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Seeking help managing when staying with a hoarder...

(72 Posts)
chillywindows Tue 12-Nov-13 18:50:09

My MIL lives in extremely dirty, depressing conditions. She is a hoarder, with additional elements of serious disrepair and squalor. (I know not all hoarders are squalid, but we're talking bits of rotting food on the floor and in the fridge, unbelievably filthy, black slime encrusted kitchen sink etc) She is also very, very difficult. My DH and I will be staying with her for nearly a fortnight over the Christmas period, between our lease ending, and moving overseas to live.

This sounds dreadful, as we are on the cusp of moving so far away, but I have insisted to DH that after the first couple of days we go away for a few nights, as I cannot cope with the filth for two weeks (I'm pregnant, which is definitely affecting my tolerance levels, usually I'm quite stoic) I also cannot cope with her passive agressive (escalating to aggressive) behaviour when we are in her company for extended periods i.e. more than a couple of days. However, she is desperate for us (especially DH) to stay, particularly as we are moving so far away. DH would not countenance a B&B for the entire period, but I know that she will not be able to cope with us for the duration without having a very unpleasant meltdown at some point. She will not be able to visit us, as she is not allowed to fly. But it is the last time we will ever stay in the house, as once the baby arrives I would never be able to stay in such unsanitary conditions with a small child.

I don't even know the purpose of this post, really. Just that I'm upset for DH - and MIL - that she has this dreadful illness. And for my own part, how do I survive Christmas in her house? Any coping tips from children of hoarders (or anyone else) much appreciated!

SweetCarolinePomPomPom Wed 13-Nov-13 03:40:39

You seem to be prepared to make all sorts of excuses and find all sorts of justifications for why you have to stay there. I don't get that at all. OK, so she's probably bordering on mentally ill, but that doesn't mean she is entitled to make unreasonable demands and cause problems for other people. It sounds as though no-one has ever actually confronted her about this and she seems blissfully unaware of just how bad it is, which has done her a disservice really. Your DH should not be afraid to face up to the extent of her issues. If she chooses to be in denial then fine, but he should not be in denial. This tiptoeing around the issue is what is making it hard for him to say no to her. He can't say no without having to say out loud 'it's because of your house - you have a serious problem.'

She can live in her own oppressive pile of junk and filth if she likes but she cannot demand that you live in it too. You just need to put your foot down with your DH and tell him straight.

You won't do it.
It's dangerously cluttered.
It's scarily unhygienic.
It's smelly and beyond unpleasant.
Even if you were not PG you still would not want to do it.
He is welcome to stay there if he likes.
He cannot force you to.
You have pity for her, of course, but there are limits to your tolerance, and this is one of them.
End of discussion.

I can't believe you are even contemplating it. And as someone upthread said, it will probably be as stressful for her as it is for you.

chillywindows Wed 13-Nov-13 07:54:24

Thanks for your post, and I agree with much of what you say SweetCaroline. But I don't think I'm making all sorts of excuses and justifications for having to stay at MIL's. Believe me, I see the problems. But I am genuinely conflicted about it - we are going to go from seeing MIL twice a month, to maybe once a year (and that's if we can afford it, the flights are thousands and we'll be trying to set up home with me not working with a new baby and DH in a new job). She won't see her newborn grandchild. She is losing DH's regular presence. She's desperate for us to spend this time in her house.

Believe me, I don't want to stay in her house! But I do feel compassion for DH's feelings of obligation, and his flawed vision of what the visit is going to be like. Also, the environment for him is sort of normal, even if he also sees that it is completely dysfunctional! He copes ok in there. I don't. If I weren't pregnant, I would probably suck it up (sorry, dreadful expression), even though I would still think it's too much for her and would end with a big blow up and bad feelings just before we leave. But being pregnant is forcing me to think that I can't do it this time.

The pretty much unanimous view of the thread is echoing my own instincts. So we're going to have to sort out an alternative. Argh! Thank you to all who've posted.

SweetCarolinePomPomPom Wed 13-Nov-13 08:24:47

I think she is desperate to spend time with her son, yes, but I think you are probably wrong about her being desperate for it to be in her house. I am sure so long as she gets to spend as much time with him as possible she would not especially care where he (and certainly not you you!) spent the night. I realise you need to find a solution that keeps her happy but there is more than one way to skin a cat! For a start you can't surrey be considering eating Christmas dinner there?! Can you take her out for lunch somewhere instead?

