Life as a Child of Hoarders and Killing the “Alien Brain”

It was just another day of my childhood. My father came home from the city after a long day at work and my mother would tell him that yet again I hadn’t cleaned my room. My father would tell me that I’d get my punishment soon, and once he settled in I’d get a spanking or strapping. This repeated for years until at some point when I was about seven or eight he stopped hitting me. I don’t recall the exact date. But, needless to say, I never learned how to be organized.

For all the good and bad that comes with it, the home my parents live in today is the same home where I was brought after I appeared in the world a few towns over at the hospital. It is filled with so many memories — as any childhood house would be — but it’s also just cluttered with stuff. So. Much. Stuff. My parents are both hoarders, though different types, and yet they never understood why I struggled to process the right way to clean. To my mother cleaning had nothing to do with getting rid of stuff – it was merely finding a place to put things, adding another storage unit, hiding things away in drawers and boxes and nooks and crannies.

I was reading some articles online today about children of hoarders and one point that stood out was that children of hoarders, trapped in the mess, often feel like their parents care more about inanimate objects than animate ones. This is spot on and, I think, true in the case of my family household.

Every year I return home around the holidays to my childhood room, I feel a sense of extreme guilt and anxiety spending time in my old bedroom. The room is filled with boxes of various things that have collected over the years. Every time I come home I vow to go through the boxes and sort them out so this room can be a comfortable place to stay. Every year I manage to throw out one or two bags of stuff… and yet still, there is just so much stuff my short-term work barely makes a dent.

This room, which should have plenty of space to feel pleasantly open and uncluttered, is filled with boxes of papers, old clothes, lots of old art projects, and random who-knows-what, not to mention various items of my mother’s and sister’s that found their way into the mix over the years.

While it’s easy to say – just throw it all out – there is some important things mixed in with everything – newspaper clippings of my artwork in the local paper, favorite school projects I’d like to keep, old videos and photos that would be sad to lose. But the problem is that there are dozens of copies of everything that my mom would keep. For example, one newspaper where a photo of me standing with my artwork was featured on one page is kept in a box alongside 12 replicates of the entire bulky newspaper, pages fading and falling apart. Instead of keeping one good copy and putting it in a protective covering she kept 12 and left them to go to shit. That’s how most of the stuff is here… it’s just… important things but too many of them and no sense of prioritization of one item over another.

I’ve explained this room as the “alien brain” of my life — as in those scifi movies where once the alien brain is destroyed all the networks of secondary aliens explode into non-existence. Getting this room in order feels like the first step in resolving the networks of stress and mess in my life – and this is SO important to do for my own sanity and happiness. And yes, I just need to do it.

So far this week I’ve made reasonable progress, but it doesn’t look like it. I’ve already tossed out three garbage bags worth of stuff (complete with a guilt trip from my mother for getting rid of all the falling-apart duplicates of these newspapers and broken art projects collected from pre-school through college.) I also have one bag of super old clothes to give away and I bought a pack of bankers boxes to begin sorting through the whole mess in a sensible manner like my organization consultant taught me last year at my household. Even though I’m still keeping too much shit, it’s a start to have all my high school papers put in one box, my college papers in another, and memory clothes/shirts/costumes in another.

The goal is to get this place into reasonable enough shape that there are few boxes remaining (to go through my next visit) and to make room to replace this hilarious twin-sized bed that my 6’2 boyfriend and I squish into on each visit with a queen — and to ultimately turn this room into a formal guest room for the many occasions I’m not around. This also involves re-doing the carpeting and wallpaper, which makes me sad as I’ve had this design since I was 7 years old – but it must be done (esp since the electrician cut a giant hole in the wall and ceiling in order to put in the new ceiling lights.) This room is a hot mess so much so that it’s hilarious. The walls are covered both in delicate pastel wallpaper reminiscent of a 1990s Ethan Allen catalog and the collage work of a bipolar, bisexual, fashion-mag-addicted adolescent who spent way too much time attempting to cover her ceiling in cut outs of eyes and lips. The whole room needs a redo as soon as I get these boxes cleaned out.

Children of hoarders seem to react in one of two ways – either they become hoarders themselves, because they’re unable to understand how to prioritize their own items, or they turn into more OCD clean freaks. I’m certainly the first. My boyfriend who also grew up as the child of hoarders is more on the clean side, or wants to be, as any mess makes him nervous. He’s not exactly OCD but he certainly is not happy about my incredible talent to make a mess out of any amount of tangible assets.

So I need to “kill the alien brain” at my house in order to finally manage the rest of my life. This is something I would really like to do this week – it’s bad enough it was left this way in my 20s but now it’s time to get this place sorted out. I just wish I felt progress when cleaning but I’m only overwhelmed.

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