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After hitting rock bottom under a pile of clutter, a cry for help

The problem is acknowledged and professional aid is sought; the next step is a new mind-set.

February 12, 2011|Sandy Banks

She told me not to straighten up. She needed to see my home office "to see how your mind thinks," she said.

But as I sat at my computer, waiting for hired organizer Suzanne O'Donnell, the thinking process reflected in my messy desk suddenly struck me as horrifying.

It wouldn't hurt, I told myself, to haul these batches of newspapers to the recycling bin. And it's not really straightening up if I just shift things around a bit to make a place for the calendar I discovered hidden under those newspaper piles.

Shifting things meant digging through a jumble of coupons, receipts and letters. I uncovered an errant sock, a plate of cookie crumbs, scraps of paper with scribbled numbers and a set of missing notes I'd needed for last week's column.

I straightened up. And then I tried to hide it.

"Did you do something in here before I came?" O'Donnell asked, surveying the space I had earlier portrayed as something approaching "Hoarders" status.

I was outed. Embarrassed, I prevaricated: No.... Not really.... Well, maybe a little. I mumbled something about a cleaning lady.

I was ready to get organized but not willing to be humiliated.

::

My solution to organizing has always been simple: Buy more boxes. As if order could be imposed through the right combination of wicker baskets, metal trays and plastic bins.

But I finally hit rock bottom last weekend, as I pawed through my collection of boxes in search of a receipt my tax man needs. My problem isn't containers or labels or color coding. It's the fact that the thickest folders in every bin are MISCELLANEOUS and TO BE FILED.

I admitted I am powerless over clutter. I enlisted O'Donnell as my higher power.

My LA Organizer she calls herself. I found her in a Google search after I'd scrolled through a dozen other websites pledging to "banish chaos," "root out clutter," help me "create a perfect world with cool and innovative ideas."

I wasn't looking for a perfect world. I'll settle for being able to find my pen.

O'Donnell snagged me with this website promise: "I like all people and don't judge anyone." My tender ego needed a gentle process.

"I'm not going to shame you into letting go of stuff," she assured me on the phone. "I'm not going to wrestle things from your hands."

She spent years as a personal assistant to such celebrities as Cher and Keenan Ivory Wayans before hanging out her "organizer" shingle in 2004. She struck me as a mix of artist, tactician, cheerleader and counselor. Her projects range from helping a college student organize her bedroom to managing a movie star family's cross-country move.

Personal organizing is big business these days; the number of professionals has doubled in the last decade. Some people, like me, are embarrassed to dump their messy lives in the lap of a stranger. Others consider it a relief, even a status symbol.

Many of O'Donnell's clients are women overwhelmed by the demands of busy lives. "Part of being a 'supermom' is keeping your home and your space organized," she said.

But it's often the men in their lives who make the call. "I hear it all the time: 'I love my wife. I love my girlfriend. But she's messy and I don't know how to help her.'"

Women tend to assign emotional meaning to their stuff, she said, making it hard to part with Junior's first-grade drawings or several years' worth of Christmas cards.

"Guys love to hold on to the boxes things come in, just in case they need to return that fan they bought two years ago." She laughed.

I made a mental note not to let her inside my garage, where shelves are stacked with old art projects and the walls are lined with cardboard boxes from stuff I bought.

::

O'Donnell understands the anxiety that clutter provokes. I don't have to explain to her that every time I walk into my office, I feel haunted by to-do lists and crowded by multiplying disorder.

She admits that in her personal life she's "a bit of a Messy Marvin."

"When I have a list of things undone, it keeps me from enjoying life," she said. She keeps order with a giant inbox and sorting sessions during "Desperate Housewives."

She diagnosed my needs in gentle fashion, finding enough to compliment — the style of my desk, my colorful boxes, the African prints taped to cabinet doors — that I welcomed her critical eye.

O'Donnell assured me that my mind is in order; I just have to make my office space align. That's a relief, but it's also a challenge.

The fixes she suggested were easy enough: Consolidate notepads, staples, printer paper in an office supply center inside the closet. Make room for my folders of column notes by replacing a folding table with wooden cabinets with drawers. Banish my plastic bins of bills to shelves behind closet doors.

I rushed out that night with a shopping list: Clear storage cases for receipts and coupons.

Binders for a drawer full of business cards. An inbox that will look good on my desk and hold a week's worth of notes and mail.

I came home empty-handed.

That's a good sign.

I've realized that "stuff" won't be my salvation. There is no magic set of folders that will redeem my "Messy Marvin" side. That requires that I learn new habits.

Not long after O'Donnell was gone, my brother called from his new home in Palo Alto to give me his new phone number .

I was working on this column. I grabbed a scrap of paper, flipped it over, scribbled it down.

Now I can't find it.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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