From Clutter to Crisis to Cleanup How to Help a Hoarder

Reporter's Diary Day One:
The Assignment
2:30 PM: Read e-mail assignment letter from editor at The Cooperator. Topic is compulsive hoarding: who does it, how it mushrooms into problems for shareholders and their neighbors, what can be done to remediate it. 2:40 PM: Start looking for notebook under piles on the desk. Discover old bills, pizzeria menus, Backstreet Boys CD without a case, a screwdriver, several hair scrunchies, and a phone number with no name on a scrap of paper.3:00 PM: Find notebook - start hunting for pen. 3:10 PM: Stoop to clean up piles of paper that have been dislodged by pen search. Pile them on foot of bed, next to yesterday's socks, a Beanie Baby, and a pile of clean laundry.3:30 PM: Use pager on cordless phone base to locate handset. 3:35 PM: Remove phone from under comforter and remake bed, restack papers, socks, laundry, and Beanie Baby.3:40 PM: Call story contacts - feel oddly connected to topic.

Does any of this ring a bell for you? Do you have a cabinet full of mismatched Tupperware? A room so filled with papers that you can't find the floor? Closets brimming with stuff, and more stuff? A dining room table that no one ever eats on? After talking to several experts and poring over several Web sites, I'm relieved to have found that I am one of the millions of people who clutter and/or hoard. I'm worse than some and better than many. But no matter where you are on the spectrum, there's help available to cut the clutter and enable you - or your hoarding shareholder - to see the floor again.

"The smarter they are, the more stuff they hold onto," says Ron Alford, president of Disaster Masters Inc., a professional disaster management firm based in Queens, speaking of people with hoarding tendencies. "College professors, nurses, lawyers - they're all information junkies. They hold onto articles, magazines, notes, because they feel like they never know when they are going to need them again." The answer to that question is, of course"¦probably never. The truth is, most paper that goes into a pile is never seen again. One PTA flier left on the kitchen counter because it is "urgent" breeds countless other pieces of paper. Usually it is completely buried by new mail, supermarket circulars, and last week's spelling tests until long after the expiration date of whatever it originally advertised.

Hanging Onto the Old

There's a difference, however, between little piles of clutter and a serious hoarding situation, and the root of it may lie in the "whys" of the packrat's behavior. There are many different reasons why people hang onto seemingly random, worthless bits and pieces - and these reasons dictate what they keep. Some people suffer from what Alford has dubbed "disposophobia" - the fear of throwing things away. Other people are afflicted with "affluenza" - an addiction to spending money on things because of the rush shopping gives, without any thought to whether it is needed, or where it will go once purchased.

OrganizedHome.com is a Web site designed for the person who has decided to do something about their clutter. According to site publisher Cynthia Towley-Ewer, there are other categories of clutterers too. The Sentimentalist keeps - you guessed it - mementos.

My mother is a mild Sentimentalist, keeping all my baby teeth, corks from special bottles of champagne, sugar cubes from fancy restaurants, and every playbill and ticket stub ever. The only reason she isn't overwhelmed is that she is so organized. All her pictures go in albums and the albums into closets - unlike the type of hoarder known as The Deferrer. This is the person who says, "I'll think about that tomorrow." He puts everything down right in front of him, and puts off finding a regular place to keep it - forever.

Closely related to the Deferrer, according to Towley-Ewer, is The Perfectionist. She is waiting until she has the time to organize everything perfectly. In the meantime, all those nice storage boxes she buys sit empty, making their own piles, until she can get color-coded labels.

Getting Serious

Semi-humorous nicknames aside, these habits are often coupled with very real - and sometimes acute - conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or depression. A chronically disorganized homeowner is one thing, but sometimes, bigger personal issues take clutter and hoarding behaviors past the point of a simple bad habit.

Laura Lakin is a professional organizer and the founder of ClutterBusters, based in Manhattan. She got into the business, the hard way: through having to clear her own clutter. "About 20 years ago, I went through a bad depression," says Lakin. "By the time I got better, things had gotten so backed up it took me six years to go through all my stuff."

Alford finds this scenario very familiar. "Every one of my clients has, as the root cause of their clutter, some form of depression," he says. "They're very cautious and shy, and they don't want to be judged. Unfortunately, they judge themselves a million times. Then they get more down on themselves."

