Helping a Hoarder in Issaquah

The very first paying customer I had, we’ll call her Fran, was physically disabled and a hoarder.  She had every horizontal surface piled at least 6 inches deep and two rooms piled to the ceiling with paths.  Of the two sofas in the living room, there was sufficient space for her to park her fanny on only one sofa.  I had to kneel on the carpet in a pathway.

As we worked together, she needed to touch every last item in that house and it took forever and then some.  At one point, she had me sorting out paperclips by size and by whether they were plastic or metal.  I reminded her how much she was paying me and did she really want me sorting paperclips?  She said ,“Yes”; it was important to her.

In the beginning, we cleared off the coffee table.  We threw out what she thought was trash and put back everything she felt was important to have within reach.  It took two hours, and it didn’t look that much different afterward than when we had started.  I was puzzled, but she seemed pleased.

In our next session, Fran and I worked on the area of the sofa next to where she sat.  She only allowed me to throw away things that were most obviously trash to her, like squished candy with cat hair in it and some of the junk mail.  We saved things like every scrap of paper with her late husband’s handwriting on it, a severely rusted and dented metal trash can, and the tube part of a douche bag.  At times, she allowed me to take things for donation.  I donated what I could, but already knew that no charity would accept home-recorded videos of old TV programs.  Those ended up in my trash can, but she didn’t have to see them designated as trash.

Progress was slow, slow, slow, but I didn’t push on her, except to make suggestions that she was free to disregard.  She usually did.  We went through the whole house like this, testing every pencil and pen and saving every rubber band.  We worked a few hours a week for nearly 2 years, and there were periods when I was so bored that I had to keep reminding myself that a) I was being paid to do this and b) the customer is always right.

After the first pass through the house, we had located her photographs, her artwork (she was a fine artist before her disability), and her poetry and letters.  She had more room to walk and to sit.  But the house was still a disaster by anyone’s standards.

But now that she had her special things, she was ready to move back to the state she had come from.  We did a second, much faster, pass through the house over a period of 2 months, deciding what to move.  In the end, she took her special things and left almost everything else behind.

The total bill was over $24,000.  Yes, that is not a typo.

From the outside, it might seem like a ridiculous waste of time and money to sort through piles of mostly worthless stuff.

But in truth, that project wasn’t about the possessions and it wasn’t about saving money by not throwing anything “valuable” away.  What it was really about was that that woman had lost control of her life and touching everything was her way of getting it back.  She remembered who she was and what she had done in her life by seeing all the bits and pieces that were still there.  She gained a sense of order and control by conquering those paperclips and rubber bands.   She started small and gradually developed the emotional strength to sort through the things that her late husband had left behind. 

It was a tough, tough project for her and for me and the staff that I gradually added as my business grew.  As difficult and expensive as it was, that client was thrilled with our work.  I hear from her regularly and she is still very grateful that we were willing to work at her speed.

And I am grateful to her.  We learned so much that we might have missed if we had gone in with more experience and the sense of “this is the way it should be done.”    We didn’t know any better, so we did it her way.  And it worked.  Her house wasn’t ever going to look like “Sunset” magazine, but she got what she wanted; a life that works for her.  And we got what we wanted; a job, an extensive education and an enthusiastic reference.

Now, about 50% of our clients are hoarders and we have a special fondness for them.  It is an honor to be trusted enough to be allowed to see this most personal side of a person.  It is thrilling to stand in the trench side-by-side with a client and see the progress being made against such a vast foe.  And the celebration at a victorious conclusion is an experience not to be missed!

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