Helping hoarders: An interview with Geralin Thomas

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Geralin Thomas is a North Carolina based professional organizer whose advice we’ve featured here before. Since last fall, she’s also been involved with A&E’s hit show Hoarders. We caught up with Geralin recently to ask her a few questions about the experience.

First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself”where are you from, where do you live, how did you get started as an organizer

I am based in Cary, North Carolina. I joined NAPO, North Carolina in August of 2003 and consider that my official start date. Before that, I was on the ˜friends and family plan’, meaning I helped friends and relatives who knew I loved organizing people’s time, space and stuff. I unofficially started calling myself an organizer a year before that.

How did you come to be involved with A&E’s Hoarders? Had you worked with hoarders before?

Hoarders are a population I enjoy working with tremendously. I find it disappointing that there is such a stigma placed on mental health conditions such as hoarding. I have worked with hoarders for a while, but when I was offered a chance to work with them on film I leapt at the opportunity. I was optimistic that the show would pull the topic of hoarding out of the closet, but it has busted the door right off the hinges!

How does working with hoarders differ from working with your other clients? I imagine there must be psychological problems to confront, in addition to organizational ones

Helping a hoarder involves more than simply cleaning out the home. Personal, emotional, and even financial issues come into play.

Outing a hoarder may ruin a relationship. Sometimes the hoarder will feel angry or hurt and may disconnect themselves from the person trying to help them. In addition, it often divides families, with one half of a family thinking, Leave the hoarder alone, they aren’t harming anyone except themselves,” and the other half thinking, “I am not going to sit around and be negligent about this; it’s a mental disorder and I’m going to take action.

Once a private hoarding situation becomes public (outside involvement coming from fire chiefs, social workers, code enforcers, mental health practitioners, etc.), things tend to move more rapidly than the hoarder or the family expects. The hoarder feels a loss of control. So does the family.

Also worth noting, especially for mid-life or elderly hoarders, is that many of them have been homeowners for several years and home means they know their neighbours, their community, and the local rhythm of a neighbourhood. They are comfortable getting around town and making appointments. They navigate well in familiar territory. To remove them from their comforting piles of clutter and their home may exacerbate feelings of depression, disorientation or helplessness. They may feel anxious, out of control or ashamed.

The show has obviously done a lot to raise awareness about hoarding. Do you think it’s been as successful in helping the individuals who actually participate? In a blog post you wrote this fall, you mentioned that the road to recovery for hoarders extends way beyond the 2-day taping schedule

Making decisions on behalf of the hoarder, cleaning out a hoarder’s house, or throwing everything out, in no way changes a hoarder’s belief system or behaviour. It can in fact do more harm than good. The hoarding client must both want help AND be willing to make the needed changes. The process requires an investment of both time and energy. It is a long, exhausting and frustrating commitment for the hoarder, but fundamental to bringing about long-term change.

Have you been able to stay in touch with the people you helped on Hoarders?

I have received wonderful feedback from the people I’ve helped on the show. One client even wrote a Haiku about the changes in his life:

RENEWAL

Your vortex moved me,
Whirling: blessings, love and care,
Saving home and life.

NEW TIME

In clean, spare stillness,
I rediscover my house.
Clocks tick, chime anew.

The clips one sees online are amazing”it’s almost impossible to imagine living with the clutter that some of these people face on a daily basis. Were you intimidated by any of the projects you dealt with?

No, believe it or not, each shoot is invigorating not intimidating. We know, in advance, the amount of clutter in each home and we carefully evaluate the number of people as well as the various types of help needed. While some of these shoots are challenging, we have successfully managed to put things in place and provide a generous amount of aftercare for the clients. It’s been very rewarding.

11 thoughts on “Helping hoarders: An interview with Geralin Thomas

  1. Wow, four years ago and I’ve managed to re-clutter the back room, and the landlady is coming over on Friday (it is now Wednesday.) I have to de-clutter the front room. Again. I had cancer a year ago which kind of derailed my efforts and now I’m not exactly starting over, but I did let it get back somewhat in bad condition. I am losing mobility. I’ve been checking to see if I have a legal right to work on the back room over time and if I get the front into compliance, probably I do.

    I’ve got help throwing stuff away luckily.

    I do keep watching re-runs and I do keep hoping to get my stuff under control.

    I hope I can live through this process! I mean, with tenancy intact.

    Thanks,

    Starshadow

  2. Dear Starshadow,

    Thank YOU!
    Your comments are encouraging and you deserve a pat on the back for your effort. It’s difficult work, even with a large team, so I applaud your hard work and cheerful disposition.

    It’s always fantastic to hear that A & E’s show, Hoarders, is helping educate people about this fascinating disorder.

    Season 3 is currently being filmed and hopefully, there will be even more tips, systems and organizing tools for viewers to learn from. I get a lot of mail from people who tune in to learn more about the disorder and figure out how the decluttering process “feels” when working with an organizer and a therapist. In my opinion, therapy is almost always necessary to change behaviors and beliefs.

