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Dear Dr Matt,
My name is Ariella. I am 16 years old and live in New Hampshire. My grandmother, who is in her late 70's, is a hoarder. This has been going on for about ten years, since my grandfather died. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts with my father, in a nice townhouse. She will not acknowledge her problem. I believe that is the biggest problem. The house reeks of must, mold, rotted food, and dirt. I cannot even begin to describe the stench. It is the kind foul oder that makes you gag, and your eyes tear up.
It is nauseating and it's a direct result of the house rotting in on itself. The garage, living room, dining room, family room, and her bedroom are all filled to the ceiling with junk that hasn't been even seen in years. I have to go there every other week to see my father, which is fine. I don't mind seeing my father (my parents are divorced). But I do mind the stench, the minuscule pathways, the clutter, and the denial. It makes going over absolute hell.
In the summer, bugs are attracted to the smell of rotting food that is all over the floor. In the winter it is a haven for rodents and insects that I'm sure borough in the plastics bags and bins that she uses to "contain" the mess.
A little about my grandmother's personality. She is rough, forceful, at times rude, and extremely opinionated. From what my parents have told me, she has always been like that, even as a child. She enjoys socializing with random people over the least important things (i.e. Children's toys, grocery bags, or even blankets). It's weird saying it, and it's even weirder in person -- not to mention embarrassing.
I'm sure she means well but any positive aspects of her are grossly overpowered by the hoarding, compulsive socializing, and discourteous personality. None of my family members know I am contacting you. Since I am 16 I obviously cannot do anything. If I even bring it up, I am yelled at by her and told it is not my place as a child to question her "methods".
This gets exceedingly frustrating quickly. I don't know if you can help, but if you could it would mean the world. Contact me anytime. At this point if I can anonymously get help it would bring me preeminent satisfaction.
I received both of your emails. I congratulate you on being persistent.
You write very well. I enjoyed reading the colorful language you crafted to describe "the house rotting in on itself … the house [that] reeks of must, mold, rotted food, … [with] stench … that makes you gag." You describe a sad reality for yourself and your father, but especially your grandmother. The junky, messy situation that she has chosen is one way that she is crying out for help.
You write: "I'm sure she means well." You may be sensing some goodness in your grandmother somehow, someway; nevertheless, in terms of the Junk and the Stench, we come to know what people "mean" by what they say and do! And if her "doing" is messy, cluttered, and reeks of rotting food, then … this IS what she "means" — Inner INTENT is revealed by OUTER behavior. Again, the Clutter and the Foul Stench is a communication from your grandmother, it is a cry for help.
You are correct: the fact that your grandmother "will not acknowledge her problem" is indeed the "biggest problem." Why? Because changing a problem begins when a person acknowledges that there IS a Problem in the first place. Because your grandmother is not openly acknowledging her Problem … she is living in a state I call: Self-Deception
I can relate with your grandmother a little bit, because I am a mini-hoarder — I have a tendency to NOT throw things away. And I know precisely where this tendency comes from:
My father and mother grew up during the Great Depression, where they, by necessity, had to be resourceful with every morsel of food, and every material possession -- they threw away nothing, mostly because they had so little to begin with. Everything was used. And so, growing up, I learned to do the same.
As a result of my upbringing, I don't throw away "cereal dust" (the powder in the bottom of a cereal box); instead, I add it to the Waffle Mix. And I make soup from the liquid that comes from a can of green beans. I grew up with these mottos: "Waste not, Want not" and another saying that I shared at my mother's funeral: "Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, or … Do without."
Of course, being "resourceful" and finding uses for most everything, does not necessarily mean being messy and disorganized. Beyond what my parents taught me about resourcefulness with food and possessions, I've also inherited a legacy of being resourceful that comes from my wonderful Great Grandmother: Cynthia Elizabeth Damron Moody (1837 - 1872) -- a pioneer woman who lived to the age of 35.
That's my great grandmother "Cynthy" on the left, and her older sister "Matilda" on the right. Shortly after she was married to my great grandfather William Cresfield Moody, she spent about 10 days to 2 weeks traveling by covered wagon from Salt Lake City to Fort Ephraim, Utah.
In 1860, a covered wagon could travel from 8 to 20 miles a day, depending upon trail conditions, hills to climb, steams to cross, the health of the horses, the weather, the health of the passengers, sources of food and water, etc.
Smelling nauseating odors occasionally … this is EASY.
