Suffocated by her mother’s towers of boxes, stacks of paper and piles of junk, Erin helped dig herself out and breathe again with a simple act of defiance.

By Erin Rabitcheff Illustration Juliette Borda

It was freshman year in college and the guy I was dating had just driven us more than four hours from Providence, RI, to my apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As I stepped out of the car, he asked if he could use my bathroom. I said no, making up some excuse—I never invited anyone into my family’s apartment. Puzzled, he drove off. Eventually we parted ways, but I held fast to my secrets. I never told him the reason I wouldn’t let him in.

If he had entered, he would have encountered utter chaos. Walking directly into the living room/bedroom I shared with my mother, he would have seen a bed surrounded by piles of books, magazines, paper, boxes and plastic bags. Topping off the piles was displaced clothing, which belonged in the dresser that was buried in another room. He’d have also noticed what was missing: everyday items like a couch and chairs, paintings or photos on the walls—and floor space. And if he had actually used our dingy bathroom, he might have spotted my absentee father’s worn-out red-and-black-checkered toothbrush, which my mother had let sit there for years. That object was proof that he was not in fact the apparition he had become. There was too much to explain and I was ferociously attached to my secrets, which included a larger-than-life mother whom I loved and admired, yet pitied and feared.

Although I was forced into close quarters with my mother, the irony was that my very own room and bed were so close I could literally touch them. From my vantage point on my side of the bed I shared with my mother, I would stare wistfully at the Ethan Allen four-poster, unused mattress and box spring, still pristine in their boxes that leaned against the wall. My mother had purchased them for me when I was 11. The back room, or the second bedroom for which the bed had been intended, was overflowing with my mother’s possessions. Over the years I cried, begged and pleaded with her to set up my room. She was insulted that I would question her promise to clear out the space. It was not until 13 years after the bed’s purchase, when I left home at the age of 24, that I finally slept in it. When I moved my mother into a nursing home years later, the so-called second bedroom had never served its purpose beyond being a warehouse.

When the time had come to look at colleges, I applied to eight schools outside of New York City so I wouldn’t have to live at home. By the end of freshman year, I realized that thanks to distance, I had cautiously begun to shed a tiny bit of the hold my mother and her apartment had on me. In the dorm I’d experienced sleeping alone for the first time in my life. I could go to bed when I wanted and without hearing my mother complaining about her job, worrying that there was never enough money, or telling me about something she had just read or watched on television into the wee hours of the night. There were fewer objects around me and I felt like I could breathe.

As I packed up my things for summer vacation that first year, I casually put items in boxes until my eyes landed on the old digital clock my mother had given me. The numbers were supposed to flip over as the time passed, but they were so badly broken that they sometimes looked like letters or a foreign language. I thought about the friends who would stop by my dorm room and laugh when they saw it. It didn’t even tell time. I picked up the clock and thought, “This is unusable—I should throw it away.” The idea felt both liberating and frightening. I imagined most people would not have kept a clock that could no longer tell time—except for me. I was different. I had grown up with a hoarder. In my home no one was allowed to throw anything away without her permission, which was rarely granted.

I didn’t know what a hoarder was in those days, but what I did know for certain was that no one had an apartment like ours. Everyone had space to sit on their chairs and eat at their dining table. As a kid, whenever I visited a friend—it didn’t really matter which one—I secretly wished to be adopted so I could have a home I wouldn’t have to hide.

I remember moving into that apartment when I was 5. It was empty and there was ample, precious space. That is my last memory of being able to walk freely through it. Over the years my mother would go shopping, weekly, and buy magazines, clothes, Waterford crystal, toys, books, yarn, sewing patterns, records, mugs, cleaning supplies and anything that was on sale. When I was older, I accompanied her on some of these trips. I felt important as we discussed bargains and ate tea sandwiches at a department store restaurant. (She reveled in her fine taste and ability to get a good deal.) Many items remained forever in their boxes. My mother kept everything from the sacred to the mundane in ever-growing piles. There were receipts, letters, telephone bills, bank statements, photographs, coupons, newspapers, catalogs, music books for me, report cards and every piece of homework, artwork or scribble that my younger brother and I had ever attempted. Objects had equal value; they also had more value than the people surrounding them. The apartment was her domain and everything it contained became her possession, including my brother and me.

Ownership anchored my mother and drove her to shop in such a ritualized way that it became a homegrown religion. This was a woman who grew up poor during the Depression in the Deep South. She was a smart girl who showed such promise that the nuns at her school found a way to fund her education past the eighth grade. But her mother refused to take charity, so she ended up at the “colored” school, an hour and a half away from her home. It was so overcrowded that no one noticed when she left in ninth grade to start working.

