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Coming Clean


The challenge of keeping house today is not so much finding time to vacuum and dust; it's keeping on top of the avalanche that slides into the house via the mail, the mall and the workplace.

Clutter has become so pervasive, it has spawned an industry of books, classes, systems and storage rentals.

It has also given rise to professional organizers and to support groups such as Santa Ana-based Clutterers Anonymous.

But despite the help, clutter has kept its grip on a number of lives--sometimes bringing them notoriety and media attention.

Such was the case of the Orange County woman, a college professor, whose home was declared both a fire and health hazard in 1988. Authorities found her four-bedroom waterside house piled five feet high with trash and rotting food and swarming with rats and insects.

Or the case of Anthony Cima, an 87-year-old San Diego man critically injured when his book collection buried him during an earthquake. Cima was pinned to his cot for 11 hours when the towering stacks of books--he had an estimated 10,000 in the hotel room that was his home for a decade--toppled on him in a 5.3 earthquake in the summer of 1986.

There are many more cases--less notorious but still advanced. Such as the San Bernardino County man who spends his weekends making the rounds of garage sales, dumps and swap meets foraging for treasure. His house, garage and yard are full, and he's drained the swimming pool to hold yet more goods. His wife is threatening divorce.

If you're a "collector," you may want to accept a little friendly advice before all that stuff threatens your life, health or relationships. Says Pat Burris, a professional organizer in Orange: Get rid of it!

"Some of us save so much stuff, we can't find anything, and our lives are unproductive," said Burris, who has seen clients save everything from fast food wrappings to umbilical cords. "The more we have, the more it takes our time, energy and space," she said.

Burris and licensed clinical social worker Jonnae Ostrom teach a six-week clutter control course that points to what they call the rewards of a clutter-free life: more time, more effectiveness and less stress. The course is offered through the City of Orange Department of Community Services ((714) 744-7272) in September and January.

Burris also conducts seminars in her Anaheim Hills home, where every drawer, closet and cupboard are open to inspection.

An organized model may be inspirational to some, but by the time they seek help, many of Burris' and Ostrom's clients feel like they're buried in their belongings and are in deep despair.

"The trouble is, once they've bottomed out, they want a quick fix," Burris said. "But there's no such thing."

Instead, she and Ostrom advise their clients to take manageable bites in a room where they can see results.

"They have to build on these small accomplishments, or they feel scattered and want to give up," Burris said. "It doesn't have to be done all at once. It's like a jigsaw puzzle. You do a little every day, and it'll come together."

Burris recommends setting a kitchen timer and de-cluttering 15 to 30 minutes a day, or if a daily toss isn't possible, devoting a larger block of time on the weekend.

Ostrom, who co-authored an article about addictive hoarding for Psychology Today, recommends five-minute de-junking periods three or four times a week, and cautions against marathon purges that lead to burn out. "Habit is the key," she said. "Otherwise it can bury you."

The chairman of Santa Ana-based Clutterers Anonymous knows what its like to be nearly buried in clutter.

Two-and-a-half years ago, his house was so littered, paths snaked through piles of paper, clothing and debris.

After his home was burglarized, the investigating officer remarked, "Boy, they really made a mess here."

"They hadn't," he said. "It was my mess."

Since then, Larry, who like all Clutterers Anonymous members retains his anonymity by using only his first name, credits the 12-step support group with helping him clean up his act. Yet it's a constant struggle, says Larry, adding that he think he makes stronger attachments to things than most people.

But he knew he had turned a corner when he discarded the photos, furnishings and other reminders of a significant old romance.

The next week he met his future spouse.

"Some may see that as a result of having no strings attached," he said. "But some of us call it the 'Woo-Woo Factor' where, because I let something go, a vacuum was created. And something else came in to fill it."

Experts see pack-rat tendencies encompassing all ages and walks of life. Some say they see a strong connection with creative professionals such as artists, writers and teachers.

Men and women are equally represented, although Larry says there are more women at Clutterers Anonymous meetings.

"Women are more apt to seek support," he said, "while men just think they need more room to put all their junk."

For information about Clutterers Anonymous, send $1 and a self-addressed stamped envelope to Clutterers Anonymous, World Service Organization, P.O. Box 25884, Santa Ana, Calif. 92799-5884 .

Goodbye Clutter

Five tips for getting your clutter where it belongs:

1. Understand that "neat" does not mean "organized" and vice versa.

2. Don't be afraid to use temporary measures--you have to start somewhere.

3. A system must be three things in order to be effective: simple, flexible and growth-oriented.

4. Remember the "three Ds" when handling paperwork: Do it, delegate it or dump it.

5. Treat your wastebaskets like babies: Keep them within reach at all times, feed them frequently and change them often.

Source: Professional organizer Harriet Schechter

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