The Vine: April 27, 2012
My younger sister is about to have her first baby. I am thrilled for her and have been very supportive — gave her all my baby gear, lots of advice (mostly when asked for, heh), threw her a shower, etc. We have very different interests and lifestyles, so we have never been super close; nevertheless we get along well and see each other fairly frequently.
The problem: Sis's husband has hoarding issues — his parents are hoarders, and he has shown symptoms of the same anxiety disorder for a while now. Sis is a poor organizer and is not too partial to housekeeping herself…which is a bad combination when paired with BIL. It used to just be really messy, but it has snowballed into a disaster. As in, the house was piled sky-high in places and there were just little paths through the piles. We learned this about a year ago, shortly before she became pregnant. We didn't know it had gotten so bad.
Sis has been telling us they "are working on it" and didn't need help. My mom has been up to her eyeballs in other major work/life/elderly-parent crises, and believed her. I was focused on my mom and my own baby, so I let Sis alone about it, too. Then about six weeks go, Mom finally went over, and…it's still awful. Better, just a bit, but not a place where you want a baby to live.
Mom and I have been helping them over the past few weekends. It's unimaginably filthy. Crap everywhere (literally — they have a ton of animals, and the carpet is beyond disgusting). The smell is foul. The bathrooms and kitchen have not been cleaned in probably two or three years. The piles are definitely smaller…but they are still everywhere. And it seems like as soon as I unearth one spot, the next weekend, other stuff ends up there all over again. They have no clue how to organize things, and they both have ADD on top of it, so they never complete an area.
To top things off, they do not get the seriousness of the situation. I look around, and calculate the fact that Sis is having a baby in two weeks, and I start to panic. But Sis and BIL are beyond nonchalant about it. They are acting like it is totally normal to live this way, and nothing is wrong. It's like they don't see it. Actually, if it was just the piles, I don't think I would be so upset. It's the absolute filth of the place that riles me up. The idea that they are perfectly content to live in such a skin-crawlingly disgusting environment frightens me.
I could go on but I am sure you get the idea. Here are the issues, as I see them:
1) It is NOT safe or sanitary to have a baby in that house. Especially once he starts crawling. (EWWWW!!!!)
2) Mom and I can clean it all we want, but it's unlikely that it will stay that way unless Sis and BIL get serious help.
3) Sis and BIL are in denial about it so they won't get help.
4) I have my own house to keep up with and have no desire to take on cleaning and organizing for my sister on a permanent basis. Not to mention the amount of time this would take me away from my own two kids. Not acceptable.
But 5) there is a BABY that will be living there. How on earth can I leave a child to live in that filth???
Frankly, I don't see much changing. I think my mom will end up over there pretty frequently keeping things in order. And my mom is stressed out enough as it is. I can't let her shoulder the burden of my sister's house without helping.
Someone is going to say in the comments that i should call DFACS. But, I think Sis and BIL are going to be very loving, good parents, other than their disaster of a house, and I have trouble with the idea of calling DFACS or some such agency that is going to take their child away. That's a horrible thought to me. It's not something I would do without exhausting every other avenue.
I guess my question is, what's the best way for me to handle this situation? What is appropriate where the child is involved? How do I set limits? And what should those limits be? I know this is going to be an ongoing issue…I am trying to figure out what to do.
I Am Thankful That My Junk Drawer Pales In Comparison
I didn't know where to begin with this letter — the hoarding, the underlying mental-health issues, who's going to help, can anyone help — even without the idea that a newborn is coming home to that environment. Add in a baby, who crawls and puts things in his mouth…not only is it a bad situation, it's an emergent one.
So, I took a chance and forwarded your email to Matt Paxton. If you don't know Paxton from Hoarders, you may remember him vaguely from a certain poll that he won (…aw, poor Chalmers), and he mentions TN occasionally on his podcast, 5 Decisions Away. He's an extreme cleaning specialist who, just from long experience, is going to have better insight into what works and what doesn't with a family dynamic like this.
To my grateful relief, he addresses your letter on this week's episode, #27 ("The Sure Thing"); you can also download/subscribe for free on iTunes. The answer begins at about the 1:08:30 mark. If you haven't listened to 5DA before, understand that it's not rated G; I mention this because there's a running gag involving a pearl necklace that gets a callback right after the letter portion. "Oh, I love jewelry!" Yeah, it's not…that. So. Just so you know.
But even if that breed of crassness is tough for y'all, give Paxton's answer a listen anyway. He has suggestions about social services that I wouldn't have thought to make — and most of the episode is listener mail, so there's a lot of useful responses to other listeners that might help also. (There's also a note from a TWoP reader a few minutes before this letter; Paxton thinks TWoP is hilarious, but I don't think he knew the connection. Semi-circle of love! Hee.)
Anyway, I hope Paxton's answer helps you out, and maybe the readers have some experience with trying to navigate a hoarder sibling that they can share.
Tags: Cory Chalmers death is not an option Hoarders kids Matt Paxton the fam TWoP