Friday, April 1, 2011

Dirty Little Secrets: Child of a Hoarder

Dirty Little Secrets, by C.J. Omololu, is about Lucy, who lives in a house so full junk that she can barely make her way through the narrow trails carved between piles of National Geographics, newspapers, and all manner of "treasures." Her mother has Hoarding Disorder. And Lucy lives in absolute fear that her secret will be discovered. The last time a friend saw the inside of her house, Lucy got the nickname "Garbage Girl."

Dirty Little Secrets is about a girl who gets cornered by circumstance and has to think her way out. It's a fascinating, quick read that unfurls over a very short span of time, and the chapters give an hour by hour account of Lucy's ordeal.

The author does a marvelous job of portraying the heartbreak that comes along with having a parent who loves possessions more than her child. It's pitch perfect developmentally. Lucy's reached a stage where she realizes she's so far from being the center of her mother's world that she's practically a speck on the horizon, dwarfed by her mother's obsession with junk. She's carved out a little space in the house for herself. She avoids her mother--and wishes she felt more affection for her. But here are her thoughts when her mother accuses her of misplacing a pair of scissors:

It always came down to trying to find the right answer in a game where I didn't know any of the rules. If I didn't help look for the thing I supposedly lost, she'd be mad. If I touched any of her stuff, she'd be mad. It was just a question of what was going to make her less mad at any given moment. The exhaustion I always felt in these situations began creeping into my bones.
Hoarding Disorder isn't actually in the DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders. However, it might be included in the DSM V, which is slated to come out in 2013 (there has to be sufficient research to justify Hoarding as a disorder separate from OCD). The proposed criteria for Hoarding Disorder pretty much nail the behavioral profile of Lucy's mother:
  • Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.
  • This difficulty is due to strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding.
  • The symptoms result in the accumulation of a large number of possessions that fill up and clutter active living areas of the home or workplace to the extent that their intended use is no longer possible. If all living areas are uncluttered, it is only because of the interventions of third parties (e.g., family members, cleaners, authorities).
  • The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).
Lucy's mother would get the "excessive acquisition" specifier, along with "absent insight". In other words, she has collected an enormous amount of stuff and really doesn't seem to realize her behaviors are problematic.

And wow, are they problematic.

I often talk with parents about their relationship with their children. We talk about how the conflict and behaviors on either side have actually damaged that parent-child bond, and we strategize about how to repair it. In Dirty Little Secrets, the author paints a picture of what it's like when that bond is almost completely corroded. Lucy feels its absence; she knows it should be there. But her mother's mental illness has eaten holes all the way through it, worn it away until there's nothing really there except a few good memories.

This is the story of a girl who feels utterly trapped, both physically and emotionally. How she gets herself untrapped is quite a ride. Some of Lucy's decisions seem extreme, maybe even controversial--but they make complete sense because the author delves so deeply into her perspective.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have you read other books that included a parent with a severe mental illness? How was it handled?

16 comments:

  1. wow! i had no idea hoarding wasn't yet an official mental disorder... i definitely think it should be! ever since our house fire a couple years ago, it's been extremely difficult to get my sons to get rid of ANYTHING! we've been working on it a lot over spring break- discussing each item in their room and how often they use it and if it would be better to be donated to someone else or if it is broken... or whatnot. it's just so odd to see people so tied to material possessions! anyway, this sounds like a heartbreaking kind of story... i can't think of any stories i've read with a parent with a severe mental illness off the top of my head. hmmm....

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  2. I read this book and was fascinated. I think the author did a great job of portraying the character and her feelings.

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  3. The line, "trying to find the right answer in a game where I don't know any of the rules" is very powerful. The author either did her research, or lived with someone who had a mental or emotional illness.

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  4. I haven't read this book, but it sounds fascinating. I'm no psychologist, but I think Hoarder's Disorder, assuming it earns its own classification, is a great one to write about because it manifests itself in such an overt, obvious, and undeniably physical way.

    Sure, Schizophrenia is scray as hell, and we've all heard about "hearing voices," but usually only the victim hears them. With this particular kind of OCD, anyone who comes near it can suffer along with the person who has the disorder. You don't even necessarily have to live there.

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  5. I am going to pick up a copy of this book, it sounds very interesting. Thanks for the review!

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  6. I haven't read it but I think hoarding might show up more and more in books these days. Great review, thanks Sarah!

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  7. I think this looks like a phenomenal book. I just wish listed it at Amazon. I've not read a book where a "parent" has the mental illness, although I wish I had one toe add to the pile! Great post!

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  8. This is a wonderfully informative post. The book sounds endearing and gut-wrenching all at the same time. The teen girl reminds me of someone living with a parent who's a manic depressant. I can relate. Probably should pick up the book.

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  9. What a great sounding book - will look out for it. My mum is a hoarder - not to this extreme - although we do have one room in the house no one can get into, which actually sounds a little extreme, come to think about it. But everywhere else is fine *she adds hastily*!

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  10. There's a TV show about hoarding. I think it's designed to help the hoarder, but it seems a very traumatic way to go about that.

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  11. Oh my word! This sounds like a very deep and interesting read.

    Hoarding must be a terrible disorder to have.

    Brrr.

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  12. Such a fascinating post. Is there anything friends can do to help someone with a hoarding problem without being intrusive, other than reassure them that they have other wonderful qualities? I've found myself in this situation recently, and feel sort of helpless to help.

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  13. I haven't read the book, but I'm very interested in it. I can understand the need to hold on to things. I have a few things from my childhood that I can't let go of, even if they are in a tub where no one can see them. The thought of letting them go is too painful. As I write this I think it would be physically painful to get rid of them. FYI, I'm a neat freak, so no worries about me Sarah.

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  14. wow, this sounds really like a really great read and educational. Very unique in that we don't see a lot of what it's like to live with someone with hoarder's.

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  15. I haven't read this book since I hadn't heard of it. I'm adding it to my list right now. My in-laws' neighbor is a hoarder. He doesn't have any family living with him to suck into his situation.

    With the TV show "Hoarders" out now, this is a topic people are thinking about now.

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  16. Oooooh, another great book to check out! :D

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