Hoarding Medicine and Cleaners

Today I was able to finish the kitchen cabinets. In the cabinet above the microwave, medicines, bandaids, and first aid essentials were spilling out. It took a couple of hours to sort through the medicines and black out my parents names on the bottles with a Sharpie to appease their fear of identity theft. To myself I thought it was pointless to black out their names because if you really want you can see the typing through the Sharpie, but I didn’t want to spend hours trying to peel labels off of medicine bottles, so I didn’t say this out loud. My dad did acknowledge at one point that if someone really wants their names they could find them Sharpied out name or not. On the top shelf of the cabinet were about thirty McDonald toys: Bambi, Bernstein Bears, Anastasia, Lion King. I collected these in a bag. Dad entered the kitchen and asked, “What are you doing with my stuff?” I answered that Mom had said we could donate these. He said, “I am going to sell those for $0.50 each.” So I wasn’t able to extract them from the house.

The next cabinet was next to the medicine cabinet. I pulled out drinking straws, ten different patterns of paper plates, thermos’s that went with lunchboxes (Strawberry Shortcake, Popples), cups, napkins, aluminum foil, sandwich bags, and coffee. I sorted these between trash and recycling bags and a keep pile. The thermos’s I was able to sneak out. I feel a little guilty about not asking my parents about these, but things just don’t last forever and plastic breaks down with age. They just can’t stay forever. I reorganized the three shelves with coffee, hot chocolate, sandwich bags, and aluminum foil on the bottom, paper towels and a bottle of wine on the second, and pie plates, a huge knife for cutting watermelon, and the forty-year-old toaster my dad loves on the third shelf.

Next I cleaned out behind the microwave. I found hot chocolate in a glass container, two ladles that were used for fetching well water, more medicine, a metal drinking container, and bent shelf paper. After sorting all of this, I reorganized the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Lots of swiffer dry wipes, but they all fit. There were only duplicates of about five cleaners, so I threw them in a bag and took them to my car before anyone could see. I’ll carry them to the recycling center. I placed garbage bags, swiffer wipes, and plastic grocery store bags on the left of the cabinet. The rest of the cabinet has about fifteen different cleaners. That’s fine with me, though, as long as they aren’t on the floor or cabinet.

In total, there were two bags for recycling and two for the garbage. I also found some ornaments that my grandmother had given me in the dining area. I’ve been wondering what happened to these for a long time. The computer and floppy disks are still on the kitchen counter. I guess I’ll have to start nagging Dad to go through these. I do not plan on decluttering the kitchen drawers for a while. I also started tonight on rolling coins that were sitting in a tin on the countertop. In the dining room there’s still a container of sewing supplies for Mom to sort through. There’re also items that we’ve looked at but just don’t have anywhere else to put right now. My plan for next time is to get Mom to declutter the cabinets above the washer and dryer. They need a space in those for candles and vases. I would also like to begin on the living area, since it’s the first room you see when you walk in and since Dad wants to have their window replaced.

Wait and see… will the She-ra and Carebear Halloween costumes above the washer stay or go?

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Compulsive Acquiring and Saving

Tonight I went to a community class titled “Loved Ones Who Hoard: Guidelines for Family and Friends.” Jan Hulme Shepard, the speaker for the class, is on her own journey to release clutter and stop hoarding. She believes that the term “hoarder” is a discriminatory label and prefers “a person who hoards” or “compulsive acquiring and saving.” There may be some truth to this, but for simplicity reasons, I will continue to mostly use the terms “hoarder” and “hoarding” for this blog.

