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7/2009:The Things We Carry: Artists Confront Compulsive Hoarding

Compulsive hoarding is usually a private matter. Individuals shut their doors and keep the public away from the mounds of stuff they’ve collected. But over the past few years, some artists, all children of apparent hoarders, are taking a public look at the little-understood psychological condition. They’re using documentary, paintings and large-scale installations like Song’s to explore our relationship to stuff, and why we can’t let it go. “The whole point was to not hide this,” says Holly Fisher, an Austin, Texas, artist who makes paintings of her mother’s hoarding. They’re among her most popular pieces of art; since 2001, she’s sold 15 of them. “I really just wanted to get this off my chest. I never thought people would be interested in them.”

Sorting through these massive collections of objects is not only physically challenging, but also an emotional struggle.  There’s the nervousness about putting a private family member into a public display. Fisher, the painter, knew her mother was generally guarded about her hoarding.  “In the beginning it was terrifying,” says Fisher.  “I thought my mother would have a nervous breakdown if she knew.”

Says Holly: “These are some of views that I tried to first disguise with Photoshop filters to make beautiful, then remove all but a few possessions using rotoscoping techniques or paint to make them minimal, then combining previous methods on used surfaces such as scraps of sandpaper and crumpled paper in order to do something new with them.” -See her portrait gallery

Oct 8, 2009
Hoarding As Art -What You Didn’t See on Oprah
video feature son of a hoarder, Song Dong’s, work





Filmmaker Cynthia Lester used her trade to make a documentary about her mother’s hoarding. Lester ran away from home when she was 13, driven out by her mother’s compulsive hoarding. When she returned for the documentary, her mother’s house was so packed that the floor was no longer visible. She could only enter through the window and the bathroom had become unusable; neighbors has signed a petition to evict her. The documentary follows Lester and her siblings as they clean out her mother’s house, an emotional and tense experience of fighting, yelling, crying and screaming.


Lester still grapples with what it meant to make her documentary, which, in a way, validated her mother’s hoarding. In doing so, she wondered, was she only encouraging a mental illness, supporting the notion that every saved object has a purpose? “It’s complicated,” she admits. “In a way, its enforcing the fact that hoarding is okay, by turning it into a beautiful thing.”


“When you live in this environment it’s so chaotic and you’re trying to make sense of it,” she says. “I think creating art out if it is a way for us to do that.”
The film, My Mother’s Garden, was an official selection at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. It also aired on MSNBC in April.



Keeper of My Things
Poem by daughter of a hoarder, Donna Austin


I can’t decide,
I’ll just set it here-
I don’t want to forget it,
So I need to keep it near.

The phone is ringing,
My children are calling-
Wish I could get to it,
Without fear of falling.

They think I can’t see,
The mess in which I reside-
They think I must like,
The piles that slide.

Of course I don’t like it-
Do they think I’m insane?
Maybe I am crazy –
To live trapped in this pain.

But my things are important,
They all MEAN something to me-
Everything is special,
There’s so much beauty I see.

The more unique it is,
The more creative its flair-
I’ll take home and embrace,
To cherish it there.

If something is broken,
I will take it in-
People have flaws too,
There’s still value within.

Something once used,
By my loved one who died-
Sends out an energy,
Of their spirit inside.

My mother gave me this,
She’ll be mad if I don’t keep this one-
I miss her, she’s been gone,
Since nineteen eighty one.

I just don’t have the time,
My health’s not good you know-
Something’s always coming up,
Tonight’s my favorite TV show.

If only I had more boxes,
If only I had more brawn-
If only I had more space to work,
These things would all be gone.

But they always need me,
My piles to sort through-
If I get them finished ,
Then what will I do?

As the Keeper of My Things,
I always have a role-
Tending to the needs,
Of my material soul.

Someday I will sort through it,
My family will no longer shun-
They would never understand,
My fear of being “done.”

They want me to clean up,
They want to visit in my home-
I might want that fence up,
So I can be alone.

They want to take it,
And throw it all away-
Those aren’t just things they’re proof-
I existed here today.

Those things over there?
I plan to use them someday,
I can’t have the life I dream of-
If you take them away.

If I have them, you see,
That life I can attain-
Where everything is perfect,
And people entertain.

Those dishes I plan to use,
When the table is cleared off-
Have friends and family over,
For my Beef Stroganoff.

Those decorations over there,
Are for the tree I have in mind-
I’ve got some other ones too,
That I’m trying to find.

Those magazines I will be reading,
I’m seeking recipes for duck-
Then I’ve got to look between the pages-
For anything that might be stuck.

