From Tracie: A Dirty Secret - Why Old Catalogues Scare Me

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Dirty Secret - Why Old Catalogues Scare Me

I knew there was something different about my childhood home. It didn't look like my grandparent's home, or my aunt's home, or my friend's homes. It was only a few years ago that I was finally able to put those differences into perspective, while watching an episode of Oprah. 

As the episode started, they showed video footage of a woman's house. I tried to push down thoughts of similarities between the house being shown on the screen and the house where I grew up. I was doing a pretty good job with my denial until the woman tried to grab a piece of newspaper out of someone's hand while yelling, "You can't throw that away, I'm not done reading it!" These were words I had heard from my father many times.

It was the first time I realized that other people lived the way we had, and there was a name for the condition. I couldn't deny it - my father was a Compulsive Hoarder.

What is it like to live with a hoarder?
When I was little, it wasn't too bad. His stuff was contained in just one room. But as the years passed, it eventually took over two rooms, then three, until it was almost every room in the house except my bedroom.

My mom tried to keep things under control. She would clean while he was at work. Inevitably some of the things she threw away would find their way back into the house from the dumpster, but at least it would be better for a little while.

We didn't have people over to our home very often. I remember the few times that it happened, and there were weeks of cleaning before each occurrence. Most of that cleaning resulted in big fights, as my father did not want to part with his stuff. Many boxes would be hidden away in rooms that guests would not see, or stacked under a table and covered with a tablecloth.

Stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines. Everywhere.

The hoarding also took over his car. In the backseat, there was enough room for me to sit by the door (with my legs curled up because the floorboard was full). The rest of the bench seat was full of boxes, papers, computer parts and trash - all the way to the top. We also had a broken car in the driveway; it sat for years, completely full. 

If my dad thought we had thrown out even a single page of newspaper from his stacks, he would go through the garbage can to get it back, saying (yelling), "I am not done reading that." It didn't matter if it was a page of ads that was several months old, he would not part with it.

Things broke, but they were not discarded. 

I had to come up with reasons why I couldn't invite friends to come over, even if I had been to their houses several times. Once, I told a friend that our house was too messy. When she replied, "Oh our house was SUCH a mess when you were here last time. I don't mind." I realized that her definition of 'mess' was a basket of unfolded laundry and a craft project left out overnight on the dining room table. 

My house had a path of clear-ish floor space through the middle of the family room, leading to the couch and to the eating area. Every other inch of floor and tablespace was covered with boxes, piles of newspapers, old computer parts, and other trash.

I tried to explain to her that my house was not the same kind of messy as hers. I think she thought I was making up an excuse not to invite her over. Our friendship faded soon after. That cemented the thought in my mind that our living situation should be kept secret.

After my parents split up, the hoarding went out of control.
When  I was eighteen, I moved into my father's apartment for a few months. Most of my stuff was going into storage, but I had a few boxes with books and other personal belongings that I was going to keep with me. He told me that he cleared out a place for me in the spare bedroom, and I got a couple of friends to help me move. 

I thought (because he told me he had three storage rooms and the apartment had been cleaned up) that when we arrived most of his mess would be hidden away. It wasn't. This was the first time someone outside of my immediate family had seen the full extent of my father's hoarding, and it was embarrassing. I had not been prepared for how out of control it had gotten. Arriving at the apartment, we walked (single-file) through the path in the living room, to get to the spare bedroom.

This is what I saw: The door would only open partway, because there were things leaning against the wall behind it. To my immediate left was a closet that was full of old clothes that hadn't been worn in years, boxes and papers. I think he had cleared out enough room for me to hang up approximately three dresses. Directly in front of me was a single bed with a small path next to it, just big enough for me to fit through. The rest of the room was packed, floor to ceiling, with boxes. We all stared at the wall of boxes in shock. 

One friend, Chris, started grabbing newspapers and bags and taking them to be thrown out. I tried to stop him, explaining that my father would freak out. He assured me that there was no way my father would notice if a few bags of trash left the room.

