Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Interview series: TC

Next up for my children of hoarders interview series is fellow blogger, TC, from The 2000 Things.

I have decided that my stuff will no longer control me. I will control my stuff. I have vowed to remove 2000 things from my home every year to get back in control. I am not a hoarder, but I am an adult child of compulsive hoarders (COH). I have decided that I do not wish to live like my parents and leave such a cluttered legacy for my children. I am now learning how to view my possessions with less emotion and more reason and, in turn, am teaching my kids the same skills. My 2000 Things list gives me a simple structure to follow as I systematically deal with my clutter and accumulations.

Are your parents on the same level of hoarding or is one more prone to hoarding than the other? My mother is the main hoarder. It bothers my father greatly, although he is also guilty of collecting/keeping things, too. His items are very specific, however, and don’t tend to take up as much of the living space. The things my mother acquires and/or insists on keeping are absolutely everywhere in the house.

Is there a history of hoarding in your family? If so, who else hoards? Yes, my mother’s sister hoards to a lesser degree. She is very particular about what she acquires, but it is the volume of what she has that is the issue. She has learned the hard way that she has to keep it under better control, and has found outlets for what she loves to collect. For example, she loves to go to Goodwill or other thrift stores to look for antiques, but she realized that she could not continue to bring more things into her house. So to satisfy her desire to look for those hard-to-find items, she offered to help me locate items for a collection I have instead. I have given her a list of specific things on a wish-list, so she doesn’t randomly purchase items for me. It has worked well for both of us. My collection is not out-of-control, though!

My mother’s brother also hoards. He has recently begun to give away and recycle some things, but he has such a large volume of items in his house, yard and garage that it is going to take a lot of work to significantly reduce it. He keeps anything that might be useful.

Their parents did not hoard, but they were very poor and simply did not spend money on material items. They spent it on food for their large family, and making sure that they helped their kids with their education (all 6 went to university). In my experience, they didn’t spend money on anything new unless it was a necessity and/or the old item was not fixable, for example.

What are your parents' (HPs') favorite things to hoard? Mother: recipe books, clothes, magazines, newspapers, empty envelopes, food (two enormous freezers full, generally the food is well-stored), sentimental items, nearly everything my brother and I ever owned that we did not remove from the house ourselves, plants/plant-related items, furniture, teapots. Really, everything but actual garbage. They are clean that way.

Father: stereo equipment, items that might be useable in his business (electrical work, self-employed), hobby items.

How is your current relationship with your HPs? It is good, although I think that it is because I don’t live near them and so am not exposed to their stuff regularly. I see them at my house several times a year. I don’t go to see them much. This is largely because there is no room for us to stay with them, so it involves spending money on a hotel.

Do you have any siblings? If so, how is your relationship? How is their relationship with your HPs? I have one brother and we get along well. He is as frustrated with my parents as I am, and perhaps more, since he lives much closer. I am pretty sure that they use his property to store some of their things (he lives in a rural area and has buildings on his property). He’s not a hoarder.

Who else knows about your HPs' hoard? Quite a few people know, but they are mostly friends of my parents and family. I know the neighbors suspect it as the yard has lots of stuff in it and it has caused friction with them in the past, but they don’t visit. Most of the family finally figured it out about 10 years ago when my mother agreed to host a large family reunion event at their house. Thank goodness the weather was nice as it was impossible to host anywhere but the yard. There were many, many raised eyebrows and mutterings at that event. Interestingly, my mother has not often refused to let people visit the house. Most of my friends know about it, but I don’t think they truly understand as they’ve never seen the house.

When did you first realize that your HPs' behavior was abnormal? I knew it was odd when I was a little kid, since none of my friends’ houses looked like mine did, but the hoard was not bad then. By the time I was a teenager, it was clear that I should not invite others over as it was getting more cluttered and filled. I decided this on my own, my parents never told me not to have people over.

As I got older and moved out, I discovered first that I loved living in a normal, low-clutter environment. Over time, I realized that I did not know how to clean my place, how to sort my things and how to give things up. I didn’t know until I was teenager that the things that were at thrift stores were donated by people – who knew that you would do that? It was practically unbelievable to me.

When were you able to disassociate yourself from the shame of hoarding and begin opening up about it? It has been just in the past 3 or 4 years, and it became even more important to me to talk about it once I found the Children of Hoarders site. I had seen some of the tv shows on hoarding and realized that my parents were a lot like that (but always clean) and then started to research the disorder. When I saw how many kids were on online message boards saying how bad things were for them, I had to start talking about it more and more – it was awful to read that they thought they were the only ones. I’ve tried to be very active in replying to those sorts of messages. I feel that hoarding is like any other addiction or untreated mental health issue – it’s no good trying to ignore it and hope it goes away.

Once I started my 2000 Things List, I saw that I could write about the positive changes I am making in my life, despite my upbringing. I started blogging within a few months of that.

2000 seems like an awfully large number of things to get rid of. Were you tempted to choose a smaller goal or do you think you will be in the future? The 2000 goal was not actually mine to begin with; it came from a friend of my cousin’s. When I heard about her New Year’s resolution to get rid of 2000 items, I was really taken with the idea. I decided to try it over the last few months of that year (2011) and was able to achieve it without too much effort. Maybe if it had been harder I might have lowered my goal, but 2000 seems to be my sweet spot. I am confident that I can continue to find 2000 things. I have kids, and they generate so many things to add to the list!

The things I count are not all large items so it has been easier. I’m not a minimalist or trying to pare my life down to 100 belongings. I’ve counted gift bags, twist ties, CDs, magazines, photos, old calendars, socks – if the item was hanging around my house and I didn’t need/want it anymore, it was a candidate for the List. In fact, the largest items I’ve included was a winter coat. I’m not into giving away or selling my furniture or anything! I do have a couch in my basement that I would love to sell, but the rest of my family might not agree.

