Thursday, April 23, 2015

My Bedroom

I often lie next to my daughter in her bed and admittedly, especially during these days of pregnancy, I often fall asleep with her when I put her to bed.  But in the moments before sleep comes, we talk and snuggle and look around her room.  Simple pictures, cut from scrapbook paper of a flower, a frog and a butterfly are in white frames on the wall.  We talk about the colors and their smiling faces and how they match her bedspread.  And I love every minute of it.  In those moments I often wonder what that pink and green room looks like through the eyes of a little girl.  I often pray that her room would be a place of comfort, peace, joy, laughter, love and safety...all the things I imagine a little girl's room should be.  But sometimes, I feel like I'm not really sure what a girl's room should be.

Unlike Geoff's bedroom, when we returned to our childhood house, my bedroom was almost exactly as I remember.  The pink walls and the ruffle valance.  The flimsy strawberry shortcake desk and table next to the bed, barely usable because of the stuff that covered it.  The white chest peaking out from the heaps of junk between the closet doors.  I never actually remember using that dresser.  I don't even remember where we kept our clothes.  Often times the dryer didn't work, so we hung a lot of things on hangers in the doorways to dry.  I also remember that there was constantly a pile of clean laundry on top of the dryer.  That is probably what led to so much ironing.

Photo © Geoff Johnson

And then there was my bed.  It was really the only functioning part of the room.  As a young child, I remember lining the bed next to the wall with all my stuffed animals.  I got spider bites frequently, and the stuffed animals covering the crack between the bed and wall somehow made me feel safer about what might crawl up there at night.  Eventually though, when mom stopped sleeping in Geoff's room, she started sleeping in mine.  It wasn't by invitation—like how my daughter begs me to lie down with her at night—it was by necessity, and I hated it.  Especially as I entered my early teenage years and the twin bed seemed to grow smaller and smaller. It was terribly uncomfortable, but I will confess that it provided more warmth in the winter.  

Someone once asked me if I kept my room clean despite how my mom kept the rest of the house.  At the time, the question was incredibly insulting, but I suppose a part of me can now understand why someone would wonder.  The truth is we didn't really know any different.  Yes, we went over to other people's homes, but as a child I couldn't really articulate what was different about my situation, especially as a child living in the midst of trauma and in fear of anyone finding out.  We also were never made to pick up or clean.  And while it is probable that most adults would eventually clean on their own accord, I think most children are different.   I know that my kids don't naturally want to pick up their toys, so I'm sure we never thought much about it when we were little.  Probably ruling over those two things, however, was the issue that our rooms weren't really our rooms.  At one point or another, Mom shared our rooms with us, and the heaps of newspapers and bags and boxes and junk were hers.

One thing that is different in my room now, however, is the writing on the wall.  They are dirty walls, mostly from fingerprints that accumulated from years of having to brace ourselves with one hand on the wall as we walked through the house so we didn't fall.  But in our last days in the house, after Mom's passing, I penned this verse on the filthy pink paint:

  
It is a bad picture, I know.  (Remember, I'm not the photographer in the family.)  But the verse is from Isaiah 51:3.

The Lord will surely comfort Zion and look with compassion on all her ruins,
He will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. 
Joy and gladness will be found in her, Thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

He will make her wastelands like the garden of the Lord!  What a glorious picture of redemption!  I have to confess: now that the silence is breaking, I sometimes have been unsure of what to say or how to say it.  I don't have it all figured out yet.  There was a time when I thought I did have it all figured out.  I had been to counseling and come through the dark days of depression with new eyes.  And then ten years later, after Mom's death, I came to realize there are parts that still weigh heavy on me. For a while, it seemed easier to wait...wait to tell the story until I could confidently say, "The Lord has completely healed those broken places!"  But the truth is that while there has been much healing, there are still evidences of the pain that line my heart.  It never really goes away.  For each of us, our hearts will always bear the tender scars that remind us that things aren't exactly like they were meant to be.  But those scars remind us that we are ever in need of a Savior.

