'Coming Clean' About Growing Up In A Hoarding Household
Kimberly Rae Miller grew up among piles of junk. Doors wouldn't close, stacks of paper turned to sludge, and the pool was filled with brown muck. Her father was an extreme hoarder, a condition that threatened her safety and even her life.
In her new memoir, Coming Clean, Miller writes candidly about the chaos in her home: "Between my father's love of paper (and just about everything else he could get his hands on) and my mother's depression-fueled shopping, our house had started to resemble the remnants at the bottom of a garbage can. Soggy junk filled our living space. When I was 14, the boiler broke in the middle of winter, but we could never allow a repairman into our mess, and so we lived without heat, without showers."
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Miller discusses her book, and how she coped.
On a stranger living amid the mess
"When I was 18, my parents abandoned their home and moved to an apartment. And they sold it 'as is.' So the company that bought it, bought it at a very, very discounted price for what the property was worth under the guise that they needed to do the cleaning themselves. And they reported back to my mom that in the attic they had found someone's clothing, hundreds of beer cans, a cot — somebody had been living in our attic."
On why people hoard
"From the research that I've done, many hoarders start hoarding as a form of connecting to other people. And so when they see something that reminds them of someone they love, they hold on to it. If it reminds them of a way they felt good, or a positive memory in their life, they hold on to it. A lot of hoarders are incredibly intelligent people, and they're able to see things in ordinary objects that we wouldn't necessarily see. And so, getting rid of those items is incredibly hard for them."
On the worst part of living in a hoarding household
"I think in the end, all of it culminated in this innate feeling of shame because where I came from was something to be ashamed of, and it's nothing I could share with anyone. And that definitely affected me throughout my life, of feeling I am not worthy of being noticed, and that it was important for me to hide."
On watching herself for signs of hoarding
"It's a constant fear in my life. ... My mom always jokes that I'm going to end up throwing my children away 'cause I can't stand having junk around. ... It's absolutely a fear, and a lot of times hoarding is triggered in people who don't show those signs by a trauma, and the hoarding turns on, so to speak. And I'm always afraid that I'm like one trauma away from becoming a hoarder."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. If you watch reality TV, then you may have stumbled across shows like "Clean House" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive." If you haven't, here's an excerpt from the latter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOARDING: BURIED ALIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, this section used to be clear up until recently. I have things that I want to throw out or whatever; they're - old milk. This one is from May. So that's how many months it's old. And then I have - I have three of them here, which just haven't gotten into the garbage.
HEADLEE: So many people are aware of the issue of hoarding now, but when Kimberly Rae Miller was growing up, she didn't know there were other families like hers. All she knew was that something about her family was not like other families and her house - well, was anything but average. She grew up with piles of stuff; doors wouldn't close because things were in the way. Stacks of paper turned to sludge under her feet. The pool was filled with brown muck.
Summers meant flea infestations, and then there were the rats. The mess eventually drove her to take extreme measures. She details it all in a new memoir called "Coming Clean." Kimberly Rae Miller joined Michel Martin in studio, and she began by explaining what motivated her to share her family's dark secret in the book.
KIMBERLY RAE MILLER: Well, you know, we've only ever seen hoarding through the lens of reality television. And it's really important for me to tell people what hoarders are really like. I mean, this is one element of a fully rounded person, and it is a mental illness. And so, it was really important for me after my mother almost died a couple of years ago - I was forced to invite people into my home to help me clean it, because I was so scared for her health.
And it was the first time I'd ever told anyone my secret. And at that moment, when people didn't judge me, I realized that all of this shame I'd been carrying for years wasn't necessary and that people would love me anyway, and that they would love my family anyway.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When did you first realize that something just - something wasn't right - something's different and it wasn't right?
MILLER: Well, when I was in kindergarten I told the school psychologist that my parents locked my baby sister in the trunk. My baby sister was a giant Thumbelina doll that I had named Cheryl, but my claim had caused the school to call CPS and...
MARTIN: Child Protective Services...
MARTIN: Social workers.
MILLER: And they came to visit the home. And in the week between my telling the school about the abuse of my doll and when the social worker actually came to visit the home, there was a mad dash to clean the home, for fear that I'd be taken away from them - that I realized that something was really wrong with the way we were living. And after that I promised that I would never tell anyone about my dad.
