Archive for the ‘active neglect’ Category

Okay. So it’s true that I complain about things my parents failed to do as much (or more) than things they did do. Today in the “stuff they didn’t do, but should have, and it should have been obvious” category, I offer proof from an unlikely place: the Family Feud.

That’s right, the game show.

Not the original, 70s-tastic version hosted by Richard Dawson (unfortunately).

Today, on a 1990s-era rerun (thanks Game Show Network!), contestants were faced with the following survey question:

“Name a home repair that is necessary no matter how broke you are.”

Hmmm. I struggled thinking of possibilities…in my experience, we just never fixed anything. This has made me hypersensitive, so now even little things like light bulbs get insta-replaced in my own house.

Eventually, the contestants gave all four correct results:

1. Plumbing

2. Leaky Roof

3. Refrigerator/stove

4. Hot Water Heater


Breaking this down, my parents go 0/4.

0/5 if you count the refrigerator and stove as separate items.

1. Plumbing. The plumbing in my childhood house went out when I was in grade school. We had raw sewage running down the side of our house and driveway for over a decade, because instead of fixing the septic tank, my dad just disconnected it. My mom, brother, and I had to throw our used toilet paper in a trash can (because apparently it was more sanitary if we just flushed the poop). My dad couldn’t live with that, of course, and continued to flush everything to its final resting place directly out my brother’s bedroom window. No wonder he left home at 16.

Unfortunately, I can’t find the super-classy picture of when the chain in the tank broke, and there was a fire poker stuck in there for flushing.

Moving on…

2. Leaky Roof. Small potatoes. Try having the living room doors leak and soak the entire carpet every time it rained, making it necessary to wear shoes indoors just to get to the bathroom, unless you wanted to walk in mud. The roof in our entry room did actually partially collapse due to a leak when I was about 14. I have pictures, but I need to scan them. Proof from the eventual patch job that happened 10 years after the fact though:

It’s hard to get a clear sense of it here, but the floor was so wet for so long, the book case actually warped away from the wall. You can also see the mold line on the back wall marking how far upward the moisture wicked into the walls. Classy.

3. Refrigerator/stove. To be fair, the refrigerator actually did work until I was 16. 3 of the 4 burners on the stove did work, but the oven went out when I was about 8 and was never fixed. My brother and I determined to purchase my mom a new stove when I was 16 and had a job; in a freaky coincidence, the week we slated for a Home Depot trip, the refrigerator also crapped out entirely, so we ended up buying one of those as well in the same trip. It’s like even the appliances knew my dad was never going to fix them!

d-con in the kitchen? Sure. Why not? No fire hazard here, either. Safety first.

Which brings us finally to…

4. Hot Water Heater. I’ve complained a lot about the water situation at my house growing up. In case you missed those posts, our water came from a box spring, and emerged from our (very dirty) taps in roughly a 40:60 mud and silt to water ratio. I used to have to ring mud out of my hair after every shower. Gross. Showers in themselves sucked, because our hot water heater was dysfunctional, and had to be reset on an hourly basis. Taking a shower meant going into the front room, tripping the reset button, and waiting an hour for a whopping 5 minutes or so of water that was either lukewarm or scalding. Generally, I jumped in, got wet, turned off the water while I lathered, and then rinsed as fast as possible, because the longer I stayed in, the more mud I had to contend with. How we never had a fire in this house I will never, ever, understand.

The entry room where our water heater was located was always very inviting…for rats.

I like that this question included the line “no matter how broke you are.” Because even the survey of 100 random people understood that certain maintenance things aren’t negotiable. Failing to fix one of them is bad enough…failing to fix all of them is almost incomprehensible. How my parents could have ever thought it was okay to raise kids in that would be a lucrative and interesting study (take note, Family Feud question writers…)

What really hurts me is the reality that a new stove, refrigerator, and hot water heater cost significantly less than the price of one tractor. My dad had friends who could have fixed the roof for a minimal cost, and we had a neighbor who offered to fix the septic tank. My dad turned them down because of the cost. It was literally better to let us live in squalor than give up the chance to buy another D-4.

When should children be removed from a home?

Before this happens.

