The Quiet Struggle of Squirreling

Submitted into Contest #185 in response to: Write a story about someone who doesn’t know how to let go.... view prompt

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Drama Fiction Contemporary

My mother doesn’t know how to let anything go. And I mean anything: objects, people, animals, even thoughts and feelings. When I first noticed this condition, I was six years old. I had a new friend over after school, and as soon as he entered our house, I knew something was off.

“It smells like my great-aunt Sarah’s house. Old,” he said, stretching out the ‘L’ sound while wrinkling his nose. “I smelled it on your clothes, but only a little, so it didn’t bother me. But this is icky,” he continued, walking through the house, sniffing the air like a bloodhound. “Where is it coming from?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, bewildered by his behavior. “I didn’t realize my house had a scent,” I shrugged. “Come on, let me show you my room!”

“Why are there piles of papers everywhere?” he asked as we moved through the living room and into the hallway that led to the bedroom I shared with my older brother. “And what’s in all these storage containers? Are you guys moving?”

“It’s all my mom’s stuff,” I said dismissively. “Wait ’til you see our setup. It’s the best room in the whole house!” And it was. That’s because everything was neat and orderly. We always put our clothes away in our shared closet with drawers and hanging spaces, and we made the bunkbed as soon as we woke up. Our toys were placed in buckets labeled by type. We had an armoire for our TV and gaming system that stored our videos and games. They were filed in individual slots in alphabetical order and sorted by genre.

I didn’t know at the time that it was unusual to have so much stuff. I also didn’t find out until decades later that my brother and I were so organized because we were counterbalancing the chaos of over-collecting. And that smell? That was mold from the decomposing papers and rotting junk. It permeated everything we owned.

Later, in middle school, things got worse when my brother moved out. He was a few years older than me, and he’d always told me he was “getting the hell out of this shithole” once he saved up enough money. True to his word, he did. That sent my mom into an emotional frenzy.

Overnight, we had three rescue dogs and a basement pantry filled with canned corn, green beans, and potatoes because “there was a sale on them that was too good to pass up,” according to my mom. I had no idea that canned potatoes existed, but I wasn’t looking forward to eating them. I enjoyed the dogs, though. That is, until they started shitting indoors between crevices that no one could see or reach. By then, I’d stopped having friends over and tried to limit how much time I spent at home.

However, my mother always remembered each of the friends who ever passed through our front door. “How are Tommy Valentine and his mother, Sue?” she’d asked out of the blue.

“Tommy moved away when I was ten, mom.”

“How come Billy Bracks doesn’t come around anymore?”

“The same reason none of my friends do,” I’d sigh and slink into my room.

When I turned sixteen, I was so excited to get my driver’s permit. The thought of being able to get into a car and go anywhere was too sweet of a dream. The day I took my final driving test should have been the icing on the cake. Instead, my mom forced me to take her car with its rear window filled with stuffed animals and backseat covered in old blankets, tissue boxes, and other meaningless ‘supplies’ for those just in case emergencies that would never come.

“I’ll have to check the books on this one, but I believe the state prohibits items in any of the driver’s windows. It’s a safety issue, you see,” the testing instructor told me. I was grateful for his kindness as I swept them down onto the backseat with the other stuff before we took off.

“That man had no right!” my mother yelled at the motor vehicle office’s supervisor.

“Actually, ma’am, he does because it’s against the law,” the supervisor countered.

I’ll never forget my mother’s face. It was so red I wondered if she would burst. The whole way home, spittle flew from her mouth onto the dashboard as she ranted about that man touching her stuff. It was hers, placed in a particular way. How was she ever going to get things back into the proper order? “How will I survive another two years of this madness?” I recall thinking.

Somehow, I did while also saving enough money for Community College. On her forty-fifth birthday, I moved into an apartment with two other guy friends close to campus. I didn’t have my own car because it was too much money with insurance and gas, but I could ride my bike in good weather and take the bus when it rained or snowed. My mother was beside herself.

“How could you leave me? And on my birthday? You are the worst son a mother could ask for!” she cried.

“School starts tomorrow, mom. And I’m only ten miles away. You can come and see me whenever you want,” I patted her on the shoulder in half-hearted consolation. Inside I was seething. It should have been an exciting day. A rite of passage where she would cry tears of joy. Instead, she pulled her old emotional black-mailing bullshit and ruined the moment. Yet later, I was grateful because it reaffirmed my decision to leave my childhood home. She didn’t let me forget how I made her feel that day or any other day when she experienced a traumatic memory, insult, embarrassment, or heartbreak.

As time passed, my brother and I would get together for drinks or a football game and discuss mom. She had several more rescue animals and had filled our bedroom, the three-car garage, the basement, and two storage sheds in the backyard, with stuff. We often wondered how she even ate anything fresh with the dinner table covered in empty pill bottles, stacks of used paper plates, and plastic utensils. Not to mention the countertops covered in aluminum pie tins, plasticware from old butter containers, and miscellaneous takeaway holders.

“It’s disgusting and a fire hazard. I’m shocked it hasn’t already gone up in smoke,” my brother said, shaking his head in disappointment. “She’s getting up in years too. What’s going to happen when she passes? It’ll be up to us to go through all that crap.”