The loss of the gift of education was so devastating that she grabbed hold of the hurt for safekeeping, furiously taking possession of future hurts that it continued to inspire. The bright side of that was her passion for acquiring knowledge and later encouraging her children to follow suit. When I started second grade at a public school across the street from my home, I would try to write in script or use a shortcut on a math problem because my mother had taught me. One day a teacher looked at my work and said, “We do not do that until the third grade.” I was astonished and told my mother. I understood, even at the age of 7, that education was extremely important and no barrier to it was acceptable. My mother had always said, “Knowledge is power.” She did some research and soon after, I was enrolled in a progressive private school. My mother paid for it with scholarships, credit cards and sacrifice. In fact, my brother and I both went to private schools. What we lacked in amenities like an extra pair of shoes, the latest clothing or vacations, my mother made up for in culture and education. There were dance, piano, Russian (an homage to Russian-Jewish heritage from my father), gymnastics and many other lessons. We took advantage of free or low-cost days at museums as well as discount tickets for the theater, which my mother loved. The library was our second home. I learned years later that my mother—who was a cashier and never made more than $12,000 a year—had spent much of her life paying off the credit cards until she no longer had any debt.

The dark side of my mother’s pain was her passion to possess things and never lose anything of importance again. When objects multiply, their nuances become more difficult to see. When accumulation becomes compulsion, the meaning of items becomes unnecessary, and the people who have become things in the eye of the beholder blend into the Sheetrock. The more distant our vision of those things, the more neglected they become because amassment supersedes attention. Over the years, my younger brother and I each became one of the many things that occupied the apartment and thus we were neglected. We were fed, clothed, educated and seldom alone, but we were not seen. We forgot who we were and got lost. It took years before we found our way home to ourselves.

Yet, there were moments of reprieve. I would temporarily escape the reality of where we lived when we were eating pancakes and listening to Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick or Oscar Brown Jr. on a Sunday morning; when my mom sat down next to me at the piano, my refuge, and sang while I played. The Baldwin was a great source of pride for my mother, who would proudly repeat the words of a blind piano tuner to anyone who would listen: “It has the sound of a 9-foot baby grand.” We also debated current events, laughed at sitcoms and took long walks in the city, but those moments were ephemeral. Every day I woke up in a dismal warehouse.

As children, my brother and I did not directly discuss how we lived but spent time fantasizing about other possibilities. When we visited curated living quarters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we pretended we lived there. However, because he was a boy, my brother was given a room, making his experience somewhat different from mine. He occasionally invited friends over; he had his own space to host them. I was embarrassed as they passed through my bedroom/living room before heading down the short hallway to his room.

At the end of my first year in college, the thought that my lingering, unruly clock was no longer needed cohabited with an urge that was new and lacking in experience. It was the desire to throw the clock away without permission. I was going to show my mother how it could be done. I was angry at her for the emotional neglect that I couldn’t put a name to and was suffering from the effects of her mental illness, which I only remotely knew existed. My mother’s world had become smaller as she shunned intimate relationships and grew more fearful and paranoid. There were random surges of anger. My peace of mind seemed to be dependent on how my mother felt on any given day. I walked around with an unidentified shame, reluctant to allow anyone over to our apartment or into my life. I covered myself with an invisible blanket to stop her from getting closer than the nightly insomnia-induced one-sided conversations I was battered with throughout my youth. The image of the useless clock would not leave me. Fearing that was what I would become—useless—I had to do something.

Dramatically, just before my mother arrived to pick me up from college, I confidently threw the clock into the garbage bin. I felt a moment of satisfaction, which I have replayed on some level for years. I had rebelled. I had thrown something out under the nose of a hoarder. Disposing of the clock was like discarding a part of her. I didn’t want to cause her more suffering, but the weight of her control, and her stuff, was crushing me.

It was a quiet rebellion; I did not tell my mother. The freedom I had briefly experienced was quickly subsumed by the power of the hoard. I still had my spot, prominently staged in the middle of the living room, on the left side of the double bed, next to my beloved Baldwin. But it was difficult to readjust to my mother’s insomnia, mental deliberations and nightmares that made her scream like a ghost in the middle of the night. I fell into

a routine of doing everything I could to not be home. And I had forgotten about my act of rebellion.

One day my mother asked me where the clock was. I hesitated but then told her I had thrown it away and why. The questions, the looks and the laughter all suggested that another reality existed besides the one I had grown up with. It was no longer a clock if it could not tell time. In her mind, this was simply an overbearing philosophical argument. All she could say was “I can’t believe you threw that clock away.” She repeated that statement for what seemed like several hundred times over the next few years.

Throwing away that clock was the beginning of confronting a life that hurt, that didn’t make sense. I loved my mother, but I desperately desired to live a normal life. The Clock Matter was not an event I discussed with friends—cheating myself out of any support I could have received. Yet a shift had happened just by starting somewhere. I can look back now and be proud of the 19-year-old me who challenged the mother she loved, and feared. I had given myself a moment of bravery, a moment when I mattered more than a broken clock. Courage, celebrated, can multiply and change the course of your story. Happily, my story is no longer a secret.

For more information about hoarding, click here.