The Hoarder Inside: Power of Letting Go

P_hoarderinsideThe day he began stapling trash to the walls we were in trouble.  Our new foster son had moved into our home a few months earlier with a bag of worn clothes and a few odds and ends collected over the years.  There was an old GameBoy, broken PS2, crumpled photo of a summer camp friend and every school certificate he’d ever received: citizenship award, sit-ups award, library award.

At first things seemed simple.  We bought new clothes and found some books and toys he enjoyed.  We posted a corkboard for his photo and papers.  We installed shelves for his games and trinkets.

It didn’t take long for the treasures to grow and space to disappear.  He refused to get rid of old clothes, several sizes too small and many threads too bare.  He clung to broken games and half-bodied toys.  He cherished every document that came across his little hands: graded homework assignments, scraps with phone numbers, coupons, and torn labels.

So, we made more space.  We added shelves in the closet and bought bins for papers.  I showed him how to use wall stick-um and we added another corkboard.  The stuff still grew.

Food was hidden inside his pillowcase and under the mattress.  One paper-crammed bin became three. Soon, chunks of wood, cardboard and used art supply scraps were piled in corners and under the bed in case there was an opportunity to use them one day. When I walked in to find him stapling a 2×5 foot piece of trash onto his wall, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.  He had found it on the road on the way home from school and thought he would keep it “just in case.”

As frustrating as the hoarding grew, it was the least of our trouble.  Angry outbursts, threats, tears, lying, fighting, night terrors and a scary darkness descended on his little mind.  We did the best we could and sought help everywhere.  Psychologists and psychiatrists came and went; he continued to rage refusing to speak.

We prayed and comforted and medicated and talked and held and cried and promised to always love come what may.  The hoarding and the emotions still grew.

Two and half years later, the bottom dropped out in our fragile world.  Within a few weeks time, there was a serious threat of harm made to self and others, an emergency pediatric psychiatric hospitalization, and an emotional breakdown that terrified the other children in our home.

A few weeks later, on a cold, icy afternoon, I once again found myself crawling under the bed among the trash trying to reach my broken boy hiding from the scary world outside.  My arms wrapped around his shaking body and he pulled away, cursing and begging me to leave him alone.  I refused and held on silently begging love to become tangibly felt.  After a few agonizing minutes, his shoulders grew limp and years of pent-up tears flooded his cheeks.  We held on to each other, bobbing in the sea of torment surrounding our hearts, the sound of my own cries joining the rhythmic waves of his sobs.

When the storm subsided, the words spilled out.  Memories and fears.  Struggles and broken promises.  Insecurities and pain.  Accusations and confessions.  Guilt and hatred.  Longings and beliefs.  Each syllable, a stone removed from the wall surrounding his heart.

The next day, I walked into his room and found him with a garbage bag in hand.  He was throwing away trash, clearing walls, and sorting through thousands of papers.  He said he didn’t “need” it anymore.

I walked out and began to cry the warm happy tears of relief.  The tide had turned.  Healing had begun.

How many of us are hoarders, refusing to let go of yesterday, afraid of not having enough for tomorrow, clinging to what was or should have been?  We may not duct-tape trash to our ceiling, but we keep boxes of light-neglected memories stacked in garages only to be seen by those who come after us.  I remember a friend telling me of her grandfather who had an old Folgers can labeled, “String Too Short to Use.”

Many of us don’t collect things, but we hold onto grudges and conversations, people and experiences as though the shadow of their existence justifies our identity and directs our course.  We allow the power over our life to be held in the grip of something we disdain or regret, wish or fear.

Every month, I hand everyone in our home a bag and tell them to fill it up.  Clothes, toys, tools, projects.  If we don’t need it, we don’t keep it.   When holidays and birthdays come, we make way for new toys and clothes by giving away something to someone.  As a result, our boys are learning that their worth is not tied into what they have.  Their identity isn’t based on how much they accrue.  And their needs will always be met.

When arguments rise or feelings are hurt, we talk about it honestly, we share, we tackle the monsters, we forgive and we move on.  We don’t ignore or fear the conflict, but we don’t hold onto it.  There is only so much room in our hearts and minds, there is no need to fill them with the negative.  Slowly, I am beginning to see my boys finding the courage to trust and forgive and believe.

Together, we are all seeing the power of letting go.



  1. Pamela Nolde says

    Ellen: WOW! What an incredible story . . . incredible writer . . . incredible mother…incredible God. My nephew Jason and his wife,Karyn, have adopted two boys through foster care. . . The stories are always different but have a common thread of unbelievable hurt and anguish . . . and the fact that with God’s help and enabling grace, love really does eventually conquer all. Love ya! pdn

  2. says

    Welcome back. The writing world, parents, adoptive parents, and parents of kids who communicate differently will be blessed by your return. No one will ever fully understand the journey you have taken with your son. No one will really know how many buckets of tears you cried or how many prayers you prayed. But, your son is who he is today because you never quit. You’re an inspiration.
    Blessings to you.

  3. Goldie Jones Stone says

    Thank you…I love your stories and your honesty and always feel encouraged after. To the Family – love.

  4. SusanTayman says

    Thanks Ellen for your beautiful story of the power of love to heal. Don’t we all hang on to useless feelings, regrets and should of. What a great tribute to God knowing what we hold on to and allowing us to keep it until we are able to surrender and realize we don’t need it.

  5. Kimberly Sweetin Yadon says

    That was amazing. I love you as my Sis. I don’t know how you two do it. God has placed those precious little hearts in your care. He knew you would be perfect for them.

  6. says

    Ellen… is so awesome to hear your story. I think you went to She Speaks the same summer I did (two year ago?) and maybe we met???? I think we did actually because I remember thinking I had come a long way – two hour drive – and then I asked where you came from and you were like “Alaska”. Ha! Yeah, perspective. I was in tears as I read this post, Ellen. Just in tears. It so touched my heart. I praise God with you for the miracles he is doing in your family. I look forward to reading your blog.

  7. Kim Johnson says

    Ellen, You are such a gifted writer. Thank you for sharing this amazingly moving story with the world!! So glad God has found a safe home filled by his spirit for those boys. He obviously knew they would be in good hands in intrusting them to you and Toby. You are a beautiful and gentle spirit. Looking forward to possibly seeing you all in the future sometime.

  8. Steve says

    This is exactly where I am right now. Trying to let it go. I love this and hope I can learn to do this in my life as well.

  9. Dad says

    Ellen, I’m so proud of you, Toby and the boys. Your visit at Christmas was the highlight of our year. Each of my grand boys have grown and blossomed so much under your care. Love you, your family and your writing. Gotta’ go regain my composure and dry my eyes.

  10. Jim B says

    Sounds like PTSD. My grandfather had something similar after the depression. He collected and kept all kinds of unusable stuff.

  11. Cliff says

    I was just telling someone yesterday that I needed to learn to let go of grudges and issues with others. Its not worth it. Crazy.

  12. Dawn says

    Dana Matas shared this on her f/b page, and, since she is my friend and I value her opinion, I read your story, and I have to say it moved me to tears. What a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing something so personal and dear to your heart. You are a beautiful person and a wonderful mother to all of your babies. Thank God for you, Ellen.

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