Kimberly Rae Miller answers questions about her life growing up with parents who are hoarders, experiences she records in her memoir Coming Clean
The questions in this Q&A were asked by participants in BookBrowse's August 2013 discussion of Coming Clean. Visit the discussion.
Why did you decide to write your book now? Has the publication had any impact on your parents and your relationship to your parents?
I was actually working on another, far more vacuous, non-fiction piece when my mother underwent surgery that went horribly wrong. The aftermath of caring for her, cleaning her home, revealing a lifelong secret to friends, and the nightmares that followed really consumed me for some time. I went to meet with my agent to discuss what I was working on and basically told her the piece I'd been writing just didn't fit who I was at that moment, but there was something else in my life I felt overwhelmed with and wondered if she thought it was something worth reading. She listened to the five minute version of my life and said, "That's your book."
I think I was sort of hoping she'd say, no one wants to read that stuff, and I could go on pretending none of it ever happened, but at that moment in my life I needed to get it all out, and writing is my main vehicle for the processing of information and emotion. There's something very cathartic about transferring things from your mind to paper.
I truly lived in fear that the publication of the book would irreparably damage my relationship with my parents, but nothing has really changed. My parents and I are still very close, and they were incredibly supportive of this processI consider that I great testament to who they are as people and as parents. My mother obsessively reads reviews, which I've told her can lead nowhere good, but she's very proud and can't seem to help herself.
Do you still assist your parents with their household stuff? Are you still close with them since the book came out?
I don't, actually. They won't let me, but I also don't need to. My parents kept the promise they made to me when they moved to their new home two years agothey've kept the place clean, and have made me very proud. It will never be easy for them, but with the help of regular outside cleaning help, and the fact that my mother now wakes up at 5am on garbage days to collect anything my father has hidden, their new home has stayed relatively neat. When I offer to help, my mother tells me "That's not your job." My parents are in a far better place now than they had been for much of my childhood, I think the writing of this book was certainly a part of itI had been incredibly guarded about how much my parents living conditions affected me, even to them, but spent much of the last two years writing and then talking with them about my feelings.
We are still very close. I consider myself very lucky to have such a close relationship to my parents.
A number of people have wondered how your parents afforded all the stuff that filled your house. If you feel comfortable doing so, it would be very interesting to have some insight into this aspect of your parent's lives.
This is one of the questions that make me most uncomfortable. But, I asked my mom's permission to discuss their finances on an open forum, and she gave it, so I here goes:
A lot of credit card debt. At one point the house, that was never mortgaged because of the cash settlement from the fire, was mortgaged just to pay off the debt, which was then accrued again. Additionally, my parents did have income from Social Security that paid for many of my expenses. While my mother spent quite a bit in the years of her post-surgical depression, she had been quite good with money before hand and had made a number of good investments while she was workingwhenever things got too tight she cashed one out, but I really wish she hadn't, as it doesn't leave much for her to retire with.
Is there any particular advice you'd give to a young person living in a hoarder household? Perhaps advice you wish you'd had?
What is great about this particular time period is that people know what hoarding is, it's such a part of our cultural zeitgeist now that kids growing up in that kind of home no longer need to feel alone. My mother said to me while I was writing the book and the topic of Hoarder-based television came up, "If there had been shows like that, if people knew about hoarding, when you were younger perhaps I could have gotten help for us. But I was so ashamed; I didn't think anyone would understand."
Now people do understand, hoarding was recently added to the DSM as its own mental illness, no longer an offshoot of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I don't say this to suggest that young people are responsible for getting help for their families, but in that I wish I had been able to talk to a mental health professional about how I was living and to know that they'd believe me. Therapy is a very personal thing, but if young people have access to a social worker, I would strongly suggest it. In adolescence we spend so much time trying to define ourselves, but when you have something so overwhelmingly shameful in your life that often becomes the thing we most identify as. It's important to have someone to talk to regularly to help you differentiate your identity to that of your family's.
I don't know that I would have listened to my own words of advice then, but if I could talk to other young people in that situation I would drive home the fact that they will get out and they will create their own life, their own home, and they do not need to follow in the footsteps of their family.
What was the hardest or scariest part about "coming out" to your friends and significant other as the child of a hoarder?
