A few months after my mom passed away, my brother, Geoff and I spent a weekend in the house together. He had been wanting to take pictures of the house and so we took a few days to capture images of it before we cleaned it out. It was a hard but wonderfully healing weekend. Geoff and I had not been back in the house together since I moved out in 1993, twenty years before. The few times I had returned, it was never for more than about 30 minutes. The months that led up to that weekend visit were filled with sleepless nights. I tossed and turned as I thought about so many aspects of our childhood years in that home. And the times I did sleep were littered with dreams having to do with the house. Somehow, the Lord used that weekend with my brother to break the hold the house had on me. Geoff and I talked about life back then, sharing memories and recalling stories that only the two of us would know. As we took measurements, metered light, angled the cameras and snapped pictures we captured glimpses of our life that no one else knew about. A few months later as we talked about the project and about Geoff submitting the photos for review and publication, it seemed appropriate that the title for the work would be "Behind the Door." Today, two of those pictures are published in American Photography 30 for all the world to see and the entire series has been highlighted on Feature Shoot as well as on DailyMail.com, Yahoo, and ABC Online news, among others.
However, for most of my life these things have remained hidden. Not only behind closed doors but deep in my heart with shame and grief and confusion. And while I came to a place years ago where I was willing to journey into that mess, I knew I couldn't do it publicly out of respect for my mom. Please don't think that my respect for her has faded since her death, I'm simply convinced that the state of her soul is no longer concerned about such things. Is airing her 'dirty laundry' tainting her memory? Is it dishonoring her? This is one of the questions I have wrestled with for the past 23 months. And while these posts are more of my story than they are about my mother's, it certainly points to her in many ways. My mom lived under the heavy weight of hoarding for more years than I know. She loved and was loved by so many people but they could never come to her house. She battled cancer for 10 years without feeling free to have people come over to visit or bring her dinner or help her with daily tasks. And now that she has passed from this life into eternity, she no longer is in bondage to such things. While no one wants their dark secrets on display for the world to see, when such things are seen in light of eternity and can now be hung up and declared forgiven and healed because of Christ, that dear friends, is praiseworthy! Darkness brought to light is worth shouting from the rooftops! Christ forgives! He heals! He redeems! He frees! And because of those great truths, I have no doubt that my mom would want Geoff and me to experience as much healing as possible this side of heaven; she would want us to open the door and start the conversation with any that might be in hiding in similar places.
But like I said, this isn't so much about my mom. These are memories from a child of a hoarder. So while I have a tinge of anxiety in my heart as I post, I trust that God will use the opening of these doors to friends and family to move my heart further into His grace and healing.
Without further ado, let's start at the front door. It is strange how familiar it all still is...the dirty cream-colored paint, the rattle of the door handle, the way you have to shake the key so it would turn. The front door carries so much meaning. It was what stood between us and the world...friends, family, neighbors, repairmen. Back then if there was a knock at that door, a part of my heart would stop. Who was it? What did they want? Can I get them to wait in the car or meet me in the backyard?
The door kept the hoarding hidden in the secret world that my mom, my brother and I lived in every day. Geoff went back to the house in August 2013 for the first time in probably 15 years. That initial flood of emotion that comes when you walk back into a place that holds difficult memories was interrupted within minutes of Geoff's arrival. There was a knock at the door. He instantly backed up against the door. It was instinct. It is what we would do if someone knocked or rang the doorbell all those years ago. We would hide, duck out of the way of any window in hopes that no one would know we were there. If they thought we weren't home, they would leave. At the very least if we didn't answer the door right away they would turn and walk away and we could eventually open the door without them being able to see inside. It is strange how those memories are still deeply embedded in us.
I responded similarly when I took two dear friends into the house with me last May. It was immediately after my mom's funeral and my youngest son, still 6 months old, was with me. He was asleep and taking him into the house with us was not an option. There was mold and other unknowns to which I wasn't willing to expose him. With the front door left open, I left him asleep on the porch in his car seat, knowing we would only be inside a few minutes and that I would only be down the hallway. My dear friends walked through the mess with me and as we stood at the top of the staircase they prayed with me...for me...for healing, for freedom. In the meantime, a neighbor had seen us pull into the driveway and before I realized it, she was at our steps. The door was wide open and the mess was there for her to see. I stood maybe ten feet from her, but everything in me was shrinking inside knowing all that those ten feet exposed.
