Monday, September 21, 2009

It pays to purge your clothing closet! (Literally)

The closet was getting a little unmanageable. We'd been painting in the bathroom and "things" were piling up in the closet. I knew it was time for a purge...

Purging my closet is a never-ending activity. Well, I shouldn't say's more like an evolving activity. Every six months or so I tell myself I am going to reduce my clothing by half. That's a little extreme, but it's what I go in with. And if I wasn't ready to let go of something six months before, I usually am ready now. Saying good-bye sometimes takes time.

And every six months or so I manage to purge just enough to get all my clothes on hangers and back up IN the closet or folded into a drawer.

I did it again over the weekend. I did use up every last one of my hangers, but I did empty my "seasonal" box and have nothing in it now! (We hardly have seasons here, anyway. It's cold enough most summer afternoons here that I need a jacket, and never so cold in the winter that I can't wear my tank tops under a shirt or jacket. There's very little in my closet that can't be worn all year.

Why do I own three pairs of brown cords? (Because I forgot I already owned two and bought one more.) When they are hanging up next to each other, then I can see how many I own of each type or color. That helps me to remember what I've got when I am out shopping.

Do I really need four pairs of jeans? Well, I decided I needed three. One pair of "grubbies" one pair of "OK to run to the store in" and one pair of "dress" jeans that I need to hem because they must assume all women wear 5-inch heels when they wear dress jeans. (I'm not even short! I'm quite average at 5'5"!) Now it's a little dangerous for me to keep clothing I think I need to alter, since I rarely do it. But these jeans are nice, and I'll give myself a time boundary around how long I keep them if I haven't hemmed them. (By the way, duct tape works in a pinch!)

My happiest moment in the closet this weekend? When I found a $20 bill in a pocket of a pair of pants. Whoo-hoo! Now, I'm thrilled with a $1 bill, ecstatic with a $5 or $10, and "through the roof silly" with a $20. DH was out of town, so Mom and I went to a movie (Julie and Julia) and I happily paid $5 for a bag of popcorn!

Now, aren't you ready to go see how much money is lurking in your closet?

(By the way, I bundled up four bags of clothing and two bags of shoes. I jotted down each item and its condition on a piece of paper that I will staple to the receipt I get at the thrift store. I'll be able to get the most value from my donation at tax time with an itemization like this. "It's Deductible" will help you keep track of it all year and can be imported right into TurboTax.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A&E Hoarders Episode IV

A quick synopsis...

Jake is a young man (21) who is living with his alcoholic (and verbally abusive) father in an apartment. The father seems seriously depressed and a serious alcoholic who hasn't thrown away a wine bottle in 6 months. His space is almost literally covered in bottles. Jake is suicidal. He seems to have diagnosed OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and cannot throw out anything that ever comes, in, including trash. He fears he will shorten his dog's life if he throws out the fur she sheds. He is an emotional wreck, but has a supportive boyfriend. Therapist Tara Fields is working with him.

Shirley, 71, lives with her husband in squalor in their home. She thinks she has 21-25 cats. She had a stroke and is blind in one eye. Animal control is in on this one and has cited Shirley for having too many animals. There are dogs on the property, too, but it is hard to tell how many. In the end, they pull out over 70 animals, 43 of them live cats. Several must be put down right away due to their ill health and serious disease. A "hoarding specialist" comes in. This person seems to be a junk hauler rather than a trained organizer.

Just a quick comment on this right now.

First of all, these are both very serious situations that are beyond the training of even professional organizers like myself who have been trained by the NSGCD to help clients with hoarding issues.

Jake is a wonderful, intelligent young man with some very serious mental health issues. The fact that he speaks of killing himself numerous times is a giant red flag for me that this man needs a (very well qualified) therapist. He seems to have gotten that in the show. Dr. Fields was gentle and gave him control with gentle nudging and self-awareness of his anxiety levels. He is also living in a situation with his father that is very unhealthy not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. Jake made wonderful strides for letting go of the trash, and he will need long-term support from a professional for him to continue growing. Hopefully his relationships with his mom and boyfriend are healthy and supportive ones which will help him continue his growth and independence (from his stuff, his obsessions and his father).

Shirley's is a case of animal hoarding, which is a completely different level of hoarding than "stuff" hoarding and I don't know if even the "experts" know how to deal with this yet. We saw a lot of denial from Shirley about the problems with the cats--she herself didn't realize how many she had and that so many had died or were sick. That is part of the illness of animal hoarding, is very poor insight into reality. I'm glad to see she wasn't charged or sent to jail. Yes, she neglected animals and kept them in poor conditions. But she wasn't intending to do that and I don't see how jail time would have actually helped her. People who hoard generally have poor insight into their situations, and even when they do realize a change must occur, often cannot make the change on their own--even with the threat of jail or children or spouses leaving or being taken away. It is bigger than they are. It doesn't excuse the situation. It just explains it.

I hope that more people will realize how complicated hoarding is. There are no easy answers. No one-size-fits-all solutions. When I was a park ranger in Yosemite, visitors would often say "Just don't let cars in the Valley, that will solve the over-crowding." Another no-easy-answers problem that (literally) fills volumes with idea for potential solutions.

Watch for more from me in the next few days about the larger problems around finding solutions around hoarding.

And, yes, if you have any ideas, send them my way!

What do YOU think?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Is A&E setting up hoarders for failure?

I'm sure that A&E isn't trying to set up its featured subjects in the Hoarders series for failure.

But they are doing their darndest to make that happen.