But no I don’t like this,
Why do you think I close the shades?
I’d like to see the sunshine too,
Before it sets on me and fades.

I didn’t make it to the bathroom,
In time to go today-
Do you think I enjoyed,
Having those piles in my way?

My children want to help me,
They badger me so-
I know this isn’t pleasant,
I’m not ready to change though!

They don’t know what’s special,
I’ll get to it in time-
I just need to be the one to sort,
The decisions must be mine.

I know they want it done,
I know they want it clear-
I wish they would understand,
It’s the void that’s left I fear.





Digital collage courtesy of Sandra Martin:


Paintings shared by daughter of a hoarder:



Poem by an adult daughter of a hoarder:

Watching, sitting by the fence,
watching neighbors play,
watching them swim,
and play, and play.
They are riding horses now.  I Love horses!
But, I can only watch.
My parents are mad at their parents,
for weeks, or months, I don’t know.
I am a 10 year old prisoner in my own yard.


I am 15 now, talking on the phone.
I have friends now.
Friends from school.
But, they can’t come over.
It’s hot, sweat dripping down my back,
no air conditioning.
No place to sit.
So, I have friends by phone.

Sweet 16, I can drive.
Now I can get away.
I go to town,
Visit my friends,
Anything, to get away,
from the mess, the heat.
I spend my time at their house now.
Or, prowling in the car,
stealing vodka from my dad.

I am 17, I can leave.
College draws me far away,
No one here knows my secret,
Of the mess that I grew up in.
I am an equal here.
But, I am still insecure.
I am a hippie now.

Somehow I’m drawn to church.
I become a Jesus freak.
No more need for vodka.
Jesus gives me hope.
I have something better now,
But, I’m still a mixed up teen.
So, I change schools.

I am 22, I’m getting married now.
He has seen where I grew up.
He still loves me.
But, his family can’t know the secret,
Of the mess that I grew up in.
My wedding is in my college town,
Far from the life behind.

I am 32, I have children of my own now.
My home is not a mess.
No happy visits to grandma’s house.
They have no room for us.
If we get to see them,
they must come to us.

Time has passed.
My age is not important now.
Mom and dad are old now
I have them in my home.
They still trash their room,
though they can hardly walk.
I worry that there is no room,
to get a stretcher in.
What if they should need one?

You think I should be able,
to just clean it up.
It just doesn’t work that way.
No, it just doesn’t work that way
The struggle never ends.
For, a child of a hoarder.
No, the pain never ends,
For, a child of a hoarder.

Video form of above:

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Permanent link to this article: http://childrenofhoarders.com/wordpress/?page_id=438

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    I am not a child of a hoarder I am a hoarder who only wants to live clutter free. I started & still unfortunately keep things so that I might give to someone who appreciates or needs the item and lo & behold it remains in my apartment. If it’s food sometimes it even expires .I pack & wrap and it remains right here it clutter haven. I’m on in years and funds are gone so I can’t hire anyone so that I might live my remaining years in harmony not despair. Shows won’t help because it’s an apartment and as a renter they need my landlords permision to come in. Well, honestly if my landlord was aware he’d have me evicted even though I’ve lived here for over 55 years. So tell me how does a hoarder who hates it ever get to see the light.

    • Hello Eenie,

      **Congrats to you for starting to work on it!!**

      There are a number of online groups for those who hoard, that you might be interested in. They don’t charge- here is where you can find a list of them:

      Best of luck to you in your journey to freedom from things!

      • EENIE1

        I would like to ad  I’M SO, SO TIRED OF CRYING when I lookl around

        Thank  you

  • These testimonies in the form of art are so helpful to understand the plight of hoarders.  Thank you for raising awareness about this issue!
    – Winnie

  • Treading

    I love the poem above titled “Keeper of My Things.”  It’s extremely insightful.  If you are the child of a hoarder, you can definitely relate to the deep desire to help “lighten the load” and increase light and happiness within the lives of loved ones… and not being allowed to help.  If you do try, even in the most gentle way with small steps, you are often met with hostility and “shut out.”  The desire to help becomes a desperate dance.  : (

    • Glad you liked the poem Treading! (I wrote it and it was an emotional endeavor that I was hesitant to share here fearing criticism I guess.) Thanks for commenting on it.

      • TreasureAbove

        I also want to thank you for the courage you had to write & share your poem.