My parents are on their way to California right now to see about selling the property. There are multiple problems with this plan, because there are multiple heirs involved, and there’s a conservation/development easement on the property which legally bars it from being sold in pieces. Not all the heirs want to sell, and everyone has to agree, so there’s really no way that this is going to work…instead of letting the lawyers do their thing and deal with the situation though, my parents are content to give me a bad time for not “supporting” their decision.

It’s not that I don’t support their decision…it’s just that I’m realistic. I think the following exchange with my mom demonstrates how twisted my parents’ view of reality has gotten lately. [Side note: my parents’ cat just died. Not only was the cat insane (quite possibly the strangest cat I’ve ever encountered…) but they also never cleaned up after it. While my mom was in the hospital after her aneurysm I cleaned their house, and found a chair that the cat had pooped on…they threw a blanket over it and continued to use it like nothing was wrong…]

Mom: “We’re leaving Sunday for California. Meeting with a buyer for the ranch.”

Me: “Did everyone agree to sell?”

Mom: “No. They just keep making problems. I miss the cat.”

Me: “We can get you a new pet. How are you going to sell if not everyone agrees on this? You can’t parcel it out, so I don’t understand how you can negotiate a sale…”

Mom: “Dad owns one quarter. They need to sell. I’m not ready for a new pet.”

Me: “Okay. Probably easier for you to keep the house cleaner without a pet. I guess you know how I feel about it.”

Mom: “Oh thanks. Just once I wish someone cared how I feel about all this.”

Me: “What would you like me to do about it? I can’t make them sell…”

Mom: “I have always been interested in what you think!”

Me: “I just don’t understand the logic here because you can’t parcel the ranch out…It has to sell as one piece.”

Mom: “Our lawyers think we’re handling things correctly.”

Me: “That’s good, but I still don’t get it…”

Mom: “Never mind.”

So…now I’m the bad guy for…what, pointing out the facts? It scares me that my parents could be selling this property on some level, because that can’t manage money, and I have no doubt they’ll burn through it long before they should. And probably still not pay for garbage service or repairs on the house in the meantime.

…and let things like this happen:

Pretty sure there's supposed to be a floor there...but yeah...that outlet is totally safe for use.

…or this… widows....check, check, check, and check.

…or this…

The living room...where supposedly we spent "quality time" together...

As a final note, I recently sent Mom a message letting her know that I mentioned the hoarding on my Avon Voices video submission page. I told her not to get upset that it says that the house I grew up in was so full of dirt and clutter that I sometimes didn’t feel like there was any room left for me, or for healthy, supportive relationships. She sent me a message back that said “I couldn’t get the video to load. I will take your word that it is good. Also, sometimes it’s better just to tell the truth.”

…I’m curious to know exactly what she thinks the “truth” is based on the pictures…

This is not the first of these posts, and will not be the last. As long as my parents are still alive, I’m always going to be playing parent in some form. I have Wednesdays off from work, so I made today my periodic “drive out to the parents’ house and pick up their garbage and take it to the landfill” day.  It went fine, but it’s always a reminder of just how screwed up my family is. At 26, it’s pretty devastating to have to feel like the parent in this relationship. What’s even more devastating is coming to the realization that most of what I was told as a child just simply wasn’t true.

Now, to be fair, I feel obligated to spell out some of the facts, the foremost being that my parents are, at the most basic level, truly nice people. My father, when it comes right down to it, is probably the most honest person I’ve ever met. I can in good conscious say that I don’t think he’s ever intentionally told a lie. My mom is very sweet and I can’t imagine her ever hurting anyone intentionally. Despite how it might look to someone who doesn’t understand the complexity of the situation, I love them because they are my parents, and to some extent I am able to wrap my head around the idea that they did the best they could.

That being said, how do you make sense of the world when what you’re being told doesn’t line up with reality? As a child, you learn to adapt, and it’s easy to start believing that the problem is you, rather than the situation. As a little kid, I wasn’t able to process the reasons why there were differences between what my parents told me was true and what I saw around me.

Some examples:

The statement: “Our family is the most important thing in my life.”

