Five FAQs for COHPs
1. Why do my parents "love junk more than me?"
Many COHPs feel like stuff is valued more than people. It hurts to feel devalued and unloved but it damages your self-esteem even more to embrace this idea. Parents may have trouble showing their love especially when their true values do not align with their behavior. Ordinarily, we believe actions speak louder than words, but this does not apply to mental illness. Addicts, like people who hoard, often cannot control their behavior. Mental illness is not a choice. Just like physical illness, mental illness requires specialized care. Nobody can heal their cancer or diabetes with love alone and it cannot cure hoarding either. Their behavior is never simply a reflection of their love for you.
2. Why doesn’t anything I ever try work? How can I make them see/recognize they have a problem?
Nobody can change anyone else. Nobody changes until they are ready. Nothing works because it isn’t your life to live and isn’t your problem to solve. Motivation to change must come from within. Trying to persuade them reinforces their rationalizations and strenthens their resistance. Frustration is legitimate but trying to change others often leads to more frustration for everyone. Sometimes people who hoard cannot see they have a hoarding problem because of a neurological symptom called anosognosia. They do not believe they are ill. They may recognize a lot of stuff but believe the “problem” is that they do not have time or space to organize it. What really matters is WHAT THEY DO, NOT WHAT YOU DO. Their choices are not within your control. It is ok to stop. It is ok to let go. It does not mean you don’t care anymore. Caring is not control. You might not be able to help everyone you love, but you can always help yourself!
3. What kind of person could ever LET THEM live that way?
Neither children nor adult children have the power to LET legally competent adults do anything. Sometimes, we imagine there is much more we could do than we really can because it is hard to accept that we are powerless in the face of a problem, or to live with feelings of helplessness. It can be easier to try, and to blame, both ourselves and others, than to accept that we cannot fix a loved one’s problem, or to imagine that the problem might never be solved. Nobody can “let” an adult do anything, your only choice is how you react. It is not your choice to “let” your parents have a mental illness.
4. I don’t know if I should call CPS/APS? I don’t want to betray them/get them in trouble.
People who hoard often live with a lot of shame and fear the judgment and stigma of being exposed, even while denying they have a problem. Nobody is ever obliged to share that shame or to keep those secrets. Attempts to help may be unwanted or unwelcomed by your parents but you are always entitled to help. Seeking help is not getting your parents into trouble. APS and CPS rarely have anything like the power that people might imagine. They want to help you and your parents, as do fire, code, and police officers.
Your parents might feel betrayed. They might be angry. But we don’t know anyone who ever regretted reaching out for help. We do know many people who wish they had overcome fear and guilt to seek help sooner. You deserve help. Your parents deserve help. Hoarding is a problem that is too big for most families to address on their own.
5. If I don’t stay at home/clean/help something terrible could happen!
Yes, it could. Hoarding is associated with many risks. Your fears and concerns are valid, no matter how much anyone has minimized them to you. You feel anxious for good reasons but you do not have to live consumed by anxiety. Insist on getting an education. Learn healthy ways to cope with the anxiety caused by hoarding. You cannot control your parents’ choices and you are not obliged to share the responsibility for, or the consequences of, their actions. Often, we want to protect the people we love because we are afraid of the consequences. Sometimes, people only develop motivation because they experience the consequences and want to change. Trying to protect them can actually delay change. Sometimes, nothing motivates them. Unfortunately, if you still live in your parents’ hoard, you face some difficult choices to make your environment safe for yourself without taking over responsibility for their problems.