I often get asked if I work with hoarders and I always say that it depends on your definition of a person with a hoarding disorder. TV shows like A&E’s Hoarders have drawn attention to hoarding, but it’s important to remember that like so many things in life, there’s a spectrum. And what you see on TV is naturally the extreme, the better to capture the ratings and give viewers a reassuring shiver of “I’m not THAT bad!”
What does hoarding look like?
The International OCD Foundation has published a concise and helpful information sheet about hoarding which you can see here. They also have a handout showing photographs of the various stages of clutter.
As you can see, it’s not an all or nothing thing. Everyone has some amount of clutter and that’s perfectly normal. The guiding principle I go by is this: is the clutter causing a problem for you or your safety?
- If an ambulance had to come into your house with a stretcher, could they get to every room in your house?
- Can you cook and use your kitchen and bathrooms as intended?
And then I ask, is clutter getting in the way of living your life?
- Are you concerned about the amount of time you spend processing your stuff?
- Do you feel like you spend a lot of time trying to manage your clutter but never really making progress?
Although there are extreme situations where the entire contents of your house have to be removed, for the most part people usually aren’t at quite that level. Sure they have trouble finding things, especially paperwork, and often choose to eat out rather than face the clutter in the kitchen, but things aren’t THAT bad!
The trick is to catch them before they get that way. I work with many clients who tell me the one thing they wish they would have done is start ten years ago, when they were fitter and more mobile, when they had more physical energy and mental stamina to deal with the thousands (if not more) of decisions that come along with clearing clutter.
Late onset hoarding
Sometimes, too much stuff only becomes a problem when your life circumstances change drastically. Perhaps you break your hip or a chronic arthritic shoulder has become a fact of life. Suddenly mobility isn’t as easy as it used to be, and picking things up is difficult if not impossible.
Managing the flow of things in the house is overwhelming and so to cheer yourself up, you go online and start practicing a little “retail therapy.” Especially if you’re someone who already uses buying things as a way of cheering yourself up, the sheer amount of stuff in your home can quickly spiral out of control once you’re no longer able to easily put things away or pass them on.
Hoarding is just one aspect of a person, it’s not the whole. I know that every person who struggles with hoarding does so in large part because they’re intelligent, interesting and interested, fascinated with the world and all its possibilities. As the fact sheet from the OCD Foundation noted, it seems likely that serious hoarding problems are present in at least 1 in 50 people, but they may be present in as many as 1 in 20. So if your clutter has gotten out of control, you’re most definitely not alone.
My Dad was on the hoarding spectrum and clearing out his three story Victorian house in just a week was the motivation for finally founding my business.
When I flew home to England for his funeral, it had been decades since I’d seen my childhood home. My Dad visited us regularly and to be honest, flying with two small kids with ADHD to England was a challenge I was happy not to have to meet.
I was immediately struck by how full the house was. Papers were crammed into every nook and cranny. He must have kept every piece of paper he’d come across in 40 years. Over the years he’d joked about how organized my house was compared to his but when I offered to help, he’d tell me he wasn’t worried because he knew where everything was.
With only a week to clear the house before the dump trucks arrived to haul everything away, I worked round the clock. At the last minute, I found my birth certificate in a pile of receipts and shopping lists from the 1970s. I still wonder what else I missed.
Here’s the thing
I know my Dad was so much more than his cluttered house. I’m sure he didn’t want to leave me the burden of dealing with his clutter, but shame prevented him from getting help while he could. Being on the hoarding spectrum isn’t a personal failure any more than having diabetes is. It’s just something you deal with.
If you have diabetes, you don’t refuse the doctor’s help and sit around wringing your hands, declaring that you should be able to manufacture insulin if you just tried harder. You get help and get on with your life. Why should needing help with the clutter in your home be any different?
So, if you think you may have a bit too much clutter, and you’re ready to do something about it, what’s the most successful way to clear space?
Ask for help
Family and friends are often eager to lend a hand. Perhaps a little too eager. The trick is finding helpers who aren’t also judgers. Your relationship with your family and friends is more important than the clutter, and so it doesn’t often work to let the daughter who rolls her eyes at the “mess” or the neighbor who just wishes you’d clear your yard already so they can sell their house, be your main source of support.
They’re too close to the problem and though they may tell you they know hoarding isn’t a personal failing, there’s a history of tension over the clutter that can erupt into anger when you don’t move as fast as they think you “should” be able to.
Be careful when you hire a professional organizer too. Every organizer has their niche and hiring someone who loves interior design and wants your house to look picture perfect is asking for trouble. You’ll want to make sure your organizer understands what they’ll call “chronic disorganization”. Meaning someone who has historically had a tough time with either getting and/or staying organized. Check out the directory of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization to find a trained organizer near you. You can see a list of their subscribers, including yours truly, here.
There are three main approaches to tackling decluttering.