Chris started opening boxes and found one that had a couple of plastic Wal-Mart bags and trash. Another box contained lots of papers and a Service Merchandise catalogue. He started waving it around, "THIS! He needs this catalogue? Service Merchandise has been out of business for over a year! Why does he have this?"

I had no answer.

I no longer live with a hoarder, but hoarding still affects me. 
I have reoccurring versions of this nightmare: something has happened to my father, and I get a call that I have to go deal with his house. It usually ends with me being stuck behind (or buried underneath) a pile of boxes.

I see tweets and facebook updates announcing that someone is watching Hoarders to get motivated to clean. It does not work like that for me. Just watching a commercial for Hoarders brings on the beginning of a panic attack.

Sometimes I start to freak out if Thomas goes looking for something in a drawer, because I feel like he is touching my stuff. It doesn't matter that the stuff is just a pair of scissors and some batteries - I suddenly have an irrational, emotional attachment to it. The exact kind of reaction that was modeled by my father. When it happens, I try to remember to take deep breathes and be calm. Usually it works, and the panic subsides.

Every few months I make a point to go through drawers and closets and shelves to see what can be donated to goodwill. I don't always trust my instincts as to what should be kept and what should be given away. There are times I probably get rid of things that could have been kept and put to use.

But the biggest effect growing up with compulsive hoarding has on me is this: Sometimes I wonder if there is a hoarder living inside me, just waiting to be unleashed...and that thought terrifies me.


  1. What a brave, brave post. Sending *so much love* your way. <3

  2. I have never before realized the impact of living with a hoarder. I think I had a bit of a hoarder in me, but I think it is getting better (really!!). It's okay to throw away that bill from 3 months ago that we paid already. LOL. Thank you for opening my eyes and making me aware. Melissa said it already, but I'll say it too. You are very brave, and very strong. Thank you.

  3. so brave, and i hope pouring your heart out helps more healing to happen.. for you and for others.

  4. I have a friend who is a hoarder. Nobody has been allowed in her home for years (she lives alone), so I can't even imagine what it's like now. I feel bad for hoarders, I do believe it's an illness like OCD that gets very out of control. And I think because you are so self-aware, you will seek help before letting it get out of control with you.

  5. I agree with everyone else, this is so brave of you Tracie, but then again it's you. Busting down barriers and allowing others to be brutally honest, to not keep the secrets. In a way your father was an abuser as well, he abused your childhood with his own paranoia and fear. He kept you from enjoying friends and family due to his 'habit'.
    I think you have enough knowledge to get help before you get that far hun.

  6. Oh that is powerful. I really feel your pain and struggle in the words. Thank you for writing this.

  7. Oh Tracie. I hope you feel the love and support.

  8. So brave, my friend.

    I'm so glad that you don't have to deal with that any more. We all have to deal with our parents' demons when we are kids.

    Yours was the hoarding. And now you've grown up and are providing a different kind of home because you've learned from it.

    You are amazing, girl.

  9. I agree that it is a disease. And often think of the Kids when I see the shows.

  10. You aRE AMAZING Tracie. Wow.
    I admire you even more now...
    You are AWESOME....

    Sorry I haven't been around much, with work and school starting this week...ugh. ya babe!

  11. One never really knows what goes on behind someone else's closed doors...

    I've often wondered where the line may be between a pack rat and a hoarder, if it is a delicate line to walk or a full-on psychological diagnosis. I don't think my husband or son would ever get rid of anything if I didn't make them. It worries me a bit...

    So sorry you had to go through that. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

  12. Tracie - I recently helped a hoarder mom (she has a 7 year old daughter). We got her studio cleaned up and bought her furniture so she wouldn't have to store things in bags, etc. But it was so discouraging because she didn't see it as helping - she saw it as intruding. But we did it for her child and I think the only reason she let us in at all was also for that reason.

  13. great post! my heart breaks when i watch Hoarders, but I think it's because I know what they are feeling. hubby says I have tendencies towards hoarding, and I see it, but I didn't know anyone else did.

    thank you for sharing that.

