Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hate the sin, love the sinner?

So you'd have to actually know me to get how ironic this post title is. I grew up in an incredibly conservative, literal-minded, Bible-believing, born-again evangelical Christian household and am now as left-leaning, eastern-philosophy-oriented, non-religious as they come. (Public service announcement: If anyone takes this opportunity to post anything about my being a lost soul and hoping I will come back to the fold of Jesus' precious sheep, I will delete your comment immediately. I will then commence to send you evil thought-vibes over the internet, which may or may not progress to my buying a voodoo doll with your name on it. Just sayin'.)

"Hate the sin, but love the sinner" was something I heard a lot growing up. I believe that translates into something like, "We are judging the hell out of you and are totally okay with it. You're going to burn, by the way." I know it was a little more nuanced than that, but still. When you're a kid, hating the person and hating their actions aren't so far removed from one another.

Turns out, as an adult it's not so easy, either. Given the amount of pain my parents have inflicted over the years and my current desire to be a healthy, happy person, it's difficult to maintain (or create, as the case may be) a healthy relationship with them. I know a lot of people in my situation have made the difficult decision to end all contact with their parents. I applaud their courage and sometimes wish I could follow suit. In many ways, it would be simpler. Not easier -- that is, in no way, an easy road -- but simpler.

After much soul-searching, I have realized that I wouldn't feel okay about myself if I simply walked away from my family. For better or worse, they're my people. But I have also realized that just because I got the short end of the familial stick doesn't mean I need to maintain relationships that are painful and damaging. So where to go from here? Is there a way to separate my parents as people (the sinners, so to speak) from their damaged, shaming, hurtful, judgmental, hateful sin?

While this struggle has different nuances from making peace with a hoarder parent, for me they feel very similar. It's difficult for me, even as an adult, to separate my mother as a person from her hoarding and her behavioral oddities. I've worked through and let go of a lot of the childhood resentment and recrimination. I have changed quite a bit, but the fact remains that she, well, hasn't.

I've realized more and more that creating a healthy relationship with my mother may not actually be an achievable goal. I realized this afresh recently after she stopped speaking to me. Over the course of the last decade, she has repeatedly requested that we talk about my childhood. I'd refused every time, because that was clearly not going to end well. She was looking for validation as a mother and a person, and I have none to give. It's not really my job, anyway. But this time I decided that maybe it would be good for me to say my piece, and so I did. There's really no gentle way to explain how being raised by a clinically depressed hoarder feels to a child. I tried. She didn't like it. And now she isn't speaking to me. Which is kind of sad. It's also kind of awesome. It definitely makes that whole hate the sin, love the sinner thing simpler. Until she starts talking to me again, but that's a whole different post.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hot damn. I'm baaaaack!

So I took an extended, albeit unannounced, leave of absence from the blogosphere. I needed some time and space to keep weeding through and discarding some of the emotional detritus from my past. It's been an interesting seven months. (Since blogs are tone-of-voice free and since I am Queen of the Understatement, let me just translate the word "interesting" for you. It's been fantastic, gut-wrenching, amazing, and incredibly draining. Thank god for good friends and a good therapist.)

Those of you who have been following me for awhile (thanks, by the way! I am awed and humbled and touched by all of your comments) know that I have been battling for years to extricate myself from some pretty damn destructive family-of-origin patterns. I grew up in a very repressive, very judgmental born-again Christian household. (To be clear for any evangelical Christians who may be reading this and bristling, I have nothing against Jesus. He was a pretty awesome dude. I do, however, have a lot -- a looooooot -- against being raised by a family who taught me that I would never, ever be good enough and who slapped a religious coating on that belief and called it gospel.)

My mom is a capital-H Hoarder who has, at last count, managed to fill a four-bedroom suburban home, garage, yard, and variety of sheds with absolute crap. Because you might need it someday, you know? She struggled with depression and, I suspect, hypomania the entire time I was growing up. This part is hard to jam into a nutshell, but I spent my formative years in the role of mother, taking care of her. I was home-schooled until high school, so there was, quite literally, no escaping the chaos and the dysfunction.

My parents were married, but in that "I hate you with the fire of a thousand suns" kind of marriage, where their volcanically caustic relationship poisoned everything around them. My dad lived with us, but we didn't see him much. He spent most of his waking hours (and all of mine) at work. Years later, he came to me and apologized for not taking better care of us kids "because I never knew how bad it was at home." I'm sorry, what? How? What? I have no words. But that's a post for another time.

