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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Drowning in Debris: A Daughter Faces Her Mother’s Hoarding

Deborah Derrickson Kossmann
Psychotherapy Networker
March/April 2023

Here is an excerpt:

My job as a psychologist is to salvage things, to use the stories people tell me in therapy and help them understand themselves and others better. I make meaning out of the joy and wreckage of my own life, too. Sure, I could’ve just hired somebody to shovel all my mother’s mess into a dumpster, but I needed to be my family’s archaeologist, excavating and preserving what was beautiful and meaningful. My mother isn’t wrong to say that holding on to some things is important. Like her, I appreciate connections to the past. During the cleaning, I found photographs, jewelry passed down over generations, and my bronzed baby shoes. I treasure these things.

“Maybe I failed by not following anything the psychology books say to do with a hoarding client,” I tell my sister over the phone. “Sometimes I still feel like I wasn’t compassionate enough.”

“You handled it as best you could as her daughter,” my sister says. “You’re not her therapist.”

After six years, my mother has finally stopped saying she’s a “prisoner” at assisted living. She tells me she’s part of a “posse” of women who eat dinner together. My sister decorated her studio apartment beautifully, but the cluttering has begun again. Piles of magazines and newspapers sit in corners of her room. Sometimes, I feel the rage and despair these behaviors trigger in me. I still have nightmares where I drive to my mother’s house, open the door, and see only darkness, black and terrifying, like I’m looking into a deep cave. Then, I’m fleeing while trying to wipe feces off my arm. I wake up feeling sadness and shame, but I know it isn’t my own.

A few weeks ago, I pulled up in front of my mother’s building after taking her to the cardiologist. We turned toward each other and hugged goodbye. She opened the car door with some effort and determinedly waved off my help before grabbing the bag of books I’d brought for her.

“I can do it, Deborah,” she snapped. But after taking a few steps toward the building entrance, she turned around to look at me and smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “I really appreciate all you do for me.” She added, softly, “I know it’s a lot.”

The article is an important reminder that practicing psychologists cope with their own stressors, family dynamics, and unpleasant emotional experiences.  Psychologists are humans with families, value systems, emotions, beliefs, and shortcomings.