“The Things I Can’t Say” Posted at Digital Inkwell

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 8.48.30 PMI’m not one for cross-posting, but if you’ve been following this blog at all, you should check out the post I wrote over at my writing blog, The Digital Inkwell. It has to do with motherhood and disappointment. Consider it a description of the symptoms of the disease of hoarding and how it affects those in the hoarder’s life.

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How It All Began

I received a comment the other day asking if I knew what triggered my parents’ hoarding–what started it–and I thought that would make the perfect topic for a post. I have two answers to the question, “What do you think made your parents start hoarding?” They are:

  1. I have no idea
  2. Me

Let me back up. My mom had a very difficult birth experience. Very, very difficult. The damage her obstetrician caused took four years to repair and that ended in a hysterectomy. Even then, she was never the same. She was in and out of the hospital for four years undergoing major surgeries. I stayed at my grandma’s house a lot when my dad was at work. He had a heart attack in the midst of all this from the stress of going to work, driving out to L.A. every day to see my mom at UCLA, picking me up in Long Beach, then going home just to do it all over again.

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By the time I was four, the hoarding had officially kicked in. I looked at some photos of my family home the other day  to spot the signs of the hoard, of when it began. All the main rooms of the house look normal up until I’m about three. They get progressively messier because they’re filled with kid stuff. I get that. Having a kid causes a certain amount of unavoidable mess.

But then I happened upon a photo of me on my hobbyhorse toy when I was about two. I’m perched on the spring-supported horse with a smile on my face and my dad is smiling in the foreground. However, in the photo I’m surrounded by piles of junk. It’s the den. The back room of the house and by far the biggest. They apparently tucked the hoard away in that room all those years. The hoard was a literal secret for quite some time. Even from me.

This is an important distinction. My whole life, my parents used the excuse that all the surgeries my mom had and the stress of having a baby is what led to the messiness. For years and years, they said this. When I went to school and had to tell people we were remodeling forever, the crux of that excuse was based on the notion that it all went wrong after I was born.

I always felt like I was the problem, encroaching on the perfect little life they had built for themselves. It was all so fine and lovely before the emergence of the child.

But that’s bullshit.

The photographic evidence doesn’t lie. The hoard was already there. Already stacked up and piled up. Already tucked away in the back room, waiting to flood out in a tidal wave of lawn chairs and boxes into the rest of the house.

They were already broken. I just pushed them over the edge.

Out of the Dark, Into the Light

I spent way too much of my time growing up in the dark.

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The shades were always drawn. They were so thick, they barely let in any light, even on the sunniest of days. It’s funny, really. My parents had those orange curtains since the 1970s when they were in fashion. They contrasted the avocado carpet. Now, however, they act only to block out the light. More importantly, they make it so no one can see in.

Even in the summer, the house was dark, dim. My dad never wanted the light on in the living room. He said it glared too much on the TV. I guess that’s what happens when your priorities in life revolve around a glowing screen. Or maybe he wanted the light off because it was easier to ignore the mess around him. To pretend it wasn’t there.

In the summer, the piles of junk made the house stiflingly hot. My dad would open the front door to let some air in but cover the screen with a blanket to make sure no one could see inside. One time, someone had come up to the porch to pass out a flyer or ask if we’ve accepted Jesus as our personal saviors and I’m pretty sure my parents flipped their shit. Someone saw. From then on, the blanket was hung up to prevent prying eyes.

I was used to darkness, I guess. Going out into the sun made me squint. It was always a harsh shock to the eyes. Then going back inside was its own kind of shock. I couldn’t see a thing. My eyes adjusted to the brightness of outdoors and it took a minute or two for my vision dim back down to the drawn curtain glow. Sometimes, I liked the darkness. When I was older, I purposely made my bedroom dark and only had the light of candles to see by. But I blame that on being an angsty teenage girl. It didn’t have much to do with the broader surroundings of my home.

On the weekends, my dad and I watched movies. The living room, always dark, made the perfect place to catch a flick. We had a big screen TV for a while, but it broke when I was eight years old. That TV still sits in the living room 20 years later, pressed up against those curtains. In front of the old worn-out TV is a cabinet on which a newer TV sits. It was on that screen that we would watch movies. Watching horror films with my dad is probably one of my best memories from growing up. We bonded over that and I always liked the scary stuff. The gorier the better. It was all fun and games and we’d have a good laugh about the particularly bad ones. People Under the Stairs anybody? Still,  I can’t help but feel like it was just an elaborate escape. Amidst promises of cleaning out the house so I could have friends over, we sat and watched movies instead of doing anything really productive.