Cynthy's 120 mile trek from Salt Lake City to Fort Ephraim Utah was the first of five moves:
1) From Salt Lake City, Utah to Fort Ephraim, Utah -- 120 miles
2) Fort Ephraim, Utah to St. George, Utah -- 220 miles
3) St. George, Utah to Spring Valley, Nevada -- 125 miles
4) Spring Valley, Nevada to Dry Valley, Nevada -- 180 miles
5) Dry Valley, Nevada to Eagle Valley, Nevada -- 10 miles
Along with the hardships of moving 5 times via covered wagon (655 miles total, which entailed about 4 months of travel along dusty and sometimes muddy trails), as indicated above, Cynthy gave birth to each of her 5 children in four different locations. My grandfather Milton Moody was born in Spring Valley, Nevada which is located 3 miles directly west of Ceasar's Palace and the MGM Grand on the Las Vegas Strip.
Because my father was the 7th child in his family, and I am the 7th child of the 7th child, I never knew my Grandfather Milton Moody, he died decades before I was born.
In the photo above, my father is the baby, and there are only five siblings in this picture because one sister died before the photo was taken.
I have inherited the legacy of Resourcefulness from my great grand mother Cynthy, through my grandfather Milton Moody. In a positive sense, being resourceful is a very GOOD trait; and on the other hand, trying to save and use everything can create CLUTTER, especially in 2015 when "stuff" is abundant. Therefore, a wise grandchild of pioneer heritage learns to know what's worth keeping, versus what should be thrown away. Order and Cleanliness are reflections of Spiritual and Emotional Harmony in a person's Life.
From what you've told me, your Grandmother tends to store her "stuff." It would be fascinating to discover specifically where your grandmother's "hoarding" habit came from? Where and from Whom did she learn her hoarding habit and Why? Seeking answers to such questions is intriguing to me! But that's how I think, because I am a Social Psychologist, and I have a passion for observing People and discovering what makes them tick.
While I can relate with your Grandmother's tendency to STORE STUFF, I don't live in a huge amount of Clutter, because I've learned to be wise.
Is it possible for you to show some interest in your grandmother's life? And possibly discover the origins of her Hoarding Habit? Is is possible for you to explore her Cry for Help? How would your grandmother respond if you asked her:
"What was your family life like growing up?"
People feel LOVED when you show interest in their lives, and it's abundantly clear that your grandmother needs lots of Love.
|Family History Therapy by Dr Matt:
Getting Clear about Your Identity
And by the way, Love is not always Warm and Fuzzy. Love is expressed in two fundamental ways, according to the example of our Creator (Job 5: 17; Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6) — Love impacts others to their long term benefit, and sometimes that "impact" manifests as a reinforcing "blessing" and sometimes (when we make poor choices) that "impact" looks like "chastening." Clearly we do not "love" others when we freely allow them to destroy their lives — without some attempt to intervene and "impact" their life in a more productive direction! I perceive that You are actually trying to LOVE your grandmother, as you have reached out to me for helpful insights.
(I have much more to say on the topic of two fundamental expressions of LOVE. If you have interest, and you ask, I will share more with you).
If you ask enough questions, and show enough genuine interest in your grandmother, you will likely hear the heritage of HOW she came to choose her Habit of Hoarding. Further, when my dear mother and my oldest sister passed away, I pinned flowers from their funerals to the curtains in my bedroom — and those dried flowers still hang there to this day. I haven't moved them for more than 10 years.
When loved ones pass away, sometimes it is emotionally hard to throw away anything that was associated to them. THIS could explain why your Grandmother began to hoard after her husband passed away.
If you talk to her, and show sincere interest in her life, you will eventually come to understand why she doesn't throw anything away. And you might also learn why she is so resistant to Changing her ways, as you say she's "extremely opinionated."
If anything will influence your 70+ year old grandmother to change her ways, … a little genuine love is most likely the thing that will motivate her choosing to Change. But realistically, your grandmother may never Change, and will most likely go to her Grave leaving a house full of Junk and Stench. The saying goes: "You can't teach an Old Dog … New Tricks." -- and this is especially true for people with the personality traits you've described: "rough, forceful, at times rude, and extremely opinionated."
People who are open to Change, and eventually learn how to Change, possess personality traits opposite to your grandmother: they are soft, gentle, kind, easily approachable, and give lots of space to others to believe and do as they will. As you examine the Graphic Below, in the Far-Right Column you will see the desirable Personality Traits of Emotionally and Spiritually Healthy People:
In the end, only your grandmother can directly choose to take action on her Direct-Control HABIT of hoarding -- and in this regard, you "cannot do anything," because You cannot make choices for your grandmother. However you can do many other things, in terms of Indirect-Control Problems (You can Change Your Approach) and Non-Control Problems (You can Change Your Attitude).
