When Things Are Way Beyond Messy
Dear Margo: I’ve been with “Joe” for 18 mostly happy years. He has wonderful, loving qualities, but he also has some learning disabilities, little self-confidence and difficulty connecting with people. He was physically and emotionally abused throughout childhood. He’s also had several losses. I have compassion for his emptiness and loneliness, but I’m frustrated because rather than feeling the emotions, he holds on to objects.
Joe is a hoarder and a clutterer. Our basement is filled to the ceiling; he pays for a huge storage unit; and he’s filled two of our three small bedrooms with “stuff.” I insist on keeping the kitchen, living room, bedroom and my office relatively livable. When we entertain, he scrambles to put his things “away” (into the hoarding rooms — sometimes in boxes and sometimes just thrown in). I’ve made several attempts to help him get rid of old unread newspapers, VHS tapes of shows he’s recorded and broken electronic equipment. On a couple of occasions, he became enraged and got all the stuff back from inside a dumpster — in the rain.
We went to a psychiatrist for a while (at my insistence) and made a little progress, but Joe refused medication. He tried Clutterers Anonymous but didn’t like it. Now he willingly goes to a hoarders support group and has collected every book ever written about cluttering and hoarding! I know going through junk is a lonely process unless someone helps, so I hired two different professional organizers, but they or he lost motivation. Is there anyone who can help? Joe has health insurance for psychotherapy. Or am I the one who needs help accepting this? — Bogged Down
Dear Bog: Being a neatnik myself, I feel for you living with a hoarder and all that useless junk. I think psychiatric help is really the only answer. “Collecting” beyond reason is a sickness, and a professional would deal with the underlying causes that make Joe think “stuff” is the solution to his problems. Old newspapers are no remedy for abuse; talking is. If meds are indicated, you should ask him why he is resistant to something that would make his life easier — and healthier.
As for your accepting the situation, only you know your tolerance. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried this, but you might say “it’s me or the junk.” And you also might suggest that he start reading all those books he’s collected on hoarding. — Margo, correctively
Questions of What Is “Owed”
Dear Margo: I guess my question is, in broad terms: Am I my brother’s keeper? How much does the sensible, hardworking child owe ne’er-do-well sibs or parents? I was the “good” one in our family: well-behaved, helpful, studious. My two sibs, for different reasons, did not grow up to be happy or productive people. One of them got into drugs and never got out; the other has had a great many health problems and just seemed to suck up all my parents’ time and energy. — Ambivalent
Dear Am: Your situation is more common than you think. I’m betting you found your parents behaving neutrally — i.e., not rewarding you for your good behavior and insufficiently dealing with the “bad” sibs. In the case of a serious illness, it is instinctive (and unfortunate), but parents tend to concentrate on the sick child to the detriment of the siblings. Resentment is the result — which is what you’re feeling.
My suggestion is that you develop (or nurture) your sense of self based on reality rather than on your parents’ behavior toward you. You may find a therapist helpful for this. As for your obligations to anyone else in the family, I believe they are what you want them to be. By my lights, DNA is only meaningful in crime investigations. And not everyone agrees with me. — Margo, attitudinally
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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at www.creators.com/dear-margo.html. Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.
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