children of hoarders interview series is rolling right along. Matt from Stepping Out of the Fog is the next interviewee.
Hi, my name is Matt. I'm 42 years old, married and have 3 kids. I work in high tech marketing. I enjoy writing short stories, drawing, photography and watching movies.
Do you have any hoarding tendencies? No I don’t believe I have hoarding tendencies. Having seen the impact of hoarding and really results of indecision in regards to possessions and objects, I am aware of the accumulation of stuff. I feel like this awareness is not necessary natural and something that I have to stay on top of, that I could easily let things build up and not question myself about how important certain objects or documents. My wife knows the hoarding history and when she says, “Hey what are these empty camera boxes in the closet?” a shrill goes up my spine and I think to myself, ‘Oh no! Is it happening to me to? Am I holding on to useless stuff?’ Then I realize this is just a couple of boxes. I look at them and dispose of them. Maybe twice a year I’ll look at my closet and say, ‘Ok things are piling up, and I think there are clothes that I haven’t touched all year.’ Then I go through the closet and sort out what I wear, and what is no longer being worn and take that stuff to a clothing donation center. Sometimes the mail starts to pile up and I don’t go through that on a regular basis, but when I see that pile growing my internal alerts perk up, and I say to myself, ‘hoard’ and sit down and go through the mail that has accumulated.
Is there a history of hoarding in your family? If so, who else hoards? Good question. The hoarding in the family came in two waves. First my father was the primary hoarder. He is an only child, and I am not aware of any of his relatives are hoarding (of course these things are usually family secrets). Then when my grandmother died (mother’s mother) my mother brought the inventory of her entire home down to our house and that served as the base for a hoard that took over the house. Looking back, my grandmother lived with her brother who was paralyzed from a stroke. He didn’t leave the house much. The main floor was well tended, but the basement was more cluttered, and the garage was full of stuff and locked. This uncle (my grandmother’s brother) would probably be considered a low level hoarder, collecting stuff, filling up rooms but overall the house was still navigable.
What are your parents' favorite things to hoard? It started with newspapers. When I was little there was two piles of newspapers next to my father’s easy chair. I would sometimes look through the pile and check the dates, noticing that they went back even a couple of years. As I mentioned in the previous question, the stuff from my grandmother’s house piled up, including everything from boxes of dishes and to furniture (several bed frames). My father regularly accumulated books and after they filled up the room designated for his hoard, books piled up in different rooms. With the advent of CostCo and outlet clothing stores, the hoarding tendencies went into overdrive regularly adding to their inventory with new ‘bargains’ that got at different sales. Recycling and green thinking also drove a lot of their hoarding. They kept all the tea bags, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peelings ostensibly to add to a compost pile outside. First this stuff collected inside. And if they got around to removing it, then it would go outside. Compost piles are supposed to be used for enriching the soil of a garden. Their compost pile was just that, a pile. In addition, since aluminum, paper goods, glass, and plastics could all be recycled these were saved until they could be properly recycled. On the other side of getting bargains were saving coupons, so for many years my father’s newspaper pile was maintained on the basis that he had to sort through the newspapers to get all the coupons out, even though the coupons themselves had probably expired. At one point my parents finally decided to discontinue their newspaper subscription, which I saw as the most positive breakthrough ever. They also went after rebates, so this meant they held on to all (yes all) packaging. One wall of the garage had some shelves and boxes upon boxes of packaging so that box tops or other items on the boxes could be cut out for rebates. The rebate project was carried out slowly and I don’t know to what extent it saw returns. They held onto all the packaging whether or not they were aware that a rebate could be acquired, and it was a production for them to go through the packaging find the correct items, and then fill in the form for the rebate. The packaging piled up on the kitchen counter, and kitchen table, before being sorted out (if ever) to go out into the garage. My father also wanted to hold onto items that he thought would appreciate in value, so with CostCo he got boxes upon boxes of baseball cards and football cards. He filled up boxes with Star Wars toys, and collected die cast metal military toys, saying ‘these will be collector’s items’.
How has your relationship with your parents changed since you moved out of the hoard? I moved out for university and started to get a different perspective on my parents. I didn’t identify the hoard as playing a central role in my relationship with my parents, but felt that their tendency to blame me or simply make me crazy with frustrating behavior. I spent my third year of university abroad and then after finishing university I left the country permanently. Growing up, whenever I raised the issue of the clutter in the house I was told that it was my fault because I was disturbing my parents and not allowing them to deal with the clutter. Since moving out, I gained perspective, seeing that their claims against me were false and even with my infrequent visits their house just sunk into a worse state.