“Did you know she stuffs money in random boxes and containers? I saw her do it one day and asked why she would hide money where no one could find it. She said she knew where it was, and that’s all that mattered. She claimed it was safer than putting it in the bank. Which I suppose is true because no one would think to steal any of that shit.”

“Christ. That means we’ll have to go through every box before we chuck it?” my brother asked.

“I mean, if it’ll pay for the dumpsters we’ll need, I’m for it. We could take it room by room.”

“I have a full-time job. A family. It would take us years to go through everything at that rate. Something needs to be done. Maybe an intervention,” my brother suggested.

“Remember when I asked her a couple of years ago if I could take a couple of boxes of toys and donate them to a children’s charity my girlfriend was volunteering for? You’d have thought I was asking for her right arm. In fact, I think she would have agreed to give up her right arm if she didn’t have to part with any of her stuff. Another time, I offered to help her organize a garage sale. The neighborhood was holding an event over the Fourth of July weekend. She told me to leave the house and not return until I was ready to apologize. I didn’t see her for a year. As much as I’d like to intervene, I think she’d disown me altogether.”

“I remember that,” my brother sighed. “She told me not to talk to you too. However, her condition has divided our family. Meghan refuses to let our kids near that house, and I don’t blame her. Mom cares more about her stuff than maintaining any kind of relationship with any of us. It makes me angry that my kids don’t have a doting grandmother.”

“At least you have a wife and kids. My therapist says I suffer from something called CEN, childhood emotional neglect, and that my long list of former girlfriends is a direct result of being unable to be present in a relationship. Oh, and I can’t deal with emotions. Which apparently girls have? How was I to know?” I laughed bitterly.

“Despite that, all I hear from her is how someone insulted her, made her feel bad, or did her wrong back in fifth grade. She’s selfish and unloving,” my brother growled, slamming his hand on the table before getting up and walking out.

Shortly after that get-together, I received a phone call from a local storage facility manager. “Is your mother Pearl Wetherbee?”

“Yes.”

“You may want to get down here. She’s having some sort of fit.”

“Jesus. Have you called an ambulance?”

“Not that kind of fit. Please, could you just come and collect her?”

After learning their location, I arrived at the outdoor facility where my mother, now seventy-three, was attempting to fist-fight two men with a U-Haul and moving equipment.

“Mom. Mom. Ma!” I snapped, trying to divert her attention. “What is going on here? What are you doing?!” I demand, trying to pull her away from the amused men.

“This stuff is mine, and they can’t have it!”

Looking around, I realized she had rented out two full-sized units, each about the size of her three-car garage. After clarification from the manager, who arrived on the scene after I had corralled my mother in my car, I learned she had failed to pay her rent three months in a row. Based on the rental agreement, they had the right to auction off what was inside the units to free them up for paying customers.

“She’s sobbing in my car, begging me to cover the rent,” I explained to my brother over the phone. Pinching the bridge of my nose and squinting my eyes closed, I lift my head to the sky and make a wish while my brother explodes on the other end of the phone. “The trouble is, we have no way of knowing what’s in that mess. Is there money or something of value?” I reason.

“I don’t care anymore. Let those men have it. Shit, ask them if they’ll go over to her house and empty that, too, while they are at it. There is nothing she has that I need. I don’t care if there are bars of gold stashed somewhere in all that garbage. I’m through. I’m through with her condition, and honestly, I’m just through with her. Like you said the other day, we have deep-seated trauma because of her inability to get help for her own damage. I have to protect myself, and you should too.”

And therein lies the rub of it all. How can you feel worthy when your own parent chooses garbage over you? She has protected herself all these years from whatever perceived emotional damage she has sustained and not worked through. While doing so, she has failed to protect us, her children. The end result is my own warped sense of worthlessness. I’ll never be enough. Nor my brother or his family. I made my decision.

“I won’t do it, Ma. I won’t pay your rent. You’ll have to let these guys do their job.”

“What? You can’t. You can’t let them take my things. It’s mine!” she cried.

I’ll never forget her anguish as we watched the men bring out tote after tote, box after box, broken thing after broken thing, and stick it all in the U-Haul.

“What will you do with all of that stuff?” I asked one of the workers while my mother cried and called us all horrible names in the safety of my vehicle.

“Most of it will end up in the landfill, but my company tries to limit that as much as possible. I have a sorting facility where we determine what can be resold online and in person at flea markets. Some of it we donate to charities. Unfortunately, much of what we find in these units wind up in recycling or trash facilities.”

“How did you get into this business?”

“Ironically, my dad and my granddad were hoarders. They tried to spin it as treasure seekers, but they never did nothing with what they found. Just filled up the family barn with their junk. When they passed, I figured out how to make money by selling off their stuff. Then I realized I could help other people do the same. Declutter. Or, like in this case, unload.”

“Don’t you worry that the stuff you sell is just filling up someone else’s house?” I asked.

“Sure, that’s always a possibility, and it more than likely is true. Look, pal, I’m not the solution to the problem. I just try to do what I can to make a difference while making a living. If we all did that, the world would be a better place.”