1charlie1 Wed 13-Nov-13 08:34:35

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

You wrote this earlier:-

"I like the idea of boundaries, but strangely the condition of her house is the elephant in the room"

I think you need to read more about the dynamics behind why hoarders actually hoard.

The above is actually not strange at all; throwing anything away is complete and utter anathema to a hoarder. Attempts to discard things often bring up very strong emotions that can feel overwhelming, so the hoarder tends to put off or avoid making decisions about what can be thrown out.

Also hoarding can be and is often associated with other mental health issues. Apart from OCD it is also linked with anxiety and depression. Hoarding is truly a serious mental health problem.

I also think that your DH is under obligation to his mother but that does not mean that you have to be beholden to such a person.

Why do you think she is desperate for you to spend any time in her house?. That is mere supposition on your part, the woman cannot abide you or her son for that matter.

"There is more than one way to skin a cat" - you make hoarding sound like it is solvable. It is not easily solved and not at all without his mother's complete co-operation along with in patient therapy. Two weeks will achieve nothing but misery for you and your H.

You could well end up blaming yourself, his mother and your DH for putting you in such a situation in the first place. Your safety comes first now along with that of your unborn child.

chillywindows Wed 13-Nov-13 08:59:55

Thank you, Attila. And yes, I acknowledge she is quite seriously mentally ill. I also acknowledge that she loathes me, principally because I removed her son from her 'hoard'. She has on a number of occasions tearfully observed to me that she is no longer the next-of-kin for either of her (married) sons, an observation which is bizarre, to say the least.

I'm not sure about the 'skin a cat' comment, as I didn't make it in any of my posts. But I know MIL is never going to seek treatment, and will likely die in the environment she has created. And I am a quite mystified that DH has agreed to us re-entering the lion's den, although I understand that the circumstances surrounding our visit are not usual.

However, we have stayed with her before, it was disastrous, and I am going to have to assert that we don't do it again. But it's the practicalities of this conversation that I'm finding difficult. I don't want to hurt her, and we will achieve nothing by, as I said in my earlier post, 'staging an intervention' two weeks before we leave the country. Any suggestions which avoid insinuating that her house is too dirty?

HopeClearwater Wed 13-Nov-13 09:16:33

Any suggestions which avoid insinuating that her house is too dirty?

Can your DH really not say this to her?

chillywindows Wed 13-Nov-13 09:23:41

Do you think I'm being too sensitive here? Oh God, it's just the idea of basically saying that the way she lives is potentially dangerous to her unborn grandchild, so we won't be staying! I guess we could say that it's too long a time, and she's in the middle of 'sorting the house' (which is true - she's always in the middle of sorting the house, which consists of moving piles from room to room) it would be more convenient if we stay nearby and visit. Maybe that would work...

2rebecca Wed 13-Nov-13 09:41:21

I wouldn't stay there, I wouldn't be pussy-footing around the hoarding either. She has to see that her lifestyle has consequences. It's difficult for hoarders to change but it is possible and if relatives they love tell them they aren't visiting because their house isn't a pleasant environment due to the hoarding they may decide to change (but probably won't). You talk about not wanting to hurt her but she is hurting herself by not getting help for the hoarding because it is isolating her as no--one wants to visit an unpleasant house.
Staying nearby and visiting sounds better.

DistanceCall Wed 13-Nov-13 09:43:13

You (or rather, your husband - her son) are going to have to tell her that you won't be staying in her house. Try the "sorting the house euphemism", but it's likely that she'll just say that she'll clear up some space for you among the boxes. In which case you'll just have to tell her that it's too dirty.

Yes, she's going to be upset. Brace yourself for that.

But that's what you need to do. Anything else is exposing yourself and your unborn child to a serious health hazard.

Meerka Wed 13-Nov-13 09:43:45

I know you don't want to cause and create ructions and a more tactful message is better if possible.

But if she doesn't buy it, or even if she does, I'm afraid you might have to face the possibility of a fall out, much as you don't want it. She does not sound reasonable and people can sometimes get the hump over the smallest things. If she does get upset you can still send her baby pictures and all the info you can; at least that way she will have some contact, even if she can't stand you personally.

But like everyone else I think your baby's health, and your own peace of mind are more important than anything else. By a long long way.

