When Clutter Becomes Critical: Three Descending Levels of Spring Cleaning - Spring Break Week


Written By: Jennifer Smith

In a bustling New York City, time and space are especially precious commodities. You can tell by the way the leisurely pace of the stranger in front of you at the subway station can make your blood boil or by how outside your postage stamp of an apartment, you could circle the entire grid system of your neighborhood forever and never find an appropriate place to casually stand.

But since the city never sleeps, its residents don’t have to be left out in the dark alone, and if your time or space seems out of your control, no matter how dire the circumstances, there’s somebody to help get things sorted out for you—for a price.

Janine Sarna-Jones, founder of Organize Me in NYC, deals with a wide range of New Yorkers in her professional organizing business. The underlying issue for each client is de-cluttering whatever it is that’s blocking them from achieving their goals—whether that’s physical disorganization or poor time management.

photo courtesy of Katerha.

“I think they go hand in hand… ,” says Sarna-Jones of organizing space and schedules. Sarna-Jones met with a prospective client recently, who otherwise seemed organized, but had trouble keeping her papers in order.

“That’s someone I would enjoy working with because she just doesn’t understand that she can apply the principles she applies in certain parts of her life to the things she feels she’s no good at,” Sarna-Jones continues. “It’s like turning a key. You help that person turn the key so they realize they are blocking themselves from doing something that is actually probably not as difficult for them as they believe it is.”

For people who suffer from chronic disorganization, Sarna-Jones seeks to impart a practice because contrary to popular belief, getting organized is not something you can achieve in a weekend and then never have to revisit.  It’s the little steps and the little achievements that keep things from growing overwhelming.

For example, when clutter has taken hold of your personal space, Sarna-Jones recommends throwing down a hula hoop or looking through a paper towel tube and organizing only what’s in those circles.

“When someone’s dealing with a lot of physical clutter, one suggestion I have is to just do a little bit at time and make it a short amount,” Sarna-Jones says. “Use a timer; make it 15 or 20 minutes maximum and only make it another 15 if you feel like you have it in you. Give yourself a small place to start.”

The same principles can apply to organizing your time. Rather than attempting to tackle an entire to-do list, choose three things and do the smaller tasks first.

“If it’s going to take you thirty seconds, then do it and get rid of that piece of paper,” Sarna-Jones says. “ Get rid of that thing that’s bothering you so it’s not hanging over your head.”

Photo courtesy of UnnarYmir.

Many of us know that feeling of anxiety when things start piling up around us, but in cases of hoarding, a clutter issue taken to psychologically detrimental extremes, that plight is very much realized. Without some sort of positive change, a hoarder can easily plunge into what feels like an inescapable crisis. The earliest reference to hoarding comes from Dante’s Inferno, and given the feelings of isolation and shame that some hoarders experience when seeking help, the comparison to a personal hell seems painfully apt.

“Sometimes landlords have kicked people out of places because the landlord had no idea the person was living in these conditions, and the neighbors have been complaining about smells or roaches or rats,” says Geralin Thomas, professional organizer and owner of Metropolitan Organizing.

In those cases, more often than not, the hoarder doesn’t have any money and seemingly no resources, according to Thomas. Their families have tried and tried again to intervene and have given up on them, or like the unfortunate landlord who gets saddled with the cleanup costs, the families had no idea the hoarder was living in such desperate conditions.

Thomas started her business in 2002 and has been regularly featured as an organizing expert on the A&E television series Hoarders since the show began in 2009.

Thomas recalls one woman she worked with on the show, Gail, who had a lot of wonderful pictures from a time in her life before hoarding. She dressed beautifully and kept a spotless house—nice Christmas tree in the corner, cupcakes on the table.  But as with many hoarding cases, a traumatic event triggered her descent into hoarding. Her house caught on fire and her husband left her; it just seemed like one thing after another, according to Thomas.

“Unfortunately, you don’t get to see this from the show because it’s a very serious show, but a lot of these people are super intelligent, very creative, have fabulous senses of humor …” Thomas says.  “I mean these are real people, not monsters who should be society’s shut outs.”

