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The Anti-Hoarders 

Groups help compulsive pack rats

"Susan" had been sleeping on the couch for years because there was simply no room in her bedroom to lie down. Nearly every square inch was covered in clothes, some stacked in piles several feet high. The rest of her one-bedroom east Charlotte apartment was just as bad, and over time she had made a little trail between all the mounds of clothing -- some of it over 20 years old -- through which to navigate. Already battling depression, the out-of-control clutter was keeping her isolated from friends and family, and making her feel that much more gloomy and hopeless. She knew something was awfully wrong, and she knew she needed help. While nearly all of us can relate to having a cluttered and messy home or office from time to time, for folks like Susan it goes way beyond that. Long viewed as simply an eccentricity, "compulsive hoarding" or "chronic disorganization" is now being recognized as a serious psychological disorder, and one that breaks up marriages, isolates individuals, ends careers, and instills deep feelings of guilt and shame. But what can you do about it? One possible solution is to consult with one of a growing number of businesses in Charlotte that helps folks organize their homes and offices, and get their lives in order. Kristin White del Rosso is the founder of Pea Organizing Services (POS). The company, which she started in 2000, currently serves about 30 individuals and 15 businesses. Most of these clients, del Rosso says, usually just need assistance in establishing an organized filing system or storage area. But for some clients, extra care and assistance are often necessary.

Ray Broome of Cornelius contacted Kristin after he became overwhelmed in trying to manage his home office. Broome says he attributes his inability to keep his office organized to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a condition he was diagnosed with several years ago.

"I couldn't focus on anything," Broome says. "It was like sensory overload. I had boxes everywhere with notes and paperwork. It took accepting that I had a problem before I could ask for help."

Broome started working with Kristin a few months ago, and together they started the methodical process of going through every box while determining what to throw away and what to keep. "Kristin said "I can't throw it out for you, but I can tell you to throw it out.' A person that doesn't have an awareness of the characteristics of ADD, their patience would have grown real short, but not her. She helped me with establishing structure. Now I don't let stuff pile up to where I have boxes with tons of papers stuffed in them.

"I needed that outside help; that kick in the tail," Broome continues. "What I've found is that it's very freeing. It sounds like it's confining, but you no longer dwell on this stuff when it's in place. Now I can function at my highest level."

In most cases, chronic disorganization is a symptom of ADD or depression. Susan's family has a long history of depression, and for years she's been seeing a therapist and taking medication to overcome the disorder. Moreover, Susan says her sister, mother and grandmother are all "hoarders." "It's horrible -- you can't even get in my sister's house," Susan says. "When my grandmother died, they basically had to bulldoze her house because it was so full of junk."

The problem plagued Susan even when she wasn't at home. "At work, people would think I had it together, and the whole time I was thinking, "God, if you could see what was going on at my house.' Friends would invite me over, and then they'd expect me to invite them to my house, but I just couldn't."

About four months ago Susan had finally had enough, and while searching the web, came across POS and del Rosso.

"When I first started working with Susan she could barely open her front door," del Rosso says. "Literally every square inch was covered. It was really bad."

Faced with such an overwhelming mess, del Rosso says you have to develop a game plan, divide the cleanup in manageable tasks, and tackle one section at a time. But first, del Rosso had to establish trust and a kind of partnership with Susan.

"We talked for several hours," del Rosso says. "She said she was afraid to get rid of this stuff because she'd feel lonely. I told her that was valid, but right now you can't even have people in your house. Which one is more important -- having all this stuff, or being able to invite a friend over? Finally, she said she was ready."

They started with the bedroom, then the den, next came the living room, finally the closets. "It's a purging process," del Rosso says. "It's very tiring and scary for them, but once they start to see progress, they get motivated and want to continue."

Susan estimates they must have bagged up and thrown away at least 25 big garbage bags of clothes, and says she's now focusing on the rules she and del Rosso established so she can do it on her own.

"Having another person there and being accountable helped me get rid of stuff easier," Susan says. "When I could actually see my floor it was a huge relief. I still have the urge to hold on to things, that doesn't go away, but now I can control it."

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