It was so interesting for me to hear both the perspectives from a recovering hoarder and from the family and friends of hoarders. I knew there were others who share the concern and shame for family members who hoard, but it was a different feeling to be in the room as they voiced their experiences. Some attendees had family members who will not accept any help for their behavior, and Shepard recommended harm reduction for these individuals. Harm reduction means that you try to expand the safety and health of the loved one when they cannot change, such as moving papers away from the fireplace to prevent fire. Another attendee had helped a sister declutter two times already, but the sister had not been able to change her hoarding behavior and her home was cluttered once again. Shepard lobbies for a holistic approach to changing hoarding behavior, addressing not only the physical component of hoarding but also the mental (depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder), spiritual, and emotional.

The class addressed some of my own emotional needs – to identify with others like myself who are hurt by their loved ones hoarding. I realized that I am trying to heal my hurt by dealing with the clutter, but I need to be more holistic in my approach to healing. Who knows? I may even try medical qigong, an alternative Chinese medicine practice that Shepard utilizes with her clients, to help with the negative energy I’m feeling!

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Hoarding Appliances

This morning I woke up at eight, still pretty tired from yesterday. Dad made blueberry pancakes and bacon, so I couldn’t start the decluttering until he sat down for his breakfast. Then I dragged out everything in the cabinet between the sink and dishwasher. I found a rice cooker, deep fryer, bun warmer, three hand mixers, an ice cream machine motor, a donut maker, and a popcorn popper without a lid. Mom and Dad narrowed this collection down to just one hand mixer and the ice cream machine motor. I was very proud of them. Into the same cabinet I put their salad spinner, tea maker, food processor and its parts, a huge Corningware dish that Dad wants for cooking chicken, a thermos, and four coke bottles.

In the small cabinet to the left of the sink I found thirty to forty plastic bags, which all went into the trash. There were also random lids, fifteen-year-old poptarts,  and a thermos. These items also went into the trash. Into this cabinet I put a coffee kettle, a glass jar for stew, a coffee grinder, and a water filter pitcher. I also had time to reorganize all of my parents’ plastic containers and Tupperware to fit in the bottom cabinet to the left of the stove. It looked so much better when I left!

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Hoarding Food

I had a couple of days off from work, so I decided to make the drive to my parents’ house today. I turned into the driveway, and the familiar sight of the Coca-Cola machines by the old storage shed greeted me. I brought Norton with me again. He began sniffing the air expectantly even though the windows were not down, on the lookout for my parents’ dogs. As I pulled in to park, I saw Dad in the distance, walking the dogs. Norton and I went up the worn wooden steps and into the house. I put my brown quilted weekender bag on the bed in my sister’s old room. I always sleep in there when I visit, because my mother has loaded down my old room with clothes. In my old room, you can no longer walk in more than two feet, if that. I quickly changed into the green sweatpants and old t-shirt I reserve for intense cleaning and headed to the kitchen. I would continue the decluttering there.

I started with a top cabinet that holds food to the right of the stove. I heard the front door open and close, and then my dad entered the kitchen. “Whatch’ya doing?” he asked. “I thought I’d work on clearing out these food cabinets today,” I told him, bracing myself for a negative remark or comment, but he stood back to watch. I grabbed a black thirty gallon trash bag from under the sink and got to work. There was an abundance of spices! I began pulling out all of the spices, checking dates, and sitting them on the countertop if they were still within date. I counted six cinnamon’s. “Cinnamon doesn’t go bad,” Dad told me. “Do you need six of them?,” I asked him dubiously. He unscrewed the top off one, revealing that the seal had not been broken. “I could take two of those,” I told him, hoping to get rid of a few. “But you’ll throw them away,” he accused me. “No, I won’t,” I told him, thinking that at least I wouldn’t have to buy any for awhile, although I rarely use it. We continued going through the spices: whole cloves, parsley, basil, saffron, garlic salt, and others. Dad finally said, “Well, I’m thinking that if we have it in the spice rack, we don’t need the extra ones in the cabinet.” “Exactly what I’ve been saying,” I stated, rolling my eyes. There were also six bottles of karo syrup, a combination of light and dark. He refused to get rid of any of these, saying, “Listen. They never go bad,” but he did consolidate the light and dark into three bottles. There was a huge tin of maple syrup. “Stays good for thousands of years,” Dad exclaimed, “and it’s only been up there for about ten years.” I couldn’t help myself from grimacing. “Your Granny used to scrape mold off the top of jam and still use it,” he told me. Apparently FDA rules mean nothing to him, I thought to myself. There were multiple boxes of crackers: buttery, herb, saltine. He insisted on keeping these plus his four different varieties of salt substitutes. We did manage to throw away six boxes of hardened brown sugar, two bottles of worcester sauce, old cake decorating sprinkles, and some stale flour (and recycled the pink canister it was in). After removing the dirty shelf paper, vacuuming the shelves, and replacing the food, I moved to the top cabinet to the left of the stove.