Here's what's wrong. (See what's right in my next post.)

1. The subjects don't seem to be getting therapy while they are getting organizing help.
This is necessary for any real change in a person's saving or acquiring habits. Not to mention emotional help with the trauma of loss and the difficulty of change, or any other mental health (or even physical health)conditions they might have.

2. They seem to be only getting help over the course of two days.
This is not how long it takes for real clearing to happen, even with a team. Maybe a bunch of guys with shovels could do it, but that would just be junk-hauling, not helping human beings.

3. They have a "team" of people there ready to help.
The "team" is a bunch of hired hands ready to do manual labor. The team is going to be of no use unless the organizer or therapist has arranged pre-sorted piles for the client to look through and make decisions about. A real team would be a team of professional organizers led by one leader organizer and the client.

4. Family members do not seem to have been briefed on how the process is going to go or what to expect.
The family members just seem to be set up for high expectations and the frustration that ensues is just good camera fodder.

Granted, I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge, so I don't know what is edited out or edited for effect. I can only hope some of these other things are happening, but what I do know is that the whole picture of hoarding is not getting out to the public, nor some of the resources, like the NSGCD, where some of the organizers got their training.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A&E Hoarders Episode III

The third installment in the A&E series Hoarders was a doozey. But oh, so real.

One story featured Betty, a woman whose elderly mentally ill husband cannot return to the home (social services has intervened) until she cleans up the house and yard. Her mentally ill adult daughter also lives with them. They are staying in a motel and money is running out. Professional organizer Dorothy Breininger is there to help.

The other story is about Tara, a 50ish woman who lives alone in a rental and is about to be evicted because of the clutter. The professional organizer helping her is Brendan McDaniel.

This was a study in contrasts, for sure. Each woman came to the "cleaning weekend" with a different attitude.

Betty was defiant. Not at all ready to "let go" of anything, and very upset that this was being "forced" on her. She still enjoyed shopping and collecting, and said it was her only joy and she wasn't going to stop.

Tara, on the other hand, was speaking hopefully about clearing up her situation and having a nice home again.

Both women had well-trained, experienced (with hoarding) professional organizers there to help them. Both Dorothy and Brendan are members of the NSGCD (National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) which provides organizers with classes and certification programs for dealing with special issues like hoarding. This is where I attained my "CPO-CD®" (Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization) in a mentored and peer-reviewed 18-month program.

As I watched this episode, I could see where this was going. I could be pretty sure that Betty wasn't going to make much progress, and anything that might be accomplished would not be "lasting." She just wasn't ready or willing. Tara, on the other hand, was "ready" in her heart and mind, but I know from experience that that often is not enough for the actual purging to happen.

In fact, Betty fought her organizer and her family the whole way. Dorothy did a wonderful job of letting her know that decisions were "in her hands" and that she wasn't there to fight with her. But poor Betty dug her heels in. Betty's case is a prime example of someone who needs not just an expert-with-hoarding organizer, but an expert therapist to be helping her along the way. Betty's problems run deep, and frankly, if I were her, I could see putting up a wall of junk to keep from having to deal with my reality–a schizophrenic aged husband that had been drunk for most of the marriage, a schizophrenic adult daughter who still lives me and sets fire to the house from her cigarettes (that's how social services got involved), one daughter fighting leukemia, and another daughter about to wash her hands of the whole situation. At present, her only "joy" is acquiring. I can see that only time with a skilled therapist could turn her life around a little to figure out how else to find "joy" and to possibly get relief from living in the same household with two schizophrenic adults. And that's just the surface.

Tara jumped into the process with great hope and a great attitude. The reality, however, seemed to set in quite quickly. She got a migraine. She couldn't focus. She had forgotten to take her medicine and hadn't eaten. She was getting dizzy. She started doing what is called "churning." Looking through one pile of stuff and just setting all the things in a different pile or piles. Very little was "let go." Much was presents for other people. (I find this a common theme.) Often those who hoard have these wonderful big hearts and are always thinking of other people and buying or saving things to give to them. But rarely does the stuff get into the hands of the intended. It is usually piled up and lost, uncovered years later, too ruined to be given or no longer appropriate for the person.

Even Tara had melt-downs when she believed her friend and the organizer had thrown out some comics that she wanted to save. This one action caused her to temporarily lose faith and trust in the organizer. This is why you never throw out anything unless the client has told you to do so! (In this case, I think the organizer and friend thought they DID have permission to throw these out.) Once a client is suspicious of your actions, it's very difficult to regain trust.

Brendan did regain her trust and they did manage to clear an area in her living room.

Betty, under duress the entire time, did get one room cleaned and the yard mostly cleared. I believe a lot of it was thrown out without her specific permission, since her daughter was shown throwing things out in a fit. This won't be a lasting victory.

I hold out hope for Tara. She had genuine hope for herself to change, and wanted to change. The actual change will be harder. She, too will need therapeutic help in order to understand her behaviors and be able to change them, not just in clearing clutter, but in stopping the acquiring.

Betty is in a much worse "place." She has a more difficult family situation and absolutely no desire to change.

Hoarding is a sad and debilitating illness. There can be hopeful outcomes, and with shows like these, even if flawed, more people will have more knowledge about and possibly some people will be helped.

In my next posts, I will explore my thoughts around how A&E has set up these scenarios and what helps and what doesn't.

If you need help with a hoarding situation, or would just like to learn more about the topic, please visit the NSGCD website.

Margaret Pearson Pinkham, CPO-CD®
Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization
Organize in Harmony
(707) 823-3479