I have struggled often to answer the question "Why?"  Why was this a part of our story?  Why didn't the Lord rescue us from it earlier?  I fully believe that God could have protected us from such neglect and that He could have ordered things to be much different than they were.  So why?  Sometimes when horrific things happen in our lives, well-meaning people will recite verses to us or remind us of truths we already know—like the fact that "God will use all things for the good of those that love Him" or "There is a reason for everything." I told myself those same things for years, putting band-aids on the wounds and burying these things alive.  The "right" answers only dismissed my pain.  Yes, maybe God will use our story to help someone else, but that doesn't make the pain any easier to bear.  Sometimes just stating a truth to try to make someone (or yourself) feel better overlooks the very real hurt and grief that that person has experienced.  Yes, God will use it for good.  But this side of Heaven we may never see it, or understand it, or really fully believe it.  However, one thing I do know is that as I have been willing to venture into that hurt and grief, instead of hiding behind the door of silence...the Lord has drawn me near.  He has shown me more of Himself in those places than I ever would have imagined had I denied the pain and hidden the shame.  It is in such times  that I have seen the truth of Genesis 15:1 (NIV).

...I am your shield, your very great reward.

Indeed, if I never have a good explanation as to why, I do know that He has revealed more of Himself to me and it has been a reward, a joy!  The light of God's glory is most beautiful when we see the reality of the darkness in which we have been living.  And if we are unwilling to come face to face with that darkness, we deny ourselves the joy of really experiencing the beauty of the light!

And now, even with the scars, there are new verses written on the walls of my own home, verses on the wall of the little girl I put to bed every night.

The Lord your God is with you. 
He is mighty save.
He will take great delight in you.
He will quiet you with His love.
He will rejoice over you with singing.
Zephaniah 3:17

And every time I say those promises to her and I find my heart yearning for her to know the depth of their truth, my heart longs to know those same things as well.  Because I know that every little girl...my little girl...the one in these pictures and the one in my womb...as well as the little girl I never got to be...we all need to know the truth of those promises more than we need a tidy and functioning bedroom, more than a place to play and grow, more than dinner around the kitchen table, or working faucets. A relationship with our loving and faithful heavenly Father is the only thing that will ever bring true comfort, true peace, true joy, true freedom, true safety and true healing for whatever dark and lonely place we find in our story.

Read about Opening the Door here. 
Read about The Living Room here. 
Read about The Kitchen here. 
Read about The Dining Room here.  
Read about The Bathroom here. 
Read about Geoff's Room here. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Geoff's Bedroom

As we move on in the house, let me start by highlighting something that struck me when I first saw all these photos.  The images appeared so bright to me!  Naturally, for the sake of capturing the full scale of everything, we lit the rooms. But the reality is that when we lived there, most of the windows were covered and it was rather dark inside. Even more so when we returned to take the pictures and the light fixtures weren't working. The exception to this was in the bedrooms.  Our bedrooms were above the garage and since people couldn't see directly in, we could keep the curtains open.  Additionally, the AC didn't work, so the windows were open 24/7 in the summer months. This also allowed us to talk a lot through the windows to neighbors or friends in the driveway.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we didn't watch TV in the living room or eat in the kitchen, which meant we spent most of our time in our bedrooms.  Geoff's room, in particular, became a substitute living room of sorts.  The TV had been moved there at some point, and from then on it became a gathering place for us.  While most of the carpet couldn't be seen in the rest of the house, there were patches of Geoff's carpet that were clear at the time.  It was a royal blue carpet, which I'm sure was cool at some point in history.  We would order pizza on Friday nights and watch TV or play Nintendo in his room.  I'm sure he hated it...having mom and me in his room all the time with nowhere else in the house for him to go, but he seemed to take it in stride.  However, by the time we went back, the room looked more like everywhere else in the house.