Even the word "hoarding" has a negative connotation for most people. It conjures up images of greedy, mean old men gleefully surveying their riches while others starve. By contrast, the clutter seems to happen by itself. The individual does not have bad intentions, or even weakness, just a lack of organizational skills.

"I call it "˜clutter paralysis'," says Lakin. "The minute you perceive that this is unbearable clutter and say "˜I've got to do something about this,' the less able you are to do anything about it."

Lakin believes some people hoard because they have a distorted instinct about what they need. "This is especially true of people who lived through the [Great] Depression - they're afraid to part with anything for fear they will need it," Lakin says. "It's difficult to let go of things that have perceived value. Sometimes they have to redefine their ideas about need. My work sometimes leads me into areas that a psychotherapist would tread."

Towley-Ewer recommends on her Web site that compulsive hoarders view outside resources as their own personal storage areas. For example, you don't need to keep that extra turkey-baster because you can probably pick up another one at a yard sale for under a dollar. Magazine articles can be accessed online, or at the library, rather than kept eternally lying around, piled up to one's knees.

Most really extreme hoarders are single, because those with mates try to get them help. Although the stereotypical hoarder tends to be a senior citizen, hoarding actually afflicts people of all ages. I have a friend who hasn't had company at her apartment for years, because you can barely get through her front door for all the debris piled up inside. You might be surprised how many people live like this - Alford has seen entire rooms of apartments succumb to clutter that reaches to the ceiling. "Every piece of paper ends up on a horizontal surface somewhere," he says. "It gets five or six feet deep. Then here comes the cat and knocks everything over."

Co-op and Condo Clutterers

"When most people realize they have a problem is when the building manager or superintendent enters the apartment to make a repair and finds the situation," says Alford. "Then they get "˜found out.' Or maybe the shareholder next door smells something, and the co-op board says "˜Correct the dangerous condition or we will evict you'."

Distaste and social stigma aside, the bottom line is that extreme clutter is a fire and health hazard. It can jeopardize the life of not just the hoarder, but of everyone in the building. "A lot of people are so deep in denial that it takes a court order to shake them up," says Alford. "A fortune in time, grief and money could be saved if people called a clean-up professional first."

Alford's company was initially called Disaster Masters, Service King of Queens, and they specialized in clean-ups after fires and floods. The skills he honed then come in handy when sorting through the detritus of people's lives now. "I can sort through an armload of mail faster than the post office," jokes Alford.

The process of using a professional clutter-clearing company begins with the appraisal. A good clean-up pro won't take a job without personally appraising the space, photographing all the rooms from many angles, and evaluating what kind of clutter they're dealing with. The most common cluttered item is paper. Alford also factors in the client's temperament. "Are they going to cry over every piece they have to throw away?" asks Alford.

The clean-up company then puts together a recovery plan that may take anywhere from one day to several days time. The price can vary widely, but $500 is a reasonable starting point for a simple job. "Sometimes the building will pay for it," says Alford, "and then put a lien on the property because these people are fire or health hazards."

Lakin charges by the hour for her services. She will go through everything in the apartment piece by piece, leaving some things for the client to sort, while disposing of all the obvious garbage. "Any bill over two months old goes out," she says, adding dryly, "They'll always send you another one." Lakin prefers to work without the client present, as they have a tendency to cling to superfluous things and slow down the process. She gets permission in advance for what categories of stuff are automatically disposed of - like take-out menus, for example. Getting free from clutter requires a certain amount of ruthless pruning, but Lakin says she never encourages people to throw away memorabilia.

Alford says he starts at the front door of a terminally messy apartment and works his way in. Things go into one of five boxes: Keep, Recycle, Donate, Give Away, or Garbage. His staff is handpicked depending on what needs to be done. "Some workers never even make it in the front door," explains Alford. "They are there to take the stuff to the garbage, to the truck." All the workers wear respiratory devices, because the dust and debris associated with moldering paper products can be a source of respiratory infections. In the case of hoarders that are "found out" because of vile odors or vermin problems related to decaying food or animal waste, the respirators are an absolute necessity.