When Thomas entered Gail’s home, she was living in frigid conditions because she was too embarrassed to call in a repair company to fix the heater, but even in cases of extreme hoarding, the same process of starting small can spring hope, albeit very slowly. Thomas often starts by cleaning out the refrigerator or giving clients an achievable goal such as clearing off the stovetop and keeping it clutter-free for a week.

“She just sent me a picture at Christmas of her house,” Thomas says of Gail, who continued with therapy after the shoot. “It is completely uncluttered … I mean, her pictures are incredible.”

When it comes to recovering from hoarding, cognitive behavioral therapy picks up where organizing leaves off. According to Thomas, the need for a hoarder to acquire will always be present, and unfortunately, the other side of the disorder prevents them from letting things go. Whether it’s an old Styrofoam cup or something their grandmother made, everything has meaning to them.

“They’ve got the city breathing down their necks or someone is threatening to take away their children … Department of Social Services is saying ‘you’ve got to get this place clean or your kids can’t live here with you,’” Thomas says. “Again, it’s fascinating to me that you can hold up an old pizza box and say ‘all these old boxes have to go; it’s this or your daughter’ … When you don’t have this disorder, this is a no-brainer.”

Still, despite patterns Thomas has come to expect in her line of work, she maintains that no two hoarders are alike. Some hoard a specific thing, such as video cassettes, and wouldn’t get anxious over someone coming in and cleaning up everything save for the cassettes.

“I’ll see things where they’re not hoarding trash,” Thomas says, stressing she can only speak on the cases she’s personally dealt with. “They could care less if I let go of all their old newspapers.”

When Don Tagatac’s company, Trauma Scene Cleaning Management Inc., was charged with cleaning up a woman’s New York City apartment, Tagatac found that they would literally be walking on top of newspapers. She had been hoarding papers to the point where her life was consumed with old headlines; but steeped in memory as they were, the time had come for those newspapers to go.

“As long as they’re willing to pay us to go through their things and try to get the place cleaned out, we’ll be there,” Tagatac says.

Photo courtesy of heraldpost.

Tagatac promotes the company as a “cleaning service that a maid service won’t do”, which even includes taking on bio-hazardous conditions such as crime scene cleanups.

“Actually, after the Sunshine Cleaning movie, a lot of mom and pop-like smaller companies have actually popped up so there’s a little more competition,” Tagatac says of homicide/suicide cleanups.  “But right now, to tell you the truth, there’s less calls for that because there’s a lot more hoarders in the city.”

Tagatac co-founded his biohazard cleanup company during a time when not a lot of people in the city took on such work.  Back then, Tagatac never really heard of hoarding; but took on “decomp” jobs, which was the tragic fate for one particular hoarder.

“Unfortunately, there are elderly people who live by themselves and their family members don’t live in the same town,” Tagatac says of decomp jobs. “So they do not know that their relative has passed away until the rent check stops coming or their neighbors notice that haven’t picked up their mail.”

After cleaning out the hoarder’s home, Tagatac began marketing his company with social agencies and hospitals with a focus on making hoarder’s apartments livable again in time-sensitive situations. For example, if a hoarder is being released from the hospital and can’t return to his/her home as a matter of safety until it’s been de-cluttered, the hospital will call Tagatac’s company to deal with the cleanout as quickly as possible.

Tagatac also works closely with property managers and exterminating companies to clean out cluttered apartments with rodent or bedbug infestations, which is not uncommon in cases of hoarding. The clutter poses an obvious threat to an elderly tenant, such as slipping and falling on papers, but a hoarder’s apartment is a nightmare scenario for a fire fighter, who could easily become trapped.

Tagatac’s company often works under high pressure from landlords or social workers, and they aim to get cleanups done as quickly as possible, but sometimes they can extend a little bit more time to the tenants as they go through their things.

In a city where there’s a sense of urgency in everything, a little patience can go a long way.

“Before the lady could get rid of her items, she has to read them,” Tagatac recalls of the newspaper cleanup. “She has a very high sentimental value towards this newspaper or this article, and before she can let it go, she actually has to read them through and you can see her reaction either laughing, crying … everything in the newspaper reminded her of something.”