When Too Many Becomes Too Much: Q&A with Professional Organizer Geralin Thomas of A&E’s ‘Hoarders’

Look around your home. If you can’t see the floor from the piles of stuff that rest there or if every possible inch of space seems to be occupied by some object that you just can’t live without no matter how trivial and regardless of the state of disrepair, you might be a hoarder — and a compulsive hoarder at that.

And you are not alone. According to widely cited statistics, there are over 3 million compulsive hoarders in the U.S. A&E has documented the plight of a few of these individuals in its new series Hoarders (Mondays, 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific). Over the course of the series, we have met a woman who hoards food, another cats and a young man who saves his dog’s hair. Most of these people faced eviction from their residences and one even faced the possibility of criminal prosecution.

On Hoarders, we learn how these men and women found themselves in this most desperate state and we watch as professional organizers help bring them back from the brink, gently helping them, both emotionally and physically, separate themselves from their items.

The Ride talked to one of the organizers, Cary, NC resident Geralin Thomas, founder of Metropolitan Organizing, LLC and a Certified Professional Organizer specializing in Chronic Disorganization (CPO-CD).

The Ride: Hey there. I am mesmerized by the show. Bless you for doing such difficult work. Rummaging through and throwing away people’s nasty mess looks like absolutely no fun. How did you become involved with compulsive hoarders?

Geralin: Well, it started with my interest in compulsive shopping. A few years ago, I had a client who was a compulsive shopper and since then, people’s acquiring patterns have fascinated me.  I’ve found that there are a lot of similarities between compulsive shopping and compulsive hoarding.   Plus, I like exploring the unknown and there isn’t much known about compulsive hoarding which makes it both exciting and rewarding when I can help people connect the dots between their belongings, actions and environment.

The Ride: How did you become involved with the show?

Geralin: I became involved with the show through a very “old-school” technique — they picked up the phone, called me and we chatted. [smiles]

The Ride: When faced with a specific hoarder and his/her challenges, how do you decide on a strategy to take to tackle what seems like an insurmountable problem?

Geralin: For each client I try to figure out what their goal is and what is going to keep them most motivated.  I usually start with a very small project and try to set a comfortable, sustainable pace.

Typically, I’ll begin with anything — a fish tank, a fridge or a bathroom depending on the size of the home and any relevant information the client has shared with me about their past challenges.  I observe them handling their things and note body language, breathing, a flush of color, perspiration or yawning. Some clients are gabby and some work silently.  Some ask my advice and some try to control the project. Each job is unique.

I prefer to work with a team of professional organizers to sort the contents of the home.  They work quietly in the background while the client and I focus on a few smaller projects.  In my experience, this helps keep the client focused and less overwhelmed.

The Ride: How do you measure success? Is it solving the immediate problem (e.g. eviction) or seeing a change in their behavior?

Geralin: I consider it a huge success when clients begin to get educated about this disorder and agree to collaborate with both a mental health professional and myself.  Besides that, every step towards the client’s goal is a cause for celebration. My goal is to make the organizing experience a pleasant one for them and have them realize that organizing is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Ride: Why do you think we watch? Personally, I find myself wanting to look away but I am fascinated for some reason. (I also have to confess that it makes me want to clean my apartment.)

Geralin: Reasons might include education, motivation, schadenfreude (delight in other people’s misfortune), even morbid curiosity.  And, Carla, you aren’t the only person who watches the show and then goes on a cleaning binge.  I’ve even had folks tell me that they find themselves buying a lot less because of the show.

The Ride: What should we take away from their stories?

Geralin: Here is what I hope viewers learn from watching:  Compulsive hoarding is a disease, not something people decide to do, or do because they are lazy and could stop if only they worked harder at it.  It may be due to distinct brain abnormalities, is often hereditary, and may be part of another mental health disorder such as Depression or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Knowing this will hopefully reduce the stigma attached to hoarding, and will help viewers realize this condition is treatable, if the hoarder gets sufficient support and has the resources (motivation, energy, time, money) to take advantage of it.

The Ride: Why are so many people affected by this disorder — compulsive hoarding? Three million. I would have never guessed.

Geralin: At this point, there is no clear answer to this question.  The study of compulsive hoarding is still quite new, and there is much we still have to learn about the disorder.

It’s possible that there have always been many hoarders in our midst and we just didn’t know about them:  because they don’t believe they have a problem and therefore don’t seek help, because they’re so ashamed of the hoarding that they keep it secret.

The Ride: Any advice for “pack rats” to help prevent them from becoming full blown hoarders?

Geralin: First, educate yourself about the condition.  Being a “pack rat” may be due to chronic disorganization, which is not the same as compulsive hoarding.  You can find more information on the A&E website and I’ve written about this issue on my blog, Metropolitan Organizing.

Second, seek support, whether from a mental health professional and/or qualified professional organizer who specializes in hoarding and chronic disorganization.  You can contact the NSGCD (National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization) for referrals.  You can also find support group resources at the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation website, www.ocfoundation.org.

The Ride: Thank you for your time and your dedication to helping people with this disorder.

Geralin: It is my pleasure, Carla.  Thank you for your interest.

One thought on “When Too Many Becomes Too Much: Q&A with Professional Organizer Geralin Thomas of A&E’s ‘Hoarders’

  1. Nice interview, Carla. I think you nailed it on the head by asking what should viewers take away from the show. Following the Twitter stream of #hoarders – most people make hateful comments about the individuals who were the focus of the show. They should be praised for their efforts and for educating the public on this illness which more than 3 Million Americans suffer from. My thanks goes to Geralin and the other professional organizers who worked on the show and represented our profession so well.

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