I lived with a hoarder for almost two years before I finally managed to escape the situation. Any other sane regular person would have jumped ship right away, but that was not an option available to me at the time. It was 2003, and I had just arrived to the United States with only two suitcases and $100 to my name. The person that I was to stay with was an old friend of my Uncle’s who was allowing me to live with her partly out of charity.
At the time, I was just so grateful to finally be able to live in the US that I probably would have been happy living under a bridge in a cardboard box! Before I found out that I would be living in her house, I had a very naive image/dream of moving to either New York or Los Angeles and becoming famous like almost every kid nowadays (even though I have zero acting or singing talent).
Of course those dreams were squelched instantly. I was told that I would be moving to Orlando, FL, which was fair enough, since I had zero known (at the time) relatives living in America.
The saddest part of the the whole situation of living in that house was the fact that Dani* was a really kind person who happened to also be suffering from a hoarding complex, as well as several different medical complications at once. I foolishly thought, like many other people whose loved ones suffer from such a debilitating disease, that I could save her. I figured if I were to just help her clean her house, then maybe she would be happier and healthy again.
1. I had to accept that I could not help her
Dani had been living in the house by herself for several years. Her husband, who worked in South Florida, commuted home every couple weeks to take care of his laundry and bills.. Within a week or two of living with her, she could obviously sense my “distress” at the state of the home. I had naively believed that the cause of it was due to her failing health.
This was all before reality shows about hoarding were in vogue. So in my mind, I thought it was just a matter of her not being able to clean up her junk. Anytime that I would make an attempt to clean up the house she would stop me with excuses on why what I was throwing away was valuable or important.
In order to traverse the home I had cut a path that extended from the front door and weaved through the living room, then branching off towards her room and my room, then the bathroom and finally the kitchen. That feat alone had taken me over a week, and almost 26 trash bags. I was so tired of her protests that I eventually started sneaking out junk right before the garbage men came to pick up trash–hoping she wouldn’t notice.
Attempting to clean up the mess of someone else eventually took a huge physical and mental toll on me. At the time I was working at Mcdonald’s and since my shift was later in the day, I slept through most of the morning, and then when I returned at 2 am I would take refuge in the only clean room in the house–mine, comforted by copious amounts of chemically enhanced sandwiches and franken-nuggets.
Six months later my Aunt in Germany offered to have me visit her and I jumped at the chance. By the time I returned from Germany another six months later, Dani had moved to Chicago to live with her son. I saw this as an opportunity to clean up the house unhindered, of course this optimism had lasted maybe a month. Doing all of the work myself was daunting. I had even toyed with the idea of sending Oprah a video to help.
2. I set daily rat traps and had to protect my food from infestation
From the first few weeks in the house, I had already learned the hard way not to leave opened food in cupboards or out in the open. I remember making a pot of mac and cheese for lunch and then heading outside to mow the lawn. After I came back to put the food in Tupperware to save for dinner, I had discovered at least two little roaches crawling all over it. Needless to say, I rarely cooked in that house after that.
The most disgusting incident by far happened one night while I was watching TV in my room (my literal safe haven from the mess, or so I thought). I had reached into a bag of wrapped chocolates that I had brought back from Germany which I was saving, only to see little chew marks through the wrappers. Upon further inspecting the bag itself, I realized that there was a giant hole in the bottom and the few remaining chocolates had all been covered in little teeth marks.
I told her husband the situation during one of his odd visits and his solution was to strategically plant rat traps around the house. Unfortunately for me, I had to get rid of the daily dead rats caught by the traps. At this point I really wanted to leave, but my time in Germany and my measly 7 bucks an hour as a newly appointed lifeguard meant I didn’t have much in the way of being able to pay rent, added to that, the fact that I had already fallen into the bottomless pit of credit debt, so in effect I was trapped within a trap, inception-style.
In hindsight, I could have probably tried to reach out to co-workers but at the time I had felt almost like part of the problem had become my fault. Also by that time Dani had passed away and her daughter, Megan*, had come to live in the house. I felt in a way that I had a duty to stay in order to help Megan while she grieved for her mother.
3. I was ashamed of where I lived-and ashamed of myself
Trying to create a social life for myself during that time was incredibly difficult. One of the few friends that I had made, planned on moving to New Jersey with her husband so trying to live with her wasn’t going to happen. I had to turn down dates from guys that asked me out, and the few that I actually went on tended to end at the front door since I did not want them to see what I lived in, in case they saw it as a reflection of me as a person, and not of a situation that was wholly out of my control.
Megan had a difficult time handling her Mother’s sudden death and eventually spiraled into alcohol dependence and drug addiction. It wasn’t until one night that she burst into my room unexpectedly at 3 am, after a weekend Meth binge. She wanted to show me the basket in her hand that housed the Elven King and his court of fairies . That was the final moment when I realized it was time to really leave. Do or die.
4. I thrust myself into a doomed relationship in order to escape.
Around the time of that incident, I had moved onto bigger and better things by working at the Orlando airport. At the tender age of 21, I had finally even learned how to drive. My co-workers introduced me to a guy, who I hated at first sight. He wasn’t necessarily unattractive, or even a bad person, however, our personalities definitely clashed. My colleagues figured they would be doing us both a favor. He would be getting laid, and I would have a non-biohazard-y place to live in.
Even though my gut was shooting warning missiles into my brain, I squashed those signals (a pattern I would repeat for the next 8 years) and deluded myself into thinking I was maybe actually into him, and just “needed to give him a chance”. Granted I did not consciously decide to move in with him ONLY to get out of that house, but it certainly was a huge contributing factor in my decision to live with someone I didn’t have much in common with.
In the end, I eventually also left that relationship by using the Navy as another escape route. Fortunately, joining the military was definitely one of the better choices that I had made in the long run. I no longer felt trapped or like I was in a completely hopeless situation. In the beginning things were definitely tough, but the process steered me towards a better and happier life.
This certainly would not be the last time I would live in a house like this, (you would live in an infamous party house called “trash house” too if it meant not having to live in the barracks) but those of you who know me can probably now understand where my obsession with having a clean home stems from.
–You cannot change or save people who are not ready to help themselves. You can only standby and offer support as long as you don’t allow yourself to be dragged into their hell as well.
–Don’t be ashamed of being in am embarrassing situation. You wont receive any help unless you reach out to those around you.
–Trust your instincts, especially when it comes to love–don’t ever date someone out of convenience.