This is a story of my last 15 years. It is a story that could happen in any home in any marriage. It is a dirty secret that is caused by and causal in mental and physical illness. It is a hidden life of embarrassment and fear. As you will see below, we could be your neighbors, your co-worker or the people sitting next to you at a charity function. We could not be your best friends because of the secret life we live. This started with two people who were very much in love. It ended in unthinkable results that could have been avoided with proper care by the correct choice in professionals.
My name is Mark and I just turned 61. My ex-wife "K" is a young looking, attractive 63 year old and we live in what was once a beautiful home on the north shore of Long Island. This was her marital home with her first husband. The pool above sits in the backyard and no one has seen it since I moved here 12 years ago. As you will see, this is a memorial to the days when the home was maintained by lawn and pool care experts at a cost near $20,000.00 annually. The house is a one acre of property south of Oyster Bay, NY in a small community called East Norwich. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, large living room/dining room, an in ground pool in the back yard and sits on what was once a beautifully landscaped property. As I said, she could be your next door neighbor and you would not know unless you were aware of the subtle signs around the house. We were divorced in May 2011 and continue to live under one roof for financial reasons. "K" works as a personal assistant for the CEO of a large company in the area. In that other world, she deals with prominent people from Senators to community leaders. She tends to the personal business of a rather well known and respected pillar of this community.
That was a long time ago and before my arrival. My wife's first husband became ill in the mid-nineties and passed in April 1998. In February 1998, I lost my wife to breast cancer. On June 10 of the same year, I went to my third support group. I was despondent and in need of a path through bereavement. There I met Kay, who was later to become my wife. We joined this group for help and together we lifted each other up. We fell in love and married several years later.
"K" and I lived in my apartment for the first two years of our relationship. We worked through the death of our spouses and fell in love. Early on, we either met at my apartment in Queens, NY or at a restaurant and went back to my place after. If I met her in her area, it was always at a bar or restaurant but never at her home. She used the dogs as an excuse saying they did not get along with strangers well. Much later I learned it was only true of one of her seven dogs. She home during the day and spent most nights in Queens. When my lease was up in Queens, NY, we decided to live together in her home. There was no point in paying my rent and her mortgage so we agreed I would move into her home in 2001.
I cannot say she did not warn me about the mess in the days before my first visit. She told me it was a result of the time when her husband was ill and I had no reason to question it. I knew what it was like to be a caregiver for a prolonged illness. Upon opening the door, I tried to keep my composure although I am sure she knew how I was feeling. The first room off the front door is the kitchen. The pictures below are today’s version. It was far worse the on that day. Imagine the "stuff" piled on every counter up to the cabinets. Piles of newspapers that were so old they were brown piled on the floor everywhere. Open the cabinets to find bulging jars and cans of food covered in bugs. The Island in the kitchen was piled high and you could not see what was holding the junk up. I could barely find a path to walk through to the sunroom on the other side.
I walked down the stairs to the den and 3rd bedroom. There were magazines and newspapers end to end across the back wall, maybe 20-25 feet across and at least 3-4 feet high. The pages were browned due to age and had not been touched for years. Many were there for 20 or more years. As I write this, there are magazines and newspapers over 10 years old still in the same rooms...untouched.
The third bedroom was her late husband’s office. I had to force the door open as there was so much stuff stacked up behind it. When I opened the door I had to do everything in my power to swallow my vomit. There I found a shrine to Adolph Hitler. Books, flags, uniforms, maps, coins and memorabilia floor to ceiling. This was not a pretty sight for anyone let alone a Jew. It was the first room to go! It was clear in that moment this had not accumulated only during his illness. I knew Kay long enough to know this was not a hobby shared by her but still...
In 2001, there were no hoarding TV shows and there was little or no attention paid to this type of OCD. I had no idea what the name for it was but went to the internet to learn I had fallen love with a hoarder. Two years into the relationship, I was not prepared to walk away. My first wife was an alcoholic and drug addict. My second wife told me on the first date that her mother and two sisters had gone through breast cancer so I knew it was in the family. I made a conscious decision to stay with her and if the time came we had to deal with cancer, I would be there for her. Three years later we got the diagnosis. This was another project I felt I could overcome.
