I grew up in a hoarder household all my life. I could never put a finger on what was wrong living in this house, nor did I actually realize it was a problem until I started living on my own at 18 and experiencing how my friends lived. In fact, I only discovered the term “hoarder” and what it meant a decade ago while living in the US… and later, how prevalent the issue is in South East Asia (I can speak for Malaysia and Singapore) but how little it’s discussed, or even acknowledged as an issue. Let me tell you what it’s like living in a house with 1+2 hoarders and how hellish of an living situation it is.
My dad is the primary hoarder in the house, though my mom and grandparent are not exempt from this label – they exhibit traits of hoarding and are also hoarding enablers, but they do not have nearly as many material possessions and junk as my dad.
Every time I return to Malaysia for vacation, I stay in the house I grew up in. I actually had a breakdown the third time I came back, in early 2014, when the hoarding situation worsened significantly in the year since my previous visit. With each and every visit, I get a little more frustrated and angry at the living situation ( Especially on behalf of my siblings who also never signed up for living like this, yet have been forced to grow up in this craphole) because of how it has remained mostly unchanged and the core issues that make for an outright shitty, completely abnormal living situation continue to persist to this day.
Living in a household with a hoarder (and nobody willing or able to change the situation) is extremely frustrating and stressful. Growing up, I never really realized what always fueled so much anger and rage within myself and other family members living here. But now that I have (realized), I can break down the problems into 3 main categories:
- Micromanagement of things and tasks that people in a normal household don’t think about. For instance, having to rearrange books, laptops and other items because of very limited space to work on things. Or having to hide things (or risk them going missing), remember where you stored them, and dig in your hiding spot each time you want to use them.
- Old, dysfunctional and/or broken items that lead to inconvenience or even inability to do things in daily life, that people in a normal household never experience. This also tends to contribute to more tasks for micromanagement. For example, the house has not had a functioning toilet since 2006. To this day, my family flushes the toilet using a bucket of water. The bucket has to be manually filled after each “flush”.
- Excessive number of make-shift jerry rigged fixes that you would not find in a normal household. This adds another layer of eyesore on top of the hoarded junk. For example, the wifi signal has always been weak downstairs (we always had 1 modem and router, upstairs only) and anytime he wants a stable connection, my dad would drag a 300-foot (100 meters) LAN cable from the router upstairs, across 2 rooms, down the stairs and into the living room where he sits. In an unrelated case, all the electric sockets in one part of the kitchen recently stopped functioning – as a result, we now have 30 feet (10 meters) of extension cords running from one side of the kitchen to the other, since the affected sockets were those powering a fridge and an extension cord to the cooking area (a critical part of the kitchen)
Room-by-room breakdown of living with a hoarder
For context, my family lives in an average Malaysian middle-class home. A house my parents bought 30 years ago that they have never changed or renovated. As far as I know, my dad has always been a hoarder, but I have only learned relatively recently that my mom and grandparent also exhibit hoarding tendencies and enable the behavior.
Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of how we live. Despite its length, it’s a non-comprehensive list and I’ll add things as I think of/observe them, given how problematic it is to live in this household.
Overview of the living situation:
- We live in a 2-storey house with over 2,000 sqft of built-up space. It has 3 upstairs bedrooms and 1 downstairs guest bedroom. Despite that, we have 4 people (my 2 siblings, mother and grandparent), 5 if I’m back visiting, crammed with all their things into 2 of the smaller bedrooms (less than 600 sqft of space).
- My dad the hoarder has his trash occupying just about the rest of the house: the entirety of the 1 large bedroom upstairs, downstairs living room, downstairs bedroom, dining area and car port, plus part of the kitchen and upstairs living room.
- While there is physical room to walk and the amount of junk has been drastically reduced thanks to my covert cleaning ops (more on this another post), most of our belongings still have to be crammed within the confines of the 2 rooms because of the hoarder’s control freak tendencies. Anything placed in the house outside of the rooms have a significant chance of getting moved and eventually lost within assorted piles/boxes of junk.
- The guest bedroom has only served as one for 2 out of the past 30 years. The rest of the time, it’s been a storage room… for the hoarder’s trash.
- The house has 3 bathrooms but only one of which is used by 4-5 of us.
