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