Why does my heart feel so bad?
October 28, 2010 7:39 PM   Subscribe

My mother's hoarding tendency is causing problems for the entire family.

This is a complicated and tendentious question. I probably just want a hug.

I am a 20-something college grad living and working several states away from my mother.

My mother is a quiet little immigrant lady leading an isolated, hardscrabble life with her unsupportive husband. She has a massive hoarding problem, massive to the point that it's difficult to maneuver around her small apartment.

As a quiet little immigrant lady, my mother finds the concepts of mental health and therapy alien and absurd. Her view is that one doesn't have a problem until one decides to believe that one has a problem.

Her landlord thinks differently. They issued her a warning last year. This year they have refused to renew her lease. They are willing to reconsider, however, if she cleans out the apartment.

I think my mother, as a poor little immigrant lady, will have diffulty orchestrating and financing an apartment move on one month's notice. Throwing stuff away is not an option that she will consider. She says she has everything under control.

She is raising my half-brother, a young teenager. He is a bright and high-achieving kid, but kind of a slacker. He is attending the same high school I graduated from: a city magnet school with a rockin' arts program and a great record of student achievement. I have agitated to get him into the music program. He is taking classes on the side at the musical conservatory. He gets to do tap dance as a substitute for gym class, which he dislikes. He has a full plate of arts classes every day in addition to his academic subjects.

My mother's first choice of new apartment is in a neighboring suburb. She seems eager to leave. My brother is eager to move to a new place. It will be his first move ever, and he's excited by it. I don't think they are giving this decision due consideration.

I hate playing third parent, but I think that's what I'm doing. A mid-year change of schools is disruptive. The potential new school doesn't offer the foreign language he's taking – he'll have to start anew, or just drop language entirely. He wants to practice the violin less (I think this means he wants to quit), and at the new school his musical education will most likely recede way into the background. Basically, I am sure that the new school will not offer him the same kinds of academic and extracurricular opportunities that he is super lucky to get at his current school. I resent that he may need to change schools and get fewer opportunities for self-exploration because my mother wasn't able to get her issue under control.

On the other hand, I also suspect that I'm just upset because they aren't listening to me; because my brother won't graduate from the same school as me; because he wants to quit activities that I had to arrange for him in place of his mother (a quiet little immigrant lady); because he's happy to go down the path of least resistance. Basically, petty, ulterior motivating factors.

Ultimately, they'll end up doing what they think is best. In the meantime, I feel anxious, and upset, and powerless, and generally bad.

Counsel me.
posted by Nomyte to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a longshot: Would you be willing to move to a place in his school district and have him stay with you? Your brother would probably see it as a sign of independence, and ... maybe you could convince your mother that it was important to keep him in the same school if you provided an alternative option for her to be able to allow that to happen, while also allowing for her hoarding tendencies, which aren't going away.
posted by lover at 7:49 PM on October 28, 2010

Alternately, perhaps help him to take classes through the community college. Often these classes can double-count for a Bachelor's degree and a high school degree.
posted by lover at 7:50 PM on October 28, 2010

Your mom wants to move. Your brother wants to move. They may very well be making a mistake. But you can't live their lives for them. In other words, you are powerless in this situation. I realize that being powerless can be upsetting, especially when you believe that you could make better choices for others than they're making for themselves. But your mother is an adult, and your brother is very close to being one. You'll have even less control over his life as he grows up, and you're going to have to watch him make lots of decisions that are different from the ones you would make for him.

Your mother's hoarding tendency doesn't sound as though it's causing problems for anyone other than you so far. If you think that therapy is a worthwhile endeavor, I'd seek it for yourself. But no matter what, you need to figure out what you're getting out of being so invested in this, and you need to figure out how to let go so that your heart doesn't feel bad every time this happens. Because this situation, or something like it, will happen again, I promise.
posted by decathecting at 7:53 PM on October 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Do you have a religious advisor or a trusted neighborhood elder with whom your mother might feel more comfortable? That individual might be able to address your mom's hoarding issues if she's not cool with the traditional approach of a therapist or specialist.
posted by patronuscharms at 7:54 PM on October 28, 2010

Oh, hugs. This stuff really bites.

Is your mother at serious physical risk with the hoarding? Is this trash, food, newspapers, etc.? The reason I say this is because odds are, the only thing you can actually do to intervene is call the authorities, and that is what they will care about.

The way I solved this sort of thing for myself is to be a big-sister-refuge and occasionally point stuff out in low-stress ways (my second-youngest sister gets equal parts sympathy and "Meijer is hiring" when she complains about the lack of food in the house, basically.)

