The Hoarder in Us All

Mary’s voice was chipper and I liked her immediately. I could use some Zany Sage in my life, she said. She had seen an ad for my services and called. She explained things had gotten a little out of hand and now she had a move looming on the horizon. I need to downsize, she said. My Zany Sage senses tingled as she told me a few bits of her background. But first, when I hear gotten a little out of hand, my experience has taught me that this is code for things have gotten a LOT out of hand. Widowed for many years. Had trouble parting with things. She was a crafter. Rut roh. Skip the Zany Sage sense feeling…the bells were now clanging.

This woman was likely a hoarder.

Now, I usually tell folks I don’t work with hoarders because of the multifaceted needs of these dear people. There are mental health needs and truly a team approach is needed.

But despite my “I won’t work with hoarders,” schtick, I still end up in hoarder homes. I guessed Mary was one of them. And for the record, I do not work on behalf of someone getting me to help the hoarder in their life. The client must be the one to engage my services. It’s part of my “Thou shalt not practice non consensual organizing” tenet.

When I knocked on Mary’s door a few weeks later, she opened the door just wide enough for her to slip out. “Let’s visit on the porch,” she said. That gave me all the confirmation I needed.

We sat on her porch to discuss her needs in greater detail. I could feel her hesitation in showing me the inside. I assured her she was safe with me. I am a judgement free zone and unless there was a dead body tucked away somewhere, nothing phased me.

My hunch was confirmed when we entered. My first concern was her safety. She was nearly 80 years old and had balance issues. The tripping hazards were legion in her small home. There were piles like clutter stalagmites reaching from floor to the halfway to the ceiling. Countertops were spilling over.

While I surveyed the situation, I felt pangs of compassion and awe at her resilience. No one, but NO ONE wakes up one morning and says, “GEE! I would love to be a hoarder when I grow up.”

No, hoarding behaviors arise out of coping strategies for dealing with, well, take your pick. Any sort of trauma or unhealed pain. Unresolved grief is another biggie. So, they cope and navigate with hanging on to things that do not serve them well, maladaptive as it may seem to us.

I commended her for her resourcefulness and for her bravery in contacting me. Because here is the deal. A hoarder who is reaching out for help pushes past a vast amount of shame in order to do so.

Just imagine what it would be like to walk out your house one day in your birthday suit. Other than a few voyeuristic folks or drunk frat boys out there, it would horrify most of us.

This is not unlike someone who gets a wake-up call and realizes things are beyond their ability to cope with their living environment. They feel naked and exposed.

I have done this junk-thrower outter stuff for many, many years, and this is my observation. Every blessed one of us has clutter piles.

It’s easy to compare ourselves with someone like Mary and feel superior and maybe even some disgust, “I would NEVER live that way!”

Maybe your clutter isn’t in your home environment. Maybe it’s in the storage unit you’ve been paying rent on for the past 10 years.

Or maybe it’s the unhappiness that hangs over your life that indicates a head or heart that is bursting at the seams with emotional or relationship clutter. We all have an inner hoarder that hangs on to things that are not helpful.

No matter the type of clutter you may have which with you may struggle, I hope hearing Mary’s story encourages you.

After our visit, she sent me the sweetest text. “I want to thank you for helping me face up to my problem…I thank you for your ability to look me in the eye and talk to me about the way I put off dealing with regular duties.”

She didn’t engage my services but I still count this as a huge win for Mary as she recognized her issues instead of denying and ignoring. She also inspired me as I continue to do this work.

Progress doesn’t mean necessarily emptying a closet. Sometimes it means putting your brave on to face what you don’t want to face.

Theresa Winn Lode is a professional organizer and certified life coach. She loves throwing out things and is convinced an organizing angel gets its wings every time it happens. She also has a deep and abiding love for dumpsters and wonders if she should be in therapy because of this. Find her at or her Facebook page. (

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