The hardest part of the whole thing was what was going on in my head. I was so afraid that my friends and my (as of a week ago) fiancé wouldn't be able to see the people behind the hoarding. I was afraid that they would forget every moment they'd spent with my family, and all of a sudden think of my parents as disgusting people and by association that I was a disgusting person, and they would want nothing to do with us.
I couldn't have asked for a better reality or better people in my life.
It seems like part of your dad's hoarding tendencies had to do with the desire to accumulate as much information as possible (listening to NPR obsessively, etc.). Do you think there are similarities between this kind of hoarding and some kinds of Internet addiction?
That's a good question. I'm not a mental health professional, so please take this as a laymen's answer:
Compulsive behaviors of all types appear to be rooted in similar origins. I don't think people become alcoholics because they like the taste of alcohol, there's a driving force involved. Escapism comes in many forms, and listening to the radio, surfing the Internet, compulsively reading and keeping newspapers and magazines is a way to drown out the rest of the world. I'm sure there are probably deeper connections, perhaps research topics for another book ;)
I enjoyed reading your blog - and was particularly moved by where you talk about your mother coming home from hospital and you needing help from people to make the house safe so, for the first time, you reached out to tell people and they pitching in to help without judging you. In hindsight, do you wish you'd told your friends earlier. If you had told your teenage friends, do you think they would have been able to accept?
This is one of those questions where I feel like the only true answer is, "I really don't know." I can see both scenarios, and I'm not sure what I'd prefer. As a teenager, I don't know that my friends could have helped any more than they already did. I had amazing friends, and while they didn't know the specifics, they knew I needed a place to sleep and a place to shower and never questioned me. While they went to great lengths to help me keep my parents from being swallowed up by their stuff in my adult life, my adolescent home was in such a state of squalor that I don't think they would have (nor should they have) been able to help. There were huge differences in the type of mess we lived in, and I would never expose another person to my teenage home.
As an adult, I think I could have told my friends much earlier and it wouldn't have made a difference in hindsight. But, while I've asked my friends for help, it has never been something that was comfortable for me and I don't know that I would have asked for help outside of the perimeters when I truly needed it. I'm sure that's the least satisfying answer ever. Sorry!
Are you working on another book at the moment - if so, can you tell us anything about it? Is it nonfiction or fiction?
I've just started work on a novel based loosely on my great-grandmother and her immigration to New York from the Ukraine during the pogroms. There are a few more salacious details that I'm not quite ready to share. It's still a pretty new project, and could very well end up in the recycling bin, but for now I'm excited about the idea.
For more personal writing, I write regularly about my life on my blog www.thekimchallenge.com.
Do you think that hoarding is something that ebbs and flows in a person's life - like other addictions, something that you maybe able to control at some points in your life but is always there in the background, or can it be "beaten'? You say that the behavior can be rooted in deep psychological issues or even be genetic. I understand that hoarding behavior tends to start during the teenage years. If so, is there something that parents can do if they feel their teen is teetering on the line between just being a teenager and not tidying their room - and becoming a hoarder?
I absolutely believe that hoarding ebbs and flows. From my experience, the more emotionally distraught my family became the worse the hoarding was.
Whether it can be "beaten" is another story. I know that professionals are having a truly hard time finding a form of therapy that works for hoarders. It is a particularly hard disorder to treat and doesn't appear to respond well to medication or cognitive therapy. Behavioral therapy, a retraining of the mind to process information differently, has shown to be somewhat helpful but still nowhere near a cure. I really hope that with all the current attention on hoarding more and more professionals will be trained to work with people with this disorder and their families, and that more research into effective treatment will eventually lead to a breakthrough.
I know some hoarders have found solace in support groups like Messies Anonymous, which treats hoarding as an addiction.
As for teenagers with hoarding tendencies, I would say that frustrations must be high, but try not to treat the young person with disdain or anger, that will most likely only propel whatever is driving this behavior. I would certainly suggest trying to find a therapist your area with experience in behavior disorders. Finding a therapist with experience in hoarding is great, but they are few and far between. I'm certainly not a trained professional, but I would assume and hope that by getting help early for young people with hoarding tendencies, that treatment would be much more effective.