But mostly it just bites. If it makes you feel better, your brother won't stick to a path you choose for him. He has to choose it for himself, in this scenario. Maybe a year in a lame, "you have to take gym" school will help him reevaluate his priorities?
posted by SMPA at 7:55 PM on October 28, 2010

I think the whole thing sounds very exciting. This is a chance for your mother to start fresh in a new home. This is a chance for your brother to start fresh in a new school, building the life he wants instead of the life you want for him. This is a chance for you to take a step back and live your own life instead of playing cruise-director for your brother. Do people change overnight? No. But this could be the start of something good for your family. Let it be.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:55 PM on October 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Does your brother actually express an interest in music/art/tap/language? Or is he just going along with the things that you have arranged for him? Maybe he wants to quit but he doesn't want to disappoint you. Or maybe he feels overwhelmed with all the stuff he's doing and wants a bit more free time to just play video games or something. I would highly suggest talking to him and asking about what what HE wants.
posted by littlesq at 8:04 PM on October 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Your mother isn't going to stop hoarding this month. She's not even going to try. She's not there yet, if she ever will be. Finding a new place to live is probably her best option.

Her landlord will still kick her out.

Your brother will still be in school and he'll find his way. It will be a different path than he's in now, but it'll work out. Many of us were not in super special high schools and we did fine. Some of us were (are) slackers and are just fine.

Your job is to take care of you. Deep breaths. Give yourself some time each day to stress about it and then move on to something else. You can always stress about it in that time tomorrow but you're done for today.
posted by heatherann at 8:08 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't know how the school system in your country/state works, but could he not continue to attend the old school from the new house? If it's only one suburb away, surely transport isn't that problematic? At least until the end of the year so that it isn't so disruptive.

But yeah, otherwise I agree with what other people here say: if your mother and brother want to move, step back and let them. Then be there for them if it doesn't work out as well as they hope.
posted by lollusc at 8:20 PM on October 28, 2010

What does your mother say to the possibility of getting a storage shed? I understand hoarders can't always operate that way, but it's an option to explore; it would work for the one-time cleanup the landlord is demanding, and you might be able to sell her on the "your stuff isn't gone, it's safely hidden from your monsterous landlord angle. I have no doubt whatsoever she'll begin her collection activities again, but having places to put _new_ stuff could be an exciting plus for her.
posted by Ys at 8:20 PM on October 28, 2010

I think it says a lot when a teenager is excited to move away from the only house he's ever known and to switch schools and I think you need to listen to that.

I moved away and switched schools right before my senior year of high school and I wanted to. My mother offered to delay the move a year so that I could graduate, but I wanted to get the hell outta dodge. It was the best thing I ever did.

There is absolutely nothing in your question that makes it sound like your brother has any interest in the arts. I think it's great that you tried to get him to try something new and to expand his horizons, but he's done that. He's given it a chance and devoted some real time to trying a variety of the arts. It's not for him. That's ok. You might find he's less of a slacker if he's doing what he wants to do.
posted by whoaali at 9:41 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your input and suggestions. Here are some responses and clarifications to things that seem to recur.

"Move closer, be more hands-on with them."
Too Oedipal; also, given my specialization, I can only make a decent salary in the orchidaceous environment around Washington, DC.

"Your mom wants to move."
As far as I can tell, only to the extent that the landlord wants her to throw stuff out as a condition of staying. She is upset and she thinks she is being treated unfairly.

"Nothing you wrote suggests to me that your brother enjoys the arts."
He just started high school. He's in ninth grade. I don't think two months of school is enough to base decisions on.

"The only person your mother's hoarding habit is affecting seems to be you."
For about six months last year, there wasn't enough room for her to sleep in her own bed. She stayed in my brother's bedroom.

"Will your mother respect the counsel of an elder or religious official?"
Sadly, she is almost totally isolated. She has no close friends or relatives. Her husband's family is anathema to her. She speaks little English. She is religious, but not churchgoing.

"Can your brother attend the same school if he lives outside the city limits?"
Not as far as I've been able to tell.

"Does your brother enjoy music and the arts?"
He has the aptitude to succeed in them. He hasn't stuck to anything we've tried so far: gymnastics? capoeira? reading/writing? quiz bowl type things? Basically, after four years of trying to unearth something he can enjoy, I still have just one thing: Naruto. You might say that he's too young to have serious interests. He does complain of being bored all the time. These are my attempts to find a solution.
posted by Nomyte at 10:50 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

My heart goes out to you. We recently had to clean up after a hoarding situation that had persisted for years and years. The only reason it's finally stopped is because the hoarder is physically incapable of living alone, is now in assisted living, and they won't allow the hoarding on their property. But we're still stuck with some of his stuff and some really bad psychological scars.

Your mother will do what your mother will do. By now, you're well aware of this. If she's going to move, she's going to move. Your brother is going to live where mom does. It's understandable that you're concerned deeply about his educational opportunities, but all you can do is express your concern. Eventually, you have to accept what you can't control. Part of what you can't control is her hoarding issue. This, while not technically an addiction, acts like one. She is powerless over her stuff, and she'll do whatever she has to so she can keep it. This includes moving and pulling your brother out of a good school situation. There's no good way to look at it - it just sucks.

