Bound by love and cultural imperatives, he cared for his mother for sixty years after his father's death. She lived to be over 100 years old, guarding her place in her son's life fiercely against all girlfriends who came and then went, adoring the man, but discouraged by his mother. So he never married. And since her death eight years ago, he has lived alone in the Los Angeles home they shared for many years. I haven't seen him in some time though we've been in regular touch from a distance since I left California nearly a decade ago. We both talk about how we would love to get together, maybe for lunch, the next time I'm in Los Angeles. But the logistics are proving difficult.
His health is deteriorating rapidly and he is facing major surgery. His uncertainty on his feet, despite using a cane and, occasionally, a walker, has increased to the point that he hesitates to go out except for medical appointments. At the same time, he is too ashamed of the condition of his home to enjoy a take out lunch with me there.
"Oh, if you could see my kitchen now, you would just vomit," he says with a shudder I can almost feel over the phone. "It's a mess. Everything is a mess. My stuff has just taken over."
This was beginning to sound familiar. My parents were hoarders -- ashamed at one point to have anyone visit, then passing beyond that clear-eyed assessment to the delusion that there was absolutely nothing the matter with the house. It was a small house that took us two years to clean out after their deaths nearly forty years ago. Rooms were filled to the point of impassibility with treasures from the past -- many rendered worthless, even as keepsakes, because they had been chewed by the rats that ran through the house, the attic and the walls. My husband Bob, brother Michael and I filled over a dozen truck-sized dumpsters and countless trashcans, often recoiling in horror at the rats and the wreckage of our parents' lives.
Our father had died in July 1980 and we rushed to help our mother clean the place and get rid of the rats. Only she wouldn't. She claimed that the rats didn't bother her and that she needed to go through every rat-chewed magazine and newspaper in the place. When we would throw stuff out, she would bring it back into the house. At the same time, she started taking a home decorating course at a local community college. The class was limited to six students because each week, the class would meet at one of the students' homes to make decorating suggestions. The visit to my mother's home was scheduled for the last week. I was horrified. My mother was oblivious to how an outsider would view the place. "I think French doors in the dining room would be so cute!" she said with a smile, pointing to an area obscured by piles of trash. She died of a heart attack four months after my father's heart attack death -- and several weeks before that scheduled class visit.
Compulsive hoarding is not uncommon. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, up to six percent of the U.S. population -- or 19 million people -- could be categorized as compulsive hoarders. They fill their homes with prized possessions that include a lot of what most would consider junk: old newspapers, food packaging, shampoo bottles and old clothing. The stuff of their lives takes over living spaces and can cause impairment of functioning in a variety of ways -- from social to occupational to financial. Some hoarders, unfortunately, collect animals in numbers that make it impossible for them to care for the numerous pets properly, impacting lives well beyond their own.
Why do people hoard? Some psychologists believe that hoarding can be triggered by trauma. Some recent studies have revealed that there may be a genetic component to the disorder. Brain imaging studies showed that hoarders had lower-than-average activity in brain areas related to emotions but spiked when they had to entertain the thought of getting rid of their possessions. Hoarding is considered to be an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can start in childhood and/or run in families. While cognitive-behavioral therapy targeted at hoarders can be very effective, the challenge is to get through to a hoarder, helping him or her to see the ways that all the excessive stuff may be limiting or even threatening the hoarder's health or life.
My friend, who endured horrific trauma as a very young Holocaust survivor, is experiencing limits to his social life and his options as a result of his hoarding behavior. But he's not completely on-board with the necessity for change. He realizes that, at his age and with his medical problems, he really shouldn't be living alone.
So what's the answer? A live-in or daytime caregiver? Not a chance. A move to assisted living? He sighed. "I can't imagine being squeezed into a tiny room," he said. "I couldn't have my stuff. And it's my stuff that keeps me alive." His stuff, he tells me, includes more than 200 suits, 16,000 DVDs....
Could he donate some? I hear him wince. Could he give some treasures to friends and family? I tell him that I would very much like to have some pictures from his career, some specifically meaningful to me. He sighs. "It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack," he says. "I know I have them, but I have no idea where..."
He is resistant to the idea of help in clearing out the clutter. "People would see this as trash to be thrown out," he says. "I see it differently. Having my stuff all around me keeps me alive, it really does."
There are many who harbor the same delusion that it's the stuff in our lives that keeps us going. The truth is: the stuff can hold us back, make us pause when we need to charge ahead, weigh us down when we need simplicity and lightness in our lives.
And what keeps my friend alive is not his stuff....but his talents and passions which he still pursues and the loving circle of family and friends who cherish him, especially his niece who, like me, lives far away. She has hinted that she would like him to move in with her. He won't hear of it. "I love her so much and I don't want to intrude on her life," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do, frankly. I don't want to be a bother to anyone."
I want to tell my friend how much he is loved, how much his niece enjoys having him with her, how quickly and willingly friends and family would be there to help him to organize, prioritize and begin to let go of some of his life-limiting possessions if only....
I want to urge him to let go of the baggage, to ditch the stuff. But I know that for him and for other hoarders, it's not that simple. Those who rush in to clean up the clutter may cause more anxiety in a hoarder and trigger even more accumulation. Achieving real change in a compulsive hoarder can require intensive cognitive behavioral treatment. One can locate a therapist specializing in such treatment through organizations like Children of Hoarders, Inc. (childrenofhoarders.com).
I want to encourage my dear friend to treasure his relationships above all else. But I know that he does, loving sweetly and generously all the days of his life. And I know that hanging onto his stuff is, for him, an intrinsic part of hanging onto life, a life that is becoming increasingly fragile and tenuous.
And my heart aches for him.
Many of us cling to bits of our lives, especially as we age. It can be hard to let go. I struggle as I slowly let go of the pieces of mine that are, increasingly, superfluous. I'm feeling a greater need lately to let go of treasures that might bring pleasure to another or that could be useful to an unseen stranger through a local charity. The bits of my life that still remain, however, do not interfere with daily functioning. These items are confined to plastic containers concealed in garage cabinets and in a walk in closet, that is, I'll admit, decidedly overstuffed. I need to whittle it all down significantly and I will. I'm feeling an increasing need to let go ...of the stuff, the physical and emotional baggage of my past. Everything I do let go -- whether it's a piece of clothing, a lingering regret or an old grudge -- makes me feel a little lighter.
I both empathize with and worry about my old friend. I want to see him, to help him, to let him know I truly care. I want him to know he's not alone. I want to reach out in ways he can tolerate. I try humor, though I'm not really joking.
"Well, let's see," I tell him on the phone. "We can always get lunch at a drive through and eat in my car."
He laughs, but with an edge of infinite sadness. "We'll see," he says softly.
And my heart sinks with the sudden awareness that I may never set eyes on or have a chance to embrace this dear friend again.