You do not want a fall out but this really has already happened because of her own behaviours towards you. She has acted unreasonably throughout towards you aside from her hoarding issues.

I think your H is deeply ashamed of his mother's hoarding and has lived with her hoarding problems for many years. Hoarding often starts in adolescence and becomes worse through adulthood.

She will have to be told by your H that a visit to her house is not possible. End of. She will not like it regardless and will throw her toys out of the pram but your health and safety now is of far more importance particularly as you are pregnant.

From the International OCDFoundation on the subject of Hoarding:-
"Hoarding usually begins early in life, though onset can vary greatly. It can occur in children, and we have seen it as young as 3-years old. For young children, hoarding may look different because parents control what children can buy and the level of clutter in their rooms. More apparent in children are extremely intense attachments to objects and the tendency to personify things, applying human-like characteristics to objects. In addition, children who hoard seem to have more difficulty recognizing hoarding behaviour as a problem.

The typical age of onset for hoarding behaviour (though not hoarding disorder) is around age 13. At that time the behaviour is usually mild and would not be considered a disorder. Hoarding typically progresses to become a moderate problem in the 20’s and 30’s, and a severe problem in the 40’s and 50’s. Onset appears to be earlier in women than in men, though hoarding occurs more frequently in men than in women. Late onset of hoarding (after age 40) is rare and seems to occur in people who have mild hoarding to begin with and suffer a loss of some kind. Most people who hoard describe a chronic course, while a small number describe an increasing or fluctuating one. Stressful and traumatic events are common in people who hoard and may be associated with periods of worsening symptoms. Recent epidemiological studies suggest that as many as 1 in 20 people have significant hoarding problems.

Hoarding is a complex disorder that is believed to be associated with 4 underlying characteristics. First there are certain core vulnerabilities including emotional dysregulation in the form of depression or anxiety along with family histories of hoarding and generally high levels of perfectionism. Second, people who hoard appear to have difficulties processing information. In particular, these difficulties appear as problems in attention (including ADHD-like symptoms), memory, categorization, and decision-making. The areas of the brain that control these functions roughly correspond to the brain regions that have been shown to activate differently in people who hoard. Third, people who hoard form intense emotional attachments to a wider variety of objects than do people who don’t hoard. These attachments take the form of attaching human-like qualities to inanimate objects, feeling grief at the prospect of getting rid of objects, and deriving a sense of safety from being surrounded by possessions. Fourth, people who hoard often hold beliefs about the necessity of not wasting objects or losing opportunities that are represented by objects. Additional beliefs about the necessity of saving things to facilitate memory and appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of objects contribute to the problem".

Apologies for wrongly attributing the other comment to you, had some crossed wires there!. Again sorry.

Your MIL also likely has other serious mental health problems associated with hoarding (I mentioned anxiety and depression but that only scratches the surface really); this lady cannot be reasonable even if hoarding was not an issue. She does not like you and cannot cope with you visiting. If anything of hers is moved she will have a right old go at the two of you.

It is not your fault that she is this way. I also think your DH is a big part of the problem here along with his mother. And I do not think you can do much about him either. He grew up with hoarding after all.

Again from the OCDFoundation":- (as US based website on the subject of hoarding)

"Adult children often have a very strained relationship with their hoarding parent. As adult children move out of the home, they may become estranged from their hoarding relative due to disagreements about how hoarding should be handled. Adult children may also blame the parent for the condition in which they were forced to live as a child. As these children marry and have children of their own, they are most likely resistant to ever bringing their children over to their parent’s home. They are embarrassed and would not like their children to model the hoarding behaviours they see. Therefore, grandparents may be isolated from their grandchildren as hoarding may be seen as a bad influence. Not only does this create distance in the family, but the person who hoards becomes even more isolated. Adult children often copy or oppose the behaviour that they witnessed as a child. Either hoarding behaviours are learned and repeated, despite living separately, or the adult child, embarrassed and disgusted at how they lived, keep next to nothing. For example, if a daughter has observed her mother’s hoarding early in life, and then moves out, she may be more likely to develop her own hoarding problem as a result of watching her mother. In addition, if a divorce resulted due to the hoarding, adult children may blame the break up of their family on the person who hoarded. They may have been taken away from their parent, causing feelings of abandonment, as though inanimate objects meant more to their parents than they did. This causes significant psychological distress and often impacts their future relationship behaviours.