Just live your life as best you can, and be there for your brother as best as you can over the distance. He'll recognize soon enough after a move that things aren't all they're cracked up to be; don't say "I tried to tell you" to him, just listen and support. From someone who received a lot of support from an uncle while growing up in a bad situation, I can tell you it is needed.
posted by azpenguin at 11:21 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nomyte said: Too Oedipal; also, given my specialization, I can only make a decent salary in the orchidaceous environment around Washington, DC.

What does orchidaceous mean in this context? I love words, and had to look this one up because all I could think of was relating to/resembling an orchid. I'm still confused, even after reading showy/ostentatious as a definition. Just curious. . .

Anyway, my opinion: see if you can work with the school to keep him in the same school through next year. Don't impede the move, but suggest that everything go into storage so your Mom can organize it and box it correctly. When they're moving to the new place, just take the essentials, and she can pick up one box at a time for the rest. Might work. Worked with my Grandma.
posted by arnicae at 1:02 AM on October 29, 2010

What does orchidaceous mean in this context?

A hot house environment, perhaps?
posted by dmt at 3:00 AM on October 29, 2010

I have to admit that I'm a bit confused about what this question is about. Is this about your mother's hoarding, your brother's activities, or your own emotional reaction to the whole situation?

The one thing I think I can comment on is your brother:

Basically, after four years of trying to unearth something he can enjoy, I still have just one thing: Naruto. You might say that he's too young to have serious interests. He does complain of being bored all the time. These are my attempts to find a solution.

I think that at fourteen years of age he is more than capable of trying to find HIS own solution, quite honestly.

If he complains about being bored? Let him. You've given him lots of options, none of them are getting him jazzed, so you've done all YOU can. Put the onus back on him. He may whine and get emo about being "sooooooo bored," but -- too bad. He's fourteen, and thus he's old enough to start learning how to find HIS own answers and carve HIS own path, rather than someone else trying to do it for him.

I'm not saying being TOTALLY hands-off -- by all means, if his answer to "what should I do with my time" turns out to be "rob banks" or "steal cars" or "cook meth" or anything like that -- but at some point people need to learn how to self-motivate to SOME extent. Give him a chance to learn how to do that. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.

And even if it does turn out that for a while all that interests him is Naruto -- fine. You never know -- if you leave him the hell alone for a while and let him get into that, he could all on his own use that as a springboard for developing his OWN manga strip...or studying up on Japanese culture as a whole and then deciding to take Japanese...or some martial art....or....

But he needs the space to figure it out himself rather than someone always trying to thrust something else on him. Let him find it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:06 AM on October 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

So, my mom's the same way... Differences: more support from her SO perhaps, not encumbered by another child, and owns a moderately sized home with garage/yard/etc.

First, DO NOT think that new surroundings are going to fix/alleviate your mom's problem. By that I mean more space does not equal less clutter. She will fill up the new space and it will be more of an issue, not less.

Second, I can't comment on the issues with your sibling (but my heart goes out to you/them because it's a nightmare situation). It sounds like your sibling has accepted the clutter/hoarding as the norm, which is one of the saddest aspects of the situation in my opinion. Anyway, I will say that IANAPsychologis, but my SO is far along towards an advanced degree in clinical field and she says that hoarding is one of, if not the most, difficult behavioral problems to treat. It has a VERY high recurrence rate, meaning that even if you did EVERYTHING right and succeeded in cleaning out the clutter it would likely build back up within a few years.

Oddly enough, the few times my SO and I have watched the reality TV show "Hoarders" she has been pretty impressed with most of the actions taken by the psychologists. Surprised comments from her like "YES! They're doing that right." or "Wow, well done." are common. Some episodes are exceptions of course and we have not seen them all.

Anyway, I'm away from home and have simply left the elephant in the room with my mom and have, sadly, resigned myself to dealing with it at some point in the future when she's either ready to change or not around anymore.

Oh, I almost forgot... My mom has been making changes for the better recently, somewhat out of the blue. Cleaning up and getting rid of things in a unprecedented fashion... I honestly think it may be due to seeing the "Hoarders" show... God knows it's not from any family/therapy influences... Maybe buy/download a season and give it to your mom (perhaps anonymously)....

Feel free to MeMail me if you need more advice, or even a virtual hug... it sucks.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:40 AM on October 29, 2010

"Can your brother attend the same school if he lives outside the city limits?"
Not as far as I've been able to tell.