  14. You sound like you are doing a much better job fighting it than the rest of us. Seriously.

  15. I lived very similarly to this growing up and my parents are worse now. You're so brave to confront this. xoxo

  16. What a brave and beautiful post. Thank you for sharing it.

  17. Thank you for sharing this story. It made me realize my best friend through childhood, one of her parents was/is a hoarder. I always just thought they had lots of stuff around, and it was confusing. My friend wasn't embarrassed for me to come over, but we spent all of our time outside and I was never invited to spend the night. I was offended, but why should I have been? There would have been nowhere for us to sleep.

  18. This is eloquently written. Thank you for sharing your experience living with a someone who hoards. I read a very insightful book by Dr. Randy Frost called Stuff--he specializes in treating people who hoard. It's almost like a different form of memory, being acutely aware of each and every page of the newspaper and somehow defining it as part of the self. Taking your best guess about what to give away is all we get as humans--and that you are practicing this, by going through things to give to Goodwill, takes courage when you feel the panic rising. I believe your insight about the effects of hoarding on you will help you to get help if you need it.

  19. Tracie ...

    This is such an honest post. I think my husband and I both could have a bit of that tendency to cling more to stuff than we should. As a result we have too many things and our house is more cluttered than I would like. But not THAT bad ... only by the grace of God!

  20. Thank you for opening up and sharing this with all of us. My Grandmother was a hoarder and it greatly affected my mother by making her go in a totally opposite direction. Mom was always throwing everything away when we were growing up, even things that had no business being thrown out. I now realize that this was her way of controlling the hoarding impulse that she felt was deep inside of her by birthright. It's amazing how much our parents' actions impact the decisions that we make as adults and parents to our own children...

  21. Wow, strong post. I have to admit I've never watched Hoarders because it seems like such a painful show. I can't imagine what it would be like to grow up with a hoarder in the house and then try to fight back from that as you grow into adulthood.

    Thank you for sharing these special thoughts today - I hope that they provided some comfort for you to write them.

  22. That is a valid fear based on your living situation when you were younger but it sounds like you are doing well at getting rid of things that you don't need anymore.

  23. Tracie,
    it was pretty courageous to spill this. I am proud of you.

  24. My mom saved newspapers, tv guides, and magazines for years. floor to ceiling, but nowhre near what you're describing. I think we all fear that we will be what we grew up with.

    Being aware is half the battle.

    Breathe deeply and remember you are in control of your life.

  25. Oh, honey! I can only imagine your anxiety - reading about your nightmare made ME anxious! And I understand that panicky feeling of someone *cleaning* for you - I get panicky then, too. Chebbar will tease me about being a hoarder and I end up defensive and, again, anxious.

    Thank you for sharing with us. <3

  26. Oh. I just want to give you a hug. My sister's fiancee grew up in a house of hoarders. He can not have one single extra piece of anything in their apartment. Anything they buy has to be thought about and planned for. It is really intense. I feel bad for your dad, too. It seems like anxiety is involved. How exhausting. I have to imagine that if you started changing your behaviors in this way you would recognize it and get help.

  27. I so worry about my oldest daughter and this, I am afraid that when she somedays lives alone that this will be her childrens story. Her oldest daughter already feels very much like you did here. thanks for sharing

  28. Wow, Tracie. That would be awful. My mom keeps stuff she doesn't need, but not like that. I can just imagine.

    I think the biggest thing that will prevent you from getting like that is the awareness of how extreme it is. Good for you for writing about it.

  29. You are so brave to put this out there. And I'm so sorry that you had to live with this.

    Hoarding has affected my family, too, but for me, it is nowhere near what you've been through. My aunt is a hoarder, but along with her hoarding she has other mental health issues. And for most of her life, she has never lived independently. First with my grandma and now my aunt. Luckily, they are able to confine her hoarding to her personal living spaces. As a child we were forbidden to go into the basement where she lived. A few times my sister and I would sneak a peek and to this day, I can remember the shock of seeing things stacked to the ceiling.

    I have mixed feelings about the Hoarding show. I'm glad it's brought to light this serious issue, but at the same time, it's become a national joke and I can only imagine how painful it must be to those affected by hoarding.

    This was an incredible post. Great job.