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Toss Toss Toss!
By Holly Whitman
© Copyright April 2007
|Less is More – Craig Whitman
|Spring is a time of awakening, growth, warmer weather, and spring cleaning. In spring you can throw open
the windows, blow out the stale air, knock off dust, and throw away the piles of junk you no longer want. Some
of us love the feeling of unloading items that weigh us down. Those old litmus tests of “if you haven’t used it in a
year, toss it,” and “keep it if you use it or love it” are helpful to most people. But for those who love everything,
that just doesn’t work.
Last summer a dear friend of many years, who I’ll call “Leanne” contacted me with an interesting proposal. I
once flew her out to help me move out of state; she now wanted to fly me to Oregon for a week to help her
organize her house.
I remembered the old days in San Francisco when Leanne was one of my three roommates in a flat on
Frederick Street, in the Haight. Eventually she managed to fill up her closet and some items started to drift
down the hall and land in the corners of our small spare room. Still, things did not seem abnormal; it was extra
bedding. Anyone might own things like that. I moved to Arizona after about year in that flat.
Eight or nine years later I relocated, with Leanne’s help, to Northern California for seven months. I visited her
frequently. She was the only one left of the original crew, basically the “boss” there since she was the sole
person listed on the lease. I was surprised at how much she had accumulated in those years;
the sleeping bags, sheets, blankets, and pillows stuffed into every square inch of that small spare room reeked
of mildew caused by a leaky window. But she did not want to toss them. The back porch area and the
living room were filled with things she wasn’t using but felt might be needed “some day.” Now
things were approaching the level of “disturbing.”
I saw Leanne in our home state of Oklahoma when our summer visits to family corresponded, over the
following years. We stayed in touch through email and telephone, sometimes snail mail. I even visited her at
her parents’ home in Oklahoma – they seemed to be a bit on the cluttery side, themselves. But I had not been
in Leanne’s home environment for many years. So when she called for help, I was eager to repay the favor she
had done for me by helping her in any way that I could.
Leanne was fed up with her situation. She had been researching because she suspected that her problem
was beyond clutter. As we worked out the details arranging my visit, her phone calls became progressively
more candid; there was a note of desperation in her tone. She told me she felt her behavior was more
compulsive and she found a name for it – Obsessive-Compulsive Hoarding Disorder (OCHD).
I had seen it coming. However, nothing she said prepared me for the reality of her situation,
when I finally arrived in Portland, Oregon last October.
My grandmother had been a hoarder, probably because she lived through the Great
Depression. One of her husbands had owned and operated two junk yards, places where it is normal to pile
up all kinds of cool things. Her home was similar. It was so bad that once, when I was a kid, her youngest son
backed a pickup truck to the house, took the screens off the attic windows, and, for days, tossed things out the
window into the truck, hauling away load after load. So at least her attic was clear. But I will never forget how
high that junk was piled on, and under, her kitchen table, countertops, freezer, floors, and in every room in the
house. There were literally pathways formed through it all, especially in her bedroom.
Leanne’s house was worse. Far worse.
Apparently her penchant for collecting wonderful things had gotten way out of hand and she felt
she needed not only a reality check, but a firm and friendly hand in getting some control back into her life. My
sweet and sentimental friend always had a tendency to buy and hang onto bargains, multiples of
things, collectibles, cute items, meaningful items, stuffed animals, food and dry goods in quantities, lots of junk
jewelry and make-up, knick-knacks, gimmicks and healing items, CDs, mountains of clothes, enough spare
bedding and towels for an army, and on and on, ad infinitum. Worse, she would often store these things
in some great place that she eventually lost track of, forget she owned them, and buy more of
the same stuff.
The first thing I realized was that Leanne had mostly lost touch with her old friends, even though several of them
lived in the same city or visited there regularly. Once that happened, and she moved in with two other
borderline hoarder types, it all spiraled out of control over the next fifteen years. Three extreme cases in
the same house! Of the three, however, Leanne had, by far, the worst problem with it.
