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JojoP's story

I was always 'the messy one'. Mom would sometimes call me "Hurricane Jo" -- a Cat 5. Whatever room I was in had debris in its wake. I was usually able to laugh at myself as I was blessed with a good and kind family, and humour was something we all used to cope. But I was always messy. Past the point of where it was funny anymore. For as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I was kind of like a hurricane both in body and spirit, and my parents were not particuarly adept at discipline, let alone with a kid like me. So they took the easy path and gave in most of the time. I don't ever remember cleaning my room as a kid. I don't remember doing a dish. I never did a single household chore. I threw a lot of tantrums. I was angry a lot of the time. The house wasn't terribly messy -- mom just cleaned up after me.

Her heart was in the right place. I remember her telling me in my adulthood that she wanted us to enjoy our childhoods, as she didn't enjoy hers much. But I grew up never knowing how, when and what to clean. And I find myself critical of her parenting and resentful that I never learned, but thankfully we get along really well, still.

I often wonder if that is at the root of my squalor, but in the end it doesn't matter. One thing I learned over the years and here at SS is that it doesn't really MATTER what made you this way. You just have to deal with the fact that you are this way. I could blame mom, I could blame my alcoholic father, I could blame being the youngest child, I could blame the consumer culture we live in, I could call myself a lazy good for nothing, and in the end, it doesn't matter.

I have a vivid memory from my teenage years where my room was such a disaster my father just put everything in garbage bags and in the basement. I came home from school and the room was stark. Not even sheets on the bed. I was furious. I got the bags, brought them up and dumped the contents in the middle of the room and lived like that until the next blow out. I didn't know any other coping strategy, and neither did he. I moved out when I turned 18 hot on the heels of more fighting because of my mess and sass and our inability to cope with each other.

When I was 19, I moved home for a year to go to college, and I had a boyfriend -- a very secretive guy who'd grown up in an abusive family in Poland. Once, when I felt particularly close to him, I showed him my bedroom at my parents' house. I remember the look of horror on his face. That look haunts me. At that time, I had a single bed, and about three quarters of it was taken up with clutter, and I'd sleep on a sliver of it. You couldn't walk in the room for the junk. I don't recall there being food or poo at that time, so it was technically a level two, but piles beyond anything you could imagine.

(Interesting side note -- he and I stayed friends over the years and when I was about 30, he finally invited me over. He lived in deep second degree squalor as well, with a hoarding tendency that rivalled my own. I wonder if that day he saw my room was just shock at knowing he wasn't alone? I don't know. He never said.)

Over the years, I suffered with financial squalor, body squalor, poverty complex and third degree squalor. My very first apartment (when I was 18) was my first taste of third degree, as I didn't know how to do dishes, and food was rotting all over the apartment. To this day, I can't eat Lipton Noodles and Sauce or chocolate milk because of letting a pot and carton rot to the point where I had to find it, then throw it all out. I think that was my first experience with third degree. I don't remember feeling like there was something wrong at that point... more horrified that I had to deal with these things that I'd never had to deal with before.

In my twenties I lived with a boyfriend who was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and eventually (after I left him) became a crackhead. Our life together was hellish -- always living on the edge of financial and emotional ruin. He had three kids every other weekend, and they would destroy the house if he didn't. He was violent, and would smash holes in the wall with his fists, rip off the railing, that sort of thing. The kids left sticky food and handprints, dirt everywhere. I was not their mother and it was not *really* my house (as much as it was theirs) and I felt completely helpless. That squalor was worse than my own, because it was so pervasive. None of us knew how to deal with it. We were all to blame for it. It was the quintessential truth that a messy house is the sign of a messy mind, and up until that point, that hadn't been true for me, but it was true then.