My parents have a good bit of junk food, such as candy and chips, that was cluttering the countertops. The goal was to get these items off the counters and into the cabinets. I was able to throw away enough expired food to make room for these items. During this process, I found three types of sugar substitutes. Dad said he really liked one of them but that he needed to keep the other two for back-up. This kind of thinking is why they have clutter. On the top shelf, multiple lightbulbs had made a home. There wasn’t anywhere else to put these items for now (will eventually go above the washer and dryer), so there they stayed. I gathered all of the canned food and consolidated it to the large top shelf in the bottom cabinet by the dishwasher. I washed the larger pieces of bakewear (such as cookie sheets) that were on top of the fridge and placed them on the bottom shelf of the same cabinet. Dad asked, “What are you going to put on top of the fridge.” I answered him in a slightly exasperated voice, “It’s not supposed to have anything on top of it.” Then I collected the diverse plastic containers and items that were still lying on the countertop even after Mom had promised to decide which ones she wanted to keep and put the rest away. I rewashed them and laid them out to dry. That night, I asked Mom again if she wanted to get rid of some of them. She agreed to let go of the hamburger patty tupperware set, a bean pot, and a brass candlestick holder (Dad said it was worth only about $0.60), and two sconces that no one knew what attached to. We considered sorting through another cabinet, but at this point I was very tired. We went through many medicine bottles on top of the microwave, and then I went to bed.

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The Friday Call

I called my mother last night to see if she had sorted the papers that I asked her to. Of course, I didn’t want it to seem that a stack of papers was my main reason for calling, so after I made small talk for a couple of minutes I asked, “Were you able to go through any of those papers in the kitchen?” Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect. Would she make any progress at all? She tends to sleep late on her days off and always wakes up with a splitting headache or a stomach pain or an earache and spends her day in the recliner watching her story. She responded, “Mm-hmm, and I cleaned off the end of the counter again in the kitchen.” I pushed her a little on the “mm-hmm.” “So you went through all the papers in that tub and the tote?,” I questioned. “Well, I went through part of them and plan to do some more tonight,” which is Mom’s code for I will not be doing all of that today. But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Today my hubby and I transported papers, magazines, a computer modem, and a cellphone from my parents’ house to the recycling center. I feel just a tiny bit lighter, as though my lungs can expand more fully to allow me to breathe a little deeper.

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The Kitchen Table Shows It’s Top

I planned to leave for my parents’ house, which is in a different state, about 11 AM on Monday so that I could spend the night with them and get an early start on decluttering on Tuesday. I find that I get so much more done if I can get an early start. So I gathered up a cleaning outfit (I can get pretty filthy cleaning and decluttering in my parents house, stirring up dust bunnies that haven’t been disturbed since 1997, at least.), a few toiletries, pj’s, and one of my best friends, Norton, who also happens to be my beagle dog. Norton needed to relieve himself before our trip, so I took him on a short walk in the alley behind our condo. Then he jumped in the car and waited, wagging around, while I made a trip into the condo to get my load: my duffel bag, Norton’s pallet and a bag with his food and supplies, and a coat that a bird had pooped on while I took Norton on his morning walk, which I needed to wash in my parents washing machine because our’s shoots out a layer of black lint on everything. Anyways, I shuffled with my load to the passenger side of the car, and behold, we had a flat, even though we just bought new tires on Saturday at Firestone. I tromped back inside with my beagle and belongings, thinking I would delay my trip until Tuesday. Firestone the tire servicer was busy, but amazingly, they had the tire that they admitted they put on incorrectly ready in a couple of hours. So I carried Norton and the above-mentioned load to the car again and made it to my parents’ house.