Photo © Geoff Johnson

Generally speaking, Geoff's room holds happy memories for me.  (With the exception of when we would play Nintendo and Geoff would pause me over a jump and kill me on purpose.  Although I'm pretty sure that has more to do with having a big brother than with anything having to do with the house.)  I also remember that we used to clean up Geoff's room entirely the week before Valentine's Day and then decorate it with balloons and streamers and surprise Mom.  It was all meant to be a display of our love for her, but unfortunately, I don't think any area of the house getting cleaned up without her involvement led to much joy or gratitude.  The same was true when my grandpa surprised her by cleaning out the garage one time.  It was disastrous and led to months of silence between them.

Living behind the walls of hoarder is a terrible life of silence and secrecy that leads to loneliness and a deep need for acceptance.  Wanting desperately for people to love you but knowing you can't really let them know all of you.  Although those feelings may not have found their roots in Geoff's or my heart, we certainly felt the effects of them. I often still feel their residue and struggle to keep up appearances on the outside.  And yet God has been so gracious in how He has carried me all these years.  Slowly dealing with the wounds and allowing time to bring some healing.  It hasn't been easy.    Opening the door to friends was the first step.  It was a really hard first step, but had fixing our brokenness been easy, I doubt the Lord would have freely given His innocent son to be slaughtered on the cross to deal with the deep depravity that our souls bear and to set us free from the weight of all our burdens.  Again and again I am reminded of God's desire to "bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Isaiah 61:1).  And that promise is universal, not just to children of hoarders, but to all of us who have broken places of our lives that need real healing.

Read about Opening the Door here. 
Read about The Living Room here. 
Read about The Kitchen here. 
Read about The Dining Room here.  
Read about The Bathroom here. 
Read about My Bedroom here. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Bathroom

This image that Geoff captured of the bathroom is appalling but it is one of the two that were selected to be published in American Photography 30. I think that seeing my daughter in the picture is even more unnerving.  It stirs a bit of anger in me and rightly so...no child should ever have to live in these conditions! And so, in the midst of all these posts, I want to stop and ask you...do you know someone living like this? It is hard to know for sure, I know because they likely won't let you in to see. Maybe they never invite you inside, maybe their windows are constantly covered, maybe they are slow to answer the door. But are there children involved? I know it is easier not to get involved. What will happen if you do? Will it ruin your relationship with that person? Will the results really be better for the kids? I think if it isn't physical or sexual abuse it is easy to say that they are still safe. But please, I beg you...be a voice for that child! They may not even realize things aren't right, more than likely they will never speak up about it out of fear and out of love for their parent. But they are being neglected in so many ways and will grow up with deep wounds if you just brush it off and say, "It isn't my business how they live."


Photo © Geoff Johnson

What kind of wounds you might wonder? The bathroom gives you just a glimpse into such things. The bathroom is a place that is home to so many things that should be private...like showering, going to the bathroom, dealing with your menstrual cycle. And not only do you want privacy for those things yourself, but it can be embarrassing to see others in those same situations. However, when there is too much stuff stacked in front of the door for it to close even a few inches, you are left to do all those things with the door wide open. To this day I have no idea why my mom never put a shower curtain up to provide privacy while we bathed, but she didn't. When we were little we took baths and it wasn't a big deal. But eventually it would become a terribly awkward situation.

Behind the tub faucet the tiles and drywall had been removed and never replaced. Mom didn't want water to get into the walls so we were left to suds up and rinse. We did it as fast as possible because the door was wide open, and especially quickly in the winter because it was so miserably cold. It led to all sorts of shame and self consciousness and issues with my body image. But, the kitchen sink didn't work and neither did the bathroom sink so besides a flushing toilet, the tub was the only running water in the house. Bathing, teeth brushing, hand washing, lemonade making...it all happened from the tub faucet. Eventually,  about a year or so after I moved out, the pipes froze and there was no more water in the house at all. That is what ultimately led Geoff to leave as well.