MARTIN: It was your dad at this point who was the one...
MARTIN: Or at least he was - your mom said he was the one. Or was he the one?
MILLER: Yeah, you know, I think there is a difference between compulsive shopping and hoarding. And hoarding - there are definitely signs and pathological compulsions and the way they see objects, the way they put value to objects...
MARTIN: Yeah, talk about that, if you would.
MILLER: Sure, you know, I mean, people who hoard find connections to things that maybe the rest of us wouldn't. And that's rooted in multiple things. I mean, I'm certainly not a mental health professional, and so I can't speak from it from that element, but from the research that I've done, many hoarders start hoarding as a form of - as a form of connecting to other people. And so when they see something that reminds them of someone they love, they hold onto it.
If it reminds them of a way they felt good or a positive memory in their life, they hold onto it. And a lot of hoarders are incredibly intelligent people and they're able to see things in ordinary objects that we wouldn't necessarily see. And so getting rid of those items is incredibly hard for them, because...
MARTIN: I was going to ask about that, what would happen if you'd throw something out? In fact, one of the things that your dad was particularly fond of papers, as I recall from the book, that - newspapers, which was particularly noteworthy because he also has a real love of NPR...
MARTIN: And we appreciate that. (Laughing)
MILLER: I always say that NPR is the fourth member of my family.
MARTIN: 'Cause NPR was on all the time. But he loved papers. Why do you think he loved papers so much?
MILLER: Well, I always say that my father was an information hoarder. He's a brilliant man and he absorbed information so quickly. And so if there was an item that he was interested in but he hadn't learned from yet, that he hadn't absorbed that information, he wanted to keep it until he had time to really process those items.
MARTIN: And I think a lot of people will wonder, well, where was your mom in all this, when this was going on. I mean, you started doing all these coping things. You realized that this was something to be kept secret but there were all these coping mechanisms, like your family joined a gym so that you could take showers or you realized not to have people in the house. And I think a lot of people would say, well, where was your mom in all this?
MILLER: Well, I do touch on that in the book, but, you know, my mom has had a particularly rough road in life. And early in my childhood she underwent a surgery that left her bedridden for over a year, and then afterward, there was such a prominent depression that followed that she really checked out for a long time. And in those years my father's hoarding was really left unchecked.
And in that time she even said that she started hoarding in kind, because she just wanted to make a place for herself in her own home - that my father's things had taken over so much that she really wanted to find her spot in her home. And I think that's probably not a rarity among hoarding marriages.
MARTIN: You know, your mom - there's some really vivid passages in the book, which is actually very funny in parts in some ways, if people can believe that. But where your mom keeps saying, she's going to hate us - trying to encourage your dad to clean up or at least to stop his behavior, at least to keep it under control or intervene at some point. She's going to hate us, but you don't.
MILLER: I don't hate my parents. You know, I really do believe that they did the best they could. And, you know, they didn't have easy lives either. And I always know that they were there for everything that they could be there for.
They were at every dance recital, at every soccer practice, every school play. They were good parents in the ways that they could. And I never believed that my father loved things more than he loved me. I knew that whatever drew him to compulsively collect things was beyond him.
MARTIN: He sounds hilarious in some ways.
MILLER: He's a wonderful man.
MARTIN: But he also had some moments where his behavior was completely inappropriate. Like, for example, you recount a time when you had - the rare time when you had a friend over, and he went off on some rant about something, because I think he thought you'd thrown one of his papers out. Am I right about that?
MILLER: No, it was actually a radio that was broken.
MARTIN: A radio that was broken. And he punched you in the face. So how do you understand that?
MILLER: Well, it's important to realize that my father had undergone a traumatic brain injury shortly before that incident, and I think that definitely influenced that particular moment in our lives. Not only was he suffering from chronic migraines and the repercussions of the injury, but he'd also lost his job. His house had just burned down.
There was a lot going on in that particular moment, and I think that led to that. If I talk to him about it now, he only has a very vague recollection of that, and he apologizes for it profusely. You know, he was not a violent man. And my father grew up in a violent household and so I can only assume that when he lost control he reverted back to the way he grew up.
MARTIN: What was the worst of it? For you - I mean we're only really just - honestly and this sounds like a terrible pun, scratching the surface...
