Tag Archives: clean


When I was a child, my dad (HP) would run cleaning drills. They would often start in tears, probably as a punishment for something we had done wrong, continue in tears, and inevitably end in tears. He would bark orders at us, have us completely under his control, and follow us around the house inspecting and telling us where we had missed something. Basically we were made to feel useless, incapable of even cleaning the house to his expectations. I do not recall if my mother was there or if she helped. I know she was the one who bore the brunt of his anger and did most of the household chores throughout my early childhood though.

Fast forward to today. I’ve only recently realized that I start cleaning the house when I’m upset about something. I specifically tend to wash dishes or clean the floor. These are tasks I loathed in childhood. They were the ones that were most noticeably done wrong. Somehow all that crying while cleaning became normal. Now when I cry, I just start cleaning as if to console myself.

What a mess.



the knot

My paternal grandmother died of cancer when I was 8. I inherited her sewing kit which I have faithfully moved around with me and constantly used and added to over the years. It’s here now in Australia and I opened it yesterday to add my newer sewing resources. It was in disarray. How did this knot get there? It’s like the little ends of thread from all the bobbins and spools worked their way together when no one was looking. The only way out of it was to break off several strands of this now very antique and newly hip thread on real wooden spools. A metaphor of my attachment to things: collected to preserve and rendered useless.

I set about organising the box yesterday as I realised I was not honouring my grandmother’s memory very well by holding on to the debris she left inside. I emptied the box, entirely, for the first time ever. I laid out the pieces. S. watched, asking questions, as she rummaged through my other inherited items looking for treasures she could play with. I dusted the box, discarded some items, but could not part with some of the most hilariously useless things. Captioned photography of the excavation below.


the clutter below, never properly sorted

how i roll: keep the box for the stitch ripper for 20+ years

how i roll: keep the opened box for the stitch ripper for 20+ years

La Mode - maybe c. 1970, it was

La Mode – maybe c. 1970, it was

this unidentifiable green machine nearly sliced my daughter's finger. I had no idea what it was but I had 2, made in Italy. Oh, automatic needle threader. Of course.

this unidentifiable green machine nearly sliced my daughter’s finger. i had no idea what it was but i had 2, made in Italy. oh, an automatic needle threader. of course.

ideal for swimwear. complete with 1950s style metal clasp

ideal for swimwear. complete with 1950s-style metal clasp.

death trap debris. needles, snaps, screws, dust, everywhere.

death trap debris. needles, snaps, screws, dust, everywhere.

not so shabby chic. i presume i sewed this rotten elastic around age 8. trashed.

red owl. a minnesota supermarket i nostalgically recall.

red owl. a minnesota supermarket i nostalgically recall.

wtf? i red owl sewing kit?

wtf? a red owl sewing kit?

fashion patches, there were many

fashion patches, there were many

a 1966 Singer instruction manual, perhaps valuable on ebay. my sewing box matches the beautiful blue color.

a 1966 Singer instruction manual, perhaps valuable on ebay. my sewing box matches the beautiful blue color.

grandma would approve.

grandma would approve

serial hoarder

ImageI’ve started to seriously enjoy the Australian series Selling Houses Australia, so when I found out there was an episode about a hoarding house, I had to tune in. What I watched was as much a cultural lesson in dealing with uncomfortable situations as it was a show on cleaning up a hoard.

The host Andrew Winter was visibly distressed upon entering the hoarded house, but there was none of the American, “Oh my god! I can’t believe it!” sort of panic or shock. He seemed rather to be sucking in his breath and trying to think of any way to demonstrate his surprise without being rude. There were references to “untidiness,” “mess,” and “the worst clutter I have ever seen,” but after the show’s overview, it wasn’t until about 1/3 of the way in that the term “serial hoarder” was used. The difference between hoarder and serial hoarder is anyone’s guess.

The crew was sensitive to the situation, but no hoarding or dehoarding experts were called to the scene. Professional movers and cleaners helped empty the house and the process was similar to every other hoarding show we’ve seen: the man kept rummaging through the trash insisting on keeping what others would deem useless stuff. In the end, the cleaned up house received offers, but there was no mention of whether the inhabitant hoarder accepted one.

