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Behind Closed Doors: Dealing With Mental Illness

By Treva Flores, Photo by Judi Cahill

Like most teenagers, I was hormonal and moody, but a family history of mental illness left me hiding in my room

I kept my bedroom door locked. I spent hours studying the bumps and cracks in my ceiling. I was sleeping too much or not at all.

I was depressed.

The symptoms started when I was 16, but I was 21 when I met Seraphina, my therapist. When I talked to her at my first session, she couldn’t even tell me what was wrong. According to Seraphina, I was pretty average, which left my depression hard to explain.

Then I heard myself uttering the words. The words I had kept a secret. The words I felt like I wasn’t allowed to say.

“My mom’s a hoarder.”

From there everything sort of clicked.

Hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s a type of anxiety that causes people to accumulate a bunch of stuff, leading to large amounts of clutter that can cause a disruption in day to day living.

Although it’s uncertain where hoarding stems from, it’s usually genetic. My great grandmother was a hoarder. It can also be triggered or worsened by traumatic experiences like when my parents divorced.

I’m not really sure what compels my mom to hoard, but I have a theory.

It’s similar to that feeling you get when you go to Target and you want to put the entire store in your cart. Except she really will buy the whole store, take the free flyers and also stuff all of the coupons into her wallet. Then during that brief second of being rung up at the check out, there’s this sense of control to the otherwise uncontrollable circumstances of life. It’s her money, her stuff, and her life.

It sounds pretty empowering, but this feeling also causes her to hold onto things like Styrofoam cups that she turns into pots for her plants or that spoon she got on her birthday that she wants to remember because it was a really fun day.

Everything is important to her.

Which left me, a hypersensitive 16-year-old girl, feeling kind of unimportant. It was like there was a literal and figurative wall between my mom and me, a wall of physical and symbolic things that I couldn’t break down.

Random objects were given value, like the clothes I outgrew when I was 13 that couldn’t be thrown out. My mom said they had to be donated so they could be reused, but they often never made it past a trash bag stuffed in her closet and then the corner of her bedroom and then the living room. The pile never left, it just grew.

I was literally living inside of my mom’s anxiety, which on top of school, a social life, and color guard practices was pretty overwhelming.

I couldn’t have friends over because I was afraid what they would say when they saw my house. People always asked why I didn’t let them in and I felt obligated to keep my family’s secret.

“We hide dead bodies in the bathroom!” I joked to my friends. I would say anything to change the subject.

When I met my first boyfriend he asked to walk me to my door. I would purposely walk on the side closest to the house and tried using my own body as a shield from the windows.

When I finally told him the truth I felt awkward because he told his mom, who happened to own a thrift store down the street from my house. Sometimes my mom would visit their store.

“I feel so guilty letting her shop here,” she’d tell me if my mom stopped by. “I feel like I’m enabling her.”

“I mean, if she doesn’t shop here she’ll just go somewhere else, at least here she gets a discount,” I’d try to laugh it off, even though it made me feel even more like an outsider.

I was paranoid about people knowing about my mom’s OCD, which led to my own unhealthy coping mechanism of isolating myself. It wasn’t until I started opening up to other people that I finally felt okay.

I actually found out that a lot of the people in my life have family members or friends that are just like my mom. They keep it a secret like I did.

According to a study published by the International OCD Foundation, “It seems likely that serious hoarding problems are present in at least 1 in 50 people, but they may be present in as many as 1 in 20.”

So why doesn’t anyone talk about it?

Maybe out of fear, like the fear my teenage self felt when someone tried to look through the windows. Maybe because it’s only recently been studied, there’s hardly any research about hoarding before the 1990s. Maybe because hoarders themselves tend to be secretive, and what hides behind closed doors isn’t really anyone else’s business anyway.

The answers are limitless.

What I do know is that if so many people show symptoms of this disorder, there should be more conversations.

When I opened up to my friends and family I was finally able to unlock my bedroom door and let in the people that I had shut out. I wasn’t alone.

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