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Friday, September 5, 2008

At Least My Kids Will Have Clean Teeth

I haven't written very much here about my mother.  We have complicated relationship, filled with mixed emotions.  I love her and respect her more than you can imagine, but for some reason we have been unable to form a healthy adult relationship.  It's gotten worse since I became a mother.  How painful it is to type that sentence.

My mother has not had an easy life.  Her father was an alcoholic and abusive to her mother.  She was very close to her mom, who passed away shortly after my mom started college.  She rarely speaks about it, but I think she was devastated.  After graduating from nursing school in Minnesota, she packed up all her belongings and moved out to San Francisco with some school friends leaving her family and the only life she'd known behind.   She joined the Air Force as a flight nurse and travelled the world.  That's where she met my father and decided to get married at the age of 32.  I think waiting until after you turned 30 to get married was rare in the early sixties.  

After nearly eleven years of marriage and two children she found out my father had an affair and my parents divorced.  My memory is pretty fuzzy, but I don't think the divorce was even final when my father was diagnosed with cancer.  He died nine months later.  Within that same year, my mother's best friend committed suicide.  So there she was a stay at home mom turned widow, but not technically a widow, with two young girls to raise.  As you can imagine, she was emotionally a wreck.  

But the eight year old me had no idea how hard things were for her.  She did everything she could to put on a brave a face for my sister and I and make our lives as normal as possible.  My family is a family of secrets.  They come from a place of "don't talk about the bad stuff, put a smile on your face and move forward."  So I don't think my mother ever really dealt with the crap she was handed.   She went about the business of earning a living and raising her daughters.  She never dated again after my father's death

I am not a psychologist by any means, but I think that all of those things above have contributed to the fact that she is a compulsive hoarder.  You know, where she can't throw anything away and there are small paths throughout the house to get to the toilet, the bed, the shower, etc.  

this used to be my sister's childhood bedroom

It started with the refrigerator of all things.  I remember being in junior high and embarrassed to open the fridge if I had friends over.  There is barely room in there to fit a can of soda and she lives by herself.  She has more stuff crammed in there than I have in my fridge to feed my family of five.  From the fridge, it moved on to the garage.  There is a large storage area above the garage that is filled with all my toys and furniture from childhood.  Once that was full, the stairs to the storage area started to fill up.  You can't even make it up the stairs any longer.  She hasn't been able to park her car in her two car garage for years.   

mom's master bedroom

She saves magazines, wrapping paper, random purchases from TJ Maxx.  One of the cupboards in her kitchen is full of dog biscuits, leashes and dog dishes.  Our dog died 15 years ago and she has no plans to get another one.  There's no where to sit and eat a meal because her dining table is covered with stacks and stacks of papers.  Her bathroom is filled with bags of random shampoo and conditioner bottles with just a few drops left in them.  

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  My sister and I estimate it will takes us weeks if not months to clean out her house when the time comes.  She only lives about 10 minutes from me, but I rarely let my kids go over there because it's just too dangerous.  She knows she has a problem, but it would be incredibly difficult for her to let go of her piles.  I know she'd be mortified if she knew I put pictures of her house on the internet, but she doesn't read my blog.  She doesn't even own a computer.  More people know about her compulsion than she will admit to herself.  She hasn't had any of her close friends over in years, they must know.  My sister and I have tried to intervene to no avail.  It's like an addiction.

Maybe as a result of the state of my mom's house, I tend to lean in the other direction.  I throw everything away.  It makes me feel good to clean things out and get rid of them.  I don't like clutter and it's easier for me to relax when my house is clean and organized.  

I do have one little problem though.  Toothbrushes.  I have a strange urge to buy my kids new toothbrushes every time I'm at the drug store.  I am powerless to resist the latest toothbrush innovations, characters my kids love, toothbrushes that play music or toothbrushes with little suction cups that stick to the wall.  That is all well and good, but then I can't throw the old ones away.  Then they get new toothbrushes every six months at the dentist's office.   Therefore we have a toothbrush collection that looks like this:

Is there such a thing as compulsive toothbrush hoarding?  PsychMamma?  Anyone?

