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Raised by a Parent with OCD Spartanism: The Experience, The Aftermath

It was her hobby. It was her passion. It was her drug. She always said, “I get a ‘high’ from getting rid of stuff.” But until three years ago, I never realized my mother’s love of getting rid of her own stuff (and then eyeing your stuff for “dejunking”) wasn’t just a partly-humorous, partly-annoying eccentricity. It’s OCD: OCD Spartanism to be precise and it’s catchy. Damn catchy.

There are many articles about what’s like to have OCD and how to not only survive but live-live-live successfully with it or around it or in spite of it. I have OCD too. It flamed to life when my family went batcrap crazy. It faded when I went No Contact with them. I still have it, but I choose not to feed that particular wolf. By ignoring the pink elephant that is OCD, by not feeding it it’s veterinarian-approved diet of paying-attention-to-it and worrying-about-it, you rob it of its power.

But it’s still there. Heck! My therapist told me OCD is wildly genetic. Think back over your family. If you have OCD, chances are it runs in your family too. In my family tree, it doesn’t run: it romps. But we all have a different ways of expressing it.

In 1962, my beautiful Great-Aunt “Randa” died from breast cancer at the age of thirty-six. Hers had not been an easy life. You see, Randa had undiagnosed OCD. From the stories I’ve heard, it began in her teens. “She’d pick at her skin,” her sister says. Later when Randa married and had two beautiful children, she found it difficult to leave off cleaning and polishing furniture to attend to them. “She’d just rub and rub and rub one piece of furniture,” I once heard. “Meanwhile, her tiny daughter would stand patiently in her crib for so long, waiting for her mother to attend to her.”

Randa loved her son and daughter very much and was certainly not purposely neglectful. She simply had OCD so crippling her mother was obliged to help her finish her housework. Randa was stuck. Stuck in OCD. Perhaps, in that small way, her untimely death was release from her own personal, private state of torture.

The OCD bug evidences itself in different ways: Randa had dermatillomania (like me) and was “addicted” to polishing. Randa’s sister is hyper-hyper-hyper-clean. I pluck my eyebrows (trichotillomania) way too much and used to pick at my skin (dermatillomania). My mom gets rid of stuff. A lot of stuff!

But it wasn’t until earlier this week when I found myself looking around my own home, thinking, “Hmmmm, I don’t feel right. What’s wrong here? What can I clean? Organize? Re-organize? Re-re-re-re organize? Throw away!?!” that it hit me: It rubbed off! Or to put it poetically, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all.”

OCD has been described as the itch you can’t scratch. Was there ever a more perfect description!?! It’s like that itch right between your shoulder blades that you just can’t reach no matter how you contort yourself. That’s OCD. Something is definitely wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it and you can’t seem to fix it.

OCD becomes your “addiction” the day you discover you can artificially scratch the itch by {fill-in-the-blank}: cleaning, organizing, plucking, picking or throwing away. The itch is temporarily satiated. But it’ll always come back and you’ll have to apply the Calamine lotion of cleaning, organizing, plucking, picking or throwing away again. (But it never gets to the root of what’s really troubling you — false guilt, narcissistic abuse, cult withdrawal, {insert-pain-here.})

This got me thinking about what it was like growing up with a parent with OCD spartanism and how I caught it when I don’t even like it! If Mom had simply gone around packing up her own possessions to donate to the thrift store, that would’ve been one thing. But it didn’t stop there. When she needed a “fix,” sometimes she’d start in on your stuff too. And when she wasn’t throwing things away or donating them to the thrift store, she was reading about dejunking and talking about it.

At the northern end of my parents’ attic, there are three shelves mounted to the wall with brackets. On those shelves are my dad’s books. He rarely ever looks at them, but treasures them nonetheless. Books are his friends; they’re always there for him. He finds comfort in books. (Who doesn’t!? They say that when  C. S. Lewis died, his home, The Kilns, was so unstructurally sound that the walls were literally being held up, not by studs and nails, but by his collection of thousands of books!)

Dad’s books bug Mom. They’re a constant burr under the saddle of her OCD. Every couple of years, she’ll mention to Dad that they should go through his books and give away the ones he doesn’t want. And every time, he gets mad. Really mad! She knows he’ll get mad, but she risks it anyways because the OCD wolf must be fed even if it means ruining a perfectly pleasant Saturday and causing marital strife.