Not only do the affected family members suffer the physical and emotional effects of hoarding, but so does the person who hoards. For example, the person who hoards may resent loved ones who offer advice, but little help. Those who live alone may resent family members that stay away. Extended family members may feel shame related to the hoarding problem in the family and will keep the person who hoards from the rest of the family".

Matildathecat Wed 13-Nov-13 13:52:15

OP, I'm a midwife and I forbid strongly advise against staying there. So would any other mw or GP. You've spent nights vomiting...you cannot even dream of how much worse this could be in a squalid bathroom. You could easily be hospitalised.

So tell you DH in words of one syllable that however badly you both feel for her, unborn babe and you are the priority. Actually I'm really touched by the sacrifice you are both willing to make in going there at all. You sound so nice.

Anyway, tell her regretfully but definitely that your mw and GP have insisted that you must not be in contact with xyz( insert whatever applies here that is undeniable yet inoffensive). Of course you still want to spend lots of time with her. Tell her once the new arrangements have been made and well before Christmas.

Good luck and best wishes.

cjel Wed 13-Nov-13 14:02:35

OP. Please don't stay there, Her hurt feelings are nothing compared to the danger to your babyx

louiseaaa Wed 13-Nov-13 14:12:55

With my Mum, who was definately a hoarder, I never took my hubby home to her house - ever-. I stepped up when visits were talked about and just said that it wasn't possible for xyz reason, even though she knew and I knew it was because of the state of the house.... but I did visit alone and she did acknowledge that it was not normal - but just the way she was. And I accepted that, but refused to take my children there either because of it. She was always welcome at our house and did take advantage of that. It worked for me, less so for dh, bless him, but he tried to understand too. If it is possible I would suggest you have a robust alternative in place, such as a rented cottage, and you ask your partner to just say it like it is - "we are here" "come and visit us" "It's not possible to stay with you this time" I bet that presented with this (ie don't try and find your excuses) she will actually capitulate - because the alternative will be to mention that white elephant in the room - except she will have to - not you. Good luck and you are being way more tolerant than my partner was

Mellowandfruitful Wed 13-Nov-13 14:24:08

This is not really about the hoarding side of this - though I am interested in the suggestions - but about your MIL being unable to fly. Has she specifically been told there is no way round this? I have a clotting conditions and have several clots myself - I can be medicated for flying and have even done 24-hour long-haul flights. Of course your MIL's age and other factors may be an issue, but it's worth checking on as I wondered whether you might feel better about setting boundaries now if the door is left open for her to visit you, as well as vice versa, after you move.

Loopyloulu Wed 13-Nov-13 14:47:07

You shouldn't stay there.

You are continually mentioning the upset not staying would cause others. Do you have a habit of protecting people from the consequences of their behaviours? Because that is what you are doing.

Your DH's focus ought to be you and your unborn child. His mother's needs should come 2nd.

I doubt she would be distraught. And if she is- well, that's her issue really. She might be upset, at first, but perhaps this is the wake up call she needs to get her life back into some kind of order.

If you go, you are in effect saying that her way of living is acceptable. It's not. Maybe for her but not for visitors. It certainly won't be a suitable home to take a baby into.

We've stayed elsewhere when visiting in laws for far less serious reasons- namely saggy mattresses and only 1 loo between 6 people. I can't understand why you are putting everyone else before yourself. You are also vetoing any suggestions- so do you want helpful suggestions or just to complain about it when your mind is made up?

Loopyloulu Wed 13-Nov-13 14:51:36

BTW has your DH talked to her GP? Is he just washing his hands of her? Not sure how old she is but suspect late 50s, early 60s? Not old by any means and she ought to have some professional help- which means the family faces up to what she is doing instead of condoning it by refusing to do anything to rock the boat.

Loopyloulu Wed 13-Nov-13 14:58:16

Just one other thought- Your DH seems to pander to her whims BUT he is willing to take a job on the other side of the world which will mean he rarely sees her.

Does this not strike you as slightly odd?

Is it a form of escape for him?

I'm asking because my DH has often had the chance to work overseas and I've always turned it down as an idea because we have always lived 4 hrs drive from my family and that's enough- I don't want to be in another country now that they are old.

I find it slightly odd that he is jumping every time she says jump, but in effect extracting himself from her life at the same time.

