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Simplify Your Life

Clear Your Closets and Mind of Clutter

April 25, 1999|ELAINE ST. JAMES

Judging by my mail, just about everyone wants to get rid of the clutter. Many people, once they get the idea, can go into their closets and start tossing. However, for many others it's not always so simple.

It's not even necessarily a matter of learning organizational strategies. For some, the stuff of their lives provides definition and emotional support. The decision to get rid of something is full of anxiety. In extreme cases, being a pack rat can be severely debilitating.

How do you know if clutter has become a real problem? There are clues. For example, have you stopped inviting people to your home because you're embarrassed by the mess? Are your tables and chairs so stacked with stuff that you can't utilize them for their intended purpose?

Are you often penalized by bill collectors or the tax authorities because you lose paperwork and don't pay on time? Does your clutter create problems with your landlord or neighbors? Does it interfere with your job, your relationships or your health?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you might start by contacting Clutterers Anonymous World Service Organization. Send a self-addressed, stamped No. 10 envelope with twice the minimum postage to Clutterers Anonymous, P.O. Box 25884, Santa Ana, CA 92799. This organization offers many services and solutions for solving chronic clutter problems.

One of the recurring themes I hear in letters from readers on this subject is that they're so glad to see these columns on clutter because they have believed no one else has as much difficulty as they do letting go of the excess stuff in their lives. It's a relief for people to see that others share the problem and are learning to solve it.

For some people, pack-rat behavior begins at the purchase point. I know a woman who spends hours every week going to all the flea markets and yard sales in the area. She usually returns home with a trunk full of purchases--a chair that will be lovely once she recovers it, a bicentennial plate that struck her fancy, a painting that needs to be reframed--and most of the stuff joins similar purchases in her garage.

For this woman, and for many like her, the act of acquiring and accumulating makes her feel good. The purchases themselves don't matter. However, her obsessive buying has created conflicts with her husband, overwhelmed her space and put her in debt.

According to a study by Wayne S. DeSarbo, a marketing professor at Penn State University, and Elizabeth A. Edwards, assistant professor of marketing at Eastern Michigan University, compulsive shoppers tend to shop when they're anxious or depressed because shopping gives them a temporary lift in spirits.

If that's the case with you or with someone you love, the problem may be more serious than you can handle on your own. You may benefit from the aid of a group such as Debtors Anonymous, a support organization of men and women who share their experiences and solutions to compulsive spending. There are groups in many communities around the country. Contact Debtors Anonymous, P.O. Box 920888, Needham, MA 02492; (781) 753-2743; or to find a group near you.


Next week: Could a professional organizer help you tackle your clutter problem?

Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111 or e-mail her at

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