Filled Up and Overflowing – what to do when life events, chronic disorganization, or hoarding go overboard, is a compassionate, practical read that I wish had been available when I was starting out as an organizer. I’m thrilled we have the book as a resource now.
In this interview, professional organizers and authors Diane N. Quintana and Jonda S. Beattie share their best strategies for managing the intensity of work in a hoarding spectrum situation. We’ll hear how they celebrate the successes along the way and find out their must-do’s for when you only have 8 hours to help someone deal with clutter.
JS LLC: I’m always curious how people end up being organizers. You’ve both come to organizing after careers in teaching. I’m wondering what drew you to organizing and in particular, working with the chronically disorganized client?
DIANE: This is such a silly story – but true – I have always been very organized. We started our married life in Asia for my husband’s job. Bangkok, Thailand (1979-1982) then to Hong Kong (1982-1984) then Connecticut until 1993 and then Singapore (1993-1997). I worked teaching first grade in Bangkok, had our first child in Hong Kong, our second child was born in Connecticut. I went back to teaching, then when we moved to Singapore, I taught as a substitute. When my husband moved our family back to Connecticut from Singapore, I went back to work teaching at the same private school our children attended.
I was good personal friends with the administrator of the elementary division. She suggested that I work as an on-site substitute. I knew the school and the teachers – many were friends. I agreed. She had an ulterior motive. She knew that I loved to organize. I had organized parties at her house and mine – as well as our children’s toys. When she didn’t have me in a classroom, she had me organizing teacher materials, centers for the children, books in the library – you get the picture. One day, one of the younger teachers pulled me aside and said, “There’s a place for people like you!” I wasn’t sure what she meant … Then she told me about NAPO [National Association for Productivity and Organizing Professionals]. That was the beginning.
I attended a NAPO meeting in Connecticut and one of the members told me about this new study group, the NSGCD [now ICD, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization]. I was fascinated because it took my love for education and educational differences and organization and put them together. I’m drawn to people with challenges like hoarding behaviors and chronic disorganization because I want to help them create coping strategies that let their beautiful selves shine.
JONDA: I was a special education teacher for 30 years. When I retired, I looked for something to do part time. Becoming a Professional Organizer was a perfect fit with my experience. I fell in love with the profession and because of my experience, working with CD clients and ADHD clients was a natural. My training in special education taught me a lot about working with children with disabilities like ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities. I also see those types of behaviors with some of my clients.
Working in different settings all day with different age groups and very different disabilities taught me that to survive, I had to be extremely organized myself. I also learned patience. I learned to love the children while struggling with their disabilities. I also learned mediation skills that have come in very helpful.
JS LLC: The working situations you describe in the book can be overwhelming – how do you maintain your sense of self in such an environment in the moment with the client?
DIANE: Most of these situations are totally overwhelming. I admit that the first couple of clients I worked with, I was fine while I was with them but then I had absolute breakdowns at home. I would crawl into a corner in my room and cry my eyes out.
One of the things that I am good at is compartmentalizing. I could go home and cry because while I am with the client, I am 100% with them – for them. I am not focused on my feelings. I work to do my personal best for them, listening intently to what they are saying and paying attention to what they are not saying.
I give myself time when I get home to acknowledge and lean into my feelings so that these feelings never spill over onto the time with my client.
JONDA: I focus more on the person than the environment. I keep a personal connection and I give a lot of praise and affirmations. I also set boundaries. If, for example, I am working with a client with bipolar disorder and they are having one of their bad times and they begin screaming or becoming verbally abusive, I explain to them that I can see that they are upset and that I think it would be best if we stop for today and I come back another time. On the way home I remember their situation and the times that we have had good sessions.
I also try to take care of myself by setting work boundaries so that I am fresh when I am with the client.
JS LLC: I remember a therapist telling me that when she worked with people dealing with anorexia, she would find herself starting to wonder whether an apple had too many calories for a snack. How do you stay centered and grounded so you don’t end up taking work home with you, working harder than the client, as you mention in the book? Do you have any rituals you use either before or after a client session that help you with this?
DIANE: The only ritual I have is that I focus intently on the client before I meet with them. I will review my notes. Think about what may possibly have happened in between my visits. Then after the visit, I make my notes and embrace any feelings I may have. I need to add here that if there is cause for celebration (which there always is – no matter how small) I am over the moon happy for my client.