My dad loves me, I know, but has his own issues around anxiety and shame, especially of the religious variety. Talking with him is like emotional dodgeball, as he lobs giant verbal balls filled with guilt and shame in my direction. Don't get me wrong -- he does his best. It's just that his best kind of sucks. As an adult, I can see that with reasonable clarity. As a child, his constant disappointment and disapproval of me was soul-crushing.

It's been a long road (16 years and counting) to weed out which parts of me are actually me and which parts of my inner voice come from my parents. It's an important road and I am fully aware that I'll be traveling it for the rest of my life, but sweet mother of all that is holy. It's a lot of work. Good work, necessary work, but still. These last six months or so have been pretty intense for me in terms of making peace with my need to turn my back, if not on my family, on much of what they have taught me and on the parts of who they are that diminish me.

It is wretchedly and wrenchingly difficult for me to stand tall and take care of myself, given that I was explicitly and implicitly taught for years that to do so is unacceptable. The good news, the news that brings me peace and joy and amazement that life can be so incredible, is that I actually can. I can take care of myself, and I can love myself, and I can give myself all of the nurturing and understanding that my parents weren't able to when I was growing up. I deserve to be loved, and I deserve to love myself. I wake up in the morning now and am filled with a gratitude so profound that it borders on joy. I am safe. I am happy. I am me, and it's pretty damn fantastic.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Cleanliness is next to what now?

Hoarder's children don't learn how to keep a house clean. (I know, I know. Bow to the Queen of Stating the Obvious.) Not only do we not learn how to clean, but we also learn a complete lack of consistent routine; ironically, rampant perfectionism (of the "if you can't do it perfectly, you might as well not even start" variety); and a sense of being completely overwhelmed by life (hoarders aren't exactly known for teaching their kids how to break a task into smaller, accomplishable pieces). That, plus my mother's voice in my head ("Everybody else knows how to do it. You're just really lazy") have made figuring out this home maintenance thing an uphill climb.

Here's the thing, though. As my personal life completely imploded over the last year or so, I began to realize how much living in chaos affects my outlook and stress level. Even if I have a well-developed case of hoarder's child clutter blindness, at some level I do register the mess and feel stressed by it. And so, fifteen years after leaving my mother's home, I set about really figuring out how to address this issue once and for all. Here are some of the highlights of what I've learned.

1. Cut yourself some slack. As a culture, we view people who don't keep their houses clean in a truly negative light. I really struggled to let go of viewing my messiness as a deep, personal flaw. What worked for me was to take a deep breath and replace my mother's voice ("What's wrong with you?") with something I would say to a friend in the same situation (usually, "Do you realize how much you've already gotten done today? No wonder you're tired"). Repeat about a million times, and you'll be on your way.

2. Have less stuff. Some children of hoarders go the stark minimalist route. Some, like me, just struggle with having a bit too much clutter. I now keep a Goodwill bag in my closet. When I come across something that isn't useful, loved, or beautiful, into the bag it goes. Every month or so, I donate the bag o' crap so it can go clutter someone else's house. Less stuff to maintain = less time cleaning = more freedom.

3. Learn how to clean. Read blogs and books about cleaning. Learning how other people do it not only demystifies the process, but makes it seem a lot more doable. It also lends itself to learning tips that streamline some of the little annoyances in your life. (Among my favorites? Store sheet sets in one of the matching pillowcases. It keeps your sheets together and negates the fact that you couldn't care less about folding the fitted sheet neatly! Another super-handy one is to keep a dish wand (the kind that stores cleaner in the handle and has a scrubber on the end) in the shower and wash it down while you're in there. My shower has never been cleaner!).

4. Ask a friend. A really good, non-judgmental friend. I've discovered that pretty much everyone I've talked to would like their house to be cleaner, which makes me feel better. For the really ridiculous questions, though, it's been great to be able to go to my best friend. She knows all about my hoarder mother and never makes me feel silly for asking questions I should probably know the answer to already. (How much time per day do you spend cleaning? Wait, you clean your washer?)

5. Figure out what works for you. There are about a million systems out there for keeping your house clean. I've had a bear of a time figuring out which one might work for me. They all seem so overwhelming. I finally started small, with setting a timer for 15 minutes a day and cleaning whatever was bothering me the most until it went off. Did I do this perfectly every day? Nope. Did it simplify things enough that I felt less paralyzed about just diving in and getting started? Yep. Recently, I've combined this strategy with matching a particular task and/or room to a day of the week. Cleaning on a rotating basis takes away the indecision and also makes me feel like I have a deadline. Vacuum on Sundays, deep-clean the kitchen on Mondays, living room on Tuesdays... (Full disclosure: I've tried this system before and always ended up quitting and feeling like a failure. If I was too tired or lazy or sick  to do the work on Monday or Tuesday, I'd tack it onto Wednesday's workload and pretty soon be so overwhelmed that I'd just throw in the towel. What makes this time different is that if I skip a day, I actually skip it. Didn't do laundry on Wednesday? No problem. The next laundry day is Saturday. I'll do it then.)

