The Hard, Disgusting Reality Of Growing Up With A Hoarder
For the first 22 years of my life, I lived in a house with my dad, who has been a lifelong hoarder.
For years at a time, nothing that came into the house ever went out, including the packages or containers they came in. You've probably seen houses like this on reality shows; the piles of newspapers stretching back decades, useless used items stashed as if they were treasure. My childhood memories are of walking through canyons of junk -- heaps of papers that were double my height, labyrinthine alleys made up of cardboard boxes I'd have to navigate just to get from point A to B in the living room. We lived in a large house (we definitely weren't poor), but only a tiny fraction of it was actual livable space.
This can mess with a person in even more ways than you'd think.
You Grow Up With A Shame That Never Leaves You
There's a distinct anxiety that some kids have and others will never know: The abject fear of friends ever seeing their home.
It can take a while to develop. When you're young, literally anything seems normal. My 12th birthday was my first big birthday party, but I didn't realize at the time that there was a reason for it being the first: Nobody wanted to come to my house. When I later looked at the photos from that birthday, I saw what a huge mess it was. I don't mean a regular birthday mess, with cake and confetti strewn all over, but a shit-ton of relatives trying to find a place to stand amidst heaps and heaps of newspapers, cardboard boxes, and plastic-wrapped junk. The suffocating lair of a hoarder.
I have no idea what became of that photo album. Like most things, it is lost somewhere in that house.
By the time I was in high school, I had learned every excuse in the book to prevent new friends from coming over. But teenagers aren't stupid; they could only hear the same things so many times before they started assuming I was getting up to something really freaky back at my place. They thought I had a dark secret, and they were right. Every time a relationship would get serious enough to necessitate introducing someone to my parents, I'd begin freaking out at the thought of having them over. I'd be evasive, tell them I didn't want my parents to know, hint at some vague issues at home.
They too knew I was making excuses. They'd figure I wasn't serious about the relationship, or was afraid of my parents' reaction to them, or that I just lacked confidence. It's amazing how this one element of one parent's personality can totally shape a kid's entire world. For example ...
Your Perception Of Space Becomes Permanently Warped
When you've grown up in cramped conditions, with stacks of something or other always brushing your shoulders, even moderately open spaces begin to make you feel uncomfortable. These days, I look at how people can just chill on their couch which their arms and feet stretched out, and it just wouldn't ever come naturally to me. I'm used to having a couch with just a tiny space on the side available to fit your butt into. Large beds with lots of room fill me with a depressing sense of emptiness. I tend to sit along edges, hang around in corners, and generally take up as little space as possible.
When I'm at someone else's place, I have no reference for what the normal interior geography of a house is like. I struggle to figure out what item is supposed to go where, because I'm used to seeing things dangling precariously from piles, or accessible only by reaching through a tiny nook. Now I tend to place things on the floor, or in a heap.
Also, you wouldn't think "sitting down to eat a meal" is something you'd need to practice, but it apparently is. During my formative years, the top of the dining table -- like all pieces of furniture in the house -- was buried under junk and coated with dust. So we sat down on the floor next to the table during meals. I learned to associate mealtimes with a sense of shame and panic, and I would try to eat as fast as I could to get out of that space. Now imagine ever inviting guests over for dinner.
As a result, I never fully got used to eating at a table like a normal person. To this day, I just prefer eating on my bed. I dread the thought of going out to eat, because I still feel an extreme sense of discomfort with eating around other people. Do you know that guy who eats really fast, to the point where they don't even seem to be enjoying it? There's a fair chance that it's because they're starving -- lots of us have vivid memories of mealtimes that we just wanted to end as quickly as possible.
The Effects Aren't Just Psychological
I'm in my mid-20s and I've never smoked, but my respiratory system is pretty badly fucked up. I have all sorts of issues with dust, and ever so often, I sneeze until my lungs feel like they're going to rupture. My childhood home was full of surfaces and crevices where dust could settle and collect, and one of those surfaces happened to be my respiratory system.
A more unexpected side effect is that I'm very stealthy. Almost every friend I have ever had has been freaked out by me accidentally creeping up on them. I walk in a very specific, soft-footed way that barely makes a sound. This is something I developed from having to be extremely careful and delicate navigating through space in that house. Anything else could have easily have led to some stack, pile, or heap getting knocked over.