China Cabinet Clutter

I had a restless sleep. I woke up every hour until 3, then I slept until my parents new dog  began barking at 6 AM. I could have gotten up and began my task, but instead I promptly put in earplugs and went back to sleep until 8. After a breakfast eaten in the recliner (the one chair you can always count on to be free of clutter), I began sorting through the mixture of papers stored on top of and in the three trays of a small, rolling kitchen cart. It was the usual assortment I have grown accustomed to at my parents place: old bills from the past 5-10 years that can now be thrown away, old paystubs (which are filed away), envelopes that once held Christmas cards from which my mother some day plans to write down the return addressess, magazines from the past two years, and school papers, letters, and drawings from my sister and me. The collection of sentimental things I deem to be okay to keep for now. Ideally my parents will pick their favorite items and discard the rest, but that is a battle for another day. The cart also contains sewing supplies mixed in with the papers: thread, material, needles, scissors. The sewing supplies I place on top of a plastic container filled with more sewing supplies. Actually, I place the sewing materials on top of a typewriter that is on top of the plastic bin. My mother, who is still asleep at this point, has plans to let her sister, an avid sewer, go through the assortment of sewing materials and tools. The typewriter she is considering letting go. She does use it once a year due to her unacquaintance with the computer and Microsoft Word. I also begin making a stack underneath a kitchen chair of items to be given away. These are totally random things such as an old ball and McDonald toys left over from my childhood.
At this point, my mother is awake and joins me in the clutter-clearing. The kitchen cart is cleared but the top is ruined. Here my parents and I have a disagreement. My dad wants to keep it in the kitchen and store canned goods in it instead of the cabinets or to take it to the basement to organize tools. My mother expresses her disgust that the top is ruined and simply says that my sister wanted this cart for her house, and now they can’t give it to her. I point out that I bought the cart for $30 in the first place, it’s not worth her remorse, and suggest we take it to the dump. My dad looked so sad, though, that I relented and said he could keep it if he took it to the basement immediately. So he picked it up and hastily placed it on the porch. Mother and I started to sort the one remaining chair of clothes. (Other clothes were sorted in two previous visits.) These items are quickly pronounced to be articles that my mother still plans to wear or will relinquish to family members. They all need to be washed from the grime and into a black trash bag they go. I insist that it go by the washer. My theory is that if we sort out items and advance them to the rooms they actually belong to, this decluttering process will go faster. If we just leave them in the kitchen, there is the same amount of stuff in the kitchen, except it’s in separate piles instead of one big pile.

The Kitchen Table and Cart A Few Weeks Ago

Then it is time to go through a few shoeboxes, grocery store bags, and a tote, which are all full of stuff. Mom sometimes cleans out her purse, which means she dumps the contents of her purse into bags, which then are placed together in larger bags. So we found receipts, notes she’d written to herself, crumpled candy wrappers, and more old bills. We sorted through this in a couple of hours. We threw away an old rusted Care Bear TV tray, the handle to a mop, and a glob of thread that my mom couldn’t separate. Yes, she did try to separate the thread, but she gave up saying, “it’s probably too old to use now anyways.” I concur. There were about ten pairs of children shoes. Two pairs can go to my cousin’s daughter (I put in Mom’s car.), and the others I put in my dad’s car to donate. We also found this computer thingamajig that my dad said he needs to get the files off their ancient PC. Sadly, they have a PC sitting on the kitchen counter. The keyboard sits in front of it on a wooden kid table that once belonged to me. I only uncovered the computer and keyboard about a month ago. It sat for years hidden by unused plastic containers, trash, Barbies, dried corsages in their plastic containers, and clothes. They want to get rid of the thing, but they want all the files off the hard drive first, when means they have to find the equipment to get the files off the hard drive. So the PC is waiting on the kitchen counter. My parents reorganized their wrapping paper plastic organizers, which for now are still in the kitchen.