The Aftermath

By the time a cleaning company has cleared the space, eviction should no longer be a danger for the clutter-afflicted. But how long before the clutter starts again, and what happens to the stuff that was kept? Post-clearing organization is part of Lakin's services. She comes to clients armed with an array of catalogues from companies specializing in organizational products, like file holders, closet extenders, and shelving, all of which can be used to create homes for the things folks really want to keep.

"IKEA sells tons of stuff with economy of space in mind," says Lakin. "Give the most accessible space to the things you use more often - memorabilia can go in a pretty box in the back of the closet. Set up a filing system in rolling carts, where you can see the stuff."

And clean-up company services sometimes go beyond just sorting through piles of debris and throwing out pizza boxes from 1999. For example, Alford has training in Ericksonian hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming, and if a client is interested, he will utilize those skills post-clean-up to possibly assist them in changing their hoarding behavior. Habits are called that for a reason, however, and changing them is not easy. Says Lakin, "It's hard to impart a new way of thinking."

To help reshape troublesome behavior, Lakin recommends daily vigilance in staying on top of clutter. "It's like brushing your teeth," she says. "It's not fun, but the results are enjoyable." Spending just 15 minutes every day will gradually show a great improvement in your space. Eventually, it becomes so satisfying to be able to find what you are looking for all the time, that you become hooked on the neatness.

One Reporter's First Step

Personally, I have started sorting my mail at the front door. Junk mail goes straight into the trash, and current bills go into an inbox on my desk. It's minimal, but it's a start. Lakin says it's very important that everything in your home has a place where it belongs, and to which it goes back after every use. "This is not a moral issue," she says. "It's not about being good or bad. It's about organization."

Reporter's Diary, Day Five:
Delivering the Story
9:00 AM: Tell editor I'll be dropping off the story"¦ Just give me an hour to find my house keys.Rebekah Mulhare is a freelance writer based in Yonkers and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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6 Comments

  • Well my sister had this problem for years but each we (the family) clean out her junk after months convincing she eventually agrees. The last time we use a New york based company, The Junkpros, it is a member of NAPO, their crews were fantastic. Their called her case Extreme clutter. So far it has been ok for a year now, (the longest by far). We keep our finger crossed.
  • It is true that education seems to correlate with some horder behavior, but there are plenty of times that education is not in the hoarder's past, relatively speaking.
  • This is me please help!!!
  • Ex-spouse certainly has this problem, but I've thought deeply about it and it's more than just clutter and hoarding. Clutter and hoarding seem only to be symptoms. What seems to be a deeper issue still is "neglect". Across- the-board neglect. And to go with that, poor self-discipline, poor self-control and an inability to say no. While we were married he neglected our finances, our home, our yard, everything. He neglected his health--he had weight problems, dental problems, neglected hygiene, neglected to follow through on promises. His habitual neglect, along with hoarding is what led to the clutter. In the end I divorced him. I wanted to divorce him as soon as we were married; anytime I tried addressing the problem I got defensiveness and denials from him, and he'd turn it around into me that had the problem. I could finally say, "Yes I do have a problem. My problem is me staying in this relationship." All we did was go around and around on it. It all weighted me down so badly emotionally that it took me 8 years to separate from him; I then spent another 4 years trying to recover from the emotional toll all of this took on me, and so that I finally had the strength to go through with a divorce. It hasn't changed since we divorced either. Unfortunately it still affects me indirectly as we share custody of our two children, and it affects them. All of this behavior of his has had the impact on them of being severly disorganized as well, which they then bring to my house and resent me for trying to get them organized. They'd rather take the easy route and not clean up. It has even affected one of my kids school work/performance. I'm about to do some kind of intervention although I'm not sure what yet.
  • This is me! Thank you for the many aspects and explanations of the different types and the root causes. Its so nice to know the someone out there "gets it". Are there any a c ciliated companies to you in other states? Do any of these types of companies work with cost and payment arrangements. Thank you.
  • Since the arrival of the hoarding shows on the "Oh My God TV networks", there have been thousands of new companies who profess on their Google ads to be experts on hoarding. Really? How so? Take a look at the Hoarding Facts site and also the blog at hoardinghelp.wordpress This may help to level the playing field and it just may be where the rubber hits the road for people who need a Life Transition Management expert to move them from past decades into the next.