Monday, October 29, 2012

The Neighbor Learns Our Secret

So in 2009, my parents had come to visit us and on the way back my mother trips in the airport and sprains her ankle. She is taken to the hospital, bandaged up, and then my mother decides that she's had enough and leaves. She gets back on the plane wearing the dressing gown from the hospital.

They fly all the way back from New York to Seattle like that. Their neighbors of 30 years picked them up at the airport. They couldn't believe what they saw. "You would never guess what she had on ---- She was still in her hospital gown with a sweater - I was shocked. Your Dad said she refused to put her clothing back on and she laughed and said "I just wanted to leave".  I am very surprised the hospital let her leave like that and that Delta let her get on!!! "
The Next Door Neighbors

The Secret Is Out

That was only the beginning of their experience. Since my mother practically couldn't walk, and they had luggage to bring in, the neighbors helped bring my mother into the house. These neighbors of 30 years had never been inside their house.

"This was the first time I had been "allowed" inside their house in years !!!!! I only got in then because my husband and I had to help them. It is a disaster -- and I really mean that. I think it is both a health and safety issue.  I have seen the upstairs - it is horrible - I can't imagine what downstairs looks like."

Confronting the Hoard

This was the inciting incident, putting these neighbors into action. They felt that they had to do something, that now that they had actually seen this that they couldn't just go along like my parents had done and pretend it doesn't exist.

"I finally felt I had to say something to your Dad. As usual when we talked he answers his door and closes it behind him. We talk on the steps rain or sunshine ! I told him how worried I was  -- that if they had a fire they would never be able to get out  -- you can barely walk down the hall. As the their health I can only imagine...He said he would do "something".

Working On It

Growing my father would not want to talk about the mess and piles of stuff. He treated it as a work in progress, that it was manageable and with enough time and energy dedicated he would get to it. So when I questioned him about stuff and his process, his usual answer was "I'm working on it."

The neighbor continued to update me about the situation. I thought that she probably regretted ever seeing this. She probably would have preferred to going on living next door, remaining totally unaware of the state of the household. I couldn't blame her either. I would like to pretend it didn't exist.

The neighbor explained that "He told me yesterday that he was working on  it.  Could he put stuff in my trash as he had lots of it. I checked my barrel and there is hardly anything in it from him.  At this rate it would take YEARS to clean the house and get it livable. I am sorry to bother you with all of this but I know your sister can't do anything. She told me years ago the house was a mess but I thought she was exaggerating -- guess not.  Thought you might have some idea how I can help them...If you want to talk on the phone tell me a time that works for you and I will be home....."

Hoarding is a Condition

I didn't have any answers for her, just as I didn't have any answers to explain this crazy situation. I related to her that blunt truth, that this was a legacy awaiting my return, only after my parents had left this world.

I told her: "To be honest, I don't expect them to do anything. The condition of the house has been like that since I was growing up. The downstairs is virtually untraverseable. Since my mother's mother died in 1983 (26 years ago), they filled up the downstairs with all the stuff from her house in Vancouver BC. At the time they said "we have to go through it." I can name the few times that outsiders entered the house. Like you said, it would take years to go through the stuff. I've realized that and carried that burden all these years, knowing that one day I will have to either quit my job or take an extended leave to take of things. To say it straight, I don't expect them to go through this stuff in my life time. When I lived at home they blamed me and my sister for bothering them and distracting them from going through stuff. The condition of their house is really a metaphor for their own psychological and emotional states (meaning unwilling to deal with your issues and letting them pile up). As you noted, they don't have much of a support system, and they have never sought out a community. The stuff that has piled up in the house is really the proverbial 'elephant' in the living room that everyone is ignoring. The problem is there, but denial is more powerful. I don't think that they have the emotional strength to 1) admit that there is a problem, and 2) take action to fix it. They have lived like this  for the majority of their lives, it would really surprise me and impress me if people in their seventies took the initiative to make such a major change that would be required to straighten out the house.
I hope that my response doesn't sound jaded or terse, but the condition of their house was a major frustration for me and I realized that the only thing that I could do was to go away to set up my own household. It is really refreshing for the 'secret' to be out. My shrink is gonna love this."

It was a proverbial 'shrink'. I had last gone to therapy in 2001 shortly before getting engaged.

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