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Dirty Little Secret: Help for Children of Hoarders

By Therese J. Borchard
Associate Editor


Amanda grew up with a mother who hoarded everything from shoes to coupons. Newspapers were stacked in the bathroom of her childhood home, clothes were piled so high on her mother’s bed that she slept on the living room sofa. Amanda rarely ate at home because the kitchen counters were covered with Penny Savers, and on the kitchen table was a mound of bills and letters that had yet to be filed or thrown out.

In fact, “thrown out” was a term Amanda never heard growing up.

Like most children of hoarders, Amanda kept her mother’s disorder to herself, because she didn’t understand it and because she feared that friends would treat her differently and make fun of her behind her back. She simply made up reasons why they could never meet at her house. She suffered from the hang-up that practically all children of hoarders describe as “doorbell dread,” the panic felt when someone arrives at the door.

As an adult, Amanda eventually cleared out her mother’s house and helped her settle into a retirement community. Although the hoarding is considerably better, Amanda still feels the need to barge in once a month to make sure that boxes aren’t collecting in the hallway and the bathtub isn’t storing newspapers or clothes.

This child of a hoarder is only now coming to terms with the profound effect her mother’s disorder has had on her. Upon reading Jessie Sholl’s book, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding, she recognized herself in so much of it, breathing a sigh of relief that at least one other person in this world understands her childhood drama and the ongoing fears she battles today.

Last month Steven Kurutz published an insightful piece in the New York Times about the baggage (no pun intended) hoarders leave their children with, and the children’s journey back to a normal relationship with “stuff.”

I found it all fascinating since I have a few friends whose parents are hoarders. Much of their childhood resembled mine, as a child of an alcoholic: the inconsistency, the shame, the confusion, and that amount of energy invested into covering up all the evidence in front of friends. However, unlike children of alcoholics, or adult children of alcoholics, children of hoarders don’t know where to turn for support. There are a number of online support groups and blogs devoted to children of hoarders. In his article, Kurutz mentions a few, such as the online forum “Children of Hoarders.” A friend of mine found a group devoted to sons of hoarders, and another to daughters. However, just in that last two years has the disorder gained the attention of journalists and media, with the two reality shows, TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive” and A&E’s “Hoarders.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Melinda Beck devoted two pieces to hoarding: one on how to help hoarders themselves, and one highlighting issues that children of hoarders face. A few weeks ago I interviewed Beck and asked her to share a list of things that children of hoarders, or any relative or friend for that matter, can do to either help the hoarder or process the disorder for themselves. She responded:

There are no easy answers to this, which is why so many families of hoarders give up trying to change them. Some experts advocate “harm reduction” – just making sure the papers aren’t piled in front of the space heater and there’s a path to the door and the bathroom is useable. If you can get the hoarder to accept the need for that and throw away a few things, they may realize that it’s not so traumatizing and it might be a wedge to go further. You might try cleaning out just one room and seeing how that goes.

In some ways, being forced to move out quickly like my brother was can be a blessing. You can blame the bank or the sheriff — it’s not the sensible family against the nut case. It’s true that people often start hoarding again in a new setting, but at least it will take awhile to build up to a dangerous level again.

Working on the underlying emotional issues may be the best approach. Antidepressants might numb the pain enough to let them realize that the clutter isn’t serving the purpose they want it to. I really love the advice to create “shrines” or memory boxes if they are still grieving for lost loved ones or lost parts of themselves, with a few important things they can focus on, rather than a big disorganized pile. If you can honor the emotion they’re feeling, rather than denying it, they might be more willing to cooperate.

And if feeling abandoned or lonely or purposeless is fueling this behavior, see if you can find something else for them to do to fill up that emptiness—even if it’s volunteer job. I didn’t have the chance to try that with my brother, but if I had it to do over again, that’s what I’d try.

If I could communicate only one message to children of hoarders, it would be similar to a sentiment that consoled me as a child of an alcoholic, and that is to know that you are not alone, even though it certainly feels like it when you are overwhelmed by the dysfunction. Be sure to take care of you, because you can’t begin to take care of anyone until you meet your own needs.


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