My mom lives with mice!

She's a hoarder. Her place is full of garbage. I dread having to clean it out

Published June 2, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Hello, Mr. Tennis.

My mom is, I believe, a hoarder.

Once, when she came to visit me, I was shocked to see her car filled up to the dashboard with newspapers and junk. When I asked her about it, she said they were things she had to go through still. My former room and other rooms too, she says, have become filled with the contents of her car and other things -- things she has not gone through yet. Bags of garbage -- or, in her words, "things I have to go through still" -- are sitting in her carport, beside one of two broken-down cars.

She is in her mid-70s. She lives in a large two-story house that used to be where a husband, wife and two children lived. Now it is just her. She has since changed the locks to her house, so she is the only one with a key. Her husband, my father, died 10 years ago. I moved out 15 years ago.

Her elder brother, who died maybe 20 years ago, was a hoarder too. One time during his later years, his siblings (save for my mother) went to his house -- which was also his parents' home, both of whom had long since passed away -- to help him clean up. One lasting memory of that time: the broken refrigerator that was still holding food that he was still eating.

I remember once going to her place maybe eight or 10 years ago, and I remember seeing formerly full pop cans sitting on the shelf, now still sealed but empty from age. And there are exploded cans in the cupboards. And in the basement I saw droppings everywhere.

I asked her about mice, because I knew there were mice in the past. She said yes there are mice. Everywhere. I have given her sonic mouse repellent machines, and a fire extinguisher, and those fire hoods, and am considering a fire ladder. She says thank you, and she says she has them handy, etc.

This keeps me up at night, fearing having to go into her house when she is gone, having to wear foot and hand protection and a breathing apparatus in order to enter and clean the place.

And the bathtub/shower does not work -- it hasn't worked since her husband died, and so she comes to my place a few times a week to take showers. And to cook dinners for her and me -- her kitchen no longer works either, so she eats out or eats at my place.

She still works, kind of. She is lucid and vibrant, and wonderful with children. She helps out at the elementary school where she once worked, and where her two children attended 40-plus years ago. She goes there every day to help out at the library or in the classrooms. She also goes out on many social engagements with her co-workers.

I know she is not going to live for that many years, and I know she could be doing so much better, and I know that one day she will die and there will be a huge mess to clean up.

And I also know that this reality -- the sickening living conditions -- will somehow be her legacy, that all the good she did (and she really did do a lot of good, and is still doing so) and all the love that she creates will be overshadowed by the mouse droppings that surround her.


Dear Hiding,

"If you or a loved one has symptoms of hoarding," says the Mayo Clinic, "call your doctor." That's the best advice anyone could give you.

Here is also a good site on hoarding. They may help you find a good treatment provider.

As the site says, we all have clutter but there's a big difference between someone with a lot of clutter and a hoarder. People with clutter just let things pile up. Hoarders keep garbage.

You mention that her brother was a hoarder. "There is a very strong association between having a family member who is a compulsive hoarder and becoming a hoarder yourself," says the Mayo site. One of the questions a treatment provider would probably ask her is, "Do you have a first-degree relative — a parent or sibling — who is a pack rat?"

Beyond pointing you toward these sites and recommending you learn as much as you can, I don't have much more to add in a practical way. What I can do, though, as a writer, is imagine what it feels like to need to keep all your stuff around you and get panicky when people want you to clean up and then feel paralyzed when you can't find what you're looking for or when you need to file a ton of papers.

I do understand the crushing weight of overwhelm. I spent a good part of the Memorial Day weekend catching up with filing, which caused me to wonder, What is this phenomenon of "overwhelm"?

"What you're really experiencing is the overwhelming presence of one thought that has the power to freeze you in your tracks," says this guy named Guy Finley.  He may be a guru type from Oregon but what he says sounds like cognitive behavioral therapy: "This deceiving thought calls itself 'one-hundred-and-one things to do.' The next time you 'hear' this inner voice of imminent doom, listen instead to this higher instruction: Never again look for a way out of any anxious condition. Look instead for a way to see through it."

He suggests you "Proceed in spite of any thoughts or feelings that would have you believe you can't. Just behind your certainty that your list of what you have to do is too much for you lies a new and conscious capability to proceed one step at a time, to accomplish one task at a time, to your satisfaction."

Sounds good to me. I'm not filling my house with garbage, but I do get caught up and paralyzed about what to do next, and sometimes it seems like a good idea to fill my car with newspapers and cats. When that happens, one thing I'm not doing is being in the present. So I also found this sort of helpful:

"There’s only one question you need to ask yourself to align your focus on the present. Here it is: What can I do, right now?"

I believe there is hope for improvement. Here is why: Your mom is making strange choices but she is making choices. There are things she will hoard and things she will not hoard. Otherwise, she might just fill the house with dirt. She is making choices. If a therapist can help her narrow down the things that she hoards, maybe progress can be made in that way. Maybe there are certain things she can learn to let go of. If she is making choices, then there is hope that she can alter some of those choices.

Let's hope so.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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