Chaos. It’s a state, mood, and — by definition — a disorder. Chaos is utter confusion. It is complete and total disarray. And while many use the term in relation to physics or massive social uprisings, chaos is the one (and only) way I can describe my upbringing. I lived in chaos. For 18 years.
Now I should be clear: The reasons are numerous and varied. My mother was mentally ill. My father died when I was just twelve years old. I also had back surgery weeks before my fifteenth birthday. Five screws and a rod were inserted into my spine. But none of these reasons are why I describe my childhood as chaotic. No. Instead, I give “stuff” credence for that title. Hoarding and stuff.
Ironically, I don’t know when the hoarding began. We always had toys and things. Lots of things. I had dozens of Barbies. We owned hundreds of VHS tapes and cassette tapes; books, records, 8-tracks, and CDs, and our house was never void of food. We had so much stuff we could feed — and occupy — an entire army. But when I was younger, I never gave that stuff much mind. I thought we were “normal.” I thought having all of these things was normal. But then the mountain became unmanageable. The things became obstacles, and now when I look back on my childhood, on the earliest days of my life, everything comes into focus.
The hoarding is clear.
You see, I see an overflowing pantry: full of boxes, bottles, jugs, small unlabeled containers, and cans. Lots and lots of cans. I see a dining room we couldn’t use because it was covered in crap. Because there were piles of paper — scrap paper; newspaper; Post-It note-style paper; and bills —strewn about. I see closets we couldn’t access. Mountains of clothes we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) clean. I see a stack of TV Guides dozens deep in the corner of the living room, a shrine to sitcoms past. I see boxes, everywhere. Our home looked like a storage unit. You would think we were leaving any day. And I see my life in multiples, i.e., my mother never bought one of anything. Instead, she purchased cereal in bulk and bought Stove Top stuffing en masse. She kept large quantities of makeup. She had two (or three) unopened compacts of blush, eyeshadow and foundation at all times. And my mother hoarded hair color and products like they were going out of style. She had five Clairol home coloring kits in our bathroom and at least half a dozen canisters of Aqua Net above the sink. I also see critters.
There were bugs in our cereal.
Worms wriggled on (and in) the carpet.
I hated it. I hated her strange habits and quirky tics. I hated the mess we lived in — the constant state of chaos she forced us to live in — and hated how her compulsive behaviors affected me. We never had company or hosted big family dinners. Inviting friends into our house wasn’t just against the rules, it was a groundable offense, and the lack of social interaction didn’t just stunt my growth, and my sister’s, it severely affected us.
We both ended up with major anxiety issues. The mold, mildew, dust, dirt and grime exasperated (and probably created) my sister’s chronic lung conditions. I was also embarrassed by her behavior. I was ashamed, and by time I entered high school, “the mess” rubbed off on me. I felt dirty and unkempt. I tried to hide behind big hair and baggy clothes.
I still do.
However, perhaps the most surprising impact of my mother’s hoarding is how it continues to affect me now: Every minute, every hour, and every day of my adult life. Because while I no longer live with her — I moved out of my childhood home when I was 18 — her actions and behaviors have permanently altered my actions and behaviors.
I am self-conscious. I feel tiny, invisible, unimportant and small. I am worried about how others see me and perceive me. I constantly feel like I am being judged, scrutinized in the public eye. I am anal, a neat freak at heart. I cannot stand clutter. Piles of toys, books, boxes, unfolded clothes, and crap set me off and make me angsty. I get angry, emotional, stressed, and depressed. I have a hard time welcoming guests into my home, and when I do, I spend hours cleaning beforehand. Surfaces must be scrubbed and disinfected. I want our place to look like a show home, a space where no one exists. Making friends is difficult. I still struggle to socialize. And I wear a mask. Constantly. I hide behind it like I once did the boxes, or beneath my bedroom blanket.
Why? Because it feels normal. It feels natural. It feels safe.
Of course, I know my extreme behaviors are not a good thing. In fact, nothing prefaced by the word “extreme” is a good thing, and it is an issue I continue to work through. I see a therapist every week to learn how to live, to learn how to be and breathe, and to learn how to cope with crap. With clutter, with people, and with my life. But I still struggle, and I think I always will. Because living in the shadow of hoarding is hard, and living in (and with) the legacy of a hoarder is fucking exhausting.