- The guest bathroom downstairs was rendered unusable over 10 years ago when trash from the guest bedroom overflowed into it. It is now used for storing various unused sports equipment.
- The bathroom attached to the large bedroom is used by my dad. It is too much of a hassle (none of our clothes are stored in that room, the floor is always filthy and the hoarder bedroom is full of trash) to reach this bathroom.
- The 2nd bathroom upstairs (shared between the two smaller bedrooms) is the one we use. It also has its own set of issues (discussed below) but like we have a choice.
Cleanliness is an issue, especially since 4 of us have dust allergies. However, the house is impossible to clean due to the hoarder’s junk and the way things are stored. The best you could do here is sweep the limited walkways… I mean, floor surfaces clear of items and wipe down the limited possessions you may have. But dust continues to cake the rest of the place and things around the house.
- As you can imagine with 4 or 5 people living in 2 bedrooms totaling less than 600 sqft, most of the space is taken up by mattresses and closets.
- All the mattresses, save for one, are almost 30 years old and have never been changed. They have lost their comfort, are filthy, and some even have their springs dangerously poking through the surface.
- There are no bed frames – all the mattresses are on the floor. My grandparent, who has trouble getting up from a low surface, has a “newer” 15 year old mattress stacked on top an older one.
- There is only enough physical room for one desk, which is used by my mom. The rest of us have been lying on the bed to do everything – reading, homework, using the laptop.
- I have a minor bone deformity on one part of my body as a result of lying on the bed to do work for a prolonged period of time during my high school years.
- Going about doing anything is a massive chore as it involves setting up a “workspace” (if you can call it that) on the bed, and having to clear everything at the end of the day.
- The closets and cabinets are 15 to 30 years old and falling apart. With insufficient shelving, everything is stacked and shoved together in a mess.
- The built-in tables towards the ends of the 2 rooms are used to place storage boxes and other things. There is no other location within the rooms for them otherwise. The ends of the rooms are narrow and don’t have space for floor or ceiling fans anyhow, so the tables have never been used for their intended purpose.
- Each bedroom has only two single-bulb lighting fixtures. Though only one of which is usually used in each room due to accessibility. Even with extra bright light bulbs (1500 lumen, 100W equivalent), lighting is inadequate in both rooms.
- Having so many people of different generations and associated activity levels in just two rooms makes it difficult to perform different activities without disrupting or being disrupted by the others (for example, watching a video or playing music out loud on speakers, having an afternoon nap, etc.)
- Extension cords are used everywhere in the house because it has not been renovated since being built 30 years ago (and the number of electronics in a household is drastically higher than it was back then). This is particularly bad in the bedrooms, where extension cords can be chained to one another because there simply aren’t enough sockets for so many people in a small area.
No ventilation and lighting:
- Due to the ends of both smaller bedrooms used primarily for storage, there is restricted access to windows in one room (where only one of three windows can be opened) and no physical access to windows in the other (none of the three windows can be reached without significant time/effort to remove or rearrange multiple belongings and are kept closed all the time). We rely on the much smaller windows from the shared bathroom for any form of ventilation to the bedrooms.
- The hoarder’s bedroom, having a significant quantity of junk, also has very restricted access to windows. Only two windows can be accessed using a tool (such as the hooked end of an umbrella).
- The windows in the living room are physically inaccessible due to junk and are kept closed all the time. The only way of ventilating the front part of the house is via the main entrance door.
- However, because the dog has wrecked a significant portion of the door screen, the main door has to be kept closed most of the time to keep mosquitoes and other insects out.
- Just about all the blinds and curtains around the house are kept closed at all times because of my mom’s paranoia that people might be able to see into the house and steal our valuables when we’re not at home (up till circa 2005) or see how ugly and full of junk the house is (since 2005).
- The lack of ventilation causes the house to be constantly hot and stuffy. Allergies are also worsened because of the constant recirculation of stale, dusty air coupled with inability to properly clean the house.
- We have at least 4 vacuum cleaners of different shapes and sizes in the house. However, most of them don’t work well, if at all. The one or two that may work are not accessible (e.g., hidden in the back of a room full of junk).
- The toilet flush for our bathroom has not worked since 2006. We have been flushing the toilet using a bucket for the past 13+ years.