JONDA: I don’t know if it is because of my years of working with children with special needs but I don’t have a really hard time leaving the stress of the job behind. I often find myself in the evening thinking about the latest job and what we might do to improve the situation but more in a problem solving way than a stressful way. I have worked with teams under me and had some of them tell me that they couldn’t sleep well because of worrying about the client. I do find after working with clients with hoarding tendencies, I have the urge to purge even more from my home. But to answer your question, no special rituals. What I try to do is maintain my regular routines as much as possible. These ground me.
JS LLC: You both appeared on an episode of A&E Hoarders. What was the experience of working on that show like for you?
DIANE: I was the lead organizer under Geralin Thomas at Phylliss’ home in Griffin, Georgia. This is the episode with all the Beanie Babies. It is the only episode I was on. We (the team) had a great time. We worked super hard – very long hours over several days. I would do it again because it shines a light on the pervasive problem of hoarding behaviors. Having said that, it gives the impression you can make significant change in an hour. This, as you know, is a false impression.
JONDA: I really enjoyed the experience of working with a team of people I knew. I admired the crew that was putting on the program. Diane and I also got to be part of the aftercare.
JS LLC: If you only had 8 hours to work with a client, what would you take care of first?
DIANE: I always ask the client, “What hurts the most?” I want to start and make a big impact where it is bothering the person most. I also keep my eye out for hazards. I ask if I can make the hallway safer, clear kitchen counters to a point where the person could safely do a little cooking. The two most important things to me are: 1. I address what is bothering them most. 2. That I do what I can in that time period to improve the safety in the home.
JONDA: I would try to work on the one thing that was bothering them the most. If safety in the home was an issue I would focus on that.
JS LLC: A lot of readers are going to be drawn to your book because they want to help someone they love. What advice would you give a concerned family member who doesn’t live in the home?
DIANE: I would advise them to keep talking – without lecturing. If there is a real concern for the family members’ safety, see if they will allow an organizer to come in to make the home safer – specifically for harm mitigation. It’s so important to keep the lines of communication open. There can’t be change if there’s no contact. Also, see if the family member would allow a short visit from time to time.
JONDA: It is very important to keep communication lines open and not be judgmental. The family member must remember that the person living in the home has the last say. It is their home. Take care of safety issues and just be available.
JS LLC: In the book, you talk about the importance of rewarding yourself and celebrating success. How do you reward yourself and celebrate when a client graduates from your practice?
DIANE: I’m a big believer in lots of rewards. I reward myself with time in the sunshine reading a novel, or watching a Hallmark movie, or a trip to a garden. I’m not a go out and buy a reward kind of person. I really like indulging myself with things that I enjoy doing. I encourage that in my clients. Although, I have been known to find out what their favorite cookie or cake is and bake it for them as a special treat following a lengthy organizing session because I celebrate the mere fact they are letting me in their home to help them. Celebrating is a good thing to embrace!
JONDA: Actually we do celebrations all along and what the celebration is depends on the situation. For one client where we have worked a long, long time on getting the kitchen in order – we prepare a meal together as a bonus with no charge to her time. I have taken flowers to clients who have downsized and moved. What I really emphasize is that the client themselves come up with rewards. I end almost every session with “and how will you reward yourself this evening for all that you accomplished today?”
JS LLC: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Is there anything else you’d like readers of this blog to know?
DIANE: Jonda and I had a wonderful friendship and working relationship before we started writing this book. You may remember we also wrote two children’s books together. [Benji’s Messy Room, Suzie’s Messy Room] We didn’t realize how closely aligned our thoughts were about organizing until we put the vision and mission statements together for our new business. It’s truly fantastic to do this work together.
JONDA: Working on this book with Diane has been such a wonderful journey. As we worked, we decided to start our new business Release.Repurpose.Reorganize. I laugh when I hear organizers talking about how they will manage when they get older. At 77 I am still learning and growing and adapting. The journey is fantastic!
Diane N. Quintana and Jonda S Beattie are professional organizers and authors. They live in Georgia and have each published several books: check out all of Diane’s books and all of Jonda’s books. [Joyful Surroundings LLC is NOT an affiliate for amazon or anyone else.]