Working With a Hoarder: First-Timer Lessons

Today’s post is written by Susan Gilbert, a Professional Organizer in Apex, NC; her business is Horizons Organizing.

For more information about Susan, visit http://metropolitanorganizing.com/bio/susan

Susan recently assisted me on a hoarding (team) job, for an upcoming episode of Hoarders on A & E TV. I asked her to write about her experience; here is what she had to say.

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Most of us who work as organizers find our way to this profession because we enjoy helping people. At some point you realize that you’ve been gifted with (1) the ability to see things as they could/should be, and (2) the focus to make it happen. When you leave a client happier and more relieved than when you found him/her, what’s NOT to love about the job? (And is it really a “job” or more of a mission?) You’re educated, enthusiastic, and adeptly tackle any organizational challenge that comes your way.

Then you walk into the home of a hoarder. And everything you thought you knew goes right out the window. This is clutter on a whole new level. This is more “stuff” than you’ve ever seen before. Your mind starts to spin as you wonder where to start.

“Tell me you’ve seen worse,” the hoarder says – half kidding, half serious. (Actually, this is a comment I hear from just about every client, hoarder or not.) You smile and say something positive to ease the embarrassment the hoarder feels…

My first experience working with a hoarder was probably a bit different from other people because I was part of an organizing “team” on the set of a shoot for the A&E Network’s show, “Hoarders.” Geralin was to be the head organizer, and the team would work as quickly as possible in the background. As I looked around the home, I didn’t have to worry about where to start because there were enough of us organizers to divide and conquer, and we had to get right to work. Needless to say, cleaning a hoarder’s house in two days is not how it’s typically done. But we made progress, and the client seemed happy.

Was it perfect and beautiful? No. A fellow first-timer asked Geralin how to keep from becoming completely frustrated. Her answer: “Make harm reduction your primary goal, because it’s never going to look like a home in a magazine.” (Keep exits and pathways clear , address fire hazards, discard expired food, etc.) This was my first lesson, and probably the most important. It wasn’t so much about lowering expectations as it was making them more realistic and keeping the client safe.

My second lesson came after the shoot on my way home. I felt good about what I’d done, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been too chatty with the client after we were done. Geralin called me and confirmed that fact. In an effort to be friendly, I had forgotten the importance of strict boundaries.

Lesson three wasn’t so much a lesson as it was a confirmation of what I knew intellectually but had not experienced directly. Ten days after the filming of “Hoarders,” I went back to continue working with the client (a benefit of “aftercare funds” provided by the show). For the first time, I experienced firsthand the concept of how differently a hoarder’s brain functions. Oh sure, I knew all about how a hoarder struggles with decisions and sees items in ways that often defy logic. But I’d never actually gone toe-to-toe with someone on the importance of a small plastic spoon. Every item had a purpose, and all my logical arguments were fruitless…

…which leads me to my fourth (and surely not my last) lesson: The typical approaches to organizing don’t work with a hoarder.

“You have two of these, which one would you like to keep?”

“Both.”

“This is broken, do you want to pitch it?”

“My brother’s going to fix it.”

“Why don’t we put this in a yard sale?”

“Well, I could probably get more money for it if I took it to a consignment store.”

You have to be more patient, more creative, and more flexible than with other organizing clients. You have to be willing to change your plans on the fly. You have to look past the piles and shoot for small victories. And you have to remember that a lot of people have probably given up on this person and you might be the only hope they have.

After my first session with my hoarder client, I came home and plopped down on the couch to catch the end of the local news. A story was running about a small-town pastor who also owns a trendy chocolate shop. She was commenting on her many mission trips to third world countries, and in flash of what I consider divine intervention, she said exactly what I needed to hear: “It’s heartbreaking, but you can’t be so overwhelmed that you don’t try to do something.”

GT: Thanks Susan! I’m sure this will be a real eye-opener for many readers. Would you mind telling us a bit about yourself now?

What is your favorite sport?

SG: Professional ice hockey. I grew up in the south so I’m a recent convert. Once you understand the game and get to know the players, it’s totally addictive.

GT: Do you have any pets?

SG: I have an old lab and a new lab, both are great dogs. The senior dog has been a great companion and the puppy brings me my paper every morning, which is hilarious to watch (and I didn’t teach her to do it).

GT: Do you have any special talents?

SG: I can play any song I hear. I’m pretty sure you’re born with that ability. As a child I thought everyone could do it, but I eventually learned that a lot of people are jealous of that gift.

GT: What is your guilty pleasure?

SG: Chocolate – pretty much all kinds of chocolate.

GT: Do you have any personal goals for the next 12 months?

SG: I want to continue to get fit (since exercise is pretty much the answer to every problem). I spent a lot of years taking care of others and neglected myself. Developing the habit of working out was my first hurdle. Now that I go to the gym regularly, I need to work a little harder when I’m there! I’m pondering a sprint triathlon.

Here are some more articles that may be of interest to you.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Thanks Susan and Geralin! Your comments show how a new perspective is required for working with hoarders. Lots of resources, learning the mind set of hoarders themselves, and making a regular commitment in working together makes all the difference. Thanks for sharing your new perspective!

  2. Anonymous says

    Thanks for this great post. I’m the daughter of a hoarder, and until recently have had a difficult time explaining my mother’s affliction. Most people either had no idea what hoarding was or thought it was a matter of laziness and/or selfishness. The television shows about hoarding are bringing the disorder to light and I’m glad for that. And posts like this, that explain the mental aspects of compulsive hoarding in a clear way, with examples, also contribute to the overall understanding.

    Thanks again!
    Jessie Sholl

    http://www.jessie-sholl.com/blog

  3. Anonymous says

    Jessie,
    In the near future, I’ll be posting several guest bloggers essays who have assisted me on hoarding jobs.

    I too appreciate Susan’s examples of the way a hoarder rationalizes. Hoarders use a psychology of opportunity; the fear of missing an opportunity is better than taking advantage of one. So, they keep things, like broken, plastic spoons. Unfortunately, all opportunities are ‘on hold’ and none are actually pursued.

    Without exception, every hoarder I’ve worked with has great intentions. Unfortunately, they rarely get around to taking action on those intentions.

    I look forward to reading more of your blog posts, too.
    Thanks for commenting.

  4. Anonymous says

    Thanks for letting me contribute this guest blog. You’ve been extremely generous sharing your expertise. If my words help somebody, then I’m happy to write for you!