To Clean or Not to Clean: The Hectic Life of a Professional Home Organizer, Part 1
Where to Begin?
I feel the need to preface this article with a disclaimer. I normally take a humorous slant when I talk about my life as an organizer. Honestly, you need a sense of humor to do what I do. That being said, please know that I am in no way making fun of my clients.
I realize, more than most, the serious nature of hoarding disorders. I've seen it first hand and the stress has kept me up on many a night. As for my clients, the vast majority are wonderful people, many of whom I remain close friends with to this day. Besides talking about my personal experiences, I will also include a few organizing tips at
the end of the first story that, I hope, you will find useful.
I have always been a little uptight about tidiness. Whoever coined the phrase, "a place for everything and everything in its place" must have been following me around when that little gem came to them.
Even as a child, all of my toys had to be put away the minute I was finished playing with them. This wasn't my mother's rule, but mine. I'm pretty sure that I was the only anal retentive toddler in the neighborhood.
As an adult, my desire to have unrealistic neatness in all of my surroundings continued. It was when I met my "Oscar Madison" clone of a husband that I decided to try my hand at organizing other people's homes. I figured that if I could set him straight, I could do anything.
In all fairness, it was his idea for me to pursue organizing as a career. After he saw how I transformed his apartment into a tidy showroom, he convinced me to go for it. Of course, he was easily impressed. When I first met him he was using a broom to sweep the carpet. He also didn't realize that eggs expire. I had my hands full with this one.
Anyway, shortly after our wedding, I set out on my quest to find clients for my fledgling organizing business. Little did I know at the time, but I was about to meet some of the most interesting, and endearing, characters of my life.
Testing the Waters
Our town has a weekly penny saver in which, for a modest fee, people can advertise their services. This was perfect for me. I placed an ad offering to clean and organize homes or offices. I found out right away that I should have left out the "clean" part.
Every call I received with that first ad was for housecleaning. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with cleaning, but I really wanted to focus on organizing. As it turned out, even when I did find organizing jobs, cleaning went hand in hand.
One of my first clients lived in a house that belonged to her mother. The woman called me and requested straight up organizing. I was thrilled! I was going to finally be paid to de-clutter and organize a home. I was over the moon. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.
The woman, Marty, had told me over the phone that she suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She wanted me to know that she had trouble throwing anything away. "No problem", I answered with more confidence than I should have. I told her that I had plenty of experience with all sorts of clients. Okay, I may have fudged on that one just a little bit.
When I arrived at her home for the first day of organizing, I knew that I was in trouble. The yard looked like a tornado had just swept through. There were papers, boxes, cans and all other sorts of debris laying around. If the yard was this bad, I dreaded seeing the inside of the house.
I knocked on the door and was immediately greeted by the barking of at least a hundred dogs. Well, it turned out to be six, but they got a lot of mileage out of those barks. I was a little hesitant to enter, seeing as how the dogs weren't particularly welcoming, but Marty assured me that "They won't bite." Stupidly, I believed her.
I had no more than stepped through the doorway when one of the little yappers sank his teeth into my leg, just above the ankle. Through my jeans, I could feel blood trickling down. What a way to start the day.
I knew that the little stinker had done some damage so I asked Marty, who didn't seem to have a care in the world, if I could wash my leg off in her bathroom. She directed me to the facilities where I used toilet tissue to sop up the blood. I waited for her to offer up a bandage. In fact, I'm still waiting.
It crossed my mind to ask my client if her dogs had been vaccinated for rabies, but I didn't want to make a fuss about the bite. Looking back, it would have been the prudent thing to do. It's been several years and I'm not rabid yet so I guess it was okay.
After the excitement of the dog bite had worn off, I took my first good look at Marty's house. Holy crap, I thought to myself, you've really stepped in it this time. I was closer to the truth than I realized.
Marty hadn't been lying when she said that she couldn't throw anything away. There was barely a walking path through the living room. There were newspapers, magazines, cosmetics, totes, clothes, cardboard boxes, toys, books, you name it, laying everywhere.
The floor was completely covered in trash. I would soon discover that the newspapers that littered the place were being used for the dogs to do their business on. I didn't really have to be told. My nose already knew.