The reality: This was “good enough” for our family – the truck my mom had to drive had holes in the cab so big, we had to put garbage bags over our laps when it rained to keep from getting soaked. There was no heater, and I had to sit up on the seat with a squeegee to keep the windshield clear enough for my mom to see out of while she was driving. No radio, no working gas gauge, no heater, and only one working door. I was always told that “there wasn’t any money” to buy my mom a decent car, and I endured most of the humiliation of being driven around in the truck by ducking under the dash so no one could see me when we pulled into parking lots. My dad responded to my complaints by insisting that anyone who judged me by the vehicle I rode in wasn’t worth being friends with. He failed to grasp how cruel other kids are, how unsafe the truck was, and how irresponsible it was that he was more than willing to spend thousands of dollars on a new (by “new” I mean shitty, old, rusty, someone else was going to sell it for scrap metal) tractor.

The truck my mom drove for most of my life.


The statement: “I’ve always taken care of you.”

The reality: It isn’t possible to nurture anything in a kitchen that looks like this. Aside from mice and termites. And even the mice got sick sometimes.

The kitchen where all our meals were prepared...


The statement: “We’ve always supported you.”

The reality: “Support” in this case meant “toleration” based on the stipulation that I stayed out of the way and didn’t cause what my parents might consider “trouble.” What I’m learning now is that I wasn’t really the “problem child” I’ve always been accused of being – more than anything, I was “normal” in the sense that I just wanted to feel like I was important to my parents and that what was going on in my life mattered. While the message I was told always included verbal statements of “you matter,” the reality included a solid dose of the real underlying message, which was “my tractors matter. If you have a problem, please deal with it so I don’t have to be involved. I already have too much going on in my life to deal with your issues as well.”

Sorting through the devastation that someone else created...


The reality is that my parents are still relying on me to be the responsible one in our relationship, much the same way they have since I was old enough to dress myself. They hoarded things and allowed the house to collapse around us, and now they’re leaving me to clean up the mess, and the devastation.

It’s true. Because of my childhood, simple things like light bulbs now hold an extraordinary amount of symbolic power over how safe and secure I feel.  It all stretches back to being a child and learning very early on that just because something that broke around the house was an easy fix didn’t mean it would be taken care of. Replacing light bulbs for instance.

The bathroom in our house in California only had one light fixture in it. It was in the middle of the room (which was small) and it was a glass globe that shielded a single bulb. If that single bulb burned out, there was no light in the bathroom. When it did burn out, it generally didn’t get changed for a while.

Because of where the bulb was placed, it couldn’t be changed without a step stool. My mom had neck and back problems that made it increasingly hard for her to handle reaching overhead to change the bulb, so for a long time, I suspect my brother was the one who took care of it. He left home when I was 11, and after that, there were lots of times that the light burned out and just never got changed. My dad just didn’t do it. It never occurred to me that that was odd, because that’s what I was used to.

When I got old enough to reach the bulb from the top of a step ladder, I started changing the light when it burned out. But there was a period in the middle there where no one changed the light. The idea of candles still brings my dad to tears because he’s afraid the house will burn down (a real possibility considering the hoarding, but I’m quite certain he’s never put two and two together). The only option left was a battery-powered lamp, which provided just enough light to figure out where things were.  Now that I think about it, it almost made the situation more pleasant…dim lighting made it harder to see the worst of the dirt…

There's only so much dim lighting can do...

Flash forward to the present, and sometimes the simplest of things jolts me back to that place where the people who were supposed to be taking care of me quite simply failed. The house that I currently share with my boyfriend has standard lighting fixtures in the bedrooms upstairs that cover two bulbs each. Since we have three bedrooms, a master and two smaller ones, my boyfriend and I each have an office. As a general rule, I stay out of his and let it be his man cave full of computer equipment I don’t understand and various other odds and ends that cover the floor. I stay out of the man cave because it looks like a tornado hit it, and it drives me nuts. It’s the messiest room in our house, and sometimes it gives me flashbacks to my childhood home. When it gets too bad, I complain, throw around official-sounding words like “peritaxis”* and eventually boyfriend gives in and cleans it. (His version of cleaning does not equal mine, but I try to compromise).

