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 stuff, with small paths allowing entry. Of the two sofas in the living room, there was sufficient space for her to park her fanny on only one. To help her, I had to kneel in a pathway in front of the area being worked.
As we worked together, she needed to touch every last item before making a decision; 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’s important to me.”
We started by clearing 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 next to the sofa 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 junk mail. We saved items such as every scrap of paper with her late husband’s handwriting on it, and other items of value, like a severely dented, rusty metal trash can and hundreds of pens. 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 I discarded (but she didn’t have to see them designated as trash).
Progress was s-l-o-w but I didn’t push her, except to make suggestions that she was free to disregard, which she usually did. We went through the whole house, 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 I had to keep reminding myself that the customer is always right and at least I was being paid.
After the first pass through the house, we had located some of her special things: her photographs, artwork (she was a fine artist before her disability), and her poetry and letters. She had more room to walk, to sit, but the house was still a disaster by almost anyone’s standards.
But now that she had her special things, she felt ready to move back to the state she had moved from. We did a second, faster, pass through the house over the next 2 months, deciding what to take. In the end, she took her special things and left almost everything else behind.
The total bill was very high; it would seem to most people like a ridiculous amount of money to waste on sorting through piles of mostly worthless stuff. But in truth, the project wasn’t about the possessions or about saving money by not throwing anything “valuable” away. It was really about that dear woman. She had lost control of her life and touching everything was her way of taking it back. Along the way, she remembered who she was and what she had done in her life, by seeing all the bits and pieces that were still there to remind her. She gained a sense of control by conquering those paperclips and rubber bands. She started small and gradually developed the emotional strength to sort face sorting through her late husband’s things. She was able to start fresh in her mind.
It was a tough project for her, for me and for the staff that I inevitably hired. As difficult and expensive as it was, Fran was thrilled with the result. We kept in touch for the next few years and she often mentioned how grateful she was for how we supported her.
And I am grateful to her. I learned so much that I might have missed if I had gone in with “more experience” and a sense of “this is the way it needs to be done.” I didn’t know any better, so I 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 better future. And we got what we wanted; a job that made a difference, an extensive education and a happy client.
We have often worked with hoarders since then and have a special fondness for them. It is an honor to be entrusted with this most private side of a person’s life. It is thrilling to stand in the trenches side-by-side with a client and see the progress against such a mountainous foe. And the celebration at a victorious conclusion makes it all worthwhile!