Marty also loved to collect antique furniture. By antique, I mean old and worn out. There were tables, chairs and sofas that all looked like she had dug them out of someone's trash. They were scarred up furnishings covered in rips and tears. And, the stains, don't get me started on the stains.
My client, bless her, had purchased a box of industrial size trash bags so that we could throw away all of the stuff she didn't need. That had been her intention, but when the time came to actually follow through, she balked.
Anything I would pick up, whether it be a torn up magazine or a urine soaked newspaper, I had to ask her if it could be trashed. It was obvious that throwing anything away caused Marty great distress. I felt bad for her, I truly did, but her mother was threatening to kick her out of the house if she didn't get it cleared out. Most of the clutter had to go. How to accomplish that task was the question.
Marty finally relented and allowed me collect all of the dog's papers. It was not a pleasant task. Layer upon layer of newspapers had been laid down and never picked up even after they had been used numerous times. The smell was enough to singe ones eyebrows.
Once I had cleared away all of the stinky papers, I got a good look at the carpet underneath. It was, to put it mildly, ruined. The only thing holding the fibers together was remnants of doggy doo. I felt like throwing some newspapers down and running out the door, but thought that such a reaction would be unprofessional.
While I was clearing away clutter and attempting to organize the house, Marty was supposed to be going through the mounds of legal papers and files that she had collected over the years. She told me that she had sued a lot of people in the past for various reasons and had held onto all of the paperwork from the trials. It turned out that she was extremely litigious. Good to know.
Marty may have been comfortable in the courtroom, but I couldn't say the same about the kitchen. One thing she obviously didn't like to do was to wash dishes. The sink and countertops were covered with dirty plates, cups, pans, bowls and cutlery. It was obvious that once every single item in the kitchen had been used, rather than wash them, Marty simply replaced them with paper plates and plastic utensils.
When I looked underneath the sink for dish soap, I discovered that she had also been putting dirty dishes there, too. Out of sight, out of mind. When I began pulling all of those hidden treasures out so that I could wash them, I discovered that the dogs weren't the only animals in the house.
The carcasses of several mice were mixed in among the dirty plates and bowls. The little rascals had definitely taken one for the team by getting trapped in Marty's house. When I told her, in the nicest possible way, that she had mice her reaction was the same as it had been to the dog bite. She shrugged her shoulders and sat down in a torn up chair and proceeded to read a magazine.
Eventually, I got all of the dishes washed. More trouble arose when I opened the cabinets, foolishly thinking that there would be room to put the dishes away. No chance. Every single cupboard was brimming over with dishes that, for some reason, she never used.
There was nothing to do except to take everything out of the cabinets and organize them so that I could make room for the newly cleaned dishes. In the process, I managed to break a couple of bowls. Oh, great, I thought, add me to the list of those being sued.
All joking aside, Marty was actually very nice and she didn't mind that some things got broken. She knew that getting her home in shape wasn't going to occur without a few casualties.
I told Marty that day, as I tell all of my clients, to think vertically. So many people attempt to organize their homes from wall to wall. I have found that floor to ceiling is far more effective. Rather than spreading things out, try using wall units to display and store items. They take up far less room and, if done correctly, can add to the décor instead of taking away from it.
Marty's kitchen was polluted with spice packets, tea bags, samples, etc. Since all of the drawers were already full, I turned a hanging basket that she was storing in one of the cabinets into a nest for her condiments. It got them off of the countertops and out of the way. The basket, which wasn't being utilized up until then, now served a purpose.
The first day at Marty's flew by as we, well--mostly I, threw away things that were no longer needed and found places for the items that were. Marty had completely zoned out after an hour or so and read most of the day. Once in a while she would tell me that I was about to dispose of something she needed, otherwise, she was pretty quiet.
When the time came to call it a day, I looked around at the progress that had been made. In all honesty, it didn't look much better, but it was an improvement. Marty seemed thrilled and that was what mattered.
The two of us lugged trash bags outside and piled them up in the driveway. Marty's stepfather was going to see to it that they were hauled away to the dump. More or less satisfied with how things had gone, I bid my client farewell. I would be returning the next day to pick up where we had left off.