And then would come the shouting.
Remember, in the mind of a hoarder, those piles of junk are important, almost sacred. None of this mess is due to laziness; the hoarder wouldn't be pleasantly surprised to find you'd straightened up for them while they were out. On the contrary ...
You Grow Up Terrified Of "Clear-Out" Days
The question everyone has at this point is why didn't family and friends just intervene? It was an obviously unhealthy, dangerous way to live, and also was clearly the symptom of some kind of disorder. The truth is, they did do that, from time to time. And I actually dreaded clear-out days more than anything else. I prayed they would never come.
In the early days, these attempts were either met with evasion or coldness that made it clear those loved ones were not welcome anymore. Remember that hoarding is, essentially, an addiction. Forcing my father to part with his things usually caused him to lash out and otherwise act like he was in the throes of withdrawal. Shouting, throwing stuff at the walls. Some of the biggest dust-ups that I've witnessed in my family, including burnt bridges with relatives, took place on clear-out days.
And for all that effort, you knew it would only be a temporary fix for the symptom, not the underlying issue. It was like opening up a festering diabetic wound and cleaning it before patching it up and letting it fester again. What you really need to deal with is the diabetes. But how do you cure someone who doesn't want to be cured, or who can't even recognize that they need to be cured at all? It only sounds easy to someone who's never tried it.
Keeping Everything Means Keeping Nothing
During these clear-outs, dozens of lost items would turn up behind or under heaps -- a favorite childhood toy, an important letter, school yearbooks. At which point I would barely get a few seconds to decide whether I wanted to keep it or throw it away as the junk collector guy stared me in the face.
I was aware that my dad had a problem and that the clear-out was a good thing, so I'd often decide against selfishly keeping some of my stuff because I didn't want to feel like a hypocrite. There are so many things I now greatly regret tossing -- mostly toys and storybooks that constituted an important part of my childhood. My father's obsession with keeping everything meant losing it all. There's a symbolic life lesson in there somewhere.
And I did have my own stuff as a kid. I also had a good education, and an internet connection before most of my peers. I said before that none of the squalor was a result of poverty. We were almost performing poverty; we'd be eating on the floor, living in dirty surroundings, having most of our stuff rendered unusable by junk and dust. At the same time, my dad was working with influential people, including TV personalities and film actors. But there was no thought of ever having any of them over to visit. How would you ever make an outsider understand?
You Are Constantly Worried About Becoming A Hoarder Yourself
In a sense, I was also a hoarder as a kid, mainly because I had no concept of disposing of stuff. I had no practice. My grade school backpack and study desk at home were always full of two-or-three-year-old tests, paper planes, crumpled-up paper balls, and used pen refills I couldn't bring myself to throw away.
As I got older and became aware of how unusual and destructive these habits are, I became fixated on avoiding them. I constantly and obsessively evaluate my behavior for hoarding patterns, wary of getting too attached to things. As frequently happens with parents and offspring, we wind up over-correcting to a stupid degree. I actively ask people not to give me gifts for my birthday, for fear that I'm not going to use them and they're going to sit around gathering dust. Sure, lots of people insist that you not get them anything, but I bet they don't grab their friends by the shoulders and beg with a desperate look on their face. "No, you don't understand, you really can't get me anything! Please!"
There was this one time when I was so freaked out at the thought of someone surprising me with something for my birthday that I tried to convince them that I thought that the entire concept of gift-giving is stupid (which I don't). Every time I leave something lying in a place for a bit, I start fretting over whether I'm showing hoarding tendencies. That's something to always remember: When you meet someone who obsessively avoids some seemingly innocuous habit, remember that we're all haunted by the thing we're terrified of becoming.
And remember those kids who always seemed determined to keep you at arm's length, who backed away when you got too close. If you ever wondered what you'd done wrong, there's a good chance it was nothing at all -- they just knew that if things progressed, at some point you'd want to come over. And for one reason or another, they were desperate to make sure you never saw their place, or what went on there.
Eamon Rafi is a regular Cracked contributor writing under a changed surname so that this avoids the detection of his family. Check out his other work for Cracked on his regular profile, or his hastily compiled portfolio.
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