With me and my stuff, she took a different approach. One day I came home from high school to find my bedroom had been completely rearranged. On my bed there was a neat pile of my clothes. In my absence, Mom had gone through my drawers and selected items she thought I should give away. It really upset me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I didn’t believe I had a valid right to feel violated. After all, in their world, a child or adult living under their roof, paying rent or not, has no right to privacy. None whatsoever. Their roof, their rules, their responsibility.

OCD spartanism was a kind of negative pressure in the house sucking outwards. Even as I collected housewares in my Hope Chest for the future I hoped would eventually come (but it didn’t look likely), I felt an equal-but-opposite pressure to get rid of stuff from the same Hope Chest. Together, Mom and I would go through all my stuff maybe once a year — kitchenwares, knick-knacks, my childhood dollies and I’d make a small pile of things to throw away or give away. To this day I regret giving away my cabbage patch doll, Janey, but the pressure was always there to placate mom with a small pile of stuff to give away.

It wasn’t just pressure. OCD Spartanism was preached! It was a favorite topic as Mom held forth on people who have too many personal possessions. One of her favorite quotes was by Thoreau: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” (I know it by heart and it haunts me, haunts me.)

“When you die,” she’d say, “you should’ve already gotten rid of your stuff. The next generation shouldn’t be burdened with going through a house full of a life’s collection of junk.” That turned into a running joke. “That won’t be a problem for you, Mom,” I said. “By the time you’re old, you’ll be down to just three possessions: the computer, the bed and the pizza cutter.” Back then it was funny; now I see it as sad.

Don Aslett, who’s made a career out of cleaning and dejunking, was her favorite author. They exchanged letters. She took great poetic delight in  dejunking one of his books!

She became fascinated with the idea of only owning 100 items. It was her glowing ideal. There are other people who actually own only 100 things (although they count their CD collection as “1”) and she envied them. To this day, what I learned in my impressionable youth haunts me, yet I don’t know how you run a successful household with only the Golden Mean of 100 Human Possessions. There’s nothing to fall back on, nothing to be creative with. It must be a sterile life.

One of her favorite books was Material World: A Global Family Portrait in which families the world over posed with all their possessions arrayed on their front lawn. She was fascinated by how much they did or did not own, describing in glowing terms families who only possess only one good knife. She saw it as an ideal. I see it as crippling poverty…and a crippling lack of kitchenalia (my passion!)

Here’s a quintessential example of OCD gone wild, in her own words:

I’ve been busy trying to organize and purge [your Dad’s] vast collection of medical documents from the past eleven years. He has probably three dozen…folders full of papers. I am sorting them and he’ll decide what to keep and what to toss. When I’m done, what is left will go into plastic freezer bags with labels, instead of folders. (I try to eliminate excess paper, as various bugs eat paper that is stored for long periods of time. We don’t have bugs like that…
They don’t have paper-eating bugs but nonetheless…Danger, Will Robinson!!

Those kind of messages sink in. Like parsley melting into butter on a hot day, I absorbed anything and everything my family taught with the undiscerning mind of a child who, far from disrespecting her parents, hung on their every word. The message was clear: “Stuff is bad. People who own much of it aren’t great either.” It haunts me, haunts me.

My childhood house reflected it. It was “home” and yet, it wasn’t. The walls were white, sterile, cold both in color and in temperature. There were a very few tasteful pieces of wall art, way too many mirrors (I could never escape from myself!) and fewer and fewer knick-knacks as the years progressed. It was home in name, but a sterile white box of a house with one lonely petunia out front. I always looked forward to going home, but the anticipation was never fulfilled: it never quite felt like home.

Even heirlooms did not escape unscathed. She cut the handwritten family tree out of the front of the Swedish Bible passed down through the generations and only kept that part, if memory serves correctly. That hurts. That precious heirloom should’ve been passed down to me intact along with the family tree and family photos.

Here’s the weirdest part of OCD spartanism: it’s actually the opposite side of the coin that is “hoarding.” That’s right; they’re related. I didn’t know that until recently, but now it makes sense because Mom is fascinated by hoarders. She hangs out on their message boards, amazed at the photos of their mounds and mounds of stuff. “This one woman had a melon plant growing in her kitchen sink!” she exclaims. Hoarding fascinates her almost as much as dejunking and spartanism thrill. (But she’s not overly keen on cleaning.)