MARTIN: Of some of the things that you recount in the book about what became normal for you. I mean, sleeping in your car at points when you'd gone away from school just 'cause you couldn't stand being in the house. What was the worst of it for you?
MILLER: I think in the end all of it culminated in this innate feeling of shame, because where I came from was something to be ashamed of, and it's nothing I could share with anyone. And that definitely affected me throughout my life - of feeling like I am not worthy of being noticed and that it was important for me to hide. And it took me a long time to shed that shame.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Kimberly Rae Miller. Her memoir, "Coming Clean," is her story of growing up in a household where her father, and then her mother, were hoarders. Can you just read a portion of the book for us, just describing your house just so, again, people can get a picture of what it is that you were living with?
MILLER: Sure. (Reading) Between my father's love of paper, and just about everything else he could get his hands on, and my mother's depression-fueled shopping, our house had started to resemble the remnants of the bottom of a garbage can. Soggy junk filled our living space. When I was 14, the boiler broke in the middle of winter, but we could never allow a repairman into our mess, and so we lived without heat, without showers.
MARTIN: And there was the - do you mind my telling this, this is kind of - I guess you don't, you wrote a book about it...
MILLER: I wrote a book about it. (Laughing)
MARTIN: This is a little bit of a spoiler alert here. There was one point that the house was such a mess that somebody was living in the attic...
MILLER: Yeah. And...
MARTIN: Which was only discovered when your parents sold the house.
MILLER: Right. When I was 18, my parents abandoned their home and moved to an apartment. And they sold it as is, so the company that bought it bought it at a very, very discounted price for what the property was worth, under the guise that they needed to do the cleaning themselves. And they reported back to my mom that in the attic they had found someone's clothing, hundreds of beer cans, a cot. Somebody had been living in our attic.
MARTIN: What would you say to people who would say - it's interesting, it sounds a lot like other forms of addiction, you know, like alcoholism or substance - other forms of substance abuse, where people would say, well, you know, that's just - you say it's a mental illness but they should just stop it.
MILLER: Well, you know, I mean at the end of the day, you can't just turn things off. And, you know, my father is older now. He's much more aware of hoarding. And so he has actually, you know, put steps in place and has been trying to work on combating the constant urge to keep things collectively. And it's hard, it's a battle. But the home they're living in now is clean and they work really hard at it.
MARTIN: Why do you think it is, though, we're becoming more aware of this?
MILLER: I think many of us have always felt a connection to it, and once there was a name for it, and once these shows came out and there was visibility for this disease, people were able to finally connect, like I did, and say, yes, that's what my aunt has - yes, that's what my friend has - yes, that's what my dad has.
And feeling like you're part of something, feeling like since there's knowledge about it now, people are being trained in the mental health industry in it now. That, you know, life will get better for these people, hopefully, eventually. And I think we grasp onto that. And also, we live in a culture where consumerism is really pushed on us.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you if you feel that there's something about the era that we are now in that encourages this, that there's something about our obsession with stuff, and stuff is constantly being pushed on us. But you could also kind of look at it another way to think that maybe it's very ancient, that the desire to build up stores of things could be part of a survival instinct.
MILLER: Right, absolutely, hoarding has been reported throughout history in every culture, in every country. It's not unique to our time, but I think our time definitely promotes that sort of behavior. And a lot more research is being done into hoarding, and this is certainly not my research, so I can't claim ownership of it, but there was recently a marker found on a chromosome in people who are part of families with a high propensity for hoarding. And they're also discovering links in childhood development, and children who are neglected at certain points in their development, forming attachments to things as opposed to people.
MARTIN: Are you scared for yourself, I mean, you - I'm just saying, you're a very lovely young woman - I'll just say that you're very lovely.
MILLER: Thank you.
MARTIN: You have a very spare appearance, though, very minimal jewelry. Maybe that's just how you chose to dress today, because it's very hot, but are you worried for yourself? Are you vigilant for signs that you might be hoarding?
MILLER: Absolutely, it's a constant fear in my life. And, you know, I'm single now, I don't have children and so I'm able to keep my home very neat. I understand that that may change in years to come, but, yeah, no, it's absolutely a fear. And a lot of times hoarding is triggered in people who don't show those signs by a trauma and the hoarding turns on, so to speak. And I'm always afraid that I'm like one trauma away from becoming a hoarder.
