Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Blocked Friendship


Some of us are born with a few bits of us kinked and curled around behaviours that can harm us but opt for the soothing relief of brief sedation until reality seeps into the pores once again. I know. I've had a bit of work to do myself in the field of change when the pain of my knots and whorls outweighed their sedative effect.

The reason I bring this up is that I've got a friend of over forty years who has her own demons which are worsening (they always do unless stopped in their tracks). I worry about her. I feel helpless as I can't change her. I can't change anyone, just me.

Ever since I've known her she's surrounded herself with clutter. Not your 'normal' type of clutter like six china cabinets or 100s of Dresden figurines. No this clutter is newspapers, magazines, plastic bags and boxes, the kind your toaster comes in. Retail boxes that go back years and years. Clutter fills every corner of her home. None of us, inluding family, have been allowed beyond her front door in years and years.

The last time was many years ago to once again go in and attempt to clean her up. 2000 lbs of garbage came out of her kitchen alone (it was weighed at the dump). Her groceries lie in plastic bags on the kitchen floor with a tiny pathway wending through them. Her counters are unusable. There are mice. Her bed sits in the middle of unpacked boxes (some from thirty years ago), she has to crawl over them to get into it and watch the TV, which she does incessantly all day, all night. Everything overflows. Her pitiful collection of clothes hangs off a doorway.

She blamed her boring job for not being able to control her junk even when we all cleaned her up a few times. She's retired for two years now and blames taking her mother, who's 92, for medical appointments.

Her sister and I just know the house is worse than anything we've ever seen now. If we are picking her up, she races out front and locks the door before we can even peek in beyond a black garbage bag that she has hung on the door window pane. We live in fear she has crossed over into mental illness. But the fact that she can string herself together and behave normally at outside social events puts the denial on that.

I have personally confronted her a few times. Gently. In a non-accusatory way. I tell her we love her but hate how she treats herself. She cries. She promises to change. And she doesn't.

What is totally ironic is that she's worth close to a million dollars and lives the life of a slum-dweller. Her aged mother cries openly about it. She blames herself for spoiling her.

I love her dearly, she's a kind and honourable human being, compassionate and caring. But I'm at the point I won't enable her anymore. I won't step around the 1000 ton gorilla in the living room, so to speak. She has dropped even the flimsiest threads of human communication, email, telephone, cards. And I don't like myself when I find I respond by not providing that tenuous outreach to her as well. If I ask her why she won't call after I've called her numerous times she says she has nothing to talk about. Her life is boring, she says.

I wrote a little prose-byte about her when I got home last night which sums up the frustration I feel:

Back and forth I pass your house,
Imagining the cups of tea we've missed.
Hundreds now.
Maybe thousands of little dots of glue
That would have bound our friendship tighter.
Rather than me thinking
As I drive by
Of the blocked threshold of your existence.
Imprisoned by the crumbling files
Of sixty years of musty memories.


Anyone have any insight?

24 comments:

  1. I seem to recall you writing about her before. This chronic hoarding is a classic form of OCD and she needs specialist help to curb it. The common-sense responses of her friends and family are well-meaning but will probably have little impact because they won't tackle the roots of her behaviour. The problem is getting her to cooperate with a therapist as she will obviously resist treatment and claim there's nothing wrong with her. A very hard nut to crack.

    I can understand how frustrated you must be that she resists any close contact and friendship because it will challenge her compulsion.

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  2. Nick:
    Thanks for this, I need to remember she has an illness, my daughter, who adores her, is more understanding in her tolerance. Her world has shrunk abysmally. I believe she is down to two friends now along with my daughter and her mother and sister.
    I need to accept her as she is and keep hoping the pain of her OCD will generate more openness to therapy. I'm mourning the wasted years.
    XO
    WWW

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  3. I agree with what Nick says and I also think that she has lost 'The need to be needed'!

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  4. I really hope you can find a way to help this lady. Here in the UK, there have been 2 recent news reports about people in the same type of environment.

    A man had so much junk kept in boxes in his house that he had ended up building tunnels through them to get around his home. He died in there because he got lost. Lost in his own home!

    Another sad story was a woman who was a shopaholic, accumulating bags of shopping of all sorts. Many bags had items still in their boxes that she had hoarded, not even opening them or using them. Again a stack of boxes toppled over and killed her.

    I really hope you can find a way to help your friend before she is literally overwhelmed by this.

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  5. How sad. Your friend is mentally ill, even if she can hold it together when she's away from her home and in company. But I have no idea what you can do to help her, if she won't admit she has a problem. I am sorry for your loss, WWW.

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  6. GM:
    Ironically, one of her excuses is that her elderly mother needs her too much!
    XO
    WWW

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  7. Rossa:
    We've had a couple of scares with her where she's lost her phone. And we know the whole house is hazardous. For instance, there is an unsteady staircase (more like a ladder) going to her basement which is knee high in newspapers. I feel sick thinking about it.
    XO
    WWW

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  8. Tessa:
    Yes, it's that thin sliver of hope that she can hold it together when at outside functions, but on reflection, after, I recognize that all her reference points now tend to be TV shows. She has stopped reading.
    I guess I'm trying to reassure myself I'm doing everything possible.
    XO
    WWW

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  9. I actually have a side business helping people to declutter. I can't work with anyone who hoards as seriously as your friend because it a much more tenacious and serious issue. Oprah did a bunch of shows on the subject with a man named Dr. David Tolin. You might want to read about him and his practice. I believe he's in Connecticut. Not sure where you are.

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  10. Thanks Rhea, I'll check him out.
    XO
    WWW

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  11. Everything that can be said about it, has be said, and yes, your friend has a mental illness. Until she owns up to it, there is nothing you can do, unless you force her out of her home and into a psychiatrist's office and rent a skip to empty her apartment into. I suppose you can't have her committed against her will, being in fear of her life?

