Drowning in Debris
My husband, Marc, pushed the back door of my mother’s house open wide enough for us to squeeze inside. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we crunched over piles of junk, trying not to faceplant as we clambered up basement stairs, through the kitchen and dining room and, finally, into the living room of my childhood home. Every space was filled—with plastic bags, newspapers, clothing, and garbage, along with antiques and books I remembered from decades ago. I sobbed as I tried not to breathe in the intolerable stench, made worse by the late summer heat.
Half an hour earlier, my 82-year-old mother had handed over her house keys. She’d gotten into my sister’s car, clutching her overnight bag as if going on a weekend vacation.
“It’ll be the messiest house Marc has ever seen,” she’d warned. As they pulled out of the driveway, she didn’t look back.
I hadn’t been inside the house for more than 30 years. I barely recognized the puffy blue recliner from my adolescence, adrift in a tsunami of wadded tissues, banana peels, old crossword puzzles, used ear swabs, plastic containers filled with rotting sandwiches, empty yogurt cups, and dead mice. This chair was where she slept, the outline of her body pressed into filthy cushions.
Marc put his arm around me. “She wasn’t kidding,” he said.
Several months later, when my acute stress reaction had begun subsiding, I met a friend for lunch.
“You’re a psychologist,” she said after she heard the dirty details about my mother’s hoarding. “How could you have not known? Why didn’t you help her before things got so bad?”
I had known. For a long time. And I’d tried to help—or at least I’d tried to understand my mother’s situation. I’d read memoirs and treatment manuals about hoarding, but most of them made me roll my eyes. They didn’t capture the grime or smells, the trauma of it all. The advice was laughable. “Help the person sort their papers a little bit at a time,” one passage read. “Give them choices about what to throw out,” read another. They told me nothing useful. In the end, they’d only made me feel worse, so I’d put them aside.
I smiled uncomfortably at my friend and shrugged.
It was after my sister and I grew up and moved out that my mother pulled down all the blinds on the windows, let the paint on the house peel, and left overgrown bushes to devour the yard. An overstuffed mailbox dangled askew by the front door, and huge stacks of soaked newspapers moldered into the cement walkway. She didn’t allow anyone inside. Then, her appearance and habits worsened. She started to reek with a kind of funk that made people turn away when she came near them. She had rashes on her arms, greasy hair, and rumpled clothing.
“How about we look for an independent living apartment for you,” I’d cajole her when we met at the library where she volunteered. “Maintaining the yard is a lot. What if Marc came over and did some repairs? You could sell the house and live somewhere else. Somewhere you like.”
Her response was always the same: she’d shake off my gentle suggestions with the sideways look that meant I’d traipsed into her paranoia. “I’ll get organized one of these days,” she’d say dismissively.
I’d long ago learned to avoid my mother’s rage. She’s a tiny woman—half my size—but when threatened or afraid, she can rise up like a grizzly bear. Because of her anger, my sister and I tiptoed around her and never used the word hoarding directly. Although we joked that my mother’s grandkids had never seen our childhood home, under our humor was the pain of trying to make this situation normal. I rationalized it by telling myself she was an autonomous adult making her own choices.
I didn’t want to become a parentified child, caring for my mother’s emotional needs to the detriment of my own. I’d spent years in therapy as a young adult, where I realized how my mother had treated me as an object: treasuring me, but also neglecting and mistreating me when it suited her. I preferred our adult interactions to stay on the surface, where she didn’t have the power to hurt me.
Luckily, I suppose, things progressed to the point where my mother had to let us help. After shoveling the driveway during a snowstorm, her toes got infected from frostbite, so she checked herself into the hospital. Grudgingly, in the months that followed, she allowed me to take over her car, tax, and other bills. I was shocked to discover a ticket for driving without a license or insurance, unpaid taxes from the past several years, and, most alarmingly, that there were no water bills. A call to the utility company revealed there’d been no running water in the house for at least two years. I went into crisis mode, calling my sister to arrange an intervention. There was no denying reality any longer.
Our intervention fell flat: my mother still refused to allow us inside the house. But after she got in a car accident one week later—probably caused by her stress and the mess of papers, clothing, books, and garbage filling her Toyota Camry—she acquiesced, handing me the key. That’s how I wound up crying and cursing in the middle of the living room.
During the days I worked to clean out the house, I wore long pants, mosquito repellent, latex gloves, and an N95 mask—before they were common—and sprayed the inside of it with peppermint, like a coroner might when handling a dead body. Standing on a pile of refuse, shovel in hand, I observed Marc, similarly dressed, as he rolled a wheelbarrow past me filled with three water-cooler-sized bottles of urine for disposal. When I wasn’t enraged at my mother for making this mess, I felt numb.
