Sage Advice: Hoarding In-Laws Spread Out

By Amy Dickinson | December 11th, 2019

Can you prevent hoarding relatives from spreading their disease elsewhere?


Woman deals with hoarding in-laws who pass along gifts by throwing them away even though they'll probably freak out on her later Image

Dear Amy: My in-laws are self-professed hoarders. They love showering us with thrift store, garage sale, and dumpster finds every month or two when they visit.

Whenever they give us something, they make sure to remind us that we’re not allowed to get rid of the items except to return it back to them.

We did try giving some items back to them one time and were met with a hostile outburst. They cut their visit short after making it clear how offended they were. Since then they’ve continued bringing stuff just as before, and I’ve been too scared to refuse.

Our small home is overwhelmed with all these undesirable “gifts.” I am starting to feel like they’re using our house to hoard items because their own home is now uninhabitable, due to hoarding.

My husband has had countless talks with them. Things will improve for a time and then go right back being a problem. How do you suggest we proceed from here?

At this point I’m secretly getting rid of things and praying that my mother-in-law doesn’t notice the next time she visits. Sometimes she does and sometimes she doesn’t. How do we get our home back?

– Desperate

Dear Desperate: Hoarding Disorder is a relatively rare but serious mental illness.

People who have this disorder sometimes spread their possessions into other dwellings, such as storage sheds or rental properties, when they run out of space in their own home.

I think you are correct in your assessment of what is going on with your in-laws: they are bringing their disorder into your household.

Your in-laws are responding in a way that is typical for people who hoard: the idea of discarding anything causes them extreme anxiety, anger, and overall distress.

They are professed hoarders, which means they have a little bit of insight into what’s going on. But imagine if your loved ones were addicts, and insisted on using in your living room? The most loving thing to do would be for you to keep their addiction out of your house, while urging them to get help. Otherwise, you are enabling them, and contributing to their problem.

You and your husband MUST lovingly lay down the law: Do not bring anything to our house. We cannot take in any more possessions.

If they bring things to your house, you will calmly load these items into a vehicle and take them directly to the nearest donation center.

Yes, your in-laws will rail, rage, and perhaps retaliate. This is their disorder and anxiety talking. Be calm, loving, and consistent in your response. Urge them to accept help for their hoarding disorder.

You and your husband could receive some valuable coaching on boundary-setting by participating in online support groups, or by seeing a counselor.


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In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2019 by Amy Dickinson

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