This show, which usually has a good sense of humor and cheery tone, was unsettlingly sad to me. Perhaps it’s my own experience watching the stuff accumulate that makes me feel so glum, or perhaps it’s the nature of the hoard itself that sucks the joy out of a space that is meant to be a safe zone.


ocd much?

I went through a psychiatric evaluation during graduate school at my primary care physician’s request. He was certain I was depressed; I said I was not. Now that I’m in a much happier place, I wonder about my ability to assess. That aside, the psychiatrist spent a good amount of time trying to assess if I had OCD. I like my belongings to be kept a certain way, even when they’re messy. The psychiatrist concluded I had been through a lot but that I was not depressed or riddled with other psychiatric illnesses. She did say we could continue treatment if I would like to deal with my anxiety. I declined.

Last night I commented to D. that I’m really having trouble with my desire to have things in a certain place, but it’s all confined to our sleeping space. I have been getting up 2 to 3 times from bed each night to readjust the curtains. There’s a logic to the madness: I don’t want the sun to come in through the gaps. But still, I should be able to rest without worrying if there’s a wee little crack of light coming in at 4:30 a.m.

This has had me thinking about my HP and his odd but apparently cImageharacteristic fear of germs and contamination. At the worst point in my life with him, he would stand by the dish drainer and inspect each dish washed, handing me back each item with an invisible speck. More than once he demanded I rewash every dish because I had left them too long in the drying rack. He believed we would get dysentery if the dishes were not immediately dried. The house, when my brother and I lived with him, was immaculate. Any sight of lint on the carpet was cause for yelling. We spent endless hours cleaning the house during our summer vacations. Bathroom grout was scrubbed with a toothbrush until it glistened, floors were always perfectly vacuumed, preferably with the lines showing the path, drawers were neatly ordered. Our own rooms, as I previously blogged, were somewhat more liberally organized but still regularly inspected. I still make my daughter’s bed with “hospital corners” while my own is pleasantly rumply with a duvet that doesn’t require tucking.

My concern is that I’m starting to grip a little tightly to the patterns and now S. also wants things a certain way. She breaks down into tears when her socks won’t pull up just right from toe to heel. Am I passing on a neurotic behavior, or is it engrained in the genes?

clean your room

From “When Parents Text” 

April 11, 2012

Mom: I’m leaving for the weekend so I hid $100 in your room for food, clean your room and you will find it.


When I was about 9 or 10 years old on some random summer day, my brother and I were at home by ourselves as usual while our parents were at work. Their strategy for keeping us out of trouble was usually a painful list of chores that had to be completed by the time dad got home. For some strange reason, my mother decided one day to try positive reinforcement. She left us a note on the kitchen counter that said, “clean your room for a big surprise” or something to that effect.

Being the brilliant 9-13 year olds that we were, we flung crap around our rooms until we unearthed the surprise, completely trashing whatever had once been in order. She had bought us little toy motorcycles. In my memory, mine was buried under a mountain of junk in my closet. My brother and I spent the rest of the day playing with our new toys. Mom was furious when she got home and we had to go clean our rooms in tears. Ok, maybe I’m inventing the tears, but I always felt bad when I had done something wrong and I knew I had done something wrong in this case. Poor mom.

When I read this post on When Parents Text, I first thought, “Would that work to motivate a hoarder?” Umm, no, probably not. My dad claims there are hundreds of dollars hidden throughout his hoard. He thinks that’s just safekeeping.

cleaning house

Yesterday over lunch a colleague was lamenting the impending visit of a relative from overseas. She said she was trying desperately to clean the house but it only got dirtier which made her realize she hadn’t properly cleaned in ages. And then she ultimately knew that no matter how clean she got the house, her visitor would not be satisfied.

Today we are cleaning our own house in expectation of dinner guests. Unlike my colleague, I have no trouble cleaning and often invite people just to inspire us to do a thorough clean. It’s a great feeling to me, the day after the party has been cleaned up, to see how shiny the house still is. I wouldn’t say I love to clean and I don’t do a deep clean more than once a month, but it does bring a sense of satisfaction.