It’s hard to set up housekeeping for yourself when years and years of OCD Spartanism preaching are echoing in your brain. Where you feel guilty for setting knick-knacks on a shelf and soul-search before gasp! painting a wall with a color that is not insane asylum antiseptic white. Where you’re wracked with guilt for storing anything under the bed, because “that’s not what we do.”

I had to break all the rules to set-up a home that felt like a home: with warmth and color and pretty things to look at. A Tasha Tudoresque cottage, not a frigid hospital ward, with great art and plenty of it. Lovely colors. Dog bones, squeaky toys and catnip fish are all over the floor. The kittens are literally hanging from the curtain rods and the dogs are chasing them at full tilt, raising the dust I suppose. Houseplants drop leaves on tabletops. Dirt gets trailed in from the verdant garden. These are all the things that add richness and warmth and beauty and creativity and homey-ness to life, so conspicuous by their absence from the OCD spartanism home and life.

But it didn’t stop there!

In 2013 while I packed to move Up North, Mom mentioned cheerily that instead of packing and renting a U-haul, some people just get rid of all their possessions in their old house and buy all new for their new house. I didn’t say anything but it rankled. I thought it the daftest idea I’d ever heard, especially financially. As if my husband’s vintage electronics could be re-found and re-purchased. Her suggestion was out-of-touch-with reality and offensive. Plus, I like my things. I’m a great “nester” and I want my nest … not a nest of new things that have no history, no memories!

Moving to the country and living among normal people was an education. They all had stuff. We all have indoor pets and lots of ’em. All the men have a mound of engine parts and suchlike that come in handy when they need to fix something. Everyone has a wild corner at the edge or corner of their lawn that goes unmowed. Everyone has sheds full of stuff. Everyone has an old car or two mouldering in the Back ’40. And when you die, there’s an auction. Tables and tables of stuff where the community comes to browse, mingle and pick up your useful items for pennies on the dollar. That’s the natural flow of normal life and I like it. It feels wrong after an upbringing in OCD spartanism, but I prefer normalcy. It’s been quite an education.

Then it happens: the trigger. It may be the torture of cult withdrawal, the pain of narcissistic abuse, something triggers emotional pain. And OCD seems to be the answer. Suddenly, I find myself looking around my cottage to “fix” what is wrong. What can I get rid of? Clean? Re-organize? Re-re-re-re-re-organize because I already re-re-organized the pantry the last time OCD hit!

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
I am my mother after all

Damn it!

But there’s one big difference: I know what’s going on. I’m cognizant of it. I don’t think it’s good. I don’t think it’s cute or funny or a valid hobby. I don’t feed that wolf. I don’t preach OCD. I fight it! I hold very still and wait ’til the feeling leaves me. And I certainly don’t pressure my spouse to get rid of his tons of beloved electronics! Heaven forbid!

Unfortunately, Mom never knew the words “OCD spartanism” back in the 80s when she first caught the bug. She didn’t have the knowledge, the tools, the terminology, the internet to know that what’s bothering her isn’t the house and the stuff inside it: it’s narcissistic abuse, cult abuse and being the daughter of a narcissistic mother. That’s the real problem that needs to be addressed! Not Dad’s pathetic three shelves of cherished books.

Stuff isn’t bad. Possessions aren’t evil. OCD is nasty – but it all revolves on how you handle it. Are you feeding it or starving it? The worst thing you can do is hold it up to the next generation as an ideal way to be. That’s just plain wrong. Stuff gives richness to life. Having the tools of creativity always at your fingertips is an integral part of healing.

But there’s still that nagging voice in my head that tells me everything will be better, I’ll feel okay about myself, if I just re-organize this, clean that, throw out the other.

OCD is a damned liar.

And I hate it.

Photo by oddsock

Raised by a Parent with OCD Spartanism: The Experience, The Aftermath

Lenora Thompson

For five years, "Narcissism Meets Normalcy" has followed the real-life, ongoing story of freelance writer, Lenora Thompson, and her readers’ healing journey from narcissistic abuse to healing, peace and happiness. In August 2020, Lenora launched a new blog, "Beyond Narcissism…And Getting Happier All the Time" as she and her readers explore the new world of peace and happiness. "Beyond Narcs…Get Happy" is 100% reader supported! To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael’s heroic fight against Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to subscribe to her other writings, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2019). Raised by a Parent with OCD Spartanism: The Experience, The Aftermath. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Feb 2019
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