I think my dad started out more of a collector than a hoarder. He collected movies and records, mostly. But as my mom became a hoarder, my dad’s collections turned into junk piles. He refused to let go of broken electronics. I thought it was chronic laziness, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe he was holding onto something, too. I happier past? The lasts figments of youth passing through his fingertips? Or maybe he felt like it was all he had in a house that was overrun by things that weren’t his own.

I still like the dark. Prefer it, perhaps. My creativity is sparked at nighttime and I loathe mornings. Maybe I’m afraid of what I’ll see under direct sunlight.

I Just Wanted to be a Normal Kid

For the most part, I know the people who come into my home don’t judge me if it’s messy. Because I know messiness doesn’t equal hoarding. I’m not neat and tidy. I have trouble with organization. I blame this on years of living in cluttered and unorganized surroundings. I didn’t learn the skills to keep up a house. My friends all had chores to do growing up. I never did.475810_plastic_fork

Once, I asked my mom if I could do the dishes. I wanted to do chores to earn an allowance. I wanted to be like all the other kids.

She let me for a while. We only used plastic utensils so I washed them and dried them and put them back in the drawer. After a week or so of this, she didn’t let me wash them anymore because I did it wrong. Or, I dared to spill water on the counter. I can’t remember which. For a bit, she continued to give me an allowance just because, I guess.

I remember it very clearly. For some holiday, my parents had received a large tube that was filled with Tootsie Rolls. The lid had a slot for coins so it could be used as a bank once the candy was gone. My allowance was tucked safely away in there, $5 at a time.

One day, my mom decided to take it all. Yes, I know I didn’t earn the money in there, but she wouldn’t let me complete chores to earn it. She gave me the money anyway out of the kindness of her heart, I guess. Then she just up and took it one day. “I buy you things all the time,” she said and took the cash without explanation.

I realize my parents probably had a bill to pay or something. But at the time, it just reinforced the idea that I wasn’t normal. Other kids were allowed to do chores. Other kids earned allowances. Other kids didn’t have their allowances taken away because their mothers decided their child had been given enough things and didn’t deserve the money anymore.

I felt worthless.

And that’s what the psychology of living with hoarders does to you. It makes you feel worthless. Ashamed. Since hoarding is an anxiety disorder and often related to OCD, you are also made to feel worthless because you can’t live up to impossible standards set forth by the hoarder. My mom made me feel useless on a daily basis. I couldn’t do anything right. I couldn’t even clean things right, which is very strange when you’re surrounded by clutter and piles of junk. What does that do to a child’s mind?

Everyday when I got home from school she’d say, “God, I can tell when you’re home,” and proceeded to inch a coaster a little bit more to the right or move my backpack so that it leaned at just the precisely right angle. She’d laugh at me and while she probably thought she was poking innocent fun at my obvious lack of care, it cut deep. Because nothing about her criticisms made sense. I realize now that those criticisms came from a diseased mind. Of course they wouldn’t make any sense. Still, when she said I was messy, I thought I must have been really messy. I mean, look at the rest of the house?

I felt like I was to blame somehow and was actively made to feel like I was the reason the hoarding started in the first place.

But more on that later.

On Doorbell Dread

After some Googling, I found a support group, Children of Hoarders, and it’s been really helpful putting into words what I’ve been through. For instance, there’s a little thing called doorbell dread that I had no idea existed, yet I suffer from it all the same.

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Picture this: you’re sitting in your home and the doorbell rings or somebody knocks on the door. You get up and answer it right? That’s what people normally would do. I, on the other hand, run to the door and peer out the peephole. Who is it? Who’s come to see me? Why are they here? My mind races. After seeing who it is, I feel my stomach rise to my throat. Feelings of panic overwhelm me. I don’t want to open the door. I don’t. want. to.

Now, if I’m expecting a visitor, I’m okay. I can open the door just fine. But an unexpected visitor? Forget about it. I can’t handle that. I pretend I’m not home. I hold my breath and hope they don’t knock a second time. I just can’t deal with it.

Apparently, this is a common feeling among people that grow up with hoarders. It’s called doorbell dread and it’s an anxiety and fear inflicted upon us by the hoarders. You see, when I was a kid, if anyone knocked on the door, my parents exhibited this behavior. They peered out the peephole. They pretended they weren’t home. They told me to be very quiet. We all held our breath until the intruder at the door left.