On the COH listserv there are often questions about how to clean, how to know when you need to clean, and how to approach it. For those who grew up in serious hoarding conditions, cleaning was not even possible. Even if our parents let us touch their things, it’s too difficult to get at surfaces when you’re busy moving piles from point to point.

In my childhood, however, I only remember an excessively clean house. I know it was clean because my brother and I had extensive chore lists that included scrubbing out the bathtub at least once a week. My dad, or maybe my mother, told a story about a relative who used the white glove test when they came to visit. My father also prided himself on his military background and carried out the same sort of inspections to which he was once subjected.

When my mom left, and then my brother, my dad’s sense of reality started to waiver. It seemed he was constantly yelling at me that we were going to get dysentery from the dishes left on the dish rack after washing. I had to dry them meticulously and immediately or they were sent back into the sink. To this day, I rarely dry the dishes unless I’m in a hurry to put them away.

My father’s hoarding always seemed asynchronous to his germophobia until I read Frost and Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (2011) which gives various examples of hoarders with contamination issues. In all the years of living in a clean house, I do not ever remember my father being the one who cleaned. Perhaps he already had contamination issues that prevented him from cleaning. I wonder if he would explain it if I asked.

abuse and hoarding

I’ve been silent but not inactive over the past few weeks. My mind is heavily occupied, in part because I suddenly started receiving the Children of Hoarders (COH) listserv messages, even though I joined the group months ago. There are many well articulated, insightful, and blatantly painful messages shared among the members on a daily basis, and my thought process on hoarding is a bit jammed.

Recently there was an active discussion on the abusiveness of hoarding and the fear (or not) of being taken away from the hoarding parent (HP). I will be the first person to recognize that I can only acknowledge abuse when it literally hits me in the face. After some therapy I came to recognize my father as an abusive person towards me, but I hadn’t been able to do it while growing up because he was physically abusive to both my mother and brother and I was somehow spared. Now that I’m confronted with an entirely different level of possibility – that his hoarding is an abusive act – I feel on unstable ground again.

[interlude: blogpost interrupted by people seeking donations for disaster relief, and I notice they are from a certain religious group, give money, hear father’s voice screaming in my ear that this group is a cult.]

My initial reaction is to defend both my father and my situation: it wasn’t that bad, the hoarding didn’t become an issue until I left home, and so on. If anything, and my mother confirms my memory, my childhood was dictated by a stringent cleaning regimen, and my father was more obsessed with sorting and cleaning things – or at least having us do it – than he was by accumulating. He was already a compulsive spender, although I didn’t understand that as a child, and he did bring my family to dramatic financial ruin that ended in foreclosure on a home, living without electricity, and hiding from the creditors sent to repossess our car. Still, I justify him. He was trying to cope, though badly, with a divorce and single parenting, though terribly.

As I think about it as an adult, I do see his hoarding as abusive, but it is extremely hard to write that even now. He always cared for things more than for us and would constantly say he had no money to help with things that didn’t matter to him (buying us decent clothes and food? paying for college education?) but he always had money to buy things that were important to him (horses, horse trailers, guns, hunting trips). His possessions weren’t to the rafters, but he did have a problem with things. And just today we were at a fair and caught part of a horseback riding competition, and I said to D. I really wish my dad had spent time with the horses. We had them through a very large part of my childhood, but I only remember riding a few times over all those many years. If anything, he just wanted to have animals. Even today he runs a deer farm, and I believe he takes good care of the animals just as he did with the horses, but they serve almost no purpose whatsoever… they’re just there because he wants them there, eating up money and resources while he calls them a business investment.

It’s hard to label this kind of neglect as abuse for me, especially because there was real physical abuse that I witnessed and not just from him. I have trouble putting his hoarding activity on the same line as causing physical pain. Perhaps it’s equally destructive, but now far more acceptable – hell, even fashionable – to be a hoarder.

It’s a common complaint among the COH that at first really shocked me – hoarders are seen as kindly, well-meaning, creative individuals who are victims themselves. This is a cultural view as well as the perspective of many highly respected researchers. But by being the victim, the hoarders can only too easily perpetuate their abuse. We COH get angry, and the passive HP is able to turn the attention onto our bad behavior, making themselves out to be even greater martyrs, all while refusing to share and refusing to put their own children ahead of stuff.