I never really thought much about it from Geoff's perspective until we went back to the house together. He was the only boy in the house with two females and a bathroom door that didn't close. He spoke of how he trained himself to almost ignore that the bathroom was there when he walked quickly down the hall.

The hall itself was just another place for stuff to get stacked, not serving much purpose other than for getting from our rooms to the front door. This picture almost doesn't do it justice because as a child I remember a bigger pile of stuff against the left wall that spread the entire length of the hall. It seems to me that most of it was newspaper, but I'm not exactly sure. And although I don't remember what all that pile contained, I do know that to me it seemed like a long skinny table that was about waist high and took up about half the of hallway leaving a small trail to walk down. It is also hard to tell from the photo is just how deep the pile of stuff is that lines the floor. You can get a better idea if you look in the lower right corner of the image and see the furnace return. It stood probably about 12-15 inches off the ground, but as you can see it is mostly covered with junk.


Photo © Geoff Johnson

I think the best way to describe it all is with the words a counselor spoke to me a few years ago. While some hoarders have piles of papers or stacks of boxes...there was no such order in our house. It really was like living in a garbage dump. Even so, I love what one of my dear friends said. She is one of the few that came into the house with me a few years ago and as she looked around she very rightly compared it all to the condition of our hearts. Full of junk...full of sin...anger, bitterness, jealousy, pride, fear, selfishness, impatience, an ungrateful spirit. And that is where we live, learning to survive around all the garbage and much like my brother and I as children didn't know any different, all of us are often unaware that things aren't meant to be this way, unaware that there is hope and life offered to us through Jesus Christ and that our hearts can be made clean!


Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: 
though your sins are like scarlet, 
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson, 
they shall become like wool. 
Isaiah 1:18


Read about Opening the Door here. 
Read about The Living Room here. 
Read about The Kitchen here. 
Read about The Dining Room here.  
Read about Geoff's Room here. 
Read about My Bedroom here. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Dining Room

I don't really have a lot to say about the dining room. It was another one of those unnecessary rooms and really was just another place to pile stuff.  Mostly it was home to pictures. Mom took pictures of everything we did and we were involved in so many activities...dance, baseball, soccer, 4-H, scouts, etc. On top of that we tagged along with mom to meetings for PTA and Jaycees and a whole array of other organizations. In some ways it kept us busy and occupied outside the house, but on the flip side it gave us opportunity after opportunity to put on a good face and act like everything was okay. Either way, the dining room table - a wedding gift to my parents from my Grandpa - was buried under piles of photos and film canisters. A typewriter also sat on the back corner of the table, but for there was never a reason for us kids to go back in that corner of the room, so it somehow became scary to me. It wasn't until we went through the house in October 2013 that I realized it was the only corner of the house where you could see the carpet.


Photo @ Geoff Johnson

During that visit we also discovered a whole collection of tea cups that my dad's grandmother had passed down to my mom. They were stored in the china cabinet and with the exception of a little dust, they were in perfect condition. There were very few valuable or sentimental things that were salvageable from the house, but these are some of them and I'm so happy to have them and be able to pass them on to my kids one day.

Back when we lived there and the roof started leaking, the dining room had tubs and containers to try to catch the water and garbage bags to cover the things nearby. At one point the inner layer of the back sliding glass door shattered and a pile of glass remained along the door track until we cleaned the house last year. The dining room was also the place that I accidentally spilled my jar of mealworms that I had from an elementary class project. Because of the layers of surrounding mess, the spill was nearly impossible to clean up entirely and the crawly creatures seemed to thrive in the house. For years I would spot little mealworms here and there and every time I did I had such a sense of guilt. One innocent childhood mistake that should not have been a big deal but it haunted me for years.