So imagine my reaction a few days ago when I ventured into boyfriend’s man cave to collect some stray dishes, flipped the light switch…and nothing happened. Nothing. The bulbs were burned out, and instead of replacing them, boyfriend elected to use his desk lamp and ignore the overhead lights. I marched into the master bedroom, where boyfriend was sniffling with a cold and watching TV, and gave him a short, concise lecture on how his failure to replace the light bulbs made me feel like I was back in California.

This is one of those situations where tiny things turn into happy reminders that I’m in a much different place now. The next day, the lights had mysteriously been replaced everything was back in working order. Now if I can just get him to clean up the floor…

*Peritaxis, as my therapist uses it, refers to situations where the present is experienced as more than just what it is. In my case, for example, it means experiencing the past, and the neglect I suffered, in situations in the present where something is occurring which mimics certain aspects of something I’ve gone through before.

I. Hate. Mice.

Posted: January 13, 2011 in active neglect, childhood

I have mice in my house. Literal, physical, furry little rodents. And I hate them.

I have a hard time killing things. Once when I was little a daddy longlegs spider walked across the wall near me and I squished it, proudly displaying the mangled remains to my older brother.

“That wasn’t very nice. Now some poor spider doesn’t have a daddy,” he said.

He was joking, but I was traumatized, and ever since then, I avoid killing things – including bugs and spiders – unless they make the mistake of directly sauntering across my path when I’m not expecting it. The only exception to this rule is earwigs, which despite my best attempts, I cannot find as having any valuable place in the universe.

Over the years, though, I’ve become quite a connoisseur of killing mice. I don’t remember their being a mouse problem in my childhood house until the mid-1990s or so. After that, they came in droves. There was one period of time where my brother and I set two dozen traps at a time and emptied them daily…sometimes multiple times. Mice got into the walls. Into the cupboards. Into the ceiling. It was hard to sleep at night because of the sounds of mice chewing and scurrying through the walls right next to my bed. I’d wake up at night to find mice teeming on the floor of my room, and I can’t count the number of times something that was precious to me – photographs, mementoes from my father’s family – were lost to mouse nests. Mice chewed through the clothes in my dresser and closet indiscriminately, and there were lots of times I’d go to put on a pair of shoes and find a mouse nest (sometimes including the actual mouse) inside.

Of course, my parents’ response to this was to set out more traps (which my brother and I had to empty, because “they couldn’t stand it”) and complain about the mice. There was no thought to putting out poison because we had animals. When the mice started chewing holes through the floor, my brother went around the house spraying construction foam into the holes. Of course, nothing worked.

Mice in traps were one thing. Naturally dead mice were even worse. They popped up everywhere. I used to keep a pile of stuffed animals on a trunk in my room. Once went to move them all to get something from the trunk and discovered that a mouse had died on top of my favorite stuffed animal, a bunny that was given to me as an infant. This should say something about the general state of the house, that there was a dead mouse and no one even smelled it… I washed bunny, which shredded because it was so fragile. The fabric shards are still sitting in a ziplock bag in my garage somewhere.

The last time I tried to clean the house, the summer I was 17, I was working on the kitchen and inadvertently opened the oven (which hadn’t worked in several years) to find a dead mouse squished into the space between the door and the stovetop. When I pulled the door open, Mr. Mouse split into two pieces, and a shower of maggots fell out of his long-dead carcass. I closed the door, went outside and smoked the third or fourth cigarette I’d ever had in my life, went back inside and cleaned up the mess. Later that week my brother and I went to Home Depot and bought my mother a brand new stove. No one ever thanked us.

Flashforward to my current house, and I pride myself on keeping it clean. I welcome visits from the landlords because they inevitably culminate with end of the year Christmas cards that say things like “thanks for being such great tenants!” So when I noticed tell-tale mouse signs in my pantry a few weeks ago, I went on the warpath. Mice do not escape from me, and after killing three of them and thoroughly scrubbing the pantry, I complained to boyfriend that perhaps it was time to call an exterminator. We’ve lived in this house for four years, and never a mouse before this. Something has changed. I want the situation remedied. Boyfriend thought it was just a fluke and suggested we wait.