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It is unreasonable to expect a 16 year old to respond to this "smelly" situation, as would a 26 year old, or a 36 year old. You will most likely respond according to the maturity you've acquire through 16 years of living — in fact, you can do nothing else, because young Green Tomatoes don't become Red and Ripe over night. This means you will probably DO some of the Unhealthy Life Patterns listed in the Middle Column of the above Graphic.
I hope NOT, but let's be realistic.
The Behaviors in the Right-hand Column above are the direction you need to go in order to APPROACH your grandmother in a way that will influence her to Change her Habits. And also, within your control, you can Change your ATTITUDE towards a situation that is not likely to Change any time soon.
The Psychology of Smells and Putrid Odors
Have you ever been to a farm and smelled what is called "silage"? Silage is composed of dried Hay & Corn Stalks, and is stored in a Silo — this is food for Cattle. And when the Silage gets wet, it ferments and puts off a very strong odor — an odor that might cause some to become nauseated. However, if your daily job on the farm requires you to feed the cattle, so that the animals can survive to eventually be sold at auction, so that the Farmer and his Family can survive — a smart farm hand will quickly learn to tolerate the smell of silage (a sour smell also mixed with the stench that comes from cattle "using the bathroom" within the same corrals where they eat and sleep. Farm Life is a STINKY BUSINESS, and it happens to be the very life within which my Mother and Father were raised — so how can I hate the smell of the Farm, when I know that "the Farm" represents all that is good about my Mom and Dad.
And here is the Psychology of Smells and Odors: You don't really SMELL with your Nose; instead it is your nose that collects data, and it is your Mind that SMELLS — this means, it is your Mind that interprets the data collected by your Nose; it is your Mind that draws conclusions about what certain aromas mean — from welcome and sweet to unwelcome and stinky. Your grandmother directly lives in the Stinky Stench that you detest — and I guarantee that she interprets the Odor Data differently than you (Just as I interpret Farm Odors differently from others who hate Farm Odors).
So here are the Facts of the Farm: An effective Farmer and Family will quickly learn to GET USED TO IT, GET OVER IT, and GET ON WITH IT because they must survive! Doing Farm Work and loving Farm Work requires a Change of Attitude amid the smell of Silage and Dung — and so smart Farmers and Farm Hands quickly Change their attitudes, and choose to LOVE the Farm, even with all its curious and odd odors.
If you Choose to continue visiting your father and grandmother, then you must also GET USED TO IT, GET OVER IT, and GET ON WITH IT. Deal with the ODORS proactively and productively! Remember: Putting up with a bad odor on occasion is … EASY;
Around the time that Cynthy gave birth to my grandfather, family records indicate that she was living in a "dugout" with her new born baby, and the other children: ages 1, 4, and 7. Below is what a "dugout" looks like. It is essentially a roof that is constructed over the dirt hole. Living in a dugout means that the family inside eats and sleeps on a dirt floor. This lifestyle is HARD, and again, putting up with stinky odors every other week … EASY.
One of the Traits that I inherited from my Great Grandmother Cynthy E. Moody (and my other pioneer ancestors) was to not complain … because complaining doesn't improve a sad situation — it only makes a person's ATTITUDE as SOUR as the STINK and STENCH that is complained about. Complaining is the personal poison that you and I choose to consume, making our lives sick and sour. So, whenever I choose to be patient, forgiving, and kind, I honor the heritage of hard work and sacrifice that my sweet great grandmother, Cynthy, passed down to me.
The Grave Marker below isn't located in a neatly manicured cemetery with grass and flowers and pretty statues; instead, as you can see, it located amid sage brush, dust, and prairie grass — which is precisely the kind of tough pioneer environment she patiently coped with during her 35 years on earth.
Tolerating terrible odors every other week … this is EASY. Facing the challenges of living off the land in the 1800's … this is HARD.
I invite you to learn Patient, Forgiveness, Acceptance, and Love — Traits you will eventually mature into throughout your life.
In the end, learning to Love one another is the only important thing we do in mortal life. Learning to Love your grandmother amid all the stinky odors and the nauseating stench is your personal mountain to climb. But only people of high character will even attempt to climb that mountain, because climbing that mountain is … HARD — while average people will avoid the smelly challenge, and remain average instead of exceptional, because such a Life-Path is … EASY.
Are you are only good when situations are good and easy? And then when situations turn bad and hard, you become bad?
Strength of character does not happen by default, by simply avoiding tough times; avoidance makes one weak — just like a lazy, lounging “couch potato” gets weak and fat by avoiding exercise and good nutrition. To win the highest prize, Life’s challenges must be met head on, and not merely avoided. Here's an idea that applies from my book, Changing Your Stripes.
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The Greatest Prize for Life’s labors is not realized in material
Matt Moody, Ph.D.
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