How does your relationship with your parents differ from your sister’s relationship with them? I think from a very early age I realized instinctively that my parents were emotionally crippled and unable to provide warmth, comfort and support. In response, something shut down within me and I didn’t reach out for love and warmth, in retrospect this was more of a survival technique. I continued to find my parents very frustrating and just tried to avoid to maneuver around their neuroses. I would sometimes try to question my parents on a logical basis, asking about the collection of stuff accumulating. I was made to feel that my hands were tied where just by talking to my parents, I was distracting them from their efforts to deal with stuff. They further restricted my actions by insisting that much of the boxes brought down from my grandmother’s place were antiques and I shouldn’t move the boxes since that would damage the items. So I adapted, becoming colder, and accepting life within these boundaries. My sister was more emotional. Both she craved more validation and support from my parents, and she made her opinions blatantly clear, going head to head with them about things that didn’t make sense. This put her on the receiving end of my parent’s wrath and fire. She got yelled at a lot more. Often children of hoarders describe how in the family dynamics one sibling is favored, considered a golden child, and the other is scorned. I was the golden child, which was a useful strategy for my parents. It directed my sister’s rage towards me, making me concentrate on defending myself and trying to explain that this was my parent’s label, not mine.
Do you and your sister talk about your parents' hoarding? Do you think you have a stronger relationship with your sister because you survived living in the hoard together? Unfortunately not. I try to talk about it with her, but when I bring it up she replies with, ‘You left. It just got worse after you left. And I had to deal with them alone.’ So I would say that my sister holds a lot of resentment towards me. I have tried to be understanding and realize where she is coming from, but our relationship has not grown stronger despite our history.
How does your wife handle your parents and their hoarding tendencies? First of all, my wife doesn’t have to deal with it up close. We live in a different country. Since getting married we have only been back to my parent’s city twice. On the second visit, I insisted that my wife come and see my parent’s house, and she got see how the house was hoarded first hand. My mother escorted us from room to room without any embarrassment. My parent’s send packages and my wife makes sure to wash the clothes before the kids can wear them. Even though we are far away, and my parent’s visits are only once a year, my wife still concerned about them, wondering how they can get by in that environment, that they aren’t sick more often.
Do you feel a need to protect your children from your parents? If so, how have you coped with that? Not really. They see my parent’s infrequently and have never seen their home. They are unaware of this history.
When did you first realize that your parents' behavior was abnormal? I think I clued into this around 8 or 9. We moved homes from a small, one story home to a larger 6 bedroom place with a basement. After the move, the house was cluttered and I would ask about that, when we would sort things out. I would be told, ‘we’re still moving in.’ After awhile I realized that this was their excuse, and nothing would change.
When were you able to disassociate yourself from the shame of hoarding and begin opening up about it? In my twenties, around 24 or 25, I had started going to therapy. That was when I really opened up about our living situation, the way I grew up, and how my parent’s behaved.
Have you ever sought any kind of therapy for dealing with your parents and living in a hoard? I wouldn’t seek out therapy for my parents to directly deal with the hoard situation they live in. I went for therapy for about 8 years to deal with all the baggage and issues that had built up in my life as a result of coming out of the hoard.
Do you have any hope that your parents will eventually stop hoarding? Why or why not? No. No hope. This is engrained in their DNA. I have suggested and offered to them other paths in life, that they could consider living in the same town I live in, and rent an apartment. They have their excuses like ‘Oh we can’t go away, we have a doctor we know.’ Then a few months later, they will tell that their doctor is retiring (there goes the excuse) but now they have to focus on finding a new doctor.
What is the most disgusting or interesting thing you encountered in the hoard? Interesting is just the sheer accumulation of stuff from various points in life. Disgusting is the saved tea bags and vegetable peelings. They also saved the top of the their wedding cake, it is in their freezer.
What is at least one positive thing you were able to glean from living in a hoard and dealing with your HP? I am a survivor. I learned to be very aware of myself and to be much more insightful into my behavior and others. In some ways, coming out of the hoard made me into a stronger person, pushing me to want to create my own life, and determine for myself how it should be.
What are some ways you coped with living in a hoard? Like I mentioned, I emotionally disconnected myself and just walked around it. I would engage my parents in questioning about when they were planning to do something, but would just get frustrated by their illogical responses.
What are some ways your sister coped with living in a hoard? My sister was much angrier and clashed more with my parents. At 19, she met a guy at work, got pregnant and left the home.
Do you have any advice for others currently living in a hoard or trying to cope with their HP? The first bit of advice I would give to other children of hoarders is that you are not alone. I know that I felt this was my private, unique experience. Then I would say that you are not responsible for this situation, no matter what your parents are telling you. And most of all this doesn’t need to determine your future, the hoard can be overcome and you can live life the way you want to.
Thank you, Matt, for sharing your experiences with such detail! If you are a child of a hoarder and are interested in being interviewed over email, please shoot me a message!