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.