In all seriousness, I know that compulsive hoarding is no laughing matter.  My sister and I discuss it often and it breaks our hearts to know that we will probably never have a meal at her house again and our kids will have no memories of playing at Grammy's house.  Not to mention the fact that her house is clearly a dangerous fire hazard.   We are at a loss.  Her compulsion/addiction not only hurts her, it hurts her family and friends and it has damaged my relationship with her.

I've merely scratched the surface of my multi-faceted relationship with my mom in this post.  I'm sure I'll revisit the subject.  


Laura said...

Well, I'm not THE illustrious psychmamma but I'm a bloggy frind of hers, which is how I found your blog. And I am a psych-mommy too, so I feel some ability to address this.

Yes, hoarding is a psychological disorder, it's not really about the stuff either. Usually these people are substituting stuff for the people in their lives that they miss--they'll buy stuff for people or because it reminded them of someone or something that they are afraid to lose. From the history you mentioned, it's easy to see that it's a reaction all the loses she has felt over the years. She's afraid to lose things now, and it's gone irrational. It would be very hard to "cure" your mother without professional help, since you would be addressing issues with her parents, marriage, etc. That's a lot of heavy stuff, but that's the stuff that has her trapped in these behaviors. Not to sound like a textbook, sorry if I was too long.

I grew up with a mother with psychological problems but I can't blog about them because my sisters read my blog and I live in the same "put on your happy face and pretend nothing's wrong. We DON'T talk about what's really going on" household too. Well, maybe we can help each other.
Oh, and about the toothbrushes, until you can't open your doors because of them, I think you're ok Smiles!

Maura said...

Wow. (I seem to be saying "wow" a lot in comments these days, but damn you all write some incredible stuff.) That's a lot for you, your sister and your mom to have dealt with, but I really feel for the loss of your relationship with her. Once we get a chance to talk IRL, you'll understand why. :-)

My theory about the toothbrush thing? You were a dentist in your past life!

heartatpreschool said...

GREAT post Sis!!! Very brave.

I think Laura's comment above is spot on. Sadly, I don't think we can help her on our own. Anyone ever hear of a hoarding intervention? As much as it's effected our relationship with Mom, I also think it's strengthened our relationship as sisters - sharing the hard times together.

We'll always be there for Mom, and I think that's the best we can do as her daughters.


Marinka said...

What a post. I am so sorry. I've heard about hoarding, and there was a documentary about it, and it was hard to watch. Of course, you are absolutely right to focus on your children's safety.

Do your kids rotate the toothbrushes?

Mama Ginger Tree said...

Laura: thanks for your comment! You hit the nail on the head. I can't blame her for how things have gotten this way, but I just hate to see her living this way. I look forward to getting to know you!

Maura: We have a lot to talk about in DC!

Heart at Preschool: Solidarity. xoxo

Marinka: Brushing their teeth was turning into an hour long ordeal while they choose which brush to use. My husband made them each choose one toothbrush and threw the rest away. He did his own toothbrush intervention.

Andrea's Sweet Life said...

You are so brave to post this, so I want to give you some love pats (since I'm not such a hugger).

My husband used to install dishwashers for Sears, and he would go into a lot of older people's homes and have to go carry the new and old dishwashers through the paths in their junk. He felt SO bad for them. What do you do?

Melissa said...

I totally feel your pain on this one.

My mom was a total hoarder, and the only reason she's not anymore is becuase she was foreclosed on her house and could only take the things with her that would fit into a small one bedroom apartment. There was so much stuff in there that she probably could have solved some ofher money problems with a massive sale.

Complicated mom issues are tough. I guess we'll all muddle through together...

Anonymous said...

My grandmother did something similar, although she was also compulsively neat. But when we cleaned out her closets--all five that she had to herself--every single one was cram-packed from floor to ceiling. It was unbelievable the amount of stuff we found tucked away so neatly and out of sight.

My heart goes out to you and everything you and your family has had to cope with. Very courageous post.

anymommy said...

A tough post to write, I can imagine and even harder to publish. I have no knowledge for you and you have such great comments already, but I think you are handling things incredibly well. You are there for your mom, you love her and you are putting your kids safety first. But, I'm sure that doesn't stop you from hurting because she's hurting.

Her story (and yours, in part) opened my eyes. It's always amazing what people live through so quietly. Great, brave post.

PsychMamma said...

I'm so sorry that you have such a complicated (strained?) relationship with your mom. Mother-daughter relationships are often "tricky" to begin with, but adding these sorts of behaviors into the mix just increases the complexity.

