Lessons I Learned Working With a Hoarder
As a lover of rapid-fire tidying and purging, I decided years ago that taking on clients who hoard is simply of no interest to me. Besides for the endless patience that it takes (organizers can spend hours tackling a single square foot), working with a hoarder can be deeply psychological and despite my Bachelors in Psychology, I determined that wasn’t for me. But when I got a call from a perspective client over a year ago and listened to her describe the situation at her aunt’s house and the need for the right person to help, I was intrigued.
“Lots of trash,” “an aging lady who may soon need to move on and into an assisted living facility,” “we need someone who we trust,” “lots of work to be done.”
I suspected from the description that I would be dealing with a hoarding situation but didn’t know first-hand what that actually meant or looked like. And as always, the need-for-tidiness alarm went off in my head and I had to roll up my sleeves and get in there. So we set up a time to work together. I’d meet Susie and her niece, check out the apartment, and give it my first attempt. The initial goal was clear: Susie needed a new fridge so I would work with her to clear out the old one and make a path wide enough to get the current fridge out of the front door and the new one in. This would be easy, right?
My initial reaction walking into the apartment was a combination of shock and eagerness to dive in. There were narrow paths throughout the space, leading to the bed, windows, kitchen, and a chair in the living room. On the sides of the paths and piled onto the couches and furniture, were mounds of stuff: what looked to me like lots and lots of trash. “I’ll collect all of the newspapers and we can get those recycled! Easy first step to make a big change!” I was instantly shut down and realized that I would have to change gears completely and step outside the ways that I was so used to and had perfected. Slow it down 200 notches.
After that first meeting, we were able to accomplish the clear set goal and forge the way for the new fridge. There were old, empty boxes that Susie was comfortable getting rid of and the things that were chosen to stay were shuffled to the side for the time being. I wasn’t forceful or overbearing and I told her that my grandmother lives in her neighborhood. An instant connection was made. She was so happy with our work after that first session, that we all decided we’d continue working together for the foreseeable future. There was certainly no shortage of work to be done.
Before I knew it, I was with Susie for at least two hours a week for the span of eight months and felt like I had a new grandmother in my life. We slowly chipped away at the mounds in the apartment and got into a groove working together. At times I would challenge her. “How are you going to have time to read all of those magazines? Maybe you can get rid of a few more.” But I was always shut down with a “oh, what do you care after all?” And I would leave it at that. Unless Susie was ready to get rid of something, it would stay.
Our two hour sessions were often harder for me than a full eight-hour work day. Her resistance to getting rid of things that I so blatantly viewed as trash challenged me on a level that no other client had and I would often sit with her, fighting sleep, as I watched and helped her leaf through old hand-written notes or calendars from the 80’s and consider the majority of them viable. But I learned so much in my time spent with Susie. Mainly that she viewed the world through a completely different lens than I did and I had no right to project my view onto her. This is common and often challenging when working with clients and their belongings but Susie brought it to a whole different level and I thank her immensely for that.
Nothing was considered “trash.” In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to use the word and learned that one day when we were bringing bags down to the refuse room and a little boy came into the elevator with us. As he stared at us, confused by the load of bags, I said “lots of garbage, right?” When we got back to the apartment, Susie gently and kindly asked me to refrain from using that word. “Let’s call it ‘stuff,"‘ not ‘trash,’ ok?” And every time I would trip up, she was sure to correct me.
I don’t know why she viewed these things as valuable and I’m not fit to go into the psychology of what she was thinking and feeling. But I do know that Susie saw things differently. She would hold up a crusty, old, chipped mug and ask me “well, isn’t that beautiful?” I truly think she saw it in another light and despite it feeling frustrating at times, I learned to shift my view and be open and patient to hers.
Ultimately, we were two individuals with entirely conflicting relationships with stuff. Personally, I feel anxious in a space loaded with things, especially when they’re old, dirty, and in excess. For Susie, it’s the opposite. There was so much stress on her if I shuffled something into a garbage bag too quickly or assumed something could go without asking her. So we butted heads at times. But in the months we devoted to each other, we gained respect for each other’s perspectives and found a way to move forward in our work with everyone feeling successful.
And to me, the biggest victory came when she told me that “she was going to pick a little box off of the street but she knew I wouldn’t want her to and so she didn’t.” I had finally penetrated her mind and habits and was able to have that influence on her. Granted, she may have snatched ten other items in the coming days, but in that moment she heard my little voice and did as she knew would please me.
We took some time off of working together when the summer and holidays came around and I haven’t seen Susie since last year. I think she ultimately lost interest or felt like we had made enough progress. When I think about Susie and her apartment, I imagine it free of the mounds that we reduced significantly and with couches completely bare and able to accommodate guests. I dream of her accessing her closets to get dressed in the morning and being able to find anything she’s looking for. But I know that her space will never be that and as long as she’s happy and safe, I have to let go. I just hope she thinks about me and feels like I helped.