        It is an emotionally charged thing to process & face my fears when I see some of my mother’s tendencies in myself. When I look forward with anxiety as an only child, to what the future may hold I can only research & pray. I pray for a breakthrough everyday & for my own self-control in staving off the tendencies of the same symptoms.

        Your poem is a reminder, reality & encouragement to me.

        • Thank you so much, TreasureAbove. I wish you all the best as you win the battle against hoarding tendencies!

  • Diane Bettancourt

    It never goes away. i remember not being able to find clothing. i found an old halloween costume under a pile of trash..a black cowgirl skirt, with white fringe. I put this on with a filthy purple sweater & brown rubber boots. I had to get air!! it was freezing outside & i didn’t care. Between the filth, & the rage of both my mother & grandmother, i needed to breathe. My matted hair & strange outfit didn’t bring help, didn’t bring rescue, didn’t bring relief…only laughter & taunts from both children & adults. I had no sanctuary, no guardian. Abuse lived in every aspect of my life. almost daily beatings by both women, beatings by the school bullies, beatings & emotional torment by Nuns, who punished me for who my mother was. these alleged “bastions” of Christianity, who stood by & watched as older kids beat me bloody & blamed me because i was “odd”, bi-racial & a “bastard” to boot. i ran home every day at nightfall, kept after school everyday, no one to advocate on my behalf. I ran, scared witless, i ran to the hell i called home…home to a beating in the filth & mold & rotting food in putrid sink water..blamed for the rooms filled with garbage from ceiling to floor. My poor little cockeyed sister huddling & crouching in the corner of the sunroom, ready to dart into the pile of boxes like a rat, her pigtails so matted in the back of her head, they had actually formed pads that “mom” would have to cut out, leaving her looking like an animal with mange. dinner usually consisted of hamburger stirred in an aluminum sauce pan & canned peas. I cried & prayed to wake up to a clean house every Christmas. Instead i woke up to a tree in the middle of a garbage dump. then came the battle & screaming about whose fault it was that the house looked like this. Maggot’s were commonplace, stench was constant, cuts & infections frequent. we were always sick, my sister nearly died from whooping cough, nearly died from concussion & we both were circling the drain with pneumonia. we were skinny sickly kids. we moved & i really thought things would change. My mother was getting out from under my grandmother who she let control her…or so she said. things were ok for a few years & then the hoarding & abuse returned with a vengeance. This time i ws old enough to try and maintain some order. I learned it is next to impossible to clean with 2 hoarders under the same roof. I had my first suicidal thought at 7, swallowed a bunch of pills before my 8th birthday…don’t know what they were. i lost a few days & woke up bruised. Instead of getting me help, they beat me for embarrassing them. by the time we moved, i had an eating disorder & my sister stared at the TV & checked out. When sis was diagnosed by a school Psychologist with developmental problems in 4th grade, mom pulled her out, she never returned & lived with mom until she died 8 years ago. Hoarding damaged us. I had a very troubled life, I did manage to get a degree, but it was later in life & I did travel, write, play music & grow as a person. I had nervous breakdowns, but recovered. My sister is alright & carved out a simple quiet life. I have ADHD, Severe Clinical Depression, Anxiety & panic, PTSD. I attempted suicide again at 18…shot myself with a .22 in the chest. I’m 53 now & my sister is 46. we are both neat freaks. i finished my degree at 36, sis never went back to school, she devoted her life to mom, never dated or married. I have had a really full. wild, interesting life as an adult. Full of art, music, dance, travel, friends, breakdowns, lovers, sadness, loss, laughter, therapy. i have flashbacks…alot. my therapist thinks i should write a book about my life as a child of an abusive hoarder. maybe i will, if it would help spare one person from the anguish & pain. Being a survivor of a hoarder is a lifelong struggle. back when i was surviving this, in the 60’s & 70’s no one cared. i was so happy when i started meeting people with these experiences, i didn’t feel crazy or alone anymore. I still have anger for all of the adults who knew what was going on, and did nothing…shame on you!! This last breakdown cost me my career, led to a severe heart condition & put me on a path to a better life. it’s time for all of us to purge, to be happy & less fragmented.  Be well kindred spirits.

  • Donna

    5/29, Shelburne Falls, MA –

    Labanowski will give a talk on May 29 called “The Hoarder’s Daughter: How art helped me heal.”

    Labanowski also created a video in response to her father’s death and the hoarding he left behind. In her talk, Labanowski will draw on current research about the effects of hoarding on family members and the work of Randy Frost (a specialist on hoarding.) She will reflect on the role of art in processing traumatic events and encourage participants to reflect on and share their own experience.