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  12. Irene:
    Her sister and I have thought of that but it would kill her mother who is so fragile.
    The department of health is another avenue. The whole business has been brought to another head by her wanting to adopt a rescue dog but she can't go ahead as they wanted to do a home inspection.
    The only reason she wanted to adopt a dog is so she would get out of the house more but we know that would never happen. It is a nightmare as you can imagine.
    XO
    WWW

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  13. WWW ~~~ I can't add much to what has been said. I wonder if someone could consult a doctor or therapist on her behalf, just to ask how best to proceed ? Her life may well be in danger as Rossa said.

    I wonder also how long this has been going on - was she like this as a very young woman? I wonder what was the trigger - lost love perhaps?

    I don't suppose you know her date of birth, WWW?

    It's a ovely, compassionate piece of poem/prose you shared. :-)

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  14. T:
    It has been going on since she was a child, but worsening and worsening according to living space available for the rubbish. Her DOB is May 29, 1945. Sometime in the afternoon.
    I did talk to a therapist who said nothing can be done unless she wants the help. The trigger was a restless father who kept moving his family (10 times in 14 years) and finally uprooting them all to Florida where he died, destitute. At least we think that.
    She is very intelligent but unable to see her destructive behaviours.
    Thanks for the insight, T.
    XO
    WWW

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  15. I can venture no solution, but it is a common problem. As an RSPCA Inspector in Britain I visited many such people. Here in America, there is a man just up the road from us with a similar problem. His house is so cluttered. One day he opened the garage door. It was piled floor to ceiling with rubbish. Even his car - he has an SUV - is filled to the roof with clutter. There's just enough room for him to get into the driver's seat.
    Obviously, a mental problem. Always the most difficult to solve, and to enlist professional help for.

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  16. WWW ~~~ During the 2nd and 3rd weeks of March, and with slightly less intensity, the weeks immediately before and after that period, transiting Saturn will exactly join her natal Jupiter.

    Symbolically (and very much in a nutshell) that would equal restriction of excess.
    Perhaps she'll accept help around that time, or become obliged to do so. I do hope so, for her sake, and the sakes of her friends and family.

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  17. RJA:
    Yes, her car is similar to what you describe, it is like a spare room, jammed with crap.I'm going to try another appeal to her. And I will find a therapist and volunteer to go with her.
    XO
    WWW

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  18. Some of my clients in the past, adults with disabilities - mostly intellectual - or mental illnesses had shown similar OCD behaviour. It could be shopping, it could be hoarding, it could be collecting or sometimes not disposing of garbage.

    She needs professional help but it is very hard when people do not admit (or even recognise) that they need the help. Consequently, they refuse help offered.

    You say she is a friend, so I suppose you will continue doing what a friend would do, try and find ways of helping her recognise her condition / disorder / illness and assist her with seeking help.

    I would not abandon a friend and I think despite your frustration, which I actually understand very well, you will not either.

    Good luck WWW. It's a tough situation to find yourself in.

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  19. Gaye:
    I'll never give up on her, she's been a dear friend for far too long. Sometimes the going gets rough as her denial is so incredibly strong but now and then there's a tiny breakthrough.
    What contines to baffle me is that people like her, and I have an acquaintance also with similar OCD, is that they can pretend normalcy to the outside world.
    XO
    WWW

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  20. They do, and they function quite like every other man and woman out there so to an unsuspecting eye there's nothing wrong. In the meantime friends and family worry, worry and worry.
    Good luck, I hope her friends and family will find a way to help her and she will take it on board someday that she needs help.

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  21. I know exactly how you feel WWW as I have a friend (a man) who is a secret alcoholic and can see him going the same way with the squalor in his house even though he's only 35. I have many times tidied up and thrown all the rotting rubbish away when he is on holiday and I am cat-sitting for him, and he's always grateful when he gets back but a week or two later it will be just as bad again, no matter that I urge him to at least put his rubbish out each week and have a no clothes on the living room floor ruling and point out the health hazards to both him and cat. He also lets the mail accumulate on the hall floor and has piles over the stairs ripe to be tripped over every time he goes up the stairs & that as a freelancer, how can he take such risks of injuring himself? In short I have tried all rational pleas and when he's drunk enough and brought up the subject himself, tried to tackle his drinking. Yet like your friend he does a brilliant impression of a highly-intelligent (if a bit socially goofy) finger-on-the-pulse type of guy when out and impresses everyone he meets.

    However like your friend I think there is no way round serious therapy and he's got to want to do that. We have had a few arguments as he is also selfish and takes me for granted, but the next moment does something very sweet, so you can never quite write him off!

    By the way we had a couple of hoarders who died in England recently (in separate parts of the country according to the papers) who were suffocated when piles of paper and suitcases fell onto them and were not discovered for days after - not that the emergency services could have got to them in time anyway due to all the clutter.

    We also have a show in this country where you can 'shop' such offenders called 'How Clean Is Your House?' where Kim and Aggie come round with a team of professional cleaners and clean a whole house from top to bottom helping the overwhelmed owner start their lives over again - as once it's out of control, it's out of control.

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  22. Hi Laura:
    Your friend will only get well when he is sick and tired of being sick and tired. Trite but true.
    Likewise with mine. One time we even got a TV producer who offered her a free cleanup/de-clutter as long as the whole cleanup was televised. She refused.
    I think what we have to do is refuse to enable anymore. Like clean-up, etc. It makes no difference as they revert quickly to prior state.
    It really is a mental/emotional disease with addictive and OCD thrown in for good measure.
    clutter and alcohol are equally damaging addictions. And only the addict can decide they want to change.
    XO
    WWW

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