- Because of the inconvenience of lifting a bucket full of water from the shower area and pouring it down the toilet, and manually filling it, the toilet is rarely flushed. The only time where a flush after use is guaranteed is after someone has taken a dump.
- This means urine and toilet paper stews in the toilet bowl until the next flush comes when it stinks (during the day), the next morning (over night) or when the next dump is taken (variable).
- The shower area has never had a shower door.
- The shower head doesn’t work, at least that’s what we were told as kids. I suspect it’s because of the lack of a shower door and that water would have splashed everywhere in the bathroom.
- Instead we shower using a rubber hose attached to a waist-level faucet, which is dreadfully inconvenient. Water still splashes everywhere because of the lack of a shower door.
- It is also impossible to shower with both hands since the hose must always be held up with one hand.
- There are no shelves or storage for the shower area so there are about a dozen bottles of shampoo and soap placed on the floor in the shower area. They get gross very quickly from sitting around in the wetness.
- The tiles are old and worn (30 years of use), which means they have lost most of their texture and are slippery (especially after using any soap). This and the point above makes it dangerous, especially for the grandparent who lives with us.
- The fact that 4-5 people are forced to share one bathroom means that usage in the mornings and evenings are extremely inconvenient and we are forced to micromanage priority of who needs to shower and be ready first.
- There also isn’t enough room for everyone’s toiletries, towels and clothes.
- Neither of the two doors to the bathroom can close completely nor do the locks work.
- Just like the bedrooms, the bathroom is inadequately lit. It only has one light. Due to the poor lighting situation and the mirror being on the same side of the windows, the mirror is difficult to use.
- There is much that’s wrong about the kitchen and dining situation. The summary of it is we have not had a proper, fully home-cooked meal in years. Nor will we ever be able to have one until the junk is tossed out and this house is torn down and rebuilt.
- In the current state of the kitchen, it is extremely difficult to prepare any meal at home. We have to buy take-out dishes or eat out almost every single meal (lunch and dinner), every single day.
- My grandparent, through stubbornness, insists on frying vegetables or the occasional egg at home using the extremely dysfunctional stove in the dilapidated kitchen.
- To begin with, the kitchen is both old (30 years, never renovated or updated) and was badly designed from the start. From the elongated L-shape layout that makes ingredients and items far away from the cooking area, to the completely screwed up height of the kitchen counter, sink and stove (chopping anything or washing dishes is extremely difficult as you have to physically bend over/hunch downwards).
- It is impossible to find the groceries and ingredients because they will get moved around to suit my grandparent’s preferences, and also due to the clutter in the kitchen cabinets and fridges.
- The storage and placement of items has been and continues to be dictated by my grandparent, who has been the one cooking for the family all this time.
- My mom and grandparent have “hoarder lite” tendencies and continuously keep all sorts of items, including food stuff, because throwing them away would be a “waste”. We have a lot of expired food and condiments as a result.
- The kitchen is nasty in general, due to the passing of time, lack of maintenance whatsoever and poor habits. Even without the two points above, none of us want to cook or even clean because of the condition of the kitchen.
- Items in the kitchen rarely ever get replaced, if ever. When they get replaced, it’s usually because they’re broken and/or have been in a beyond-nasty condition for months or years (such as the kitchen exhaust fan being coated with so much grease over 20 years that it one day got bogged down by the weight and stopped working completely, or water containers being layered with gunk but used for years)
- Cockroaches are abundant, being active mostly at night, due to the poor sealing/construction quality of the house combined with age of the house, junk everywhere and difficulty in cleaning (both in general and the specifically kitchen/dining area).
- Due to the above and deteriorating quality of cabinets and cupboards, anything in the kitchen has to be washed after use AND rewashed before use to prevent unwanted additions to your meal/drink (i.e. cockroach eggs)
- Some parts of the kitchen area are moldy, particularly near the sink, due to lack of ventilation (see section above) and constantly being damp.
- There is not enough room (see the theme of the house here?) for a sufficiently large drying rack for the dishes and kitchen utensils.
- Like the rest of the house, the kitchen and dining area are inadequately lit.
