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Cecil County Life

Conquering the mess

Jun 03, 2015 10:31AM ● By Richard Gaw

In a tidy lower-level room at the Janes United Methodist Church in Rising Sun, Mary slowly explained how clutter came to dominate her life.

"My life was totally unmanageable," she said to two other women sitting nearby. "My clutter was so bad that I had fallen over it numerous times, and ended up having six surgeries to recover. My daughter had taken pictures of the inside of my house, took them to the family reunion, and showed them to my family. She wasn't doing that to ridicule me. She was doing it because she wanted somebody to hear her -- that I was in trouble."

At the weekly meetings of Clutterers Anonymous (CLA), a national 12-step program based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, people whose lives are being taken over by their possessions can come to share, to vent and to find solutions to their gradual imprisonment. The Cecil County group has been in existence for three years.

"I had spent a lot of money -- money that we did not have -- on things," Mary continued. "I was stockpiling office suplies, and food and -- you name it. I was out of control. I was deep in the disease when I came to CLA and surrendered. I said I was powerless over clutter. My higher power became this group," she said. "The people in the group were doing better than me. I believed they could restore me to sanity."

One of the tenets of CLA is that anonymity is guaranteed, so the three women at this meeting in May chose names to be used in this article. The stories they shared, and their sense of guilt and shame, though, painted a vivid picture of how paralyzing clutter can be.

There's a distinction to be made between cluttering -- in which a person simply collects too many items and feels overwhelmed at the prospect of getting organized -- and hoarding, in which the sufferer loses the ability to make rational decisions and will keep garbage, spoiled food or broken items that are of no value. But every clutterer recognizes that it's a slippery slope downward to hoarding. Taking stock, and taking steps to stop accumulating, is what Clutterers Anonymous is all about. The only requirement for joining the group is a desire to stop cluttering.

In Mary's case, as part of the 12 steps of recovery, she took stock of her clutter. "I took it one room at a time," she said. "And I divided up each room -- like 'top of dresser' or 'table beside sofa.' I also did a moral inventory, where I listed my resentments, I listed nasty habits I had, like lying and sarcasm, so I could then build on my good characteristics."

The meeting, while it touched on somber topics, also had moments of humor, as when Mary characterized her walk-in clothes closet as "more of a lean-in closet."

She particularly collected box after box of office supplies, she explained, because of the feeling of security and nostalgia they gave her. Her stockpile reminded her of the fresh promise of a new school year when she was a girl, when anything was possible and she was fully prepared.

Mary found the local chapter of CLA and decided to come to a meeting. "The first time is very scary," she said. "'What if they judge me?' I felt loved here, that I wasn't so bad after all. But it's a daunting first step. I shared things that I swore I'd never tell another human being," she said. "But trusting became OK. I just didn't want to feel sick anymore."

For Mary, clutter was a source of shame. "I was active in the homeowner's association, but if a homeowner came to my house, I would meet them at the front door and step onto the porch. I did not invite them in," she said. "I felt too ashamed to have anybody in. I stopped inviting my family, especially after they saw the pictures my daughter showed them. I just felt so judged."

Sitting next to Mary on a couch was Anna, who admitted that she is not as far along in her recovery as Mary. "I'm not ready to totally purge my physical clutter yet," she said.

"Well, purging the actual clutter is a very gradual process," Mary replied.

Anna said her grandmother "was as neat as a pin," but that at her own mother's home, "every surface was covered. When I go to her house, I can't wait to get to my house and get rid of stuff. It propels me to do more at my own home."

She rationalized her purchases when her family was young, and later, "I was changing jobs, working 50-60 hours a week and even though we had adult children with us, I was not getting any help with the cleaning. But I was blaming myself for all of it."

But her own purchasing and collecting, and her attempts at buying organizing folders, became a hindrance, particularly because her husband "is a thrower-outer," she said, smiling. "It got to point when I looked around my house and held my head in my hands and thought, 'Something has to happen here.'"

