Kelly’s situation is what I call a classic Stage 4 scenario. It’s like a cancer. Her clutter has left the neat confines of closed drawers, cabinets and closets. It is beyond overflowing a guest bedroom, an attic or the basement. Kelly’s clutter has infiltrated and poisoned every nook and cranny of her entire 3,000 square foot home. The exits, doorways and windows are blocked and the only viable walkway is a narrow path that meanders throughout the home. In its current state, Kelly’s home needs a major enema.
Stewart Gackenheimer, Kelly’s husband, initiated contact with me and was pretty clear about how he felt about the situation. “Listen Stella, as far as I am concerned, just turn the house upside down and shake it. Throw away anything that doesn’t stick.” He was desperate and wanted to get started as soon as possible. Lucky for him, I was desperate too and was just as eager to get started as he was. We scheduled an early morning consultation for the next day.
When I arrived to discuss the project, Kelly Gackenheimer answered the door. She was a 30 something petite woman with protruding cheekbones, striking pale blue eyes and long dirty blond hair tied in a high ponytail. Her cheeks were flushed like she just returned from a jog. She paused for a long moment before fully opening the door.
Once the light of day hit the mess she and Stewart called home, I knew why. Kelly was exceptionally attractive, but her beauty was not enough to distract me from the shocking mess and the overwhelmingly profound stench of wet dog, dirty socks and Taco Bell that hung in the air. The fumes seemed to coalesce into an alternate toxic being that rose overhead and beseeched me, “Save Yourself. Run for your life!”
“I was really sick there for a while, and well I had a baby,” Kelly started, blushing noticeably.
“Honey,” Stewart interrupted, “that was eight years ago.”
As Stewart spoke, I struggled to not stare at him. He was not the man I imagined when I spoke with him on the phone. He was the yin to Kelly’s yang. He was toweringly tall, dark skinned with a remarkably abundant waistline. Kelly folded her arms across her chest and leaned against an ironing board propped against the foyer wall.
“Well, my husband is just as big of a pack rat as me.”
Kelly’s face grew redder, this time with anger. When Kelly looked away, Stewart rolled his eyes and shook his head. Working with couples can be tricky. I prefer to work with one spouse or the other. It is difficult to please both. It is even harder when one recognizes that there is a problem and the other does not. Unfortunately no one notified me this was going to be the classic “bring the professional organizer in and hold an intervention” style appointment. I prefer to be given the opportunity to decide if I want to actually be involved or not.
We stood there in the terracotta tiled foyer and surveyed the wreckage that was the living room. My line of sight was obscured by several piles reaching towards the ceiling like stalagmites. I noticed a tall mishmash of boxes teetering precariously on insecure footings. I saw enough to know that this was not going to be easy.
“Are we hopeless, Stella?” Stewart said with his shoulders slumping, his head hanging low.
“No,” I assured him. “This is not a hopeless case… I’ve been organizing for over 10 years and let me tell you this is not hopeless. This house has good bones and I think we can get this place cleaned up pretty fast.”
“This is probably the worst you’ve ever seen, huh?” Stewart said, searching for affirmation.
“No… no…this is not the worst I’ve ever seen,” I offered in my most convincing tone.
“Really,” Stewart continued with his questioning.
“Really, you have no idea what I’ve seen. This is nothing,” I said less convincingly.
“Nothing,” Stewart beseeched me with a furrowed brow and squinted eyes.
“This is different.”
Finally satisfied with my answer, he murmured a barely audible, “Ok.” Kelly stood off to the side, silent, and indifferent.
After a quick scan of the room, inspiration struck and I shared my plan of attack.
“We will start right here where we stand and work our way into the living room and into the rest of the house,” I said, my voice oozing with enthusiasm.
Stewart looked at me like I was Moses coming down the mountain cradling the Ten Commandments.
“You mean you’ll start right now, today?”
“Sure!” I chirped.
Kelly gasped. The expression on her face said it all. This is all happening so fast…
Stewart hurriedly gathered his cell phone, keys and wallet and shook my hand hard like he had just entrusted me with the keys to their city. He smiled broadly.
“Oh, thank you Stella, thank you thank you.”
He practically ran to his car. In that moment, we were both convinced that I could, indeed, easily sort trash from treasure and restore this once spacious sprawling ranch home to its former glory. Kelly, on the other hand, wasn’t as hopeful.
I chose the foyer as ground zero for several reasons. Realistically, it was the only area where both of us could stand without danger of anything collapsing in on us. I tend towards self-preservation and I am no stranger to worst case scenario thinking. In my mind, being near the exit guaranteed a quick escape if this firetrap went up in flames or if I just couldn’t handle the project. I retrieved my toolbox from my car and a roll of large black contractor trash bags. I peeled a bag off the roll and reached out to hand it to Kelly. She recoiled like I was offering her a needle filled with crystal meth. Her eyes grew wide.
“Maybe you should hold it.”
I shook the bag out to open it.
“Sure, Kelly, that’s not a problem. Maybe you can hold onto the next bag.”
