Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reader questions

by drachmann via Flickr
From time to time, a reader will reach out to me via email to share their story and ask me for some advice. I think that sharing my response on the blog while maintaining the reader's anonymity could benefit other readers and perhaps even spark some further advice in the comments. I received the following email from a man who is dating a child of a hoarder (some details have been omitted):

Hi Sarah 

I came by your blog by way of COH. I am not a CoH but my girlfriend and her siblings are. Your interview series on yourself could be the exact mirror image of my Gf and her siblings apart from their father who still lives with their mother, the father is an enabler. My GF has no relationship with her father and hardly any with her mother. 

I have many questions I would like to ask less to do with relationships, but more to do with finding your feet with the outside world. 

Did you or your sibling develop OCD to cope and still have it now? 

Has therapy worked for you in terms of relationships and connection with fulfillment in life? Gf and siblings were taken for therapy when young by mother and mother has been seeing therapists going 30 years. so have negative feelings on therapy. 

When did you feel ready to speak about it more openly outside of the family and not feel that you kept having to create an image of what you wanted people to know. In this case I feel I am an enabler to my GF by not being completely honest with my family about it.

Here was my response:

Thanks for reaching out to me. I feel honored that you feel comfortable talking to me about you and your girlfriend. I'm so glad that you care about her enough to try and understand what she has to go through as a child of a hoarder. So many people don't take that extra step.

I have never been diagnosed with OCD and neither has my brother. There are some behaviors that I have that might be considered similar to or boarder line OCD behaviors that I know are a result of living with my hoarding mother. These behaviors tend to come out more when I have a lot of anxiety or have fallen into a depressive episode. I have an aversion to plastic bags and especially hate the way they feel and sound (my mother uses them all of the time and hoards them). I also inspect my food very closely before I eat it if it was prepared by someone other than me (my mother hoards food and there were times growing up when I was given food to eat that was rotting). I also keep my car very clean and do not leave things in it (my mother has piles of trash in her car). I know that my brother hates having piles of unread newspapers and magazines lying around his house because those are things that our mother hoards. Almost all of these types of behaviors that I have can be linked back to a behavior of my mother's.

I went to therapy for about six months a few years ago. At the time, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety for a number of different reasons, including my mother. Therapy was very helpful for me because I learned how truly messed up my mother was. I thought that the way she treated me was normal since that's all I've ever known. My therapist made it very clear that my mother's behavior is not typical. I decided at that point to cut off most of my contact with my mother. Talking to her did more harm than good for my well being, so I basically put the ball in her court and felt very relieved without that burden. That's not to say that there aren't times where I feel guilty or wish that I had a strong relationship with my mother, but over all, I feel much better about my past since I do not feel obligated to talk to my mother frequently. Sometimes setting up boundaries and creating distance is the only way you can love someone and instead of feeling resentment, I have found a kind of peace that allows me to accept my mother.

Therapy also helped me find some direction in terms of what I wanted out of life. I was able to take the GRE and apply for a graduate program while I was seeing my therapist. The approach my therapist took was more cognitive behavioral therapy. Most of what I learned about while in therapy was mindfulness and understanding that action is required in order to change the way you feel and the way your life is headed. My therapist recommended a number of books to me that I found helpful when I did the activities that they outlined.

It's a shame that your girlfriend is so opposed to therapy. I understand that if someone has had a bad experience in the past with therapists, it can be hard to convince them to try it again. It's possible that she just didn't like the therapist she had back then, but she might be able to find someone now that she can form a better connection with and who understands her problems better. It's surprising to me that her mother has been seeing a therapist for so long. My mother refuses to believe that she has a problem and so she would never think to visit a therapist. Most hoarders do like to be seen as the victim and so maybe her mother feels like as long as she is seeing a therapist, she can still be seen as a victim and get attention for it.

I really started opening up more about my childhood when I was in college and I happened to flip through one of my friends' magazines and there was an article in there about a girl who lived in a home that looked exactly like mine and she described it as a hoard. Before this, I hadn't made the connection. It seemed as though being able to define it gave me so much more understanding about the whole situation. It was in this article that I found out about the website Children of Hoarders and their support group on Yahoo. Being able to read about others' backgrounds and connect with others like me kind of opened the floodgates. I realized that my mother's hoarding was her problem and I was just unlucky to live in it growing up. Once I started talking about it and I realized that my friends still accepted me despite my background, I was able to stop covering it up and just be myself.

As far as you feeling like an enabler in this situation, I don't think you should feel that way. I think it's only a matter of time before your girlfriend is able to talk about it more freely and create some emotional distance from her parents' home. Maybe she just needs to read more about hoarding and read more about others' experiences being a child of hoarders to realize that it wasn't her fault that her parents hoarded or that it's not her problem. Maybe talking to a therapist or talking more to her siblings will do the trick. I think as long as you encourage her to come to terms with her past and let her know that you're there for her and love her despite her past, I don't think you can consider yourself an enabler. Everyone handles things differently and everyone heals at their own pace. Keeping the details from your family is respecting your girlfriend's privacy, just like keeping back other personal things about her, and I think that's okay.

Do any readers have further advice to offer?


  1. I agree with this:
    Maybe she just needs to read more about hoarding and read more about others' experiences being a child of hoarders to realize that it wasn't her fault that her parents hoarded or that it's not her problem.

    Until a person who hoards has some self awareness about their problem, there isn't much to do to help them. SO...the best thing to do is help yourself. For me, talking about hoarding and educating others about it gave me a greater awareness and compassion for the disorder. I've had to accept I don't have all the answers or the capacity to help my Mother, but I can remember her as she was before the disorder set in. There's a real person behind all that stuff.

    1. Thanks for chiming in Rae! I think education is definitely a great first step to recovery.