I loved "K" and just as I went into my first marriage knowing about her drug and alcohol addiction and the second marriage (breast cancer) with full understanding that cancer was pervasive in Phyllis' family I felt I could handle this. I thought it would just be time and a lot of trash containers to get this stuff moved out and the home cleaned up.
Living in this environment is destructive and frustrating. Walking through paths to get from here to there in the house as things are falling on the floor because the paths are so tight is more than a little frustrating. Cleaning a room only to find more junk piled high a few weeks later I felt like a hamster on a wheel. I was on that wheel for all but the first two years together. As a result of the shame associated with hoarding, I gave up a lot. I lost my kids, lost my kitchen, lost my dignity and now my marriage. I should also say, I am not am abusive man, I am not an alcoholic and not a drug addict. I do have a social drink while I cook or grill and with dinner when we go out. I never have more than two drinks. That is not the problem. The problem is when I become upset, I say things that I should not say. The reason “K” filed for divorce is that I have lost my temper on many occasions and said some things that I should not have said out of the frustration. I never raised a hand to her. Some of my words are hurtful and I am not making excuses. We went to marriage counseling for over a year but the root cause of the problems, the hoarding, was never discussed with the exception of the one day I brought some pictures (see below) to give the Psychologist some idea of what life was like on my side. Despite the fact he has never treated her hoarding, she still goes to him. I chose an alternate Psychologist who deals in anger management. In fact, I have seen a Psychologist and Psychiatrist to make sure my anger is not caused by any medical condition. The simple truth is, walking through the chaos, following paths, knocking down items from the piles, dirt, rats, mice, bugs etc... create a huge amount of anxiety and anger. I lived for years in the hope one day it would get better. It got worse! There were no more friends as distractions. I love to cook and bake. I was always the go to house for big holiday dinners. it was great therapy. After buying a new double oven, I had to give that up because there were no clean places to cook and even if I did, we could not invite people to the house.
So why did I stay? Aside from the hoarding “K” was a good person. We had many great times. We are foodies who will drive hours for a new food experience. The romance was unbelievable. I could tell you all the good in her but the simple fact is I still love her and would have done anything possible to make this marriage work and have repeatedly told her in word and deed. You only have to look at the pictures below to see what accommodations were made to keep the marriage whole. In fact, during our marriage counseling, I was able to learn to control my temper....until I wasn't after learning it was exacerbating the situation. What I mean by that is "K" perceived my lack of volume as a weakness and began to deflect to make every issue about something I did in the past, not about solving the problem that was the root cause of the broken marriage. She would be happy spending hours cleaning the yard while the house was left in shambles. My feeling was help me clean the inside and I would help outside. I would say "we live inside". She would deflect the conversation to something I said 1 or 2 or 5 years ago that rubbed her the wrong way. She was not addressing the issue rather than deflect to one of my rants from the past. When we did projects together, inside or out, my way was never the right way. She was always over my shoulder watching and criticizing even the smallest task. Clearly, her way was not helping but imagine filling a bag of trash from old flyers and junk mail, to have her go through it and make sure she wanted to throw it away. As I write this, there are several bags of my trash in a trashcan in front of the house that I threw out months ago and she hid in the can. She refuses to see an OCD/hoarding specialist. I printed documents from the OCD.Org and left them for her to read. She chose not to. Rational conversation is long gone and replaced with her telling me she is going to have a party in this house after I am gone as if the mess was a result of my being here. The mess preceded me and will live long past the time I am gone. She has become mean and hurtful as a way to deflect any conversation of cleaning.
Another more serious issue is her medications. She goes to the doctor to fill them but then does not take them. They collect in plastic bags. We are not talking about vitamins. "K" has some serious conditions that require daily medications including diverticulitis, genital herpes and a glandular disease that are always there but not always active. She goes to the doctor, fills the prescriptions and takes them for a few days before ignoring them. "K" will not discuss the problem. She will deflect it regardless of the fact that STD's are contagious and put others at risk. No matter what I say, she will deflect it to something that has no bearing on the issues which are her OCD/hoarding and my anger management.