Laura did a great job describing some of the psych behind compulsive behaviors. I'll just add that compulsive behavior can also be maintained because it somehow makes the person feel "safe" or "comforted." They might also have extreme fears or phobias regarding what they perceive could happen if they didn't engage in the behavior.

No matter what, your mom has some serious stuff going on and it can't get "fixed" until she decides she wants to change something. I'm wondering if she's aware that this is why you don't bring your kids over? Sometimes, a catalyst for change/seeking therapy is when a person finally realizes how their behavior is affecting people they love and their relationships with them. If the behavior remains "the elephant in the room" that no one talks about, it's almost guaranteed that nothing will change. But sometimes that's just more "comfortable" for everyone involved as opposed to the tension and stress involved with confronting the issue and working it out. What's "right" for you and your family is what you have to decide.

It just sucks to even have to deal with it.

I admire your courage to write this post and to share something that had to be difficult to put out there. Maybe it will help someone else realize that they're not alone in their struggles. There are more people out there dealing with stuff like this than you would probably ever guess. Hang in there!

Oh, and re: the toothbrushes? I'm guessing that you're a little (lot?) tongue-in-cheek when you say you feel "compelled" to buy one, and that it's more like me with shoes or bags: "I know I have lots/enough, but this one is SO cute, and it's different than all the others, is cheap/on sale, etc." If you really feel like you can't leave the store without buying one... you might want to check that out. ;-)

Mama Ginger Tree said...

Thank you all for your comments. I feel terribly guilty exposing my mom like this, but I think about it a lot and it helps to write about it.

Andrea: I can't even imagine if someone had to carry a dishwasher into her kitchen!

Melissa: I think one of the reasons my mom still lives in a three bedroom house by herself is she can't imagine giving up all that space for her stuff. We'll muddle through together for sure.

Insta-mom: That is so interesting about your grandmother. I've never heard of a neatnick with a hoarding problem.

Anymommy: just thank you. It's always interesting to discover what issues people have lurking no?

PsychMamma: I have mentioned to her that why I don't bring my kids over and I know it affected her deeply and I felt terrible. The whole thing is still an "elephant in the room" for sure. It really has helped me a little just to write about it. And I'm working on my toothbrush issues. It could be worse right? :-) THANK YOU for your insightful comment.

Tracey said...

I just wanted to let you know this post has stayed with me for many days, and I know these insightful comments will as well.

Best of everything to you and your family.

I'll buy a toothbrush or seven today in blog solidarity. :)

Paige Parsons said...

This post touched me so. I have so many happy memories of sleepovers and hanging out after school at your moms; it saddened me so to think of how the clutter has affected her. I remember your mom having the girls over for a tea when we graduated from High School.

The, "don't talk about the bad stuff, put a smile on your face" resonates deeply with me. That is how it is in our family and it pains me so to see the mental damage that it has done to so many of the women of our mothers generation.

There was a wonderful two-day Oprah show last fall on the secret life of hoarders. Three adult children wrote to Oprah about their mom and her hoarding/clutter and how it was impacting their relationship, especially with grandkids. They did an intervention and clean-out and showed the details of the whole thing. It was very powerful. THere were 71 tons of trash and 1,800 storage totes of usable goods that were removed from the 3200 sq ft home.

Maybe your mom would be open to at least watching the show. Seeing someone with a much more severe version of your own struggle can be very empowering. A slideshow with an overview of the show can be found at:


As well as video snippets and other links here:


I also have part II of the show saved on my TiVo and would be happy to burn it on DVD for you or your mom to see.

Peter Walsh, the guy that lead the intervention has also written a book on the subject, maybe that might have some useful tips as well:


Many thanks for your honest and powerful post.

heartatpreschool said...

I know this is my sister's blog...but thanks for your comment Paige! It really means a lot. And thanks for the links to the Oprah show. I really want her to see that one, I remember it, but forgot to record it.


Lish said...

Dr. Phil has also done some good hoarding shows.

The picture of those toothbrushes made me laugh out loud. Such a creative addiction.

I always love hanging out with your mom. She's always so witty although I'm never sure if she means to be funny or not. But I'm always laughing when I'm around her. Huh. Come to think of it, I always laugh with her daughters too...

Teeth Whitening said...
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