The day I found out my mother was a hoarder
"Honey, let's go!" my dad whispered hurriedly as he grabbed my hand and pulled me into the car.
My mom had left for work 10 minutes earlier. She was an executive secretary with top security clearance and never left the house without being dressed to the nines. No one outside our family would ever have guessed that she was a hoarder.
"Dad, what are we doing?" I had no idea why we were chasing mom.
Fifteen minutes later, Dad pulled into the hotel parking lot where mom's vanpool convened. He slowly circled the manicured grass medians, looking for mom's car until he spotted it.
"Come on!" Dad said, grabbing a handful of trash bags.
He walked over to mom's car and popped the trunk. It was overflowing with clothing, empty boxes, and trash that mom had recovered from our garbage cans. I was shocked. Dad started filling the bags. When five extra-large bags had been stuffed, he loaded them into his own trunk. We drove back home in silence. He looked weary and resigned.
When we got home, the garbage went back in the garbage cans. We sat on the porch to wait for the trash truck to arrive.
"Mom's going to be furious," he said. "That's the first time I've done that. She thinks I don't know."
When you hear the word hoarder, you probably think of a person living in a pathless, cobweb-ridden space surrounded by mountains of boxes, newspapers, clothes, toys, collectible spoons, and bisque dolls stacked from floor to ceiling in a house that should be condemned. But hoarding is not always obvious. It's not always like the stuff you see on TV. There are many levels of hoarders ranging from those who selectively hoard salt and pepper shakers or damask tablecloths to the very, very helpless souls who exist surrounded by filth and piles of untouched crap.
Many hoarders keep their habits a secret, sometimes for decades. A hoarder's home can actually be pretty neat in appearance but stuffed to the gills with crap behind closet doors and in basement cupboards. Think of the Friends episode where neatnik Monica Geller hides her hoard in a locked closet.
I always knew my mother was a shopaholic. She had five closets filled with clothing and shoes with handbags in every color of the rainbow to match her daily outfits. She would shop for hours on weekends and come home with bags full of new clothes. It didn't matter to her whether they were from Macy's or the thrift store. She could always make whatever she wore look amazing.
You would think that once she retired, the need for shopping would wane. But the opposite happened. My father became ill with Alzheimer's and the shopaholic lifestyle became a hoarding habit. It was mom's way of dealing with his illness. She would scour the bargain bins at the mall, and buy the latest gadgets from a 24-hour shopping network, even if she had no need for them. In her hoard we found two mini-generators and three coil hoses, all in their original packaging. She would hoard everything from napkin rings and costume jewelry to upholstery fabric and shampoo. "Honey, I always like to give gifts to my friends," she would explain. "They appreciate it when you're generous and you remember them."
My dad struggled with Alzheimer's for 10 years before he passed away at 91. It wasn't until my husband and I moved in with mom to take care of her that I truly began to comprehend the depth of my mother's hoarding.
The only reason the house was not in the "packed with crap from floor to ceiling" condition was that mom had no time to herself between when dad died and we moved in. But already, newspapers were piling up on the kitchen table and empty boxes lined the walls.
Mike and I took the master bedroom. We thought we had things under control. But neither of us were prepared for what we found in her rooms at the opposite end of the house.
"Shelley?" Mom called me for help in her office. "Honey, I can't find my tax file."
I walked into her office to find our old dining table now piled high with three feet of files, papers, books, three Rolodexes, four staplers, five pairs of scissors, and her typewriter. There was a space that measured about a foot square — which is where she paid bills, wrote letters, and kept her social calendar. Under the table sat grocery bags of Christmas decorations, boxes of Goodwill knick-knacks, and used cookie cutters. Mom didn't bake.
"Mom, what is all this crap? Do you even use any of it?"
"Oh yes!" she said proudly. "I use everything in here."
"Mom, come on." I pulled a McCall's magazine from the bookshelf. It was from 1977.
"Would you let me organize it for you?" I asked. Mom looked a little sheepish but relieved. "Don't throw away anything that's important, okay?" she said. Then she went to bed.
It took me seven hours to clean and organize just the top of her desk. I got rid of three giant trash bags of old magazines, discarded envelopes, and Xerox copies of advice columns from the paper that she meant to hand out to her friends. I even found a stack of steno pads with shorthand notes dating from the early '90s and a stash of fabric remnants stuffed in a book box.