Looking back, I realize I had very poor coping strategies for many aspects in my life. I grew up in a radical catholic house where nothing was ever done when things broke, but rather we would circle around the broken thing (ie washing machine) and pray for it to work. Many times the broken thing would miraculously start working again (until the next time) so I grew up with a weird faith in the divine, but no actual coping skills. We were booze poor -- dad had a union job but drank it away and we were told we could never affod anything nice. Broken things were jerry-rigged, never replaced or properly repaired. Everything we owned was second hand. My parents, bless them, are not 'go getter' types. They currently live in a house that, although it's not messy, is falling apart and rotting away. They can't use their tub because the floor underneath is rotted to the point where the plumber told them it will fall to the basement if it's filled. They shower at the community centre across the street or in the cellar from a tap in the rafters. It breaks my heart, but I know I can't change them the same way I couldn't be changed until I did it myself.

As I write this, I'm 34 years old, and I have just VERY recently gotten to a level one. I fear that it won't last, but I'm taking it a day at a time. I lived my entire twenties in squalor, and lived a life of shame, where people couldn't come over (CHAOS -- Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome) and I would frequently call my mom and sister in tears, feeling needy and hopeless and weak. Side note here -- most people who meet me say I'm one of the strongest or hopeful or aggressive people they've ever met. I'm active politically, I'm smart, educated. I make up my mind to do something and I do it (ran for office, quit jobs, left abusive boyfriends, cut people out of my life who were dragging me down, quit smoking, drinking etc...). So to say that my mess got the better of me and reduced me to a shaking weakling was saying something. I have such compassion for people who live in squalor because it is my demon in life, and I know how it can turn an otherwise normal person mad.

The worst it ever got for me was a few summers ago -- it was 100 degrees in the kitchen, and I can't cope with the heat at all. Something stunk and I couldn't deal with the mess or the smell or the temperature, but I had to find the source of the smell. I opened a cabinet under the sink, and saw a plastic bin of what used to be baking potatos. It was liquefied and had turned into a maggot soup. I screamed and sat down in the middle of the kitchen floor in tears, and called my mom. I didn't know what to do. She came over and cleaned it up. Again, she bailed me out. As much as I loved her for it (her compassion knows no bounds) I was still not learning any coping skills at all. I was in my thirties and still calling mommy in tears to help me.

The most empowering day of my life was the day I found Squalor Survivors. I was not alone. There was hope. Kimmy could do it and I knew I could too. I learned how to set an egg timer for fifteen minutes because A YEAR IS NOT ENOUGH and 15 minutes is magic. That might well have been the greatest lesson I've ever learned.

I'd previously been to Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics, and I had used the 12 steps and the mottos to get through some pretty tough times, but a lot of it was making sense on a personal level for me. I was eating the elephant a bite at a time as they say. Getting through life one day at a time. Changing the things I could change and accepting the things I couldn't. On it went. I was full of hope and possibility.

I posted before and after pictures and worked hard to not only change my surroundings but also my attitude. I think the hardest thing for me was realizing that I deserve nice things. I still don't 100% believe it, but I'm really working on it. I threw out TONS of stained and ill fitting clothes and got new clothes and new furniture and decided once and for all that I was going to take care of the things I had. I replace things when they are broken. I throw things out that aren't useful. I still hoard 'useful' things (even if they aren't useful to me... plastic bags, cardboard boxes and bubble wrap are my Achille's heel), but I'm getting much better.

A few things that helped along the way --

Number 1: I got a cleaning lady. I told myself that I wouldn't beat myself up for not having the skills to do simple chores. I can't change the oil in my car, and I pay someone to do that, and it's the exact same concept. I also have bad allergies, and the dust gets me dying, so a cleaner is worth her weight in gold for me. I had to get the apartment to the point where I was comfortable letting her in, but it's all worked out amazingly well. Once a week, I do a BIG tidy in preparation for her visit, and that's helped me stay on top of things. The clutter is really at a dull roar now. I got rid of so much stuff. And she does the stuff my mom used to do. I know it's kind of a cop out compared to people who have worked so hard to LEARN new skills, but I don't beat myself up about it at all. My strengths lay in other areas of life, and accepting the things I COULDN'T change was just as hard as changing the things I could.

