Trigger warning: hoarding disorder
Whenever I hear moms say that their kids won’t remember if their house was a mess, a small voice in the back of my head wants to scream, “Oh, yes, they will.” But, of course, I lived with someone with a hoarding disorder, so we don’t imagine the same types of messes, do we?
Most folks consider messy to be a home littered with toys, clothes, papers, dirty dishes, and laundry that needs washing. A house that’s “lived in.” But this isn’t what I picture when someone tells me their home is in disarray.
A mess to me is dirty cups and dishes sitting on the coffee table for weeks with no room for anything else. It’s when you don’t have any clean clothes to wear, so you sift through the dirty piles and find the ones that can pass as clean and call it a day. A mess to me is when you’re unable to use the kitchen due to clutter, pathways that allow you space to walk, and animal cages that positively reek from needing a deep clean. Simply put, a mess to me is a hoarding disorder.
My mom has never received an official diagnosis, but I know that my mom falls in the 5% of people who have a hoarding disorder. And it wasn’t until my 20s when I became obsessed with TLC’s show Hoarders that I recognized it, either.
We didn’t have piles stacked to the ceiling or feces and urine in cups or anything like that — our home wasn’t a biohazard. But my mom’s biggest struggle while I was growing up was keeping a clean home, and the effects of that haven’t left me.
It didn’t bother me so much when I was younger. I guess it’s because I didn’t realize that my aunt’s and uncle’s homes were tidy while ours was embarrassingly messy. To me, it was normal. It wasn’t until I innocently let my aunt inside our house one day after she knocked on the door that I figured out why we should have felt so much shame.
As I got older, the mess started to take its toll on me. I couldn’t see it or identify it then, but I can now. My mom would tell me I couldn’t go out with friends until my room was clean, but I hadn’t learned how to keep a room clean. It felt backward to me that my room needed to be clean when I had to watch where I stepped in every other room of the house. Why should I clean my room when we hadn’t been able to walk through my parents’ room in years?
I’d say things like, “But your room is a mess too.” To which my mom would reply something to the effect of, “It doesn’t matter. I’m the parent, and you’re the child.” If I’m honest, it makes even less sense to me now.
My mom’s hoarding disorder meant that I could never have friends come over to my house — I noticed it, and they did too. Even our own family was off-limits from stepping foot inside. When my grandma stopped by, my mom stood in the doorway, refusing to let her in. I remember her saying to me one time, “Please promise me that you’ll never do that to me. I don’t care how messy your house is when you are older. I always want to come inside.”
My house as an adult has never been as messy as it was when I was a child, and for a good reason. I can’t allow it to get like that or even half as bad without turning into a raging monster. And it’s an aspect of myself that I loathe, built upon the childhood trauma one experiences from living with someone who has a hoarding disorder.
I didn’t have the skills required to keep a clean home — it was something I had to teach myself. And it’s created a lot of issues with relationships in my adult years.
My friends used to get on me about how quickly I dirtied up an area when I came to their house. They were right. I would leave things disordered, and it wasn’t until they pointed it out that I noticed it. When my husband and I first moved in together, he frequently asked me why I couldn’t pick up after myself. “Why do you leave everything lying around instead of putting it back where it belongs?” he’d ask.
He didn’t know that the concept of picking up little by little didn’t come naturally. To me, cleaning was a very seldom act, one that required dozens of hours (sometimes days or weeks) of hard work. That, or, I believed that keeping a clean house took no effort at all and was stunned when it would wind up messy again after not having picked up for weeks. A home was either clean or unbearably dirty, and there was no in-between in my eyes.
I’ve obtained some of the skills that my parents didn’t teach me since then, and I’ve felt the peace that comes from having a house nice and tidy. And it’s only in those moments that I feel like my house is a home. But when things start to get dirty (as they do when you care for little ones), I can feel the anger bubbling up inside of me, the raging monster, the one that can ruin anyone’s perfect day.
I look at the dirty dishes and laundry, the toys scattered throughout every room, I feel crumbs sticking to the bottom of my bare feet, and I lose it. I can’t move on until it’s clean again. And once it is and I’ve settled down, the guilt creeps in.
Why am I such a terrible mom? Why can’t I let them be kids and deal with the messes later? Why do I have to become so overwhelmed by fixable and typical messes?
I believe an unspoken vow I have with myself is that I will never let my kids grow up in a house that brings so much embarrassment. I don’t want them to feel like they can’t have friends over to stay the night or that they aren’t going to have the promise of clean clothes regularly.
Yet, in the process of keeping to this commitment, I’ve forgotten how to let my little kids stay little. I don’t live in the same house I did as a kid anymore, and I know that whatever catastrophe my kids create, I can fix it. Though when you’re an adult with a parent who has hoarding disorder, it’s hard to display the logic you know in your heart to be true.
You leave the messy house behind, but its effects follow you.