Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 26, 2021

The Tommy we didn’t know

Husband Art's brother composed a monthly newsletter, but January's edition hadn't arrived as February neared. After attempts to reach him failed, Art alerted the police. Tommy was found dead in the family's Wisconsin home his parents had purchased in 1945. He had lived there since his mother's death 11 years ago.

Tommy had always been very private about his homes. On the few occasions Art visited, he noticed nothing unusual, except some cleaning was needed and there were newspapers stacked neatly near the walls. Collected during the football season, the papers were read later, and then recycled.

But this was different. Art's cousins Kris and Jeff spoke with the police and coroner and then went inside the house. They warned us to brace ourselves.

We arrived a week later. Every horizontal surface - floors, chairs, tables, counters, beds - were covered in six inches to 18 inches of "stuff." Magazines, newspapers, CDs, DVDs, books, financial records, letters, money, extension cords and other items were strewn here and there in no discernible pattern. Many unopened boxes contained new slippers, socks, microwave dishes, shirts, pajamas, scissors, printers, clocks, watches, video players and books - some, ironically, about cleaning and keeping a tidy home.

Hoarding has a greater impact in person than on reality TV.

We began by clearing a pathway from the back door through the kitchen and living/dining area to the bathroom. To our great relief, the upstairs bedroom was relatively clear. It provided a place where we could "escape" and sleep.

Art's daughter Karen was a very welcome addition for a few days. Her perseverance, physical stamina and sense of humor somehow transformed the cleaning process from tedium to a what-will-we-find-next adventure.

In two and a half weeks, we filled dozens of contractor-size bags with trash, and tied newspapers, magazines and cardboard into bundles for recycling. One bedroom was used to store items we’ll donate later.

We vacuumed floors, and scrubbed sinks, the toilet, the refrigerator, floors, the gas stove, counters and tables. Little by little, the home returned to almost normal.

Some suggested a cleaning service, but we were concerned that among the trash, we'd lose the "treasures" - artwork our daughters Mariya and Katie made for their grandmother Donna, Tommy's dog tags and patches from his Korean War service, the "Daily Bugles" - a "newspaper" Tommy created for his uncle Art during World War II. We found Donna's pearl necklace, Tommy's 1950 high-school yearbook and his January newsletter, ready to mail. We discovered fresh Hostess Cupcakes - one of my favorites, and Almond Joy candy bars - a favorite of Art's.

We were curious to learn more about hoarding. Debra Robbins, the deputy coroner, gave us a remarkably good introduction:

... In seeing the house, through my experiences it is by far not the worst I have seen. Hoarding is a mental illness ... I have seen "clean" hoarders and "dirty" hoarders, and this house was a clean(er) hoarding situation. While the bathroom was dirty, many of the homes like this I go into are filthy dirty, such as cobwebs hanging all over, literal food garbage rotting all over and dirty dishes everywhere, as a few examples. I know he had an elaborate collection [of erotic materials], so to speak, but that is not at all uncommon and often times accompanies many hoarding situations and certain mental diseases. The mentality of not getting rid of items, whether it be papers or garbage, is something I personally don't understand, but there is something inside the brain of these individuals that just can't let these types of items go. Many times there is an event in their life that compels this type of behavior. ...

The Mayo Clinic's website said the cause is unclear. Genetics, how one’s brain functions, or a stressful event - death of a loved one (Donna's death?), divorce or eviction - may be a possible trigger. There are often other mental health issues - depression, anxiety, indecisiveness, perfectionism, procrastination, being disorganized or obsessive-compulsive disorder - something Tommy had.

The American Psychiatric Association said it may show up in adolescence, but often intensifies in old age. Tommy was 88.

A January 2019 jstordaily.org article suggests the seeds of the disorder may be in all of us:

... Monkeys, crows, squirrels, kangaroo rats, and honeybees all hoard - just as humans have for millennia - as an adaptive way to survive a cold winter or a famine. That is not the kind of hoarding that makes it to a reality TV show.

In the article, historian Daniel Lord Smail added hoarding can be "a way to shore oneself up, to feel safe, consoled, prepared ..." He said, "The compulsive hoarding of useless things seems to be characteristic of only the last century or two - and primarily the last few decades ..."

He mentioned that we may recoil from hoarding because it "hits a little too close to home." Almost 10 percent of American households rent at least one storage space for stuff they’ve accumulated. It is also disconcerting because it doesn't seem to "fit" with a person who is intelligent, well-educated and creative.

Friend Tom observed:

Makes me think of the U-Haul trailers that used to have something like "adventure in moving" written on the side. ... that's the kind of adventure I can do without! With Tommy's stuff, however, I'm sure there's a lot of wonder, humor, and amazement at whatever he kept, along with the frustration and weariness of having to go thru it.

When I was a youngster, things seemed pretty black and white. Today, my views are less absolute. People have strengths and weaknesses, and they have facets we are familiar with and others that are unseen. So, Debra's conclusion seemed to fit particularly well:

... From the sounds of your stories, Tom was a wonderful individual, that just chose to live his life a bit differently, and that is not bad; someone may see my personal life as different. That is what makes us all unique and special.

NOTE: This column is a companion to last week's The Tommy we knew

Living room on our arrival and after several days of cleaning. All furniture is in the same position in both photos.

Left: Karen is possibly a bit "slap happy" after several days of cleaning. Right: Tommy's "dog tags" and related military items from his service during the Korean War. These were found while cleaning.

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