I’m only just figuring this out as I write it. I can only imagine how insufferable it is to actually have to live in a home every single day that is so filled with crap, constantly weighing down or threatening to topple onto you as a reminder of how less significant your life is to your HP than the stuff that surrounds them.  I knew every day that my dad cared more about stuff than about me, but I didn’t have to tiptoe around the stuff that mattered more. I only had to tiptoe around him.

spongebob hoarderpants

Yesterday while S. was playing next to me, I caught a glimpse of the beloved SpongeBob in an episode called, “Sentimental Sponge.” During his regular spring clean up, SpongeBob innocently takes his trash to the curb only to be convinced by Patrick that his trash has real sentimental value. SpongeBob descends into hoarding hell and begins to collect used ketchup packets, chewed up gum and even his own sweat. Squidward calls the health department, they threaten to condemn the unlivable house… you know the drill.

How did SpongeBob overcome (kind of) his hoarding problem? He decided to photograph every item before he trashed it, until his house was overrun with photos.

This is especially poignant today as I threw away countless useless (and many poorly taken) photos of squirrels, geese, old buildings, and people I do not need to remember.

am I cured?

Today’s desktop photo: a clean desk sponsored by other people needing to use my space. Am I cured of my hoarding tendencies? Probably not. I’m really just stalled. We have no idea when our last immigration paper is going to come through – anytime between now and 6 months from now. So we wait. I am doing my best to use things up and throw them out and buy smaller replacement versions only when necessary. I still have a number of things to pack up, but I have a very blasé attitude. What’s the point? The exercise has been good, but I am lacking the motivation to carry out the decluttering to the end.

the horror … the humor

game closet

We made a very quick visit to my parents’ home on Friday and Saturday and I’m still unable to process much of what we witnessed. It is only the third time in the last five years that we’ve been there, and the distance makes their home all the more startling. I can safely respond to my own questions that, no, my memory has not exaggerated the state of their hoarding. New to me, however, is the understanding that my step-mother participates in the hoarding as much as she claims she detests it. As D. put it, maybe she criticizes the clutter as a way of defending herself or removing herself from it. I could plainly see in the piles of things many items that my father did not collect.

In addition to what I saw, I remained mindful that we were visiting the house in its very best state. I know my step-mom had been cleaning at least all that day if not for days. Many of the piles in plain sight were very neatly stacked and dusted.

As soon as we arrived and my step-mother took our daughter for a few minutes, I ran around the house frantically snapping pictures before I could get caught. The garage and basement were barricaded, but I was at least able to open doors, if not walk into the spaces themselves. A new cat is now living in the garage, the guest bedroom is completely inaccessible (I had intended to photograph the inside of the massive closet that I presume to still be full of magazines), and the office has only a narrow diagonal path from the door to the desk. That room used to be a usable family area with a fold out couch. I was unable to photograph the numerous barbecue grills and trucks and and and …. in the yard. And as startling as all of it is, the houses around my parents’ are also filled to the gills with cluttered porches and yards and rundown facades. It almost seems to be a prerequisite to country living in “those parts.”

cat in the garage

How I got out of that place before the hoard set in, or if the hoard began because my brothers and I were no longer there, I do not know. I know my parents would be horrified to know that I’m posting this, and it would hurt them deeply to be exposed in such a way. I have found the photographs helpful in numerous ways. I did not have time to really “see” while snapping them. Now, in the comfort of our empty-ing home, I can see the individual items that compile the stacks of stuff. I recognize odd objects from my past, and I can plainly see where the inability to declutter can lead. Numerous times, unprompted, my parents said they were working on getting rid of things. There was apparently a “huge bonfire” last summer, with their stuff going up in smoke. There is some will on their part to part with what they have so they might have more freedom to move or travel. But for every little acknowledgment, there is also new stuff coming in all the time.

the "office"

We were exhausted by the time we came home yesterday afternoon, and the recovery from the memory may take a few days. I hope to be able to use more images as I process what we witnessed.