|Piles of books teeter precariously at the home of Sun Media's Bruce Kirkland. (photo: Rachel Sa)
When most people think of hoarding, they picture mountains of belongings in crammed rooms. Few consider the emotional consequences.
Bruce Kirkland, senior entertainment writer with Sun Media, and my partner of nine years, has struggled with hoarding his entire life. It exhausts him.
“My parents were Depression-era people who kept everything because they had so little,” Bruce says. He has followed their pattern in his own home. “But at a certain point, you’re keeping stuff that you wouldn’t possibly ever need.”
But for hoarders, discarding those items becomes extremely difficult. Often it causes severe emotional distress, even as living in a cluttered home becomes unbearable.
I’ve watched hoarding take its toll on Bruce. But now he has committed to working with a professional organizer. He hopes that going public with his own journey will encourage other hoarders to reach out for help.
“I want to be able to live comfortably – without the chaos,” Bruce says.
Carolyn Caldwell is the principal of Wellrich Organizers and one of only four professional organizers in Canada trained to work with hoarders, or the “chronically disorganized.” She has volunteered to help Bruce.
We begin with a meeting on “neutral ground” – a coffee shop – simply to determine if Carolyn and Bruce are a good fit and feel comfortable with each other.
Motivation is key, says Carolyn. If a hoarder is not ready to make a change, an intervention can cause them to cling more tightly to their possessions.
“They take one look at their surroundings and think: I just can’t move. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know which box to pick up first…”
Bruce is ready. He made the first big step on his own when he threw out decades’ worth of his own newspaper clippings.
“I knew the whole process would be impossible without starting with something important,” Bruce says.
Into the recycling they went. Now the rest of the house looms.
A second meeting is scheduled, this time at Bruce’s home. The aim of this three-hour visit is to tour the house and set out some long-term goals.
Carolyn concludes that the dining room, the basement and two of the three bedrooms are in un-useable condition. Disassembled furniture – the result of a home reno that was never completed – fills the dining room, while stacks several feet high cram the bedrooms and basement.
“I prefer the term ‘packrat’ to ‘hoarder,’” Bruce says. “There’s a difference between clutter and squalor. Squalor doesn’t apply to me.”
Some hoarders end up living with rotting food and even filth. Bruce’s home is clean, his clutter composed mostly of paper goods: books, press materials and some lingering newspapers. DVDs – likely thousands – also take up a huge amount of space.
On our tour, Carolyn identifies previous attempts to organize that failed. She points out several small containers housing just a few objects each. “Churning” is what she calls this organizing and re-organizing without ever discarding.
“People who are chronically disorganized often struggle with the right ‘size’ of sorting items,” she says. “They sort their objects into very tiny, fine categories. I might say: Let’s start with two categories. The hoarder might then say: There are no two categories, because everything is distinct.”
The result? Sorted items take up more, not less, space.
But this process will be about more than simply clearing out the rooms. Carolyn reminds us that a complete clear-out – a process often depicted on popular TV shows like Hoarders – rarely results in lasting change. To be truly effective, a hoarder must break their ingrained patterns and learn new strategies to organize and discard.
At the end of our tour, Bruce, Carolyn and I sit down to establish our first goals. They are:
1. To clear the logjam of disassembled furniture in the dining room.
2. To sort and purge the multitude of books, keeping only a small number of nature and science titles in an organized library.
3. To catalogue and move out hundreds of film press kits from the 1980s and ’90s.
“The more we work, the stronger your organizing and purging muscles will grow,” Carolyn tells Bruce.
Coming up: In part 2 of this series, we will check in on Bruce Kirkland’s progress.