I don’t know when the hoarding began; we always had a lot of stuff. I had dozens of Barbies. We owned hundreds of VHS tapes, cassette tapes, books, records, 8-tracks, and CDs. Our house was never void of food or fun. We had so many “things” that we could feed and occupy an entire army. But when I was younger, I never gave these things much thought. I thought we were normal. Spoiled, yes, but normal.
Yet hindsight is clear, and when I look back on my childhood, other things come into focus. I see an overflowing pantry full of boxes, bottles, containers, and cans. Lots and lots of cans. I see a dining room we couldn’t use because it was covered in crap. There were piles of scrap paper, newspaper, sticky notes, and bills strewn about. I see closets we couldn’t access containing mountains of clothes we couldn’t — or wouldn’t — wash. I see my life in multiples, as my mother never bought one of anything.
Instead, she purchased cereal in bulk and Stove Top stuffing en masse. She kept large quantities of makeup, with two or three unopened compacts of blush, eye shadow, and foundation at all times. She had at least five Clairol home hair coloring kits in our bathroom and at least half a dozen canisters of Aqua Net above the sink.
If I’m being honest, I hated it. I hated her strange habits and quirky ticks. I hated the mess and constant state of chaos she forced us to live in. I despised the way her compulsive behaviors affected me. We never had company over or hosted big family dinners. In fact, inviting friends into our home wasn’t just against the rules, it was a groundable offense. The lack of social interaction didn’t just stunt my growth, it affected my brother as well. We both ended up with major anxiety issues. And the mold, mildew, dust, and dirt exasperated (and possibly created) my brother’s chronic lung conditions. To this day, he suffers from severe asthma and allergies.
My mother’s illness didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t go to bed one day and wake up to a mess the next. Instead, her habits shifted gradually. Her actions and behaviors changed over a long period time. And in my opinion, it all began innocently enough. The first things I recall her keeping were sentimental objects. She wouldn’t throw away my brother’s drawings or my preschool paintings. She held on to every greeting card, most of my report cards, and certain trinkets from our childhood.
But before long, things changed. My mother’s mental state shifted and in time, everything meant something. She kept old magazines and empty perfume bottles. She kept gift boxes, gift bags, and used gift wrap. When the goods in our pantry began to expire and the cans of expired corn began to bulge and the boxes instant mashed potatoes began to disintegrate, she kept them, too.
Stuff covered every surface. Crap covered every inch of floor. Moving boxes made their way into our home and were filled and stacked like modular shelving along the walls. We lived in filth. No matter how much I bathed, my feet were always black.
Of course, I was embarrassed by this behavior; I was ashamed. By the time I entered high school, “the mess” rubbed off on me. I felt dirty and unkempt. I tried to hide behind big hair and baggy clothes. I still do.
But perhaps the most surprising impact of my mother’s hoarding is how it continues to affect my adult life. While I moved out of my childhood home when I was 18, my mother’s actions and behaviors have permanently altered mine. I am a self-conscious, anal-retentive neat freak, who cannot stand clutter. Piles of anything — toys, books, boxes, unfolded clothes, mail — give me angst. I get angry, emotional, stressed, and upset.
Make no mistake, I know my own extreme behaviors aren’t a good thing, and it’s an issue I continue to work through with a therapist. But I still struggle. I think I always will. I suppose if nothing else, my experience growing up with a hoarder has taught me that my most valuable possessions live deep in my heart. And no matter what, I will never lose sight of that.