People are always amazed at the stories I tell about my hoarding clients. They always wonder how I got started, why I choose to work with them, are they all crazy, can they be cured, etc..
Hoarders are a niche that Kuzak’s Closet has been working with since the summer of 2007. It wasn’t planned, it really all started by accident. My first hoarder called me and she said she had to move out of her home in 30 days, she said she had a lot of clutter and wanted to hire a professional organizer before the move. Back then I didn’t offer a consultation because I also had a full time job and just didn’t have the time.
When I arrived for our first session I had no idea what I was in for. I knocked on the door and a large woman appeared, if I was to write a book about my experiences as an organizer her character would be called Gloria. She mislead me on the phone about having just a little clutter she needed help with before her move. The reality was that Gloria was a hoarder. She hadn’t lived in her home for over 2 years because she simply couldn’t fit.
She tried to ask me to come in but there was no was we could both move far beyond the entry way. She instantly started crying and begged me not to leave and for some crazy reason I didn’t. To be honest, the piles excited me and the mystery of what her home could look like intrigued me to stay.
To round out the character of Gloria let me give you an idea of what she looked like. She was a large woman, about 5’10” tall and 375 pounds with big red curly hair and a loud southern accent, most of her favorite words were composed of 4 letters. During our first meeting she was wearing a leopard print blouse and spandex biker shorts (I think she was trying to dress up for me) but all future sessions she would wear a sports bra and spandex biker shorts.
We started the first session and I worked with her just like I would work with any other client. So many hoarders struggle with depression, paranoia, anger, and erratic behaviors and I didn’t want to upset her during that first session. I created a trusting relationship by calming her, and telling her how I wanted to start the project, what each session would look like, and setting up her expectations and goals if she wanted to be ready to move out of the unit in 30 days.
During the first session we moved from the entry way (3 square feet) and moved down a small trail in a hallway into the only bedroom in the apartment. I noticed cat hair everywhere so I assumed there was a cat or cats living in the apartment but Gloria said they had died a few year prior. After that I was convinced that I would find one of their remains somewhere but they never showed up.
Since there was no room for a staging area I had to make piles in the hallway of the apartment building. My client was so nervous and paranoid that someone would see the piles but as we worked together I reminded her that it was important for her to reach her goal, it didn’t matter what other people would think of her piles.
After the first session I told Gloria that if she was able to follow my direction and play by my rules I would continue to work with her. She agreed so I started to work with her 4 to 5 times a week. Each session was an emotional roller coaster for Gloria and I worked hard to calm her anxieties so that we could move forward so she would be able to move. She would yell, cry, swear at me when she was frustrated with all of the stuff she collected. A few times she even kicked me out, swearing and threatening me but would call me later to apologize.
Most hoarders collect items, I have worked with hoarders who collect food, clothing, books, antique games and toys, furniture, and trash. In Gloria’s home there were piles everywhere, during most sessions I could not see more than 2 feet in front of me. Using the bathroom or washing my hands was not an option because I simply couldn’t get to the bathroom without climbing over piles and if I was able to get there the door couldn’t shut because of the items hanging on the front and back of the door and stacked on the floor. The bathtub was filled with bags of all kids (she collected every bag she had every received, gift bags, shopping bags, plastic bags, etc.) Gloria was an interior designer (kind of ironic because her home was unlivable) and she collected fabric samples, she also taped television shows on VHS and had over 2,000 video tapes in her living room. She also collected baking and cake decorating items, jewelry, pictures of naked men, and anything leopard print.
Throughout the 4 weeks I was able to help her get through the clutter, organize it, and help her move into her new apartment. She kept much more that I wanted her to but as a professional organizer it is not up to me to make decisions on what to keep and what not to keep. This is tough part, sometimes we just want grab garbage bags and toss things out or call a junk removal service but this is not what hoarding clients are looking for. The are looking for someone to be patient, reasonable, and organized to keep them grounded through the process of letting go. So many of my hoarding clients have struggled with depression due to childhood experiences, death, divorce, or catastrophic events. They feel isolated, angry, and paranoid that their family and friends are judging them.
In the end I helped Gloria reach her goal. We were able to clear all of the items out of her apartment, move the items that she wanted to keep (organized and in labeled bins) into a storage unit and she moved in with her new boyfriend. After we wrapped up the project we stayed in touch for a few months because I had taken a few of her items home with me to sell on eBay. Just before I was ready to mail her a check with her profits I received a certified letter from her. When I opened it I was surprised to read that it was a hate letter, especially after all of the work that we did together. To be honest it was kind of funny to read it because it really wasn’t to me, it was to herself. All of the mental, physical, and financial stress that her clutter had put on her over the years caused her to crack. Because we had to clear out her apartment in such a short period of time (4 weeks, typically I work with hoarders for 12-18 months) it was almost impossible for her to process all of the items we looked at and all of the decisions that she had to make. I thought about what to do about the letter for a few days and I finally decided to call Gloria and ask her about it. When I called she was instantly ashamed and embarrassed that she sent it. I knew it was just a way for her to direct what she was feeling at someone else besides herself but it was still out of line. After the call we stayed in touch for a few months. The last I heard from Gloria was that she was hit by a bus on the way home from work one night and broke her ankle, oh dear!
Since working with Gloria I have worked with dozens of other hoarders and they all fascinate me. I love the challenge and I love working with a client that most other people have given up on. I try to only have 2 hoarders in my active client list at a time just to stay balanced. All of my hoarders have called me because they HAVE to make a change but they don’t really WANT to. Most times they are loosing their homes, their spouse is threatening to leave, they are in danger of loosing their pets or kids, or the neighborhood has taken action against them. I don’t know if hoarding can be cured but I think it can be curbed with the right mix of purging and therapy.
Writing this post was a flash back to my old days of organizing in Chicago and I can’t believe how I have grown as a business owner since then. As much as Gloria challenged me I am so glad that she came into my life. She really tested my organizing skills, my patience, and my sanity. If you have any questions for me about my business, my blog, or my life please ask. I am currently working on a question and answer post and I would be happy to answer them for you soon!