Any thoughts?

chillywindows Wed 13-Nov-13 17:47:16

Thanks so much for more helpful posts. I don't mean to seem as though I'm vetoing suggestions, in fact, I'm grateful for all perspectives outside of mine and DH's. And I have decided - largely thanks to this thread, but really because the thread just affirmed my instincts - that staying there is not an option.

The only thing I do feel I am vacillating with regards to is how best to tell her.

Someone observed (can't scroll! apologies!) that I am overly concerned with the upset this will cause her. Yes, I am very concerned about this, possibly because I fear her irrational behaviour. It reminds me of my own violent mother as a child, and there is definitely within me a desire to buffer all hostile situations, in order to 'control' the consequences i.e. to avert aggression. In a way I feel my MIL has been 'brought to me' in order to help me resolve some of these tendencies, rather than to repeat what I have learned as a child. People can get angry, even extremely angry, and the world will not end. But it's very difficult for me. The idea of actively bringing someone's displeasure upon myself is anathema.

Loopyloulou, DH definitely displays aspects of a 'rescuer', and feels responsible for his mother, as his father has suffered from significant mental illness in the past (he is in remission, if that is the correct term) and was violent to MIL, among many other destructive behaviours. DH's brother couldn't get out of the family home fast enough, while DH sacrificed much in order to nurse his DF, and keep his parents functioning. I think DH sees this move overseas as a chance to make a good life away from the terrible burdens which were imposed- and which he accepted - from his DPs. But he's still enmeshed in the protector/rescuer dynamic.

Thanks for the great info, Attila. And you're right, DH says he doesn't remember anything like the conditions now when he was a child. I've seen photos of perfectly normal family parties, with normal kitchen and living room. She has worsened hugely with age.

To the poster who mentioned the flying, she has had a number of major surgeries in recent years, and is generally not particularly mobile. I cannot imagine she would cope long haul. She said her specialist said she could not fly. I don't know if this is true, but I can believe it based on her general condition.

To the midwife poster, thank you. I will be talking about all these things with DH tonight, and the health of the baby is the most important thing to both of us.

Holdthepage Wed 13-Nov-13 17:58:02

OP when you move abroad will you stay with her when you return to the UK for visits with a child? I think not. When your baby is born you will not allow them to stay in the squalid conditions you have described, so at some point you will have to tell her that her house is not suitable to have overnight guests staying. Confronting it now will just save upset later.

chillywindows Wed 13-Nov-13 18:02:39

Oh, louiseaaa! I just saw your post. DH kept me well away from his mother for a long time after we got together. But when we finally went to visit, he had not mentioned that his mother was a hoarder to me, and when I saw the state of the house, I assumed it was so bad because she'd been chronically ill for some time hmm! It was only after she'd bawled me out for putting a ripped cardboard box in the recycling that I started to do make the connection. It's only very recently that DH has started to use the term 'hoarder' in relation to his DM. And she certainly does not have the awareness of your DM i.e. that she has a 'problem'. She just laughs and says, 'Oh, I keep everything!'

I like your 'We're here' fait accomplis. And you're right - I'm sure she will capitulate rather than admit the obvious. Thank you.

chillywindows Wed 13-Nov-13 18:10:16

Loopyloulou I just saw your other post about the possibility that DH is 'washing his hands' of his DM. I cannot begin to tell you how wrong this suggestion is (I know that you're only speculating based on the information I have so far provided). The amount of support DH has given to both his selfish, dysfunctional parents, at HUGE personal cost i.e. of his career, his financial security, his emotional wellbeing, is unbelievable. There is, believe it or not, another son in the family, who lives literally around the corner, has lived an utterly conventional life, lovely home, family etc and has done bloody nothing for either of his parents. It's DH's turn to have a life.

NumptyNameChange Wed 13-Nov-13 18:26:31

agree dh should be free to go have a life but none the less someone does need to have a word with her gp and ask them to visit her. it is not safe and by the sounds of it she will have no one once you're gone as the other brother doesn't get involved. be good to know you've done what you can to try and get her some help.

just a thought but could you call the SIL and ask her how she's handled it and whether she'd consider putting the two of you up for part of the time?

NumptyNameChange Wed 13-Nov-13 18:27:53

i don't mean to be antagonistic but there is a difference between helping and enabling and possibly dh has done more of the latter? helping would mean confronting the reality and expressing concerns to her and to health professionals not colluding in denial and fearing mentioning it.

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