Overall, with the exception of going in and out the back door, the only other memory I have in the dining room was shaving my legs for the first time with an electric razor. Random, I know, but I'm sure it had something to do with the state of the bathroom, which I'll post about next...

Read about Opening the Door here.
Read about The Living Room here.
Read about The Kitchen here.
Read about The Bathroom here. 
Read about Geoff's Room here. 
Read about My Bedroom here. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Kitchen

The kitchen was one of the rooms that made our home seem most abnormal.  Take, for instance, the sink.  I have no memory of the kitchen sink ever working.  I'm not sure if it was a broken pipe or a clogged drain.  I just don't ever remember being able to use the kitchen sink.


Photo © Geoff Johnson

And then there was the refrigerator.  It broke early and couldn't be fixed because how could anyone come into the mess to fix appliances?  I remember on occasion my mom would let my grandpa come over to fix something, but in later years she even kept him out.  We did get a small refrigerator for a time, but it too eventually broke and we resorted to keeping things on the back porch during the winter and in a cooler during the summer.  All that made life more difficult when mom's car would break down because it meant we would have to make daily walks to the grocery store to get ice for the cooler or just enough food for dinner and breakfast so it wouldn't go bad.  I hated walking to and from the grocery store so often.  And I also hated pouring icy milk in my cereal for breakfast in the winter when it was already so cold inside the house.  

The stove didn't really work either.  The stove top may have worked, but we never used it.  The oven, however, just barely functioned.  It heated up to a low temperature and while it wasn't really useful to cook anything in, we did turn it on and would stand by it in the winter to keep warm.  

Photo © Geoff Johnson

Winter in the house was almost unbearable.  Maybe that is why I hate the cold weather.  And now that I live in Florida it is almost hard to remember how cold it really was.  But those of you who battle negative degrees in the winter can imagine how miserable it was to come in from outside to a house that was just about the same temperature on the inside.   Not to mention the misery of taking a bath.  Granted the walls blocked the wind and snow, but it was still bitterly cold.  On occasion the furnace did work, but the vents were covered with newspaper and mom was too afraid of it starting a fire so she rarely ran it.  We did have a few small space heaters, but those too were a fire hazard so they were turned off at night.  


So what did work?  The phone.  It hung on the wall, and although it wasn't there when we returned to take pictures, I remember calling friends or answering Dad's calls when he was on his way to pick us up.  I also remember making numerous phone calls to mom when she was at work and Geoff and I were fighting.   

Likewise, the microwave worked and that allowed us to eat more than our fair share of microwave dinners.  Eating fast food and microwave dinners day-in and day-out caused me to develop an unhealthy relationship with food.  If you give a child the opportunity to pick between chicken nuggets or a hamburger and french fries or Taco Bell for dinner every night, they never gain the knowledge on what healthy food choices look like.  I was overweight by the time I was a teenager and when I finally moved out and had the opportunity to take control, I found myself on the verge of a dangerous eating disorder. I later learned how much eating disorders grow out of a need for control, and with such a chaotic childhood, this became one area I could actually control.  Within about a year of moving out I had lost 50 pounds.  

Thankfully, God has redeemed so much of that!  And although I still struggle with control in other areas of my life, I now have a heightened awareness of it.  It is a learning process but the Lord has been gracious to teach me so much about resting in His sovereignty and fighting not for control, but for those things that are good and right and true.

God has done so much more than that as well!  It may not have been until I moved in with my dad that I really had a chance to experiment in the kitchen and although it wouldn't be until I got married that I built any habit of sitting down at the table for a meal, those are two things I value so much now...cooking at home and eating dinner with my husband and kids around the table each night.  Not to mention having people over to my house for dinner! Maybe one day we will even live near family and get to host a holiday meal!

Read about Opening the Door here. 
Read about The Living Room here.  
Read about The Dining Room here.
Read about The Bathroom here.  
Read about Geoff's Room here. 
Read about My Bedroom here.