As I pulled away from the house, I noticed something in my rearview mirror. It was Marty. She was already outside collecting the trash bags and toting them back inside. She couldn't even give me the courtesy of waiting until I was out of sight. Yep, Marty was a handful.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Things went downhill rapidly after that first day at Marty's. As quickly as I cleaned and organized, she demolished my efforts. She was always nice and we got along splendidly, but it became painfully obvious that Marty was not ready to let go of the clutter in her home.
She had accumulated so much stuff that she couldn't find anything when she needed it. Instead, she would simply buy things as she saw fit. This led to her having multiples of nearly everything. Still, she wouldn't part with any of it.
Kindhearted to the end, Marty also bought gifts for family and friends to celebrate every occasion. The trouble was, she seldom gave them the lovely items she had purchased. They would get lost in the clutter and she would forget all about them. We uncovered numerous presents, wrapped and ready to go that had never left the house. Marty didn't seem able to keep track of anything.
I'm not a counselor, but I sort of felt that Marty needed lots of things surrounding her so that she didn't feel alone. Her only child, a daughter, lived thousands of miles away. They seldom saw each other and it was clear that the space between them was difficult for Marty to bear.
My client had told me herself that she and her own mother did not get along. Her mom had allowed her to live in the home that they had acquired as a rental property, but was not happy with its current state. She also paid most of Marty's living expenses. She was actually the one who was paying me to organize. I met her once and it was not a comfortable situation.
Marty and her mother locked horns over the progress I was making from the get go. Marty was happy with the little bit of work she had allowed me to do, but her mother was not. She expected the place to be cleared out and made to look brand new. That would have been nice, but it wasn't going to happen. Marty's fragile mental state would not allow it.
I ended up making several trips to Marty's house and there were a few small victories along the way. In the end, she just wasn't ready to let go and I couldn't force her to do something that was going to have dire consequences for her in the long run. Her anxiety was so severe that I became anxious just being around her.
Marty's mother finally got fed up with paying someone who was not even making a dent in the clutter. I didn't blame her one bit. It was a losing battle and everyone knew it. I am a fairly decent organizer, but I knew when I'd been beat.
Marty had issues that stretched far beyond the clutter in her home. She was a dear lady and I hope that she found someone who could get to the heart of the problem. As an organizer, I have learned how to make a house clean and tidy. I cannot, however, mend broken people no matter how hard I might try.
10 Household Hints
1. Store sheets inside of their matching pillowcase so that the sets stay together. Also, throw a dryer sheet in with them so they don't get that weird sheet smell. Wait, is that just me?
2. Throw a clean, dry towel in with your wet clothes before turning on the dryer. They will dry more quickly, saving you time and money. It will also keep sheets and blankets from balling up and tying themselves in knots. How do they do that, anyway?
3. Use plastic shower curtain rings to organize camisoles on hangers. You can easily fit twelve on a hanger saving you lots of closet space. You're welcome.
4. Use pre-moistened baby wipes to clean the slats on window blinds. They work like a charm and you can toss them when you're finished. The wipes, not the blinds.
5. Speaking of baby wipes, keep a package of them in the glove box of your car for little emergencies. They are also great for those occasions when the public toilet you just used is out of soap. I hate it when that happens.
6. Pet owners, use plastic grocery bags to scoop up after Fido. You can fit them around your hand like a glove and then turn them inside out before tying them off and throwing them away. They also work for picking up hairballs and barf. Yep, I said it, barf.
7. Save empty bread bags to use as sandwich bags in a pinch. Hold it, did you just call me cheap?
8. Keep your freezer stocked at all times to save energy. Believe it or not, a freezer doesn't have to work as hard when its full. Someone told me that, but they may have lied. Anyway, it also helps to keep items colder longer in case of a power outage.
9. Water down dish detergent when it gets around the half-empty mark. Give it a gentle shake and enjoy the extra washings it allows. Yes, I am a dish soap half-empty type of gal.
10. Polished your nails and don't have time to wait for them to dry? Plunge your hands into ice water for a few seconds. Remove them and gently blot dry. Voila! Dry nails. Cold hands, of course, but nothing is without its flaws.
Thank you for reading my silly rants. Please look for follow up articles coming soon. Happy organizing!