Kimberly Rae Miller is a put-together woman with a great career, a loving boyfriend, and a tidy apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But she grew up behind the closed doors of her family's Long Island house, navigating between teetering stacks of aging newspapers, broken computers, and boxes upon boxes of unused junk festering in every room — the product of her father's painful and unending struggle with hoarding.
He had one plastic bag tied to another tied to a torn knapsack, and rested it all on his shoulders. This man was mesmerizing. This man was homeless. I had never thought about homeless people before, but I knew that was what he was.
I craned my neck backward to watch him, my mother pulling me toward our gate, as he walked through Penn Station and ate the remnants of a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I wondered how he had paid for his chicken and watched as his plastic bags swayed from side to side with each of his steps.
When he saw me staring he tilted his box of chicken toward me in offering, and I immediately looked away and ran to catch up with my mother. I didn't look back, but I thought about him the whole ride home.
"Are you feeling OK?" my mom asked as she bent over to kiss my forehead. "You don't have a fever."
I wasn't usually quiet, at least not around my parents, and whenever I was speechless for more than a few minutes at a time my parents assumed that I wasn't feeling well. I nodded my head to indicate that I was fine. I wasn't, but the bad feeling wasn't sickness — it was something else. The man in the train station, with his tattered appearance, bags of trash, and kind offering, reminded me of my father.
My dad wasn't like other people. He didn't follow the rules that seemed to govern other grownups, and the priorities that he tethered himself to were ideas and knowledge, mostly in the form of newspapers and books, reinforced by a steady soundtrack of NPR. He did the things that other adults did: He had a family, he had a job; but even when I was a little girl they seemed to me like accidental realities he had stumbled into.
It would be years before I heard the theory that hoarders tend to be perfectionists, that each item they collect is one crucial part of an ideal world they are ever creating for themselves. If that's the case, it's possible I inherited this, too, from my father. The older I got, the more obsessed I became with maintaining the illusion that everything in my life was perfect — and as the years passed, I depended upon it to fly me under the radar of friends and faculty long enough to get to college.
No one questions the home life of quiet girls with good grades and kick-line practice after school. My need to be seen as perfect was as compulsive as my father's need to surround himself with paper.
By the time I got to high school, my act had become second nature. I wasn't the shy, barely audible girl I'd been when I was younger. I had people to wave to in the hallways and to pass notes to in class, and parties to go to on the weekend. I was nicknamed "Kimbie" by my new social circle and took on a persona to match my peppy nickname. I rarely left school before 7 p.m. because I had become so immersed in the social world of extracurricular activities, each one chosen as a notch for my college applications and intended to illustrate just how well-rounded I was.
At home, things had reached an unfathomable level of squalor.
Between my father's love of paper (and just about everything else he could get his hands on) and my mother's depression-fueled shopping, our house had started to resemble the remnants at the bottom of a garbage can. Soggy junk filled our living space. When I was 14, the boiler broke in the middle of winter, but we could never allow a repairman into our mess, and so we lived without heat, without showers. Instead, we joined a local gym (I lied and said I was 16), and each Sunday we would go through the motions of a workout so that we would feel justified in using the locker room for our weekly shower.
I was lucky: Instead of acne, puberty had brought with it dry skin and dry hair. I could go a week without washing my hair and still look presentable. Rubbing alcohol and cotton balls sufficed for spot hygiene maintenance to keep body odor under control.
Later — I don't remember precisely when — the pipes in our house started to decay, causing flooding throughout the house. We shut the water off at regular intervals, turning it on to flush the toilet a few times a day, knowing that each time we allowed the water to flow, moisture would escape and drip through the downstairs ceiling that had started to rot. The house smelled musty and moldy, and my trips to the ER for asthma attacks had become so frequent that the hospital eventually sent me home with a ventilator of my own.
Two out of our three bathrooms had stopped working because of various levels of disrepair, so we all used one bathroom on the second floor. The door no longer closed all the way because there was too much junk in the hallway, and no matter how many times we pushed it away, the junk would eventually fall back into its rightful place. We settled for pushing the door closed as far as we could for maximum privacy. Unused, the tub had been converted to yet another place to hold things.
The downstairs had become a relative swamp ground. It never seemed to dry out from the flooding, so when we did walk through it, the inches of trash would squish beneath our feet, creating an unsteady terrain. The living room, dining room, and den — spaces I thought my father would never find enough things to fill — had floor-to-ceiling piles of boxes and bags of paper and knickknacks, things that had been purchased and put down and long forgotten. We gave up the kitchen and survived solely on fast food and hermetically sealed snacks we could keep in our bedrooms.
I often felt like I had two different families. There was the family we were at home, where we lived "every man for himself." There wasn't room anywhere anymore — in the four-bedroom house with the two-car garage and attic big enough to convert to an apartment — for us all to fit somewhere together, so we each found our own station. My mother spent most of her time on the small corner of mattress that was left for her to sleep. Over the years, her mattress had started to slide off the box spring, pushed aside by the spoils of her constant shopping. The side of the bed she slept on teetered at a 45-degree angle, while the half of her mattress still firmly planted on a flat surface had been taken over by stuff. The rest of her time was spent in front of the computer. As the house deteriorated, so had my parents' friendships, and so my mother spent most of her time talking with people she had met in AOL chat rooms, people who couldn't see her twisted body or garbage-filled house.
My father sat either on his mattress in the sea of paper that was his bedroom or in the driver's side of the car, and I had my room.
My bedroom was no better than the rest of the house. My parents, especially my mother, were generous in their shopping. Lacking for anything was never my problem, but I didn't value anything I owned. Everything that came into my house was garbage. It was easier to throw out my dirty clothes than to get the width of a laundry basket through the front door to a laundromat. Every few months, I would purge my room of the dirty clothes, unused spoils of late-night shopping binges, and hallway debris that made its way into my haven into big black plastic bags until the floor was visible, but it would be only a matter of weeks before I had new things and new clothes to take their place.
The family we were outside the house was completely different. My father arranged his work schedule around shuttling me to my seemingly endless array of after-school activities. I would go to kick-line, voice lessons, and youth ambulance corps meetings, while he and my mother would wait in the car. Over the years, they'd gone from fighting all the time to barely talking at all while in the confines of the house, but in the car they were still the same. When I would come out from dance class or acting class or my voice lessons or from a brunch shift at the restaurant I waitressed at, they were there, laughing.
"Hi, honey, how was class?" was my mother's standard greeting, followed by "OK, kiddo, where to next?" from my dad. And there always was a next place to be. We ate out almost every night, a byproduct of having abandoned the kitchen. In these moments, at restaurants, we were at our best; because unlike in the car, which was almost always filled with bags of my father's papers, in a restaurant we were completely free. We laughed — loud, and often at the kind of humor that only seems to make sense in families. My father could laugh so loud and for so long that the people seated around us would start laughing, too.
Life lessons were dished out over appetizers. Over a basket of Buffalo wings, my parents set the ground rules for drugs and alcohol.
I could sit in restaurants or parking lots with my parents forever, because I knew as soon as we pulled into our driveway, my family would disband and we'd all go back into hiding.
Kimberly Rae Miller is a writer and actress living in New York City. "Coming Clean" is her first book and was named an Amazon.com July 2013 Book of the Month. Read her personal blog at TheKimChallenge.com.
Excerpted from "Coming Clean: A Memoir" by Kimberly Rae Miller, with permission from Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. ©2013 by Kimberly Rae Miller. On sale July 23, 2013. All Rights Reserved