“Happy families are all alike,” claims Tolstoy, and it’s fair to say that organized people are all alike as well. Chaos, though, is personal.
This is the fascinating thing about working with the chronically disorganized. Their living and work spaces may have a lot in common, as far as the stacks and piles and dust. But the reasons they have for letting things get to that state are all distinctly individual.
The family with small kids and the confirmed bachelor. The teenager and the retired lady. They are only alike in that they can’t figure out what to do about their personal chaos.
You’d think, from all those squalor-sploitation reality TV shows, that all my people make the same mess. They don’t, though. Most of my people are not true hoarders, even though they think they are. They’ll cheerfully get rid of truckloads of stuff and never look back. They just need someone there to help them figure out what to keep and why.
There are usually isolated islands of calm amidst the chaos.
The one who owns a carefully curated capsule wardrobe with plenty of space between hangers
The one who keeps an immaculate living room
The one who is always photoshoot-ready (outside the home, anyway)
The one who lets go of hundreds of books but keeps expired food
Chaos is personal because stories are personal. We live the way we do because we’ve internalized messages about how the world works. We explain things to ourselves, or memorize the way others have explained them. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves all over again, in the sense of “how dare they!”
The one who had more stuff than any of my other clients, but somehow managed to keep a nice living room: I want it to look good when my friends come over.
The one whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe are always on point: I could never let myself go.
The one who hoards food but not books: I already read that and now it can go to someone else.
That one is fascinating because it posits that books are consumable, that they come and go, but that food belongs to some kind of longterm storehouse. It’s perfectly fine to read a $25 book once and then donate it, but it is never okay to throw away a five-year-old bag of pasta that cost $1.99.
In my fantasies, the ones I indulge when I’m working through a particularly gross and smelly forgotten area, in my fantasies I host a symposium of chronically disorganized people. They debate amongst themselves whose stories make the most sense.
Often I find myself challenged by these stories, because they don’t match mine, and sometimes my client has a point. For instance, the one who would never, ever leave the house without perfect hair and makeup. I’m more or less the opposite. I’ve left the house in my nightgown because I wasn’t feeling well, but I would never let my HOME go.
The first sign that something is wrong with me is when I somehow “don’t feel like” making the bed. This happens two or three times a year, and without fail, it means I’m either getting a migraine or coming down with a cold.
My client’s story is that the way you present yourself says everything about you. It makes or breaks your reputation.
My story is that I’m not going to bend over backwards to impress other people, and if they require me to look photo-perfect before they’ll talk to me, then I don’t want them for a friend anyway.
My client believes that real friends will accept your home in any state, that they come over to see you, not your house.
My story is that since I work at home, I need and want it to be orderly. I clean my house for myself, not for anybody else. My story is that my home reflects my mental state and my self-respect.
What if we’re both right?
What if everything about us has the opportunity to make a first impression? What if we’re better off attending to both our personal appearance and our homes?
I sure don’t want that to be the answer!
On the other hand, what if we’re both wrong? What if our real friends don’t care if we look a little sloppy OR if our living rooms do?
There’s no right answer here. It depends entirely on whether you care more about your own inner standards or about the judgments of others. It’s also true that people are different, our situations are different, and the values and opinions of our friends vary person to person.
People are often afraid to have me over, because they know about my work. There are people I’ve known socially for many years who have never allowed me to visit them at home. It’s ironic because out of everyone, I’m the *least* likely to judge! I have seen it all and I have smelled it all and I have climbed over it all. I know that people rarely manage to keep up with their own image of what they wished their homes looked like.
Part of what fascinates me about working with chronically disorganized people is that learning about them helps me to learn about myself. Every time I come back from a home visit, I get rid of stuff. I recognize that my clients’ daffy stories about why they “need” to keep certain things sound... hauntingly familiar.
So much of it is aspirational. I’ll wear that one day, I’ll read that one day, I’ll learn how to do that one day, I’ll file that one day, I’ll fix that one day, I’ll sell that at a yard sale one day, I’ll eat that one day.
What about today?
What are we doing about today?
If my stuff doesn’t match my routine, then why? Why am I not taking advantage of these opportunities that I’ve provided myself? Why do I plan to do one thing and then spend my time doing something else instead?
Only one thing is guaranteed. The stories I tell myself about why I’m doing one thing instead of something else are not obvious to anyone but me. My story is my own, and my chaos is my personal chaos.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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