6. Perspective is key. I have a tendency to be an all-or-nothing thinker (again, thanks, Hoarder Mom!). "I didn't clean the house today" somehow turns into "I'll never figure out how to do this" which turns into "I'm a terrible person." Keeping things in perspective helps keep the emotionally charged topic of cleaning house from becoming, well, emotionally charged. If you can stop this train of thought in its tracks, "I didn't clean the house today" can become "Well, at least I finished the dinner dishes, and that's okay. Wait, I'm okay!" And that feels pretty good.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Blargh. Holidays.

Typically, I'm not as Scrooge-y as this post title would suggest. I love me a plate of Christmas cookies as much as the next gal, preferably consumed in a spruce-y smelling home filled with beatific loved ones.

Okay, so I've got the cookies. The beatific loved ones? Not so much. Then again, apart from Madison Avenue's Christmas ads, who actually does? Given that I'm fully aware of my family's lack of basic functionality, Hallmark holidays aren't something I've ever actually expected. What has taken me by surprise this holiday season, as I work through the emotional detritus of being raised by a hoarder mother and a absentee-ish father, is how sadness about that has bubbled to the surface.

If you haven't been following along on my internal journey, allow me to recap: I grew up with an emotionally abusive, mentally ill hoarder mother. (I almost typed "I was raised by" until I realized that, as I spent most of my childhood parenting my mother, it would be more accurate to say I raised her.) My angry father avoided the chaos of home by spending the majority of my waking hours at work. I've popped in and out of therapy over the last decade. This is largely spurred by my tendency to crash in and out of wildly unhealthy relationships that, when examined later, make me feel dumber than toast. Given that I'm not actually dumber than toast (or any other breakfast food, for that matter), after the latest unspeakably spectacular implosion of my personal life, I decided I should probably buckle down and figure my shit out.

And so, here I am. I've never been especially into blaming my parents for my mistakes. I'm sure this is largely due to growing up with a mother who blamed everyone but herself for her mistakes, but I have a larger-than-average bent toward personal responsibility. (Occasionally, this means I take responsibility for other people's lives, too, but that's another post. And more fodder for the therapist's couch.) I'm a grown-ass woman, for god's sake, and I'm the one making my choices.

Except I'm realizing more and more that, while I am making my own choices, they are profoundly impacted by (wait for it!) my mother. (That will come as no surprise to you. For me, on the other hand, it's like a most unpleasant excavation of my internal workings, fraught with repeated realizations of how much the messages she gave while growing up have affected my adult life.) Hence my current attitude toward the holidays. This season is often difficult, but this year, I have the added layer of a wash of hostility toward and complete lack of desire to spend any time with my mother. My solution thus far is to not visit for the holidays. That, plus lots of deep breathing, self-medicating chocolate consumption, therapy, and running seem like they'll get me through January 2nd and out the other side of the holiday season. Until next year, anyway.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Score one for therapy

I've spent the last couple of months struggling with how to be a good daughter to my bipolar, wildly inept, crazy-making hoarding mother while remaining sane and healthy. After much mental anguish, several self-help books, and lots of therapy, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. Our culture has no real archetype or paradigm for bad daughters. Seriously. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Lizzie Borden. Given that I'm planning to figure this whole thing out well before I have the urge to hack my mother up with a hatchet, that's not exactly the role model I was looking for. (On the plus side, Googling "bad daughter" led me to The Bad Daughter: Betrayal and Confession by Julie Hilden, which is quite an interesting read.)

2. Although I've known this one for awhile, recent interactions with my mother have driven this point home once again. She isn't going to change. As much as I deserved a tuned-in, consistently caring mother as a child, she wasn't that person then and she isn't now. Harsh as it sounds, she is and always will be damaged and narcissistic. She is unable to see or acknowledge how her behavior affects other people and will continue to blame others (read: me) for her failures in relationships and in life.

