social Work Today article. Robb cautions family members against rolling up their sleeves and decluttering on their own. "Confrontational tactics can spectacularly fail to resolve underlying pathology while instigating family conflict," he writes. "Besides, such efforts are usually futile."

You may find my previous article on this subject, "My Wife Is a Compulsive Hoarder, to be of some use, as it has several links to useful resources. The letters from readers of that article may also be of some help to you, as a few people in situations similar to yours have shared their experiences.

It's going to be tricky. Progress may be slow at first. So let me suggest this as a guiding belief or principle, a bumper sticker for your mind, as it were: Get used to the difficult and strange. Lower your expectations. Accept that your mother is in the grip of something.

And then get to work.

I wish I could spell out a more concrete and detailed plan of action, but there are too many unknown factors. The bottom line is that you need a plan of action and you need a professional or team of professionals to assist you in making that plan and carrying it out. You begin by gathering and digesting information that describes the problem and various methods that can be used to improve it. And then keep at it and do not be afraid. Know when you meet resistance from siblings and from your parents that though you may not be doing it perfectly you are doing the right thing. You are doing what must be done. You are doing it for them, even if they don't like it.

However infuriating the pace of progress may be, try to go slowly. Remember that your mother is not the enemy. She is not doing this on purpose to drive everyone crazy. She's doing it because she can't help it. She needs your help, even if she can't say she needs your help.

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