- Appliances are old and in a dilapidated state:
- The gas-powered stove switches lost their effectiveness over a decade ago and became difficult to operate. So we have to resort to a portable electronic induction stove (which is placed on top of the original hob). There is no socket anywhere around the cooking area so a 3 meter (10 ft) long extension cord needs to be dragged from the nearest wall socket. This extension cord also needs to be retracted and stored after use because it passes through a wet area (sink) and across the floor.
- Appliances such as the microwave occasionally break due to cockroaches getting in and damaging the circuitry with their corpses and eggs.
- It goes without saying that broken appliances don’t get thrown away because they could potentially be used for spare parts and/or sold for loads of money! This is a hoarder house, after all. Even when the delivery folks from electronics stores offer to dispose of the old item (such as the washing machine), my dad will refuse to let them do it. We had an extra, broken washing machine sitting in the kitchen collecting cockroach eggs from 2009 until it was finally disposed of in 2014. Since 2018, we have another broken washing machine, now sitting in the porch/garden used as a surface for placing plants.
- The dining area itself has multiple problems, mostly surrounding the dining table:
- The table, while able to functionally seat 8-10 people, has only allowed 7 seats to be used at its peak due to junk being stacked in the corner (prime cockroach breeding ground BTW).
- Since 2004/2005, the table has been repositioned several times. This is due to the control freak and busybody/idle hands nature of my dad. More on people and behavior in another post.
- As a result of the above, since 2015, only 5 people can sit at the table at any given time (6 is a squeeze that one person usually eats late or outside of the dining area).
- The table, being extendable, has seams that make it difficult to clean. Once upon a time, we had place mats for eating but they have been long lost in the treasure trove of artifacts in this house. For the past 10 years, we have used a cheap, unsightly plastic wrap around the table.
- The table itself is extremely old (30 years old) and we would be best served with a newer, more functional dining table. But no, that would be a waste of money, wouldn’t it? Why throw away something that appears to be working half the time?!
- Unlike the modern middle-class Malaysian home, our dining area has no air-conditioning (nor does the living room, just saying). We have a wall fan that is 30 years old, from an era when ceiling fans were relatively expensive and wall fans were cheap and common. It has 3 speeds but cannot be operated at anything other than the lowest setting because it will blow away tissue papers, crumbs and anything lightweight on the table.
- At any speed, blowing away bits of food and crumbs onto the floor is inevitable due to the nature of wall fans. Combined with the difficulty in cleaning, the cockroaches in the kitchen are happy that there’s food guaranteed for them every night!
- We have always have had difficulty having guests over due to the messiness of the house, which is a trademark symptom of a hoarder’s presence in a household.
- I remember the only time I have ever had a friend over when I was a kid was in 2001. Up until I left for the US a decade ago, I kept having to come up with a variety of excuses whenever anyone wanted to come to (or worse, inside) my family’s house. Same thing with my siblings.
- Visitors to the house were mostly limited to the usual same family and friends, and around Chinese New Year (when people visit one another’s homes). I cannot recall any time when either of my parents had any of their friends over to the house outside of Chinese New Year.
- The hoarding situation worsened in 2005 and we stopped having most of friends and family over for Chinese New Year (my mother would make excuses why they couldn’t visit us). The visitor pool became even more limited and there were years since 2010 when there would be no guests at all.
- The living room was always messy with a lot of junk (and it’s a big two-part living room) but became unusable from 2005 from excessive clutter.
- Since 2005, the role of the sofas in the living room have rotated between housing clutter and being a daybed for the hoarder. One of them has also developed a large hole over time, made worse by scratches from the dog.
- The TV box was messed around with so often and the TV itself is surrounded by junk that we stopped watching TV completely since circa 2004.
- The hoarding situation worsened significantly in 2013 to the point where there was only a narrow path leading to the kitchen/dining area and stairs.
- Clutter level in the living area can vary a lot because my dad tends to “clean” twice a year. Clean as in shuffle around junk and reorganize containers of junk, usually relocating them into the guest bedroom (“storeroom”) but never actually throwing anything out.
- I’ve been low-key actual cleaning and disposing/recycling/donating a lot of things in this hoarder household since 2014. Despite the living room being much cleaner than before, back to its pre-2013 state at least, it’s still unusable as it’s poorly lit, still insufficient room for a proper table and chairs (the only table there is currently too tall for productivity tasks and also filled with clutter) and badly ventilated.