"K" has one best friend who lives in Michigan and has never seen the inside of the house. She has no good friends on Long Island despite living here for over 30 years. Since the divorce she started to go out socially with a few people from work who are considerably younger than her. They live about 25 minutes from here so it is a safe zone to meet. They have never been to the house. For that matter, she has worked at this company which is a mile from the house for the past 12 years and no one has ever been here. During the marriage, we were severely limited from a social life with others because we could not go to their homes without reciprocating. My children have never been here. My friends have never been here. It got to the point I had to shed these relationships rather than answer the questions. I love to cook and bake. I used to say it was my therapy and cheaper than a Psychiatrist. My home was the go to place for holiday dinners. A normal dinner was 25-30 people. Everything was made from scratch from appetizers to dinner to desserts. When I first moved in with "K" I bought a new double oven and dishwasher. I hoped for a clean kitchen that never happened and had to give up my passion and therapy because I could not cook in the filth and certainly could not have the dinners here. The stove is only used to heat things up and the dishwasher has not worked in years because rats ate the electric connection beneath the unit and we cannot have repair come to service it.
The moral to this story is to get help early and often. I can tell you from firsthand experience it is the better option. Ignoring or hiding the symptoms of the disease in the mistaken hope it will cure the illness never works. Marriage counseling is a small part of the answer. Each person should get help dealing with the underlying issue that causes the hoarding and causes the partner to live with it. It is a hideous way to live. I have suspected all along this has more to do with the fact she never dealt with her husband’s passing and the financial hole he left her in. Despite this being the cause of much frustration leading to a lot of vitriol and frustration on my behalf, “K” was never willing to deal with this and still is not. Instead of cleaning the inside of the home, she cleans the outside doing yard work. Anything but the inside for nearly 15 years. "K" shops every week. She will drive anywhere at any time to buy new clothes, Despite the fact she has not cooked a meal in this house for 15 years, she buys kitchen utensils. It is not an exaggeration to say there are hundreds of shoes in this house. Many are old and not wearable but they are still here. She stopped doing laundry and buys new things instead. When they are dirty, she buys more new things. She has recently taken up exercise. Instead of cleaning, she walks. When her walking clothes are dirty, she buys new walking clothes. For years she had a pair or two of sneakers. Now she has piles of sneakers.
For those of you who suspect something, look for the following signs:
- Do you go out socially with someone but never get an invitation to their home?
- Have you invited people to your home and it never been reciprocated?
- Is there unusual mess on the lawn or yard that normally might be found in a garage or storage area?
- Is the exterior of the house unkempt?
- Is their work area unusually disorganized?
- Do you know someone who only socializes in safe areas like with work and has few other local social connections?
If you think there is a problem in your house chances are you are right. Hoarding tip sheet will give you a good idea of the signs. The pictures below may be upsetting to view. If your home looks like this professional help with someone who specializes in hoarding should be looked into. I suggest starting with the OCD Foundation.
More information follows the pictures
Kitchen...Shoes, Shoes and More
There Used To Be a Stove-Now a
Kitchen With Bug and Rat Traps
Rat Trap In Kitchen
Dining Room Table
is Under the Boxes
Dining Room is Behind Blue Container
Sunroom Above And Below
Glass Ceiling in
Sunroom Makes This a Fire Hazard
Couch in Den aka
Dog Poop and Urine in Den
Landing to the Upstairs
Top Of Stairs - I Have Never
Seen the Room to The Left
in and Around Pan
There is a King
Bed is Under Clothes
Mold in Master Bath Ceiling
Mold in The Master Shower
Used Toilet Paper in The
Trashcan - Don't Ask!
Toilet and Bidet With Old
No Gutters On The Side Of The House
Cause Mold On The Outside and Inside of The House
Holes In The Deck Are Dangerous
Bottles of Unused
Medicines For Herpes and other Illnesses