Last weekend 20/20 aired an episode that included a segment about children of hoarders. It’s funny how when I was growing up I felt so utterly alone, and once the shows about hoarders started to air I had something to connect to. And that felt freeing. But I’d never seen anything focusing so specifically on the children who live with hoarders and how it effects them. Through the show I found an email list specifically for adult children of hoarders. And holy mother of god. I found people like me.
Labels can be amazing things. I had no word for my life when I was a child. We used the word “messy”. Which. Honestly. It’s hilarious how much of an understatement that was. And confusing. My friends never understood why they couldn’t come over or even see inside – after all, their houses would get messy sometimes. But now everyone automatically knows what I’m taking about when I say my mom was a hoarder. Which is such an amazing feeling that I cannot find the right words for it yet. My whole childhood I suffered in secret and now it’s just a part of everyday vocabulary. It makes me want to dance. (Which I now have room to do in my beautiful home that has FLOOR SPACE.)
The thing that really struck me the hardest, I think, was the term “doorbell dread”. The second I heard it I knew exactly what it was. You don’t spend your entire childhood living in the dark, holding your breath, pretending not to be home at every knock without knowing that term. For years and years even after I moved out and lived in a presentable home, every knock at the door would strike me with anxiety and send my heart racing. Honestly I think it’s been only the last couple of years that I don’t feel that anymore. I am comfortable with having people over now, but I have to be emotionally prepared for it. I so want to be the house on the block where all the neighbor kids play, but I am just so not that person. I’m conditioned to be extremely private and anything else takes varying degrees of emotional energy.
And yet, even for all the things I have in common with these other people, there’s a deep chasm where we differ. My mother’s hoarding was caused largely in part by the fact that she simply ceased functioning. She wasn’t one of those who was afraid to throw away any junk mail or piece of trash. While I do have a reflex to throw things away secretly for all the times I was yelled at for getting rid of the wrong thing, I at least knew my mother loved me deeply. It seems many hoarders cannot express that for their children, and the kids are pushed away by the sea of trash and junk into a place where Stuff really is more important than they are.
And as I reread that paragraph, I see that I clearly have some redefining of my mother’s mental illness to do since that’s a really weak argument up there for why she isn’t the usual kind of hoarder. I wonder what I’m holding on to with that ideal?
Anyway. It’s been a big week. I’m not alone anymore. I’ve shared stories and common thoughts and fears with people who understand in a way that I need to be understood. I’ve listened and talked and offered my thoughts and experiences. And all that is kind of incredible.