You've done this challenge for multiple years. Has it gotten easier or harder to find 2000 items every year? I’ve done this in 2011 and 2012, and am working on my List for 2013. It has gotten harder but only because I’ve cleaned up the easy stuff. Now I have to look a bit deeper and think a bit more, but I still have many items I know I can remove. Currently, I have just over 400 tick marks on my List for 2013, which is pretty good for the first three months. I am in a cleaning mode right now, so I expect to get to 500 soon.

My house is not hoarded, and I don’t have clutter (except my office) or ridiculous collections of things. However, I am not comfortable with how much I have in my house, for which I totally blame my parents. I feel better knowing that I have the control over what I keep or give away. So my 2000 Things List is not about getting rid of all my magazines, or all the clothes I rarely wear, or all my kids’ outgrown toys, but making good decisions about what to keep. My parents rarely make decisions about what to keep – it just happens.

How do you find/make the time to identify 2000 things to get rid of? Looking for items for the List is now a habit. It is also a fun challenge to see what I can find to give away/recycle/use up/discard every day. It’s almost disappointing when I can’t find something for the List. I try not to let it take up much time, but now and then I will remove items from a drawer or cabinet and really look through them to see what I should keep. If I get the urge to donate a piece of clothing, for example, right away I put it with other items to donate and so I will not to think about it too much (or I might keep it). Some items I have to think about for longer, to determine whether I really can/should remove them and how. They are usually items that should be sold. That takes a bit more time.

Do your parents know about your challenge? If so, how do they feel about it? I am not sure if they know – they might have overheard me mention it to someone else. I don’t think my mother would appreciate or understand what I’m doing and why, although my father would. She’d flip if she knew some the things I’ve given away.

As someone who also struggles with having piles of papers, what are some tactics you've discovered to reduce paper clutter? Now, when I get paper on my desk, I try to figure out what to do with it right away. I keep a lot less paper than I used to. Old papers, from school or my volunteer activities, are ones that I am still working through. I have recycled a lot, but it is tough, especially if I think the information might be needed again. I’m improving at getting rid of the obviously out-of-date materials. If I can’t immediately remember why I kept a newspaper clipping or magazine article, I ditch it. It couldn’t have been that important!

I used to have lots of trouble with birthday, Valentines, Christmas cards and such. What I am trying now is to keep only the most recent of those cards from only certain people. At one point, I had a stack of 10 years’ worth of those cards on my desk. It kept falling off the desk and that’s what made me annoyed enough to find a strategy for handling them. I still feel bad about recycling any cards, however.

Have you ever sought any kind of therapy for dealing with your HPs and living in a hoard? No. What I went through was not even close to the horrible situations I hear about with some COH. What I do worry about is what happens when my parents get a bit older and perhaps less mobile. They are insistent that they want to stay in their house no matter what, and sadly, they won’t be able to unless they clean up the hoard. That might just require some professional intervention for both them and me (as well as my brother). I try not to think about the ghastly job of having to clean out the house, buildings and yard when they are gone, too. I would need therapy if I were to dwell on that too much.

Do you have any hope that your HPs will eventually stop hoarding? Why or why not? No, I don’t expect my mother ever will, except if she becomes too infirm to go out there and get more things. My father does not enjoy dealing with all the stuff in the house, so he might stop, but it will make little difference. My mother knows that she has too much in the house (she will sometimes say so) but she doesn’t know where to start and can’t stop acquiring. She’s also very hostile about others cleaning up the house, even my father.

What is at least one positive thing you were able to glean from living in a hoard and dealing with your HPs? Learning more about hoarding and why it happens has given me a lot of insight into my mother’s mind, just from learning about others who are similar to her in upbringing, personality, and coping skills. Some people go through life with a rosy, warm and fuzzy view of their parents, who are never real people to them. I can see the real person my mother is, both her positive attributes (and there are many) and her shortcomings. I think I am better able to understand why people are the way they are.

On a much brighter side, I love seeing empty corners and the place where the wall meets the floor in my house. There were no empty corners or baseboards visible at my parents’ home.

What are some ways you coped with living in a hoard? I tried very hard to keep my mother’s things out of my room when I was living at home. I was mostly successful, but unfortunately, I had developed hoarding tendencies of my own so the room was pretty full. I overcame most of those by my early 20’s when I moved away. I was pretty lucky that our house was still usable – there was a tiny kitchen, a table to eat, and a functional bathroom. There wasn’t a couch to sit on after a while, but there were always kitchen chairs. I love having lots of different places to sit at my house!

Do you have any advice for others currently living in a hoard or trying to cope with their HP? Lots of others have said this, but I believe that it does get better. You don’t have to live in that house forever. If the conditions are really bad, you don’t even have to live there now because, more and more, people know about hoarding and how awful it can be for kids. Find someone to talk to and see if there’s somewhere else you can live. I still think there’s work to do but I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, no one would have believed that living in a hoarded house should be a reason to remove a child. Now they do.

If you are on your own and out of your HP house, don’t let them suck you into their drama and their problems. Help them get them help if they want it or if they truly need it for their own safety. But if they don’t want your help, and they fight you at every turn, then stop damaging your own mental health trying to clean up the mess they’ve made. You need to focus on your own life, kids, relationships, and work. If they are toxic to you, stay away from them. But if you can find a way to have a relationship that doesn’t involve the hoard, enjoy it. And if you don’t know how to live like the rest of the normal world, there are many of us out there who are figuring it out and would love to help!

Thank you, TC, for sharing your experiences! If you are a child of a hoarder and are interested in being interviewed over email, please shoot me a message!

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