In July of 2012 my mother passed away of a rare and mostly fatal neurological disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It went untreated due to her fear of doctors and lack of health insurance, but as ALS is a neurological disorder with no known cure, there wasn’t anything that could have been done. After putting her to rest, my family had to deal with another undiagnosed condition that she clearly suffered from: compulsive hoarding.
Mom was not the first member of my family to engage in hoarding. Grandma on Dad’s side was a hoarder to the point that when we cleaned out her house, we pulled out newspapers from the 1930s and probably every object she ever purchased from that same decade up to the present. She would tuck meal leftovers within her purse and cupboards and, thanks to a debilitating memory, forget she even stashed the items. The rot went completely unnoticed. Grandma actually was around to watch the family clean out her house and made every physical effort to prevent us from tossing, say, broken sunglasses covered in dead insects.
The hoarding of my mother was slightly more benign- merely thousands of cookbooks, articles of clothing stacked to the ceiling, and more holiday decorations than a big box store. True, there were areas of uncleaned animal waste in the house, and some instances of long-expired food, but by and large none of the hoarded items would cause physical harm by virtue of their existence. Hoarding has yet to be classified as a distinct disorder by the medical community, but it certainly is common enough to make a TV show about. Because it’s a compulsion, the hoarder has little chance of changing their behavior through their own choices. Even if a home gets cleaned out, if the hoarder is still around, it’ll just get filled up again.
Cleaning up the mess of departed family is not fun business. There are memories, regrets, feeling like you want to be anywhere else in the world, doing anything else. Arguments with other family members of who gets what, should this be saved or thrown away. Some objects take on a life of their own, some items have fond memories connected to them, sometimes you find something that is genuinely cool or useful, like a needed appliance. Sometimes, via objects, you learn things about family that you wished you never knew. “Stuff” is valuable, until there’s so much of it it becomes a burden, a hazard, and irrelevant.
Some items of interest:
- Many self-help books/ audiobooks on cleaning
- Unopened packages of very outdated technology, such as a cassette Walkman
- Hundreds of “pick 6” lotto tickets, several years old
- Artwork I did as a child
- Cat feces, from a cat who passed away 4 years ago.
To work through the waves of malaise, I photographed the rooms, the boxes in the room, the items in the boxes. Solitary objects and random assemblages of junk. Sometimes there would be ironic juxtapositions, sometimes everything in the frame was pure chaos, like a Pollock painting. Like many photographers, I have a “zone” I disappear into when I’m making the effort to take good photos, and emotion has so little to do with being in the “zone.” You look for the best light, the best composition, the most interesting subjects or collections of subjects, you try to get full coverage as a reporter would, you experiment with technique. Maybe a pano of the junk, to make the scene more immersive? This becomes the thought process, and it’s a place of comfort and safety, because now different challenges are put forth. Let’s make something good out of what’s in front of us. It’s how creative people can respond to life’s struggles.