3. She seems incapable of sustaining long-term relationships, whether with family members, friends, or her own children. She drives people away with her neediness, anger, narcissism, and social ineptitude. She doesn't know how to make and keep friends. Does it make me sad that my mother is lonely? You bet. Does it occasionally twist my stomach into a knot or two when I think of her dying alone, as seems likely? Damn straight. But am I responsible for this state of affairs, or for making her any less lonely? Nope. That's on her, not me.

4. And for the grand finale of all conclusions, one that surprised even me -- how I can be a good daughter to my mother while still taking care of myself? I can't. I can't be a good, care-taking daughter to her and still be happy and healthy. And given that I'm not willing to spend any more of my life sacrificing myself for her well-being, at least for now it means that I have given myself permission to be a bad daughter. As a wise friend once pointed out, I can be a bad daughter without being a bad person. What that means in practice, I'm not so sure. But I do know that just having this realization is huge and life-changing and just the beginning.

Monday, October 22, 2012


This will come as a shock to no one who grew up in a hoarded home, but I did not grow up in a household where people knew how to set or respect healthy boundaries. When issues arose, the options were to ignore them (doesn't that make it go away?), pretend you don't have any needs (What? No, really, that doesn't bother me at all. Really), or just bottle it up inside until you explode for no apparent reason. (That last one is even more awesome if you end up screaming at someone for an infraction completely unrelated to what you're actually mad about.)

As an adult, I'm still working on the whole setting healthy boundaries deal, at least with my mother. With other people, I'm fine, given that when you discuss an issue with most people they're willing to work things out to both people's satisfaction. (Or, in the case of compromise, to both people's mild dissatisfaction. But at least it gets worked out.)

But when you try to work things out with someone who's profoundly dysfunctional, setting boundaries  doesn't go so well. If I bring something up with my mother, it gets turned around into being my problem and my fault. To preserve what relationship we have left, I've kind of thrown in the towel on calling my mom on her crap. Doing otherwise makes me too crazy.

Until recently, that is. At the moment, I've had just about up to here (picture my hand waving somewhere about six feet above my head) with dealing with my mother's passive aggression/hoarding/hypochondria/dysfunction. The thing is, she's getting older and I know that her care will, at some point, become my responsibility.

Which brings me back to the boundaries thing. At previous stages in life, I'd worked out how much distance I could keep from my mother to maintain my own sanity. As she gets older, I have to figure out anew how to set boundaries with a woman who neither understands nor respects them. How is it possible to take care of someone who's lost her mind without losing mine?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

And then I stuck a pen in my eye. Again.

I might need to talk to my mother less. I've been trying to talk to her once a week or so, which sounds lovely except for it generally makes me feel (at best) really annoyed or (at worst) homicidal. Usually, this has something to do with my desperate struggle to filter what I'm actually thinking so that it doesn't come out of my mouth, as that typically would not be particularly constructive. Her profound lack of insight into herself and the way she relates to other people also make me have a sudden urge toward violence. So far, I have successfully avoided actually doing anything of the sort, but the following three conversations have made me come pretty close. 

Conversation #1: 
Mom: I've decided that I should start trying to work on some of my issues in therapy.
Me (internal monologue): Wait, you've been in therapy for FIVE YEARS! What the hell have you been talking about all that time?
Me (actually talking, and taking a deep breath while wishing desperately for a vodka and tonic): Well, that sounds like a fine idea.

Conversation #2:
Mom: My therapist wants me to tell her how I'm the same and different from other people in our family. I don't really know, so I was hoping you could help me with that.
Me (internal monologue): Well, for starters, the rest of us have enough insight to be able to complete that assignment all by ourselves. Secondly, none of us are crazy. Or hoarders.
Me (aloud): Ummm....

Conversation #3:
Mom (giant sigh): I'm trying to get rid of some things. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but I've been collecting adorable baby things for a few years now and have a couple of boxes of them. But now that you're divorced, I don't know if I'll ever even have any grandkids.... (another big sigh)
Me (internal monologue, while trying to figure out if it's possible to actually reach through the phone and slap someone): What the fuck? Did you actually just say that out loud? And when did my leaving my damaging and incredibly unhappy marriage become all about you? 
Me (out loud, through gritted teeth): Yeah, you should just get rid of those.

If I had any of these conversations with someone else, I could filter what I was thinking into something reasonably socially appropriate and actually have an honest dialogue with them. With my mom, though, it somehow always gets twisted on its head so what she says becomes my problem. ("I didn't mean that at all! Why are you so sensitive?") This negates any pesky possibility of a healthy dialogue (read: mature, adult relationship) while also providing a wealth of opportunities for me to exercise my willpower by not actually sticking a pen in my eye. See? There really is a bright side to everything.