They didn’t want to let anyone in because they were ashamed of the hoard. Their shame became my shame.

I was given a list of lies to tell my friends. They wanted to come over to hang out but I had to tell them we were remodeling. For over a decade. I’m sure I lost friends over this. I’m sure people didn’t understand. And yet for a long time, I didn’t dare tell the truth. The shame and fear my parents felt at the thought of anyone finding out their secret was something I held onto wholeheartedly. When you’re a kid, you believe everything your parents tell you. I trusted them. They told me how the world worked and I believed them. In short: I didn’t tell anyone the truth about my parent’s house until I was in high school. And even then, it was only to a select few. And no one really knew how bad it was. Not really.

Just after graduating from a high school, a friend stopped by my parent’s house unexpectedly at about eight at night. I panicked. She called the house and I answered, so she knew I was home. I couldn’t hide behind the curtains this time and pray the visitor went away. I had to go outside.

So I did. I sat in the car with her and I was fuming. I was on the verge of tears. I was so afraid and I didn’t even know exactly why. The bubble had almost been breeched. The huge secret was almost found out. I was embarrassed. All of these emotions boiled up to the surface as anger. I was shaking I was so mad. But I wasn’t really mad at my friend. I was mad at the situation. That I had to go to such great lengths all the time to be normal. That I had to lie. That I had to pretend everything was okay at home when it wasn’t.

That might have been one of the first times I saw my family for what it was. I might not have known it that night, but I think subconsciously, I became aware of my situation.

And from that point on, finishing college and moving out became my top priority.

Not Really a Beginning

After much thought, I’ve realized there isn’t exactly a good place to jump into this story, so I’m just going to start. As I write more posts, hopefully a through line to the narrative will develop. If not, that’s okay too. It will have been a fruitful exercise at least. An exorcizing of demons.

1071221_supermarket_pushcartLet’s tackle the title of this blog first, shall we? When I was growing up, there got to be a point where there was a shopping cart in my bedroom. My mom bought too much at Sav-On one day and couldn’t carry it all so she took the cart home with her. Instead of returning it, the cart ended up parked in my bedroom.

Maybe I should back up.

My parents are hoarders. I didn’t realize it at the time. This was before there were popular TV shows chronicling the freaks who store empty ramen noodle cups in their cabinets or leave rotting food across their living rooms. This was before I knew about the word “hoarder” and before I knew there were other people out there living like me, going through what I was going through.

I was hoarded out of my bedroom by the time I was eight or nine. Filled with my parent’s stuff, my stuff. Stuff and more stuff. And then the shopping cart ended up in there. I couldn’t walk in the room and could only access the toys that were nearest the door. I slept on the living room floor on a fold-out couch/chair thing. I had a bedroom and a bed. I just couldn’t use it.

Before that, I had a normal room. I could play on the floor and put my toys away in drawers. I had a nightlight and a bookshelf. The rest of the house was a shambles, but I had my room.

But then, one day, the hoard from the rest of the house crept into my room. It’s like my parents made some kind of effort at first to keep my room clean. However, a piece of stereo equipment appeared in my room one day. Then the empty boxes from Christmas gifts. Then some clothes. Then it all got stacked on top of each other in the towers of junk that characterized the rest of the house. Finally, I couldn’t sleep in my own bed anymore because my mom put stuff on on it and I wasn’t allowed to move it. Then I couldn’t walk into my room all the way anymore. Then I couldn’t walk in it at all.

By the time the shopping cart made its appearance, I could only walk about two feet into the room. My backpack hung on the handle of the cart like I could just pull that cart out of there and parade down the street with it. Like I’d accumulated things to take with me on a journey and I was just waiting for the right time to leave. It was in my room, after all. It must have been my things. My mess.

When I turned twelve, my mom spent a few weeks clearing out the entire room. She painted it, cleaned it. I had my bed back and my room back.

From that moment until I was in my early twenties and moved out, my room was the cleanest in the house. Cluttered like a teenager’s room, yes. But the cleanest. And I fought hard to keep the junk from encroaching.

And yet (and yet) if I left a soda can in the living room, my mom would thunder and bellow, “I can tell you’ve been through here. God, can’t you pick up after yourself?” I’d sheepishly rinse out the can per her instructions and put it in the trash bag just like she wanted (but I never did it right) and wait until I did something else wrong to be corrected and chastised.

Now you know why this blog is called what it’s called. Not sure where I’m going to go from here, but I hope you come along with me for the journey.