I knew that if we didn't get a handle on this it would explode into an even bigger problem. I convinced mom that even Oprah Winfrey — her favorite celebrity — supported the practice of "keep, donate, or sell." Mom's eyes grew wide.
"But Shelley, I need everything!" she cried, terror-stricken at the thought of parting with any of it.
"I know, mom. I know you do. But what if there's stuff you really don't need? You could donate it to the church. You could sell it at a yard sale. If you sell enough stuff, you could take a trip to Europe!"
"Europe?" she said, her terror softening. "I could take a trip to Europe?"
She looked like a child, hoping that her parent who'd just promised her a new toy was telling the truth.
We'll do a little bit each day, I promised. And we'd sell everything she didn't need to fund a trip to Europe. She seemed comfortable with the idea that I would help her. And she liked the idea of being able to help other parishioners at her church.
I wasn't prepared for what came next.
We settled in her bedroom and I took all the clothes out of her closet. The clothes just from the curtain rods covered her full-size bed in a stack three feet high. Each piece required a painstaking decision: keep, sell, or donate. The "keep" stack was the largest. The "sell" stack had maybe 50 pieces in it and the "donate" stack had a few coats and sweaters. The whole process took six hours. Then she started culling through the "sell" stack and moving pieces from it to the "keep" stack.
"Mom, you've already made the decision to sell those pieces. Remember Europe."
"But honey, I can wear this purple sweater with my purple skirt."
Aside from her clothes, there was a stockpile of shoes, handbags, books, kitchenware, extra silverware, fabric remnants, yarn, toys... I wondered how much she had spent on all of this. I wondered if she could have bought another house with all the money she spent on things that she didn't even remember she had. We counted about 1,200 individual pieces of jewelry — everything from cheap pot metal Christmas pins to a Tahitian pearl suite that cost $12,000.
That first day she became so paralyzed with all the decision making that I had to break down the process into nightly 15-minute segments. She could handle that and it gave her a sense of achievement. What she didn't realize was that I was following in my dad's footsteps. After we finished our nightly routine she would take a shower, watch the news, and go to bed. Then, I went through her other closets and collected items to be thrown away. She never missed a thing.
After two weeks, we had accumulated 20 bags to sell at a yard sale and five bags to donate to the church. But as we drove to church that first Sunday morning, mom was fretful and anxious.
"Honey, I don't think I want to donate these today. Let me go through them again."
"Mom, remember that Oprah said you make one decision for each piece and that's it? Plus, look at all the women who will benefit from your generosity." I worried she would back down. Surprisingly, she didn't. I was very proud of her. But in the following weeks when I tried to resume our project she balked and shooed me away. I realized for the second time that dad's tactics were the only successful way to deal with mom's hoarding. I hated to lie to her, but it was the only way we could control her sickness.
One day, mom and her best friend took a trip up the coast with the local senior center. Mike and I decided to look at the contents of the 10 book boxes in the hall closet. They were heavy. We sat on the floor in the living room and uncovered hundreds of photo envelopes, each containing original and duplicate photographs of every picture she had taken for the last 10 years. More than two-thirds were pictures of her garden, her clothing, the house, her church, and her car. We emptied the boxes and returned them to the closet. We trashed more than 150 pounds of color photos. She never knew we touched them.
It's hard to say how someone spirals into a life of hoarding. They could have experienced betrayal or abandonment and coped with those traumas by owning as many things as they could get their hands on. Hoarders often suffer from a mashup of many mental illnesses, and they rarely recognize that they're hurting others. Loved ones can't just steamroll into the house and throw everything away. The process must be handled with kid gloves and, sometimes, therapy is needed. It's not an easy fix, but it is fixable.
We had several garage sales and, as a result, made about $2,000 for mom. She probably paid 10 times that for the stuff that we sold, but she didn't remember that. And in the end, mom got her wish to go to Europe. She visited family in Norway for about six weeks and had the time of her life.
After her death, we sold her jewelry at cost and donated hundreds of bags of her clothing and possessions to her church. In its own way, her sickness helped others. The things she bought as "gifts" for a handful of friends were instead passed out to probably hundreds of people in need, and that is the greatest gift she could have left behind.