I love to see decluttered surfaces! I definitely lean toward a minimalist approach to living. The kitchen table is clear except for a couple of houseplants! We cleaned out three 30-gallon bags of trash, one bag for the thrift store, and one bag for recycling (along with about fifteen magazines). We made some major progress. When I go home in a couple of weeks I’d really like to finish the kitchen, but I think it’s more realistic to say it will take two more trips. I assigned Mother some homework. There’s a large plastic tub and a tote bag of her papers by the china cabinet she’s to go through tomorrow while she’s off work. I will call her tonight to remind her. We still have four kitchen cabinets to comb through. I’ve been over the countertops once but there is still much stuff left on top of them. The computer, sewing bin, typewriter, and four bags of clothes (need to be put in queue for wash) all remain.


At The End of Tuesday

After my parents exclaimed about what a slavedriver I am and how they could never work for me, they thanked me. Norton and I drove back home Tuesday afternoon. I was so pleased with what I accomplished that I couldn’t stop smiling, but Norton found my parents’ house too exhausting and slept in the backseat.

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My Family Secret

I have a secret. I have kept it for thirty years. My parents are hoarders. I grew up surrounded by stuff. I lived in my parents’ house until I was eighteen, when I left for college. In the years that I lived with my parents, I managed to keep the house from getting too much worse. After I left, though, it quickly declined. I have been gone for eleven years now. I cannot even get into my old room because clothes are piled on the bed and on the floor. Trash covers the countertops of the kitchen. There is one chair and a small space to sit on the floor in the living room. The basement literally has junk piled to the ceiling. How can a house become so overrun with belongings? The truth is that my parents have gotten rid of little of the stuff they have accumulated in the past thirty years. I think it’s time for a change.

I stayed with my parents for a few days in June 2010 and devised a plan. It all started when I couldn’t get ready in the mornings because the sink in the hallway bathroom had every surface covered with toiletries. I would lay my toiletries on the sink and inevitably two or three of my parents’ items would fall in the floor. I convinced my mom to help me go through the items on the bathroom sink and in the cabinet. I thought if she could see how great it looks when you have fewer things even in a small room such as the bathroom that it might motivate her to dehoard the rest of the house. My dad watched us from the hallway. There were three boxes of q-tips, four bottles of rubbing alcohol, three bottles of aloe vera – the list could go on like this for a while. We filled two garbage bags of stuff. My mom said, “I need for you to help me do this in my bathroom.”  This was an astounding statement from a pack rat! In the past, I was always reprimanded for trying to clear clutter. And now, my mom was asking for help in doing this very thing? And so the clearing of clutter in my parents’ house began.

So far, we have worked on the hallway and the kitchen. I have delivered about fifteen 30-gallon trash bags of goods to a thrift store. I have thrown away thirty bags of trash. I can’t see a huge difference yet, but it will come. It hasn’t been easy – my mother is so afraid that I’ll throw away something she needs. Both of my parents are adamant that their names and address be removed from all papers due to their fear of their identities being stolen. Sometimes I find things that are scary, such as the plastic container on the table that still had a piece of cake in it. In my hurry to get it to the trash, I tripped, the container fell on the floor and burst open, and the most horrible rotten smell hit me. Disgusting! I keep working, though. My mission is to declutter the upstairs rooms of my parents’ house. Or at least to be able to sit on the couch when I visit.

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