Number 2: I got a roommate. I love her to pieces, she's a childhood friend of mine, and we get along like gangbusters. I had to gut two rooms for her, and that was the kick in the pants I needed. Further to that, I find I'm more inclined to put things away in the common areas, because it affects her too. I still don't seem to have it in me to do it for ME, but doing it for her is the happy medium for now. At least it's getting done. Perhaps in the future, it'll be habit.

Number 3: I got a little tiny washing machine that is basically a bucket on a motorized base : Cyclone WashMate I live in the upstairs of a house and don't have laundry facilities here. Normally I don't mind going to the laundromat, but the piles would get sky high before I got to it, and it was a big weekender job usually. Anyhow, I got the Washmate thinking it'd be cool to have for emergencies... I've spilled hot chocolate on a blanket and stuff like that, and milk rots if you don't wash it right away, and I've ruined many things this way. So the little machine was just an idea, mostly, and I thought I'd put it on the shelf for emergencies.

But my roommate lived in Asia for seven years, and she was very used to doing wash by hand so she started using it right away, and it was SERIOUSLY fun! And we have a clothesline out back, and I know it's environmentally friendly, so I tried it. OMG!!! I adore doing laundry this way!! It's so zen and I do dribs and drabs and the piles NEVER pile up. I have had less than one hamper full of laundry (usually about a day or two's worth of clothes) since I started. So that is something I never thought would ever happen!!! Never.

I also think that this was a particularly powerful event in my life because it is teaching me to treat EACH ITEM of clothing like it's something special. Because I can only wash five or so things at a time, I'm forced to touch those five things, wring them out by hand, rinse them, wring them again, hang them. I notice stains and I deal with them with borax or whatever right away. I used to ruin mountains of clothes by cramming as many as would fit into a triple loader, and then putting the whole mess on HIGH in the dryer for an hour until everything shrunk or got threadbare.

I'm dealing with laundry as I'm dealing with life. One precious item at a time.

Interesting side note -- I got rid of all my mismatched socks and now I have about 10 pairs of NICE newish paired socks. No holes. No stains. And because I wash them by hand, they are ALWAYS paired! The dryer can't eat them, because there is no dryer! HA!

Number 4: Organizing from the Inside Out. This book was recommended to me by my SSSisters, and it totally changed my life. The main thrust of the book is that you have to work with areas as you use them. I put a garbage pail where the garbage was prone to landing (near the couch) and that ONE SINGLE SIMPLE act, I would have to say, singlehandedly turned my life around. There has not been a single SCRAP of garbage in the living room (other than that can) since the day I put it there. That book also taught me how to organize my closet, my kitchen utensils, etc. in a way that works. It's worth it's weight in gold. Number 5: I fancy myself a bit of a writer. I'd been published several times, but in January of '06, I wrote an article on being a Squalor Survivor and it was published in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. This remains the biggest feather in my cap, as I really feel compelled to share my story with others and let people know there is HOPE. I have never been so grateful for hope as I was when I found this place, and I am one of the few people who proudly tells my full name and refuses to live in the shadows. I lived in shame for a very long time, but no more. Interestingly, when the article got published, I got A LOT of flack from some people who were cruel to me, but it was like the proverbial water on a duck's back. Their criticism didn't touch me at all. If my article could help just ONE person feel better about life, then those idiots who criticised me were meaningless.

The article can be found at http://transpei.workopolis.com/servlet/Content/fasttrack/20060124/FACTS24?gateway=transpei.

That is my story, and thanks for reading it.



Jo's kitchen before

Jo's kitchen after

This is by far an away not the worst my kitchen ever was, as evidenced by a MOP in the room in the before picture. I don't know that I owned a mop at one point. HA! But these pics were taken on a day when I was participating in the listzilla thread, and inspired to use an egg timer to see what was POSSIBLE in a short time. Turns out, miracles are possible. Pictorial proof!