I know what inertia looks like. Inertia is the slow accumulation of too much muchness; of the “no-no room” expanding out into the hall; the dining room table consumed by craft supplies, old newspapers, and forgotten school projects. It’s dusty, it’s sickening, it’s exhausting, and it’s overwhelming.
Inertia defines my relationship with my parents; it’s the problem that took over their lives, defined my childhood, and threatens my impending marriage.
My parents have a hoarding problem. And as the stuff stacks higher, grows outward, I am pushed farther away.
I want to say it’s just my mother’s problem. After all, she’s the instigator, the one who brings things in and puts off until some imaginary “later” cleaning up. But my father is right there, too; either he isn’t bothered by it much or, after more than thirty years of marriage, has given up. Either way, both live with it.
My parents are good people. I want to make sure that gets included, lest you think of them as some kind of impossible freaks. If anything, they give too much of themselves; they’re always trying to help others somehow and forget to help themselves.
And it’s not that they are lazy, either. It may be the opposite. One of the defining characteristics of hoarding is a tendency toward perfectionism. The clutter is a manifestation of being overwhelmed by your expectations; if it’s only good enough if it looks like it’s out of a magazine, what’s even the point of trying?
Indeed, as the rest of the house literally went to shit, I was never allowed to let my room get even a little dirty—no teenaged piles of clothes on my floor, no teen movie stars wallpapering my walls. As a result, my room was both a respite and hollow; it didn’t feel personal to me at all, but at least I wasn’t smothered by the clutter in the rest of the house.
The spare bedroom was known as the “no-no room” for as long as I can remember. I wonder, sometimes, what I might find in there; it’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve seen inside. The garage was next to go, stacked so high with the paraphernalia of life that my father’s worktable was subsumed. From there, it spread, an ichor that crawled over the house. We didn’t open the coat closet for at least a decade; ate most of our dinners in front of the TV not because my family thought that best but because the dining room table was lost to us; gave up trying to sit on the couch, so covered in outgrown clothes.
We’ve told no one about the state of our house, though I imagine our long-time family friends wonder why they are never invited in, why out-of-town relatives can’t stay in the spare room. It’s not something we talk about, even among ourselves—though my brother and I used to whisper to each other that we hoped the house would burn down someday, as long as our pets got out safely.
My relationship with my family is hard to explain. Outwardly, we look pretty much like the ideal nuclear family: two hard-working, loving parents; two kids, smart and successful in their own ways. I see my family every week. People assume we have a perfect relationship.
In truth, it’s icy. There’s too much we just don’t talk about, can’t talk about. My mother’s perfectionism extended to me, too; even as a straight-A student, I felt her disapproval. She’s still mad at me for quitting ballet… when I was six. Nothing I do ever feels like enough.
As a result, I don’t have much of a real relationship with my mother—my mother, who has been “adopted” as a mentor figure by dozens of other people, who listens to their problems and pushes them quietly toward success. My mother, who couldn’t remember the name of my college boyfriend, even after we’d been dating for three years, who threatened to stop paying for that college education because I refused to continue taking a foreign language because I already had met all the requirements.
Sometimes I read other posts by APWers, or see pins on Pinterest, or even sometimes on The Kn*t, and I want to cry. Write a sweet heartfelt note to your mom? Thank her for all she’s done to help you learn what a good relationship looks like? Tell stories about those times she dried your tears when you cried during a bad breakup?
…What would I have to say?
Wedding planning has made my parents’ hoarding a bigger problem. Besides the lack of heartfelt emotionality, I can’t send gifts to their house for safekeeping; they’d be buried. My fiancé isn’t welcome in their home. Forget relatives or letting them host a shower or rehearsal dinner.
I thought, for awhile, that they had realized how much the state of the house was hampering our relationships, the wedding. I thought it was the wedding, in conjunction with the burst pipe under the living room, that motivated them to clear out the living room, dining room, and hall to have new flooring put in. I thought the new wide-open spaces were a sign that they were changing.
But then I went over, and saw it for myself. True, those spaces are cleaner than I have ever seen them. The rooms seem huge now! But all that crap? It’s moved outside, lying on big tarps in the yard. My mom is supposed to be “working on” picking through it to find what she wants to keep versus toss out.
She’s been “working on it” for two months now. It’s rained at least five times.
It makes me terrified for my marriage. I’m afraid that I’ll become my parents. After all, no one starts as a hoarder; usually there’s some emotionally challenging event that “flips the switch.” With my mom, it was my grandmothers’ death.
What if I’m just waiting for the ball to drop, for me to go crazy and crush my love under a mountain of debris?
I fret over moving in with my soon-to-be husband (yes, we held out. I couldn’t bear my parents’ judgment). What if we are both messy in our own ways, and together we are out of control? Nevermind that my home is nigh-Spartan. What if I decide to have kids, and what if I fall into the same parenting patterns that I grew up with? What if I never get to be close with my kids? What if I’m fundamentally broken in some way? What if? What if?!
Some days, it makes me want to hug my fiancé so terribly tightly and run away to somewhere where no one knows us, maybe live as gypsies on the road. Maybe I can outrun this legacy.
But I don’t do that. Instead, I clear away the pile of yesterday’s mail, invite my family over for Thanksgiving dinner around my small clean table, offer surface conversation, and am grateful I’m an adult and can define my own space. That I can build my own baby family, and that, together, he and I can fight the inertia and build something beautiful instead.
Photo by Gabriel Harber