    Here’s something to think about when decluttering; remember the letters,
    “H.E.A.L.” Hope, Educate, Affirm, Long-term.
    Hope: focus on something you want to happen.
    Educate: accept the way the world operates; acknowledge the realities of the disorder.
    Affirm: Have positive intentions. Move forward. Achieve small goals.
    Long-Term: Practice forgiving yourself every single day.
    (This is from the book, Digging Out pg. 42 by Drs. Tompkins and Hartl)

    Many thanks for commenting and for watching the show. Make sure you tune in Memorial Day weekend because they will repeat past episodes, back-to-back and add 2 new shows!

    Here is a list of the people I’ve worked with in the past:
    Kerrylea, WA
    Jennifer, KY
    Missy, TN
    Bob, MA
    Jim, IN
    Gail, WA
    Tra, TX

    Hope you’ll keep watching and ‘meet’ the wonderful folks I’ve worked with for the new season.

    Best of luck,

    Geralin

  3. I am a hoarder. I think I hit what I call “rock bottom” –like an alcoholic’s rock bottom–before losing my “stuff” which I did with a landlady who cleaned out my back room, a year and a half ago. I lost things that were impossible to replace, but I’d already gotten the ultimatum that it was either the stuff or the tenancy that would go. So when stuff went out that initially was not supposed to go, I was able to remember that “it’s only stuff.” Sure, some was irreplaceable, like photos–but who’s fault was it but mine for having too much? And no place to keep those things safe?

    So watching Hoarders keeps giving me insights into my hoarding mindset and behaviors and helps me discard papers and things that I don’t need. It’s still a slow process. I don’t have a team or an organizer, just me. But the process continues and even the little bits of clutter I have are disappearing.

    Thanks for doing the show, Geralin. I’m glad Hoarders has brought the disorder to light.

    Starshadow

  4. Jim-
    I am so proud of you! Your comments above brought a smile to my face. Continue to enjoy your space and your time with family and friends.
    I enjoyed working with you and it brightens my day to know that we were able to help.

  5. Geralin,

    You, Wendy,the whole Hoarders crew and, of course, my beloved Daughter, Heather, are the treasures. Thanks to you, my life is headed in a different and more positive direction.

    It is great to see my Haiku verses shared with a wider audience. I hope they may strike a chord with several other ‘hoarders.’

    Two aspects of life for me are noteworthy, post show. First, my house is clean and available, but my psyche is quite a ways behind. I often don’t ‘get’ it that I can have people in, that I can entertain. I have to remind myself that it is now possible and okay.

    Second, I realize more with each passing week that I must now engage in a lifelong pursuit of a spare, organized, uncluttered life. Even after the show, even after dozens more boxes of paper into the recycling bin while working with Wendy, I continue to see hotspots of stuff that need to go. This week, from one shallow drawer in an end table, I discarded 8-10 15 year old Readers Digests and a number of other magazines. I am trying to cultivate the vision to ‘see’ such situations and clear them.

    Thanks again and best wishes,

    Jim

  6. Geralin,

    You, Wendy,the whole Hoarders crew and, of course, my beloved Daughter, Heather, are the treasures. Thanks to you, my life is headed in a different and more positive direction.

    It is great to see my Haiku verses shared with a wider audience. I hope they may strike a chord with several other ‘hoarders.’

    Two aspects of life for me are noteworthy, post show. First, my house is clean and available, but my psyche is quite a ways behind. I often don’t ‘get’ it that I can have people in, that I can entertain. I have to remind myself that it is now possible and okay.

    Second, I realize more with each passing week that I must know engage in a lifelong pursuit of a spare, organized, uncluttered life. Even after the show, even after dozens more boxes of paper into the recycling bin while working with Wendy, I continue to see hotspots of stuff that needs to go. This week, from one shallow drawer in an end table, I discarded 8-10 15 year old Readers Digests and a number of other magazines. I am trying to cultivate the vision to ‘see’ such situations and clear them.

    Thanks again and best wishes,

    Jim

  7. It was GREAT to work with you on the Hoarder’s shoot, my Dad continues to enjoy rediscovering entertaining because of all the clear space…he hosted a men’s dinner Friday night and then also hosted bridge club Sunday night! It was the right decision to help him get to you…glad I took the risk!

  8. Kim,
    The 2-day filming schedule is only the beginning. After I leave, funding for aftercare is provided and the client has both a therapist and a professional organizer’s services available.

    There is always a pending crisis which is why we do as much as we can in 2 days. The days of filming are the first step of a very long journey for the client.

    I’m happy to hear that watching motivates you in your own home too.

  9. I really wish I knew why they stick so carefully to a 2-day filming schedule, when the real process of helping is so much longer?

    I do watch the show, and I enjoy it, and it helps me in my own home, but I do worry that the way they film it makes it look more like an exploitation – as in “look at this freak!” than a helpful, uplifting process. Even though it probably is that, just not the way the show is cut.

    Cheers to Geralin for helping so many people and being so compassionate about it. You can see watching the show that it’s really hard for most people to be that compassionate and understanding about circumstances & choices they can’t understand.

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