Frequently Asked Questions
1. How can I help my parents with their hoarding problems?
Although you may be desperate to help parents who are endangering themselves, suffering from severe self-neglect, at risk of losing their housing, or their independence, it is never healthy to endanger yourself to help others. You should never sacrifice your own physical or emotional health and safety to help someone with HD. Do not intervene without a safe plan to assist someone with HD, including adequate protective gear and procedures. It is especially important to ensure that you have a sufficient self-care regime before accepting any caregiving responsibilities for others. Your parents' health never trumps yours, even if you are young and healthy. Hoarding often causes loved ones extreme fear and distress, especially when you must live in the hoard. The impact that hoarding has on you can make it harder for you to help effectively. Do not attempt to work on a relationship that is not safe for you. Mental illness never justifies abuse. Do not listen to anyone asking you for patience and understanding before you are safe.
Remember the safety instructions on an airplane, always put your oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help anyone else. You cannot solve problems for someone else who does not want to change. Sometimes, boundaries and detachment are your only options. YOU MATTER!
2. Why do my parents "love junk more than me?"
Many COHPs feel like stuff is valued more than people. It hurts to feel unloved but it damages your self-esteem even more to embrace this idea. Many COHPs believe their parents should never have had children. They feel hopeless and wish they were dead because growing up in an indoor landfill teaches them they are trash. Parents struggling to cope with a mental illness may be unable to meet your needs. That does not mean they do not love you. Their behavior is never simply a reflection of their love for you. Your parents must learn to properly care for themselves and develop better coping skills before they can adequately care for you. Ordinarily, we believe actions speak louder than words, but this does not apply to mental illness. People with addictions and hoarding disorder 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. Getting sober to please others often fails unless they can seek health for themselves. However, mental illness is never an excuse for abuse, neglect, or other unacceptable behavior.
3. Why doesn’t anything I try ever work? How can I make them 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. Lasting change requires strong motivation to form new habits. Trying to reason and persuade them makes people feel defensive and reinforces their rationalizations and strengthens their resistance. Your frustration is legitimate but trying to change others often leads to more frustration for everyone. Sometimes people cannot see they have a hoarding problem because of a neurological symptom called anosognosia, which is different from psychological denial. 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. No begging, pleading, crying, reasoning, nagging, or arguing can change someone who is not ready to change. It is ok to stop. It does not mean you don’t care anymore. You don't have to keep trying until you break. You can detach. You cannot make anyone else fix themselves. You might not be able to help everyone you love, but you can always help yourself!
4. 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 guilt and 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 watch them self-destruct. 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. It is not in your power to save anyone from themselves.
5. I don’t know if I should call CPS/APS? I don’t want to betray them/get them in trouble.
People with hoarding disorder often live with a lot of shame and fear the judgment and stigma of being exposed, even while denying they have a mental health 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, emergency, and police officers, but they are all bound by the law.
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.
6. 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. It is never your responsibility to suffer the consequences of unhealthy choices beyond your control. Until your parents are ready to change, your efforts are unlikely to help and may inadvertently enable, or create further resistance and deter change. Insist on getting an education. Learn healthy ways to cope with the anxiety, guilt, frustration, and all your other feelings about hoarding. Often, we want to protect the people we love because we are afraid of the consequences, which can lead to enabling. Sometimes, people only develop motivation because they experience the consequences and want to change. Trying to protect them can actually delay change. It can also become a distraction that keeps them focused on you instead of focusing on their own behavior and predicament. Sometimes, nothing motivates them. You face very difficult choices to try to make your environment safe for yourself without taking over responsibility for their problems.