She came to the group after she saw an advertisement in a newspaper. "These women made me feel welcome," she said. "Clutter is a way we deal with anxiety and other problems. We just go out and buy more stuff, without realizing what we have already. But having more stuff is very superficial."

For Bertha, who sat on another couch, progress is being made. "I pick a project every night," she said, "So that when I get up the next morning, I have something on that list that will get done. Like, this week I got into my spice cabinet and got it organized, so I know what's in there. I'm really happy about that. It was a great big cupboard. And I'm still getting the CDs organized."

Bertha also beamed over getting photos from a 2013 European trip organized in an album. They had been sitting in envelopes for years. "It's a very good feeling," she said, smiling. "You just don't know how good I feel. I'm really on a roll," she added. "If I look at something twice and it's not being used, it's time to get rid of it."

Bertha said her next project will be clearing off her home's back porch, which is stacked high with clutter. "I have a goat path down the middle of it," she said.

Anna pointed to a recent clean-out of a china cupboard as a big success. "I got rid of stuff and donated the rest," she said.

Mary's successes included decluttering her front flower bed. She weeded, transplanted flowers and made the area presentable -- a big step forward in how neighbors perceive her home. "So now I'm going to start on the back of the house," she said. Mary maintains a spreadsheet on her computer to track areas she has decluttered. She has made many donations of office supplies to teachers and area organizations.

But Mary acknowledged the ongoing struggle all clutterers face. "My daughter was throwing away some of my things," she said, pointing out one of the tactics that frustrated family members often employ. But to a clutterer, tossing something they regard as worthwhile is a painful violation of trust.

"My mother was a Depression kid," Mary said, pointing to the root of many of today's clutterers. Those who suffered deprivation in the 1930s never forgot the lessons to conserve, reuse and buy several items if they are available. And those lessons are passed through generations.

"My problem comes in when something still has a useful life," Mary said. "I will not throw it away. I will find someone who can use it. One of the things I had to declutter were empty Cool Whip and cottage cheese containers. I had stacks of them on my downstairs shelves. I took them to the recycling center. I could not have thrown them in the trash."

Part of Mary's problem is one that is common to many clutterers. She cannot pass up a bargain, or something that she sees a use for.

"If I'm at Goodwill, and there is a skein of yarn there, I think that if I don't buy it and put it with my yarn, that it will be abandoned," she said. "I think that objects might get lonely -- that their feelings might get hurt."

Further enabling clutterers everywhere are catalogs and coupons that come in the mail. A clutterer will feel they have to use the coupons, even though they don't need the item that's being sold. Internet discounts are also part of the problem.

While TV shows such as "Hoarders: Buried Alive" reveal the most spectacular hoards, the programs do little to help clutterers, Mary said. "It makes me feel that they're ridiculing those people," she said. "I don't think that's right. And people who could use CLA watch a show like that and say, 'I'm not that bad.' So they continue to live with the clutter."

While there are countless reasons that people clutter or hoard -- ranging from childhood deprivation to a traumatic life event to severe mental illness -- groups like Clutterers Anonymous can be a source of strength and a way out of the maze. "Cluttering is a symptom of a deeper problem," Mary said. When she drives by a home where the porch or yard is cluttered, or the shades are drawn during the day, she knows the occupant is struggling with hoarding.

"It makes me feel very, very sad when I see that," she said.

If anyone in Cecil County is facing a crisis with cluttering, "I would say they are welcome here," Mary said. "We suggest you attend six meetings and decide whether it's for you. There are no dues or fees. We are very welcoming, and we are not judgemental."

In her own pathway to recovery, Mary has made big strides, she said. "I invite people into my home now," she said with a smile. "And I haven't tripped over my clutter in a long time."

For more information about the local chapter of Clutterers Anonymous, or weekly meetings of Debtors Anonymous, call 443-350-1483 or e-mail

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail

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