Our initial talk was quite informative and my first impression told me that he wanted to make a change: he stated that there was a lot of stuff to sort out into ‘keep’ and ‘chuck’ (his words, not mine) and there were lots of boxes in his ground floor living room, most of which appeared to be half empty.
The kitchen told an entirely different story, though: not only was it in a rather messy state (he clearly doesn’t do much cooking), but also there were lots of metal bits, remains of his past work as a tradesman. Luckily, the bedrooms were more of a collection of piles of clothes on the floor, something I imagined could be easily managed with a bit of ingenious storage, clothes hangers and pegs on along the wall.
We set a date and time and when we finally got into the actual decluttering, I was confronted with the full force of his anxiety (he was not ready to let go of anything), attention deficit (new ideas and thoughts bubbling up each minute) and what I assume is a certain level of autism (he kept wandering off in his mind, only to return with ever-changing instructions and ideas). As you can imagine, this situation is far from ideal for the kind of work we were about to do.
As the person who is supposed to help, assist and guide, this poses particular problems that go far beyond the actual organising and decluttering. It feels like trying to achieve a goal on one level, while dousing fires on a totally different one. Think of a child who just leaves his toys where he stops playing with them. As long as the mother keeps cleaning up after you, it’s still possible to find everything where it is supposed to be. But if nobody does this, you soon will be surrounded by things that are useful in theory yet that you cannot find when needed, and that are in the way when you don't need them. And, of course, a lot of stuff that really is no longer needed here at all.
It takes a lot of patience to keep going under those circumstances and it’s impossible to take time out to consider if this is really going anywhere. In this case, I had a little epiphany when he started looking for a couple of items he knew were in a particular drawer, but rather than rummaging through the drawer, he upended the whole thing onto the floor claiming “I’ll clean that up once I come back”.
I had accidentally discovered the reason for the myriad of small and large items accumulating gently in the corners of every room. This is when it became abundantly apparent that this went far beyond a just a simple “organise and discard” activity, that a very long-term investment from both sides was required.
That changed the nature of the engagement drastically for me: while I could see myself engaging with this client for a consensual decluttering and organising (basically: assisting and supplying a helping hand for what would have been too much of a job for one person) had changed into a long-term project with someone who was not even aware of what exactly was going on. I realised that therapy was more likely to bring results and have advised the client in that direction.
It would have felt like I’m fleecing him for his money, had I continued to work with him only to leave him alone to create more clutter by the time I returned. This vicious circle would be helpful to neither of us: he would be paying for ultimately unnecessary services, and I’d be feeling bad taking money for a service with extremely temporary results.
So we agreed to leave things the way they are for now. It’s up to him to decide if therapy is his way forward, and I hope he’ll take that path. It’s out of my hands, but it will still weigh on my mind for some time.
Luckily, like many other professions dealing with the human condition, us declutterers and organisers have a much needed support system: we are all much aware that sometimes things get rather more focused on the psychology of the situation than the practical side of decluttering. If that happens, most of us are able to reach out and find someone to talk to. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who have been supporting me in times of need, but also those who trusted me with their own problems.
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Hi, my name is Tilo Flache. My current mission: help my clients declutter mind and space.
This blog contains pointers for your journey towards a happier living experience.