She gave me a faint smile, but I could tell she wasn’t buying it. My being here was not her idea. I read the look on her face and it screamed No, I don’t think so. I’m not putting any of my precious things in that bag. She adjusted her shirt and retied her ponytail. After taking a deep breath, she spoke almost in a whisper.
“Stella, we will work together, okay? Don’t throw anything away without asking me first, okay.”
“I wouldn’t, Kelly.”
“Good,” she said nodding.
Some people don’t dust. Some people don’t vacuum. And some people never throw anything away. Kelly was guilty on all accounts. With Kelly, each and every object had a story, a past and a special place in her heart.
“Kelly, what about this, do you want it?”
I held up a decorative Halloween table top centerpiece. At one point in its tragic life, it had the shape and form of a solid medium sized pumpkin, but today it was completely flattened with a child’s muddy shoe print where the cut out eyes once were.
“Oh, that’s where you’ve been.”
She reached for the smashed pumpkin and attempted to fluff the pumpkin back out but to no avail. I pushed the open trash bag towards her and she gave me her best, Are you out of your blanking mind? look so far.
“Stella, I got that at the United Methodist church yard sale 3 years ago. You would never believe the deal I got on it. For two dollars I got the pumpkin, a loaded fishing tackle box and a bunch of cassette tapes.”
Kelly’s face lit up so bright I almost forgot I was standing in a knee deep sea of litter.
“Let’s designate a box for Holiday decorations and then put it in the attic,” I offered.
“No, put it on top of the television,” she commanded.
“But Kelly, Halloween isn’t for another couple of months,” I reasoned.
“Yeah, I know, but it’s a project and I put all my projects by the television.”
She reached down and picked up a semi-nude Barbie doll that could stand a visit to the hair hospital. I watched her smooth the doll’s hair as she studied it. It was missing a leg which I’m sure would be found somewhere on day 30 of this excavation.
“What about the doll?” I queried.
“What do you mean?”
“Is it trash or is it a project?”
“Project,” she said as she gently handed it to me smiling. “I like the way you think, Stella.”
I surveyed the room for the television, but on first glance I didn’t see one.
“Kelly, exactly where is the television? I don’t see it.”
She was holding another yard sale find, a collection of Tupperware in a variety of sizes. Without looking up, she pointed in a westerly direction. As I moved about the room, the sound of potato chips cracking followed my every step.
“TV, TV,” I repeated like I was calling its name hoping it would suddenly appear before my very eyes.
“Wait, take these too.”
She handed me her Tupperware stacked in a neat cluster. She raised her eyebrows and I swear she winked at me.
“These will be great to organize my projects in.”
After a few moments of exploration, I finally found the television underneath a cracked fifty gallon fish tank overflowing with a veritable grab bag of miscellany. A broken glass bottle, a sewing box, fish tank gravel, a broken picture frame, a roll of duct tape, and tulip bulbs. I added the new projects to the pile and soldiered on. I was more than mildly disgusted with the situation.
“Kelly, what about this?” I asked as I held the object in question dangerously close to the mouth of the trash bag.
“Over there on top of the tv”.
I soon realized that I could hold up a petrified piece of dog poop and Kelly would immediately respond with “yeah, over by the tv.”
Like an archeological dig through time, the pace was excruciatingly slow. I was growing concerned about our progress or lack thereof. I was relieved when I realized I could no longer smell the stench. But when I looked down at my first appointment “dress to impress” attire, I discovered I was covered in dog hair, dust bunnies and mysterious grey and black flecks of what I do not know. I looked like something pulled out of a clogged vacuum cleaner. As time wore on at the Gackenheimers, the more I believed there was a strong possibility that at the very minimum, one dead animal might just be unearthed.
Kelly had a very sweet, childlike voice. When she spoke it reminded me of my four year old daughter when she talked about unicorns and rainbows. She was mild mannered to say the very least. But about 20 minutes into the project, sweet docile Kelly turned on me. I must admit, though, I was guilty.
“What have you done? I told you not to throw anything away without checking with me first,” she said.
Her voice cracked with disappointment, her forehead creased and furrowed. Unable to find the appropriate words, I held out the evidence, a half full black trash bag. Kelly tucked her head and shoulders neatly into the bag and fished through it. When she came up for air, her face was red and flustered, her hair falling from her loose ponytail. Kelly snapped the bag from my hands and turned it over onto the one clean patch of carpet I had cleared. Dirty tissues, fast food wrappers, broken McDonalds’ toys and the like tumbled onto the floor.
She immediately crawled down onto her hands and knees and picked up each discarded piece and examined it. I could read the look plainly when she raised her eyes at me. How could you? Being a longtime sufferer of panic attacks, I resisted an incredibly strong urge to grab my stuff and make a run for the door. Just leave this mess behind me. I could already feel the warm water of the shower washing this filth off my skin. But I didn’t. I just stood there paralyzed.
Kelly rooted around on the floor amongst the garbage for a moment more and then in an unexpected moment of triumph raised an object into the air.
“I’m keeping this.”
