I once lived in a small bungalow across from a woman named Mary. She had been to my house many times, but I had never been to hers — she always made proclamations about "the mess."
It wasn't until Mary needed my help to move that I realized what she meant. Mary was a hoarder. Her kitchen was heaving with a towering Pisa of plates, cups and dishes. Countless weeks-old paper bags from take-out dinners were strewn everywhere. Flies and gnats hovered around the sink. Egg crates were stacked to the ceiling. Years' worth of receipts, bills and scraps of paper were crammed into the garage.
Mary did occasionally clean, but she would do it to utter perfection. She would take five minutes to wash a single dish; an hour to scrub a small section of the floor. But if she couldn't do the job 110 percent, she wouldn't do it at all.
As it turns out, hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Professional organizer Gayle Goddard of Houston has had clients who were borderline hoarders. "It's a clinical diagnosis. We throw around the term 'hoarding' a lot more now because of the television show. There's a lot more awareness about it."
While the before-and-after photos are the big payoff of Hoarders, the reality of helping "obsessive collectors" is more difficult. Goddard has other tips for people who know and want to help friends or family members like Mary, who are chronically disorganized.
Subtract the trash: Says Goddard: "Usually, when they are getting toward the hoarder stage, it's because the volume — the content of the house — is bigger than the house." Sort through it and put it in four piles: trash, recycle, donation and keep.
Put everything in the correct room: Once the stuff is there, she says, it might be messy, but it's room-coordinated messy. "Even if you don't know where to put the stuff in the bedroom, at least it's in the right place when you go to look for it. And hopefully, once you pull everything from where it's migrated, after you've done the kitchen, people realize, they've forgotten what they have. They forget how much they have. And then they realize, 'Gee, I've got more here than I really need.' "
Sub-sort the stuff that made the cut and determine its usefulness: Grandma's dish set shouldn't be taking up valuable shelf space if you don't use it; it should be in a box in the garage. "When you're sorting the secondary pass, then you are really sorting by use," she said. "How often do you use it, how often do you get it, who has to get it. And separating that out allows you to decide where to put something."