MARTIN: Speaking of shame, you said at the beginning you wanted to write this book in part to kind of release the shame, but this isn't your real name.
MARTIN: This is not your real name.
MILLER: No, it's not, but...
MARTIN: And you don't name your parents in the book.
MILLER: Well, I...
MARTIN: So what's up with that?
MILLER: Well, I changed my name not because of the book. I changed it years ago because I was an actor. And so, in terms of...
MARTIN: Still are.
MILLER: Right, and I am an actor.
MARTIN: Yeah, still are.
MILLER: Yeah. And so I just changed my name because it was a long, convoluted name and it didn't fit well on my headshots. And in terms of changing my parents' names in the book, it was just really important for me to protect their privacy in the ways that I could. You know, they're incredibly supportive of me in writing this book. They were my fact checkers.
They never asked me to change anything in the book and they were really with me through all of it and it was a very emotional process. But I also was understanding that this was a secret for them too, and they are ashamed of it. And so I didn't want to make it any more painful than it had to be. And so I did change their names, but I also changed the names of everybody else in my life as well.
MARTIN: But you're a public figure.
MILLER: Right, but I'm public in what I choose to make public and so, you know, you can find my acting credits online and you can find my writing credits online, but you may not be able to find, you know, which politicians I contribute to because that's under my regular name. You know, so...
MARTIN: I'm just wondering though, isn't this a perpetuation of the shame factor...
MILLER: Yeah, no...
MARTIN: By not just saying the truth. I mean, couldn't the public scrutiny in a way be part of accountability to say, I'm not going back.
MILLER: Right, no, I absolutely understand that but, you know, I've gone as Kimberly Rae Miller for so long in my career and I do have other credits under that, so it made sense for me to keep my name the way it was.
MARTIN: Is there any one thing you wish people would know about this? I know, again, looping back to where we started our conversation, you're saying a lot of the acquaintance that people have with hoarding is through these reality shows and you're saying that's not reality. What's the piece of it that people aren't getting?
MILLER: Right, well, you know, these people who apply to be on hoarding shows are people who are so desperate for help that they will do anything, including humiliate themselves on television. And these people are living out their worst nightmare on TV and it's being filmed, and I don't know about you, but I probably wouldn't look so great if I were being filmed on my worst day. And, you know, these people have real lives, they have children.
They, you know, a lot of hoarders don't have good relationships with their children. I do, you know, but a lot of people who don't hoard don't have great relationships with their children. They're individuals and they have full lives and interests and educations and jobs and friends, and we need to see them as full people - as the full package.
MARTIN: Are you comfortable giving advice? If you live with someone, if you're close to someone, if you're neighbors of someone who you think is a hoarder and you would like to be helpful, can you offer some guidance here?
MILLER: Sure. I mean, there's - forced cleanouts don't usually last. I mean, it's really hard for people and it can also be the trigger that makes them hoard more, because they've just lost everything that they love. And so being there with someone and helping them go through it at their own pace and talking to them about it.
Hoarding is something that really needs behavioral retraining and thinking - changing of the way you think, and that's not always successful. I mean, it's a really hard thing to cure, so to speak. So, you know, being understanding - understanding that this isn't just stuff for them. This is their life. And being sympathetic to that.
MARTIN: Are you angry at them? I know you love them. I mean, that comes through. It comes through that they love you, and you love them, but at the end of the day, are you angry?
MILLER: I don't think I'm angry anymore. I think I definitely was, especially in the writing of this book. There are a lot of moments that I had to relive as an adult and see them through adult eyes, and feeling like that was a really, really unfair way to grow up. But also, in writing this book, I actually gave myself the opportunity to be angry.
I don't necessarily recommend everybody work through their issues by writing a book, but it worked for me. And by the end, I was really able to understand my family more and I was able to understand, you know, what they were going through at the time, because I only saw things as a child then.
MARTIN: Kimberly Rae Miller is the author of a new memoir titled "Coming Clean." It's about her experiences growing up with her father, who was a hoarder, and her mother, who was a compulsive shopper at one point. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Kimberly Rae Miller, thank you for speaking with us.
MILLER: Thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.