I could not see what it was due to the Hershey’s chocolate bar wrapper that was stuck to it. But she pulled it off to reveal an avocado green soap dish and a sliver of pink soap clinging to it. The plastic had been chewed on 3 of its four sides by what I wasn’t sure. I surmised it was either the child she had spoken of earlier or the long haired mutt lounging on top of a mound of once clean laundry. The morning sunlight pierced her pale blue eyes and they glowed unnaturally as she stared at this utter piece of trash like it was the hope diamond.
I knew from the state of things it was going to be tough, but not this tough. I tried to face Kelly’s angry gaze, but it was extremely difficult.
“I’m so sorry, Kelly. Really, I am, it just looked so used, and dirty.”
She seemed to blink back tears as she held the soap dish close to her chest. Good one Stella, you broke her trust and now add insult to injury. My head was spinning. Think and think fast. Finally, I came up with a strategy.
“Kelly, what is compelling you to keep this soap dish?”
“My mother in law gave it to me. It goes in the guest bathroom.”
She waded through an obstacle course of bulky toddler toys, old oatmeal containers and overstuffed laundry baskets to get to the bathroom. She deposited the soap dish onto a cluttered vanity where one could only assume had a sink in its center. I scanned the room and her face. I was in deep shit, literally. She didn’t need a professional organizer, she needed a back hoe and a dumpster.
I started to get that hot feeling I get sometimes when things aren’t going as expected. My heart was pounding so hard that I was worried she could hear it. Don’t crack. Don’t crack, I willed myself. As she made her way back into the room she tripped and fell down on top of a palate of bedding and a postal crate filled with unopened letters and junk mail. Instead of getting up, she lay there crumpled on the floor making a high pitched sound which at first I mistook for laughter. But soon it became apparent that she was sobbing.
This was not my first rodeo with a crier. Crying happens in my line of work more often than you would expect. Being in therapy for my entire adult life, I often found myself channeling my therapist somehow knowing exactly what to say. Many a breakthrough happens after the tears. I was hopeful and confident this was a good sign.
“My husband is going to leave me I just know it,” she whined.
“No,” I tried to be reassuring. “No he’s not.”
“This house is such a mess. I don’t know how it got this bad. I don’t know why my husband puts up with me.”
Kelly looked up at me with tears streaming down her picture perfect face despite the clump of dog hair on her chin. I knew one of the reasons why he put up with her. She was gorgeous.
The dog sauntered over and started licking her face, neck, and hands.
“Stop it, Norman. Oh god. Help me, help me up Stella please,” she begged.
I just stood there, not really sure if I could help her. I searched my mind for an answer. What was it that this woman needed? I’ve got to make this work. She needs to save her marriage and I need the money. Focusing on my financial situation never helps. My face became painfully hot. My hands were shaking as I fought the familiar and pressing urge to escape immediately. I struggled to defy the adamant voice in my head ordering me to run, run, and don’t ever look back.
Kelly continued to cry and I felt like crying too. I knew from past experiences I wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer. I searched my pockets for my Xanax. I remembered I left them in my purse which was hanging on the door handle in the foyer. From where I stood, the pills were on a different continent with a gulf of trash separating me from them. Breathe, Breathe.
“Kelly, The only way I can help you is if you help yourself.”
“But I don’t know how,” she cried snorting snot.
“Listen we have to start somewhere. Like this,“ I bent down and picked up a broken plate.
“Do you want it?”
“My mother gave me that.”
“But it’s broken, like irretrievably.”
“I’m going to fix it.”
“I want to.”
“Is your mother dead?”
“Is it the only thing your mother has ever given you?”
“No, no,” she said defensively.
And then I just said it. I regretted it the moment it left my lips.
“Did it come straight out of her fucking vagina and she hand it to you like a baby? ‘Here Kelly, Take care of this inconsequential piece of broken shit for the rest of your life?’”
My razor sharp words wounded her. She gasped, her jaw slacked and her eyes bulged. Again I ferretted around in my pockets for my panic pills knowing they weren’t there. The silence was deafening. I started to sweat even more profusely. I imagined her conversation with Stewart later this evening over dinner. I am going to hell in a hand basket.
“I think it’s best if I go now.”
I turned away, my eyes on my purse, just 30 feet away. So close, yet so far away.
“No,” she spoke with resolve.
She rested her head on the dog and spoke but I couldn’t understand her.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.”
She lifted her head wiping tears, snot and dog hair from her face.
“I am keeping it because I’m afraid my mom will be upset if she knows I threw it away.”
“If I hear you correctly, your main concern is your mother’s happiness?”
Now we were getting somewhere. Finally peeling back the onion layer to get to the root of the problem.
“What about your happiness? Do you think your mother wants you to be unhappy? Are you happy right now, lying on the floor in a pile dirty laundry?”
The dog lay down next to Kelly and started wagging his tail feverishly. Kelly picked at the dog’s coat as she contemplated my question. My mind was flooded with questions of a personal nature. What am I doing here wasting my time? What can I do to get more business and not like this one? Will she ever crack? Should I cut my losses and bail?
I was just about to start making my way over to the door when Kelly finally answered my question.
“No, I am not happy.”
A wave of relief swept through me and I sat down on the floor Indian style next to her and the dog, Norman.