Then, this past Sunday, we were sitting in bed watching TV at the end of the day when the cat started going nuts. My cat used to be an excellent mouser, back in his outside days, but since he’s become an exclusively indoor kitty, his mouse-chasing consists of shiny fabric covered toy mice in pretty colors. I knew something was up, and it was then that the little mouse head popped out from under a chair, scurried into the closet, and disappeared.

Now do you think we need the professionals?” I asked, glaring at boyfriend as I handed him a peanut butter and cat food-laced mouse trap (the ultimate combination for quick kills, I’ve discovered).

He mumbled something about calling the landlords and slunk off into the closet to pull dressers away from the walls. When the trap snapped a few minutes later, he emerged triumphantly with a convulsing mouse still writhing on the end of the wooden block. I felt a tiny twinge of guilt…quickly overshadowed by irritation that I couldn’t call the landlords until the next morning.

The exterminator is coming today to find the source of the mouse invasion and put a stop to it. Boyfriend is taking the day off work to oversee this, and I admit to being a little irritated that I can’t be there myself to witness the expert in action. Mostly I feel relief that the situation is taken care of, and reassurrance that I’m nothing like my parents.

…especially when I realize that the thought of calling an exterminator to deal with the problem never would have occurred to them in the first place.

It has been a crazy couple of weeks. Grad school does not believe in time off, so as usual, I’m trying to find a balance between getting projects checked off my to-do list and finding time for me. Lately it seems that most of my “me time” is consumed by worrying about what I’m going to do when I finish grad school and worrying about what I’m going to do when I have to deal with my parents next…

The holidays are always hard. Since I’ve been dating my current boyfriend, I’ve spent Christmases and most other holidays with his family. I appreciate the time I have with them, and I’m grateful that I have them in my life. At the same time, it always brings to the forefront how dysfunctional my own family is.

I realize that no childhood is ever perfect. What my parents, and lots of other people surrounding this whole dysfunctional family fail to realize, is that I’m not upset that my childhood wasn’t perfect. I’m furious that my parents didn’t live up to the responsibilities inherent with having children – protecting me, and providing a safe, healthy, nurturing environment. After years of therapy, I’ve arrived at a place where I’m not even so much angry anymore that it happened…I’m angry that they still don’t think they need to take any responsibility for it.

One of the terms that stands out to me as  I learn more about hoarding and parenting and the strange combination that results from mixing the two is “active neglect.” As I understand it, this basically implies that parents are present and meeting the basic needs of the child – food, warmth, shelter – etc. at the most fundamental level, but failing to remedy problematic situations that arise from hoarding, like cleaning the house.

I spent most of my life believing that I couldn’t have been neglected…how could I have been “neglected” when both my parents were at home with me every night? It has been a process of learning that neglect is more complicated than that. My parents were physically present, but emotionally unavailable; they provided me with shelter, but it was a shelter that was unfit for human habitation, hazardous, and unsanitary. On some level, they knew there was a problem; how many times was I told that it was my responsibility to “clean up this house a little bit,” in my dad’s favorite way of putting it? All the hours my mother and I spent commiserating about how filthy the house was were times when my parents should have taken responsibility for fixing the situation. Active neglect.

When I see it on the TV, it brings up a lot of the anger I’m working through. The last episode of “Hoarders” on A&E featured a woman who threatened to leave her family and move out of their hoarded house if it wasn’t cleaned. Then the cleaning crew came in, and it was the mother who refused to let any items go. She wanted the house clean, but wouldn’t take any responsibility for letting go of the things that made it filthy in the first place. I wanted to climb through the TV and smack her for not being able to take responsibility for what she was doing to her family in much the same way that I feel an overwhelming urge to smack my dad for exactly the same reason.

Back to the same conundrum…how do you explain to someone that they’ve hurt you when they aren’t capable of understanding why? How can I explain to my parents that even though they were physically present, they neglected me? I’m continuing to ponder this as I try to work through the experience of going back to my childhood house in California, and the process of grieving for my grandmother. Sometimes, yelling at the TV in lieu of my own parents really does help.