Free to change

One of the hardest lessons I've learned about dealing with my mother and her compulsive hoarding is to let her go. I left home at the tender age of 18, visiting only occasionally and almost never going into her home. I'd wanted her to change for as long as I can remember, but some part of me must have gotten that I couldn't make her change.

Loved ones of hoarding-affected individuals talk about how hoarding is similar in many respects to an addiction. Although it is not classified by mental health specialists as an addiction, they are aware of similarities. Give the adult child of a hoarding-affected individual the "Laundry List" traits of Adult Children of Alcoholics, and most will identify with them. (I believe that this is because hoarding seems to be a progressive disorder, intensified by unresolved grief and loss--basically making an increase in the severity of acquiring and inability to get rid of things the person's coping device, much like alcohol, narcotics, or gambling are to others.)

Like parents who are addicts, parents who are hoarding-affected cannot be coerced or forced to change. They must reach a bottom before most will seek help. Further complicating the issue is a noted lack of insight plus habituation. The hoarding-affected parent doesn't see their home with the same eyes as others to start with, and in time they've become accustomed to the piles which seem to shrink as time passes. Also complicating the issue is the co-occurrence of hoarding with other mental health issues.

The hardest part of being the adult child of a hoarding-affected parent is walking away and letting go of the desire to change your parent. I had done this, not intentionally, but I had done it all the same. I had pretty much given up, and although I couldn't handle never communicating with my mother, I had established boundaries through distance.

When my mom got sick and was removed from her home, I agreed to help her but I set boundaries. I offered my help so long as it was healthy, constructive help. I did my best to keep my mother informed and an active part of the process. I did, however, make a strict boundary--I would get on the next plane and NOT look back if she chose give up. This was less about forcing her to change--I didn't think she could or would--but about setting a healthy boundary for myself. I wanted her to change so badly that I had to give her permission not to.

I gave up time with my children flying back and forth across the country to help care for my mother, clean out the house with the show, sell the house and car, and manage her legal and financial matters. Afterward, I committed my time to helping her on my terms. But she had to ask.

Over time, my mother showed signs of real change. We've had very healthy conversations about boundaries, we've addressed the dark periods from the past, and we are well on our way to healing.

But first, I had to give her freedom to not change. It had to be her choice.

Many people misunderstand the adult child of a hoarding-affected parent. A removal from the "scene of the crime" is about being healthy, not about callousness or apathy. I chose not to go back to her home because it was painful for me to see her still living that way, and in fact seeing the state of the home deteriorating rapidly. If I had possessed a magic wand, one of the first things I would have changed would have been her mental health issues. But alas, my magic wand has broken since I was three and gave up on fairy tales.

My mother has changed in massive ways over the last two years. Healing has happened and continues to happen, though scars will always remain and keep a small barrier between communication for at least a while longer.

It's amazing how much my mother was able to change when I stopped pushing her or even hoping she would. When I chose to love her just the way she was, as tough as it was, she was able to find the strength to change for herself first.

There is hope and healing after growing up with a hoarding-affected parent!


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