I can't remember the door ever being so widely opened that I could see or talk to someone on the porch while I stood at the top of the landing inside. Feelings of embarrassment and shame flooded my mind. Everything in me wanted to shut the door, but my baby was there and I couldn't. And, besides, it was no longer necessary. Even as we had just prayed, light was beginning to come into the darkness. And now looking back, it seems appropriate that those first steps of healing came between us and the neighbors from whom we so diligently tried to hide it all from for so long. God was beginning to bring life back to those places in my heart that had been hidden for years.
The desolate land shall be tilled,
that which had laid desolate
in the sight of all who passed by.
I still have issues with 'doorbell dread'. When there is a knock at my door today my immediate thought is how the house looks. Are there dishes in the sink? Laundry on the couch? Papers on the counter? Toys all over the floor? This is one of the many fears that I still have to fight regularly to overcome. And yet, I love having people in my house. Perhaps because there are years to make up for or perhaps because I long to give those memories to my kids that I never had the chance to make as a child.
But what about when we had to open the door? Those times were obviously unavoidable so even as kids, we knew we needed to minimize the view into the house. Geoff and I were very aware of the real possibility that if others saw the mess, we could be taken away from mom. So we learned to crack the door just enough to see outside, but not enough for those outside to see the full picture of what was behind the door. It was a heavy burden for children to carry, living in fear of being taken away, not even really knowing what that meant. So as a child you minimize the view of reality. And then you grow up and maybe your house is neat and orderly, but you minimize the view of the reality of your heart. You hide. You pretend. You look good on the outside, but in reality, your heart is a mess and this is what lies behind the door:
Photo © Geoff Johnson
The staircase was so full of stuff that as I grew, I literally would hold onto the railings and jump down the stairs instead of trying to navigate through the papers, books and bags.
The ledge on the right was where everything collected. Incoming and outgoing mail. Receipts, pamphlets, coins, cassette tapes, film canisters and everything in between. Last October, it is where Brandon found my mom's emerald rings and other valuable jewelry, tucked in with the expired jar of jelly and buttons from Jaycee conventions long past.
The coat rack behind the door has held the same clothes and hangers for as long as my memory serves me. They were never used, at least not that I can remember. They just became permanent fixtures like many of the things in the house.
Behind the door there was a pile of newspapers and magazines, overflowing to the point that we really couldn't open the door completely, even if we tried. That pile extended down the other staircase to the basement. Those stairs were even more full of junk than the one pictured above. And I hated to go down them. Some stairs had barely enough room to put your foot down firmly, others you had to step over completely. I slipped on the papers that lined those stairs more times than I care to remember.
But somewhere tucked deep in my mind is one faint memory that must have been before the clutter took over. In that memory, I'm sitting at the bottom of those stairs with my dad next to me. It is foggy and with little detail, but still it remains my only memory of my dad being in the house. So although I have no recollection of when it was or what we might have been doing or talking about, it carries with it a sense of tenderness that I treasure.
Those stairs led to the basement. It was a dark, unfinished (or half finished) room that smelled of mildew and where a myriad of other worthless things had been collecting. In the middle of it all was a ping pong table. It, too, was covered in junk, but you couldn't reach any of its four sides without scaling over piles of trash. At one point, before I was old enough to remember, a fireplace was being installed in the corner. It was never finished however, and a hole remained in the wall that goes through to the outside. I imagine that is why critters could get inside. That is probably why I hated the basement so much. Mice were not uncommon in the winter and my brother was even confronted by a squirrel as he came in from the snow one day. Bugs and spiders of all kinds lived probably more freely in the house than we did. And the basement was certainly in worse form than the rest of the house.
From the steps there was a narrow 'path' that lead about four feet from the stairs to the the laundry room door. The laundry room had the most open floor space in the whole house. That was likely because the sewer backed up frequently. And as filthy as it was, somehow the laundry room seemed the most normal. Maybe because it isn't uncommon for people's basement laundry rooms to be unfinished and in somewhat of a mess, filled with household chemicals and other utilitarian things. It also was the one place where my mom would let people come. If the sewer did back up, the repairman could come in through the garage without seeing the rest of the house.
The laundry room also was a means to an end. It was the place we could wash our clothes (when the washing machine was working) and iron our clothes so that we could look presentable to the rest of the world in hopes they wouldn't know the truth. To this day, ironing remains one of my favorite household chores. Perhaps it was the only routine thing I had to do around the house growing up and somehow looking put together on the outside always made me feel like I was more together on the inside, no matter what was behind the door.
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.
Read about My Bedroom here.