What state is your brother in? Some states allow out of district students to pay a small "tuition" type fee to attend schools in other nearby districts.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:53 AM on October 29, 2010

Your brother may be looking forward to the move because it will provide a temporary relief from your mother's hoarding, which is very likely the most important issue in his life. Maybe he's looking forward to occasionally having friends over (for a little while, at least.) New friends, who don't already know that his mother is . . . funny. Seriously, if the move is what's going to get his mother out of his bedroom, it seems very natural to me that he values it over his extracurriculars.

1) when my parents moved just before my brother's senior year in high school, they paid a small amount to have him continue in his previous high school. My understanding at the time was that the amount went down depending on how long the prospective student had been in the school system.

2) I went to a different high school consequent to the same move, and was singing Hallelujah the whole way. There was nothing wrong with the "original" high school; but I was desperate to experience new people who hadn't already made up their minds about me.
posted by endless_forms at 8:18 AM on October 29, 2010

Response by poster: WeekendJen, my brother is in upstate New York. I'll call the school district office and talk to someone there to get a definitive answer, but the school so far has given no indication that an arrangement you suggest will be a possibility. I think it would be a huge plus if he gave the school a chance and at least finished the school year there.

endless_forms, you're right about my brother's motivation. What's so sad is that he's willing to give up so much for extremely temporary relief. Right now he can't have friends over. His mother won't even help him and his friends get rides to events, since she uses her van to cart around yet more clutter.

Like I wrote above, I know there's little I can do except be ready with emergency funds if my mom can't make deposit/first month's rent, or if she needs a hauling company to remove stuff that she physically can't move, or doesn't have time to. I just hope that she doesn't fuck up catastrophically and actually succeeds in securing another apartment and some sort of moving help.
posted by Nomyte at 8:45 AM on October 29, 2010

If your brother's eagerness to move is because of the hoarding and not because of disliking school, I think the thing you should try out first is seeing if you are able to pay the school so he can still attend from out of district and let the move happen.

Unfortunately, i don't think you alone or you and your brother have the resources to really make a dent in your mother's hoarding problem without professional backup.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:24 AM on October 29, 2010

Only tangential, but in terms of whether this has affected anyone beside the OP, I'd say all evidence points to it having affected the brother as well: When your parent has created an environment too weird to want to bring friends home, living behind a book/video is a great way to block out the world. Trust me on this one. It's a pretty easy step from there to flushing away one's own potential in preference for escaping reality. And having someone tell you how much you have to offer, when you don't want to offer it, can really make an already conflicted kid feel like a dissapointing failure. So nthing the point that you can't stop this trainwreck, but you CAN support the kid. ...but maybe stop pushing & start listening. Eventually kids say stuff, even if it's only "can I have more Naruto."
posted by Ys at 10:36 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd also like to extend my heartfelt sympathy. At the very least, you're acting as a pillar of sanity for your brother, which I'm sure he needs.

And honestly. . . if it takes a few years for the clutter to retake the house, that does see him out of high school. As a stalling tactic, it does give him some breathing room to grow up.
posted by endless_forms at 10:46 AM on October 29, 2010

I don't know if this applies to your mom, but I know/know of several women who reacted to sudden, stressful change in their lives by trying to keep their environment as static as possible -- e.g., never throwing anything away.

I dated a guy whose mom responded to her husband's initiating a divorce by hanging on to things like empty margarine and yogurt tubs. I never saw the place, but he said it got to the point where things were stacked in piles throughout the house, leaving only small paths to get from room to room. In her bedroom, the only open space was a path to the bed and enough room for her to slip into bed. (Her ex-husband's side of the bed was covered with stuff, too.)

Here's a resource for you: the Children of Hoarders site. This link will connect you to blogs and writing on being a child of a hoarder, movies and videos by children of hoarders, information on finding a therapist, legal issues, the effects of hoarding on the hoarder's family, etc., etc.

Good luck ... and I hope you can help your brother. It might be harder to reach your mom. A friend who's a psychiatric nurse tells me that hoarding is often (though not always) rooted in obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she agrees with RolandofEld's SO that it is very hard to vanquish.
posted by virago at 11:11 AM on October 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, virago, I didn't realize there was a site. I'll check it out, especially since it seems to have actionable tips.

Your ex's mom's house sounds very familiar, right down to the bedroom.

I can completely understand how my mom's living conditions motivate her to hold on to stuff, buy everything in bulk, and have multiples of everything. Her life is very stressful and full of uncertainty. She is embattled and mostly alone. So it probably didn't take much for her hoarding to snowball and become a self-sustaining thing.

I've been importing my brother to the DC area for Otakon every year. Maybe I should make this a semiannual thing. There's an anime convention in DC in February.
posted by Nomyte at 11:48 AM on October 29, 2010

Did you catch this askMeFi thread that just got started about hoarders?
posted by Ys at 2:10 PM on October 29, 2010

Response by poster: Ys: Thanks!
posted by Nomyte at 2:31 PM on October 29, 2010

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