“Up against the wall” decluttering
Some people wait for a deadline. The furnace breaks down and it’s 20 degrees inside the living room. They call in a panic on Friday and tell me they need to get the whole place cleaned out by Monday since the furnace tech will be there at 10 am and needs to be able to get to the furnace room. Or they have a housing inspector coming in two weeks and their house is full to the rafters, with windows blocked and pathways doubtful at best.
The thing is, not only is it incredibly tiring and stressful to work around the clock to clear the clutter, more and more research is showing that it just doesn’t work long-term. If you’re looking for help because you have a deadline within a week, your best bet is to look for a clean out company. It’ll be beyond stressful, it’ll be highly traumatic but you most likely won’t get evicted. I don’t do clean outs like this because the research shows it’s beyond stressful, it’s highly traumatic and the place fills up again and then some within a matter of months if not weeks.
“I’ll do it when the spirit moves me” decluttering
You can also tackle it sporadically – every once in a while, you’ll get a burst of energy and enthusiasm and so you power through until you collapse with exhaustion and give the whole thing up. Things do look a little better in the short run, but since the systems aren’t set up to keep clutter in its place, life soon returns to clutterey normal.
Slow and steady wins the decluttering race
The most successful strategy is to commit to the project, work slowly and steadily and give the experience of decluttering a chance to “take”.
Building new behaviors takes time. Regular hands-on decluttering, ideally weekly, with an experienced professional will help you build the habits that’ll stop clutter at its source.
It’s just like practicing the violin – ten minutes every evening is far more useful than a frantic two hour burst of practice right before your lesson.
Getting the support you need
This interview with local Boulder therapist Sonja Hellman sheds light on a promising new therapeutic approach to hoarding that gets rid of the shame and makes tackling the clutter much more functional. You can read my interview with her here.
So, do you work with people on the hoarding spectrum?
Yes, when we’re able to work slowly and steadily to change the environment and reduce clutter so systems can work effectively. If you’re reading this because you need to pass an inspection next week, I reluctantly recommend you find a clean out specialist. Reluctantly, because it’ll be stressful, expensive and traumatic, but it’s the only way to get a full house to pass such an inspection. But if you’re ready to make a change and you’re not up against an impossible deadline, I’d love to help. Here are the guidelines for clients who are living with scant or no pathways, and a significant amount of possessions that makes using rooms for their intended functions problematic:
- Active and consistent work with a therapist to address any underlying trauma. Without this, any work we can do together has little chance of making a permanent change. I can provide referrals.
- I ask that you contact me directly either by phone or email. We’ll set up a free 30 minute in home consultation. Letting me in for this consultation will be the hardest part of our work together but once you see for yourself that I won’t judge you, your relief will be palpable.
- Once we decide to work together, we’ll agree to work for a trial period of six sessions to evaluate your readiness for change. I’m not in this business to scare people so if you find you’re still experiencing significant anxiety about decluttering after six consecutive sessions, we may not be the best fit.
- I ask for a commitment to follow through on mutually agreed tasks between our sessions. These tasks will be very small, purposely designed not be overwhelming and we’ll come up with them together, adjusting as we go. I’ve learned that if assigned tasks go unaddressed, there’s little chance of us making a permanent change in the hoarding behavior.
- I do not work in situations where there’s an excessive amount of cat dander, where there is rodent or bed bug infestation, or where mold/mildew are present.
What to expect
- Calm, compassionate and creative assistance with learning to let things go.
- Cheerful, encouraging, caring support as you makes these changes. I’m on your side and I want you to succeed. I’ve learned that the way I help people declutter works over the long haul. It’s a process and I know how to keep the end result in sight, and how we’re going to get there. Changing behavior can be difficult, but I also know it can be done with the right framework.
- Hands-on work as side by side, we process your possessions.
- Autonomy. You’re the decision maker and nothing leaves the house without your permission.
- Donation assistance. After each session, I take a full trunk load of donations to the thrift store. I can also recommend consignment options locally if you’re interested in that option.
- Complete confidentiality. My car doesn’t advertise my business and I don’t discuss client identity or affairs with others. If you and your therapist decide that a discussion with me would be useful, I’m honored to participate and completely respect your privacy.
- A house that works for you. The goal isn’t magazine cover perfectionism or extreme minimalism, but for you to be able to live happily, safely and functionally in your space.
- You’ll be able to find things with ease. No more wasting money on duplicates of things you know you already have.
- The end of a source of significant tension with family members who share your space.
- The choice to welcome friends and relatives into your space without shame or embarrassment.
- Happiness and increased self-confidence are natural by products of this work. How good is it going to feel to stop clutter from ruling the roost? I’ve watch client after client go from feelings of dejected hopelessness and self-criticism to joyful self-respect, knowing they’ve conquered a long-standing problem and can get on with their lives without the burden of all that clutter.
When you’re ready
Please call Lucy Kelly at (720) 526-2114 or email me at email@example.com. I look forward to helping you declutter and organize your space.
© 2013 – 2019 Joyful Surroundings LLC. All rights reserved.