- The automatic gate stopped working some 12 years ago. It fell into a state of disuse and has rusted to the point of being extremely dangerous in the recent years, since the hinges are heavily corroded and the two sides of the gate no longer latch, making the whole gate swing and sway even under minimal force.
- The porch, which used to house 2 cars, was left unused for years. Since last year, the hoarder has added plants to the collection and has amassed enough plants to fill just about the entire area meant for 2 cars (leaving only a narrow path about 70cm wide for walking from the front gate to the house entrance).
- The extreme amount of plants is a breeding ground for insects. I’m surprised the local authorities haven’t stopped by to dish out a fine for a potential mosquito-breeding hazard.
- The path is also used for placing a clothes drying rack, making getting in and out of the house more difficult when it is used.
- Due to the non-functional gate, we are forced to park our cars by the roadside:
- This causes the cars to be exposed to the weather and elements. The year-round hot and sunny weather means that paint wears down significantly faster.
- With enough space for only one car directly in front of the house, finding a close parking spot can be difficult, especially past 7pm when most people are back from work (many other households own more than two cars).
- Our household has five cars, 3 of which are modern (5 years or newer) and actually used. We have 2 old, badly maintained cars – 20 and 30 years old respectively; the latter has gone unused for the past few years – for, you know, backup. #hoarder
- Going out has turned from a simple process (get out of house, get into car) into a tedious exercise (get out of house, manually unlock side gate, walk to car. Plus, most of the time, wait for car to cool down)
- Just like the bathroom, the tiles in the porch are 30 years old and not very textured to begin with. They are slippery, especially when wet from the rain or use of the outdoor faucet.
- We have had a pet dog for about a decade that nobody asked for.
- Nobody ever asked for the dog. It was gifted to our family by one of our dad’s friends. Which brings us to an off-topic but important piece of advice: Pets come with a ridiculous amount of responsibility. DO NOT GIFT PETS TO OTHER PEOPLE, especially if they did not ask for it.
- The dog is not trained and neglected. At some point, a sibling of mine attempted to train the dog, but its behavior kept getting unlearned and reset by the irresponsible behavior of my dad.
- My grandparent, who is over 80 years old, has been forced to take care of the dog because nobody else can or will. I no longer live in this house (except on vacations), my siblings have work and my mom is allergic. My dad simply doesn’t give a shit and goes about his day like he never got gifted a dog (some real priceless shit here for someone who always tells me that I’m “irresponsible and have no initiative”)
- The porch area of the house either smells like an unwashed dog and/or reeks of dog piss most of the time. This is made even worse by the introduction of excessive plants above since it’s now significantly harder to clean or pinpoint where the dog took a piss.
The solution is simple
The amazing part is the solution to most of the problems listed above is to simply renovate the house and have a fresh start. Unfortunately, there are many stumbling blocks in this situation – including the persistence of having the hoarder dad with his unchanged behavior living under the same roof. Also my dad thinks that everything (the house and living situation) is just fine, that a renovation will be “too expensive” (an excuse, the family can afford it) and unnecessary, and that only a few small touchups are needed. More on all of this in a separate post, or this post will drag on forever.
Then there’s moving out. My siblings and I also have the relatively new realization that my mom, in spite of constantly complaining about the unlivable state of the situation in the aging hoarder house, may have Stockholm Syndrome that’s causing her to identify many imaginary issues of moving away from this hellhole.
I decided that this vacation to Malaysia will be the last time where I will stay in the house where I grew up in (at this point I’ve put up with the ridiculous living situation for long enough, and I’m very willing to rent a short-term Airbnb or put up in a hotel). My siblings who have been living here have also arrived to a similar conclusion to ultimately move out.
If you’re in a similar situation, that’s my advice to you – move out from the hoarder household. It might be quite a bit to digest, especially financially, at the beginning but I can assure you it’s well worth the reward of not having to suffer physically and mentally of not being able to live a normal daily life.
Also don’t let those who don’t want to be helped drag you down – if you’re trying to move out with other family member(s) but they somehow seem to be constantly running into “problems” moving out, then leave them. It might not sound nice, but if they are happy living in a crappy hoarder, dysfunctional household, then it’s their choice. Don’t let them affect yours.
More on the abusive behavior of people in this household in another post and why we’ve been constantly held back.