I realized I had two mothers. One appreciated art, music, and photography. This mother traveled, read, and had a sense of humor. She taught my sister and me to be strong and work hard. When we were children, she’d wear a pressed white uniform, smelling of the starch she used to keep her nursing cap crisp. Other people saw her as competent, sweet even. How could I reconcile this other mother who shat in plastic bags and threw her used dental floss, apple cores, and unwashed clothes on every available surface?
Walking through the house terrified me. I was overwhelmed by the extent of her illness and what she must have created in her own mind in order to live here. Eventually, Marc and I started to dig out her bedroom, where it had all started. As adolescents, my sister and I would skip over my mother’s room when we cleaned the house, closing her door as if she was a moody teenager. “She’s always been messy,” my grandmother had said, and we’d agreed. Who could’ve known that when we left home—left her—that the disaster would spread to the rest of the house? Maybe my mother had needed something—everything—to fill the emptiness when my sister and I had moved out to live our own lives.
It took six weeks to excavate the house. By the end, we’d filled three large dumpsters and made more than 15 trips to Goodwill. We’d stuffed 320 contractor bags with ruined possessions and garbage. I found an auctioneer to sell what we didn’t want and what my mother wouldn’t be taking to the new assisted-living studio apartment we’d arranged for her to live in. Soon afterward, we sold the house for half its value to a real-estate flipper. I placed the grimy key on his conference table, feeling all at once fatigued, sad, and relieved.
A few months later, I visited a family therapist my mother, sister, and I had seen years earlier. I told her about all the things I’d felt I’d done wrong during the cleanup: I hadn’t been empathetic toward my mother. I hadn’t respected her autonomy. I’d talked to her doctor behind her back to get her into assisted living. I’d told her she was done driving and didn’t renew her license. I hadn’t told the assisted-living director how bad her hoarding had been. I’d made the staff promise to clean her room weekly, no matter what she said, and then lied and told my mother that was their rule.
The therapist was older now, grayer than before, but she still listened with her kind eyes steadily upon me.
“You’ve done enough,” she said.
I stopped in my tracks. It was like I’d heard a different language. She repeated it again: “You have done enough.”
For the first time in a long time, I began to feel like I didn’t have to carry my mother’s burden.
My job as a psychologist is to salvage things, to use the stories people tell me in therapy and help them understand themselves and others better. I make meaning out of the joy and wreckage of my own life, too. Sure, I could’ve just hired somebody to shovel all my mother’s mess into a dumpster, but I needed to be my family’s archaeologist, excavating and preserving what was beautiful and meaningful. My mother isn’t wrong to say that holding on to some things is important. Like her, I appreciate connections to the past. During the cleaning, I found photographs, jewelry passed down over generations, and my bronzed baby shoes. I treasure these things.
“Maybe I failed by not following anything the psychology books say to do with a hoarding client,” I tell my sister over the phone. “Sometimes I still feel like I wasn’t compassionate enough.”
“You handled it as best you could as her daughter,” my sister says. “You’re not her therapist.”
After six years, my mother has finally stopped saying she’s a “prisoner” at assisted living. She tells me she’s part of a “posse” of women who eat dinner together. My sister decorated her studio apartment beautifully, but the cluttering has begun again. Piles of magazines and newspapers sit in corners of her room. Sometimes, I feel the rage and despair these behaviors trigger in me. I still have nightmares where I drive to my mother’s house, open the door, and see only darkness, black and terrifying, like I’m looking into a deep cave. Then, I’m fleeing while trying to wipe feces off my arm. I wake up feeling sadness and shame, but I know it isn’t my own.
A few weeks ago, I pulled up in front of my mother’s building after taking her to the cardiologist. We turned toward each other and hugged goodbye. She opened the car door with some effort and determinedly waved off my help before grabbing the bag of books I’d brought for her.
“I can do it, Deborah,” she snapped. But after taking a few steps toward the building entrance, she turned around to look at me and smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “I really appreciate all you do for me.” She added, softly, “I know it’s a lot.”
As I looked at my mother, frail but still full of energy, I remembered some words of advice I’d received from the auctioneer: Don’t keep anything that reminds you of the trauma. After everything we’d been through, I’d finally learned to let go of feeling responsible for my mother’s suffering, for her inability to fully live her life after I’d left home and grown up. I’d fully realized that what happened wasn’t my fault and that I couldn’t change her, no matter how good a therapist I was. Nevertheless, in the end, I’d managed to salvage more than just heirlooms from the wreckage of my mother’s home. I’d salvaged her, too.
“I appreciate hearing that,” I told her as she walked off. And I do.