I shook his hand, thanked him, and made my way back to the car where my mother had spun herself in such a frenzy that she had peed her pants.

“Oh, Ma, what am I going to do with you?”

I tolerated her curses and disparaging comments all the way to her house, where I helped get her cleaned up and settled in. Well, settled as much as possible at a hoarder’s home. After she said she never wanted to speak to me again, I left, texting my therapist on my way out, hoping for an immediate appointment.

“How could things get so out of hand?” I asked Dr. Wong once I was home and in the comfort of my own surroundings. “I see what hoarding has done to my mother and our family.” 

I looked around my apartment and saw the stacks of carefully labeled boxes, cartons, and neatly stacked newspapers and magazines. I’ve always told anyone who comes by that I just moved in or haven’t gotten around to unpacking yet. However, I’ve lived here for three years. Seeing the way my mother behaved today and talking to the junk remover guy made me realize if I wanted to do anything to help, the change needed to start with me.

“How have I turned into someone who perpetuates the very thing my brother and I have railed against most of our lives? What right do I have in judging my mother when I am doing the same thing? I can’t seem to let it all go.”

“It’s your coping mechanism,” the doctor explained. “You started out wanting to keep your possessions separate from the piles of chaos your mother had. And it appears you did it well for a while. You were a collector, not a saver. However, the stress of seeing her fall deeper into this well of depression and psychosis snuck up on you. Your new coping mechanism became something you were familiar with…saving everything. Having stuff gives you control, something you lacked your entire childhood. The important thing is that you are here now, doing the work. That is what makes you different from her. I suggest we try some cognitive behavioral techniques to start.”

I’d been working with Dr. Wong for a while dealing with my childhood stuff, but I had yet to reveal my own issues with keeping items I should get rid of. Until today. Seeing my mother react and how the men treated her shook me. The idea of having hoarding tendencies is a source of shame for me. Now that my secret is out in the open, I can begin to make changes I wish my mother could.

February 16, 2023 19:07

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11 comments

Wendy Kaminski
02:19 Feb 17, 2023

What a powerful recounting of what life is like, as the victim of a hoarder (and, too, as the victim of hoarding, which I would qualify the mother as). Excellent multi-prompt address, too, I happened to catch. :) This really struck such a deep chord for me: "How can you feel worthy when your own parent chooses garbage over you?" I was already feeling so sympathetic to the protagonist ("And that smell? That was mold from the decomposing papers and rotting junk. It permeated everything we owned. “The same reason none of my friends do,” I’...

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KT George
15:02 Feb 17, 2023

Thank you for your feedback, Wendy. I couldn't decide which prompt to go for on this because I know some of the subject, so I kind of included it all! Ha! All mental illness is devastating to the sufferer and the loved ones around them. But this one seems to really have far-reaching consequences. I don't know if it's because so little is still understood about it or if it's because it really spreads through families like a communicable disease. I am grateful for your review and for knowing that even though this story is fictional, that it ha...

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Wendy Kaminski
15:05 Feb 17, 2023

Absolutely my pleasure! :)

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Viga Boland
16:27 Feb 18, 2023

This is such a good story! Well-written with character-revealing dialogue nicely balanced by descriptive narrative. I couldn’t stop reading, always the sign of good writing and a plot with purpose. And the therapist explanation explained so much. 👏👏👏

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KT George
18:10 Feb 18, 2023

Thank you, Viga! I'm thrilled you enjoyed it so much (considering the topic). You've made my day. 🤗

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Viga Boland
18:13 Feb 18, 2023

Glad to hear it! My pleasure to read your story

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Mike Panasitti
09:37 Feb 17, 2023

As the partner of a person with a hoarding disorder, I found this to be a very revealing and poignant story. I particularly found the doctor's reasoning to be very convincing: hoarders attempt to make up for a lack of control in their lives by taking close inventory of all the miscellanea they accumulate. But, in a way, giving in to the desire to hoard is a loss of control, analogous to binging behavior. Thanks for sharing this extremely well-written piece.

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KT George
14:45 Feb 17, 2023

Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Mike. I appreciate your feedback and respect the position you are in with your partner. This condition is fascinating and compelling. My understanding is that it truly is a quiet disorder that needs more research applied to fully comprehend its root causes and possible treatment.

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Lily Finch
23:39 Feb 16, 2023

Kt, This story is psychological, for sure. Two boys alone dealing with their mother, who has mental health issues. It is sad how the hater becomes just like what he hated. At least he recognizes his malaligned thinking and has a therapist. I like the unrolling of the story. I think that is nicely done. Thanks for the good read. LF6. One thing I noticed that you may want to change. something you lacked your entire childhood. - in LF6.

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KT George
14:50 Feb 17, 2023

Thank you for your feedback, Lily. Carl Jung is credited with saying that we are, in essence, mirrors of each other. What we dislike in one is what we dislike in ourselves. I tried to show that here between mother and son. Plus, this condition can be hereditary. Knowledge is power, so if we can learn how to help those around us, we are also learning to help ourselves! Thanks again. ~ KTG

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Lily Finch
15:25 Feb 17, 2023

Great job! LF6.

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