Leanne had managed to completely fill up the attic, all of the upstairs, many parts of the downstairs, the
mud room, more than half of the front porch (piled high) and more than half of the basement. Her sisters had
helped her empty out much of the attic into two storage units, one of which was nearly full (twenty feet long, 10-
12 feet high, maybe five or six feet wide) and she was filling up another one. The bedroom where I was to stay
barely had enough floor space for a queen-size air bed, with my suitcase at the foot of the bed. But towering all
around the bed, as well as on bookshelves, desk, and makeshift dressers, were stacks of all kinds of things
tossed randomly together, and not one inch of empty floor space. This was scary, since it could avalanche in
the night and either brain me or smother me to death. The hallway outside and to the immediate left of the
bedroom door was piled high and the stuff seemed to migrate and sometimes block the door. I was stunned
After I recovered from the initial shock, I realized that whatever difference I could make would be relatively
small – the task was enormous. So the first thing we discussed was what we wanted to accomplish that week.
During hours and hours of sorting and tossing, we plowed our way through and set to order a hallway, the mud
room, and the front porch. I also managed to clear the hall upstairs down to the spare room. It wasn’t long
before I figured out what mattered to Leanne and how I could work unsupervised, a huge concession on her
I discovered in the discarding process just what kinds of things Leanne valued, besides the obvious “great
stuff.” She wanted to keep every single scrap of paper she had scribbled even a few words on. She kept tiny
pieces of things that she was sure belonged with other things. She wanted to keep favorite clothes from
college days that she hadn’t worn in years. Old notes, letters, cards, old containers and packaging,
and endless, nameless items had claimed her affection. There were many, many things like these,
and more, all too precious to discard, all amounting to smothering clutter. I got her to let go of many of those
things, and, the best solution I thought of, took digital pictures of things so that she could discard
them but still look at them on her computer.
An important note here: some people are such compulsive hoarders that they won’t even throw away their
garbage. Fortunately, Leanne had no problem discarding trash. Otherwise, this could have been far more
By the end of the week we filled one of those huge construction site dumpsters with the things
we tossed. She advertised giveaways on Craig’s list and had many takers. I managed to find several
hundred dollars in cash and coin, a bunch of chocolate that had turned white and had to be thrown out (sigh), a
long-lost cell phone, and a check for several thousand dollars from her sister, dated several years earlier. She
was not sure if she had ever reported the lost check to her sister or if she eventually got the money.
Although she had assured me at the start of the week that, despite the mess, she knew where
all of her things were and what she had, I discovered that this simply was not true. And although
she owned literally tons of some really great stuff, it seemed to lose its value among all the other really great
stuff. In fact, I was absolutely sick of great stuff by the end of that week and found myself eager to get home so I
could dump a lot of my own really great stuff.
I was sorry that we could not have accomplished more before I left. My last day there, Leanne and her
boyfriend took me to some amazing places on the Oregon coast as my reward for tackling such a difficult job. I
felt guilty, knowing how much more there was still to do. But I was happy knowing that Leanne had gotten a
great jump-start and was working out her next plan of attack.
Leanne’s attachment to things, and to bargains, has cost her a lot of money, not only because
of repeated, unneeded purchases, but because she has been too busy trying to clear out her
life to have a job. This means that the inheritance her parents left her is being spent down instead of put
away to help when she is ready for the retirement years. She spends a great deal of time relocating,
evaluating, and reconsidering items in her life. Her bargains have been no bargain at all.
But Leanne gained momentum from getting such a great start during my visit. She reconnected with old
friends with history, who help her out on a regular basis. She continues to call and email me, probably as much
for the reality checks I give as for the friendship and support. She has moved into her own little uncluttered
place, designated one of the two bedrooms as a sorting room, and pledged to keep the rest of her living
space clean and clear. This move is a temporary one for now, but she does not intend to return to her home if
the other two people who share it with her continue to live a cluttered lifestyle.
I learned so many things from this experience. There is a huge difference between someone with a
clutter problem and a hoarder. Clutter is annoying. Hoarding is a syndrome, affecting several million
Americans, that is overwhelming and includes a psychological/emotional component. It is a life-threatening
disorder that can be deeply damaging to relationships and quality of life. As with other addictive or
compulsive behaviors, the person with the problem can feel shame, embarrassment, desperation, and
OCHD is a problem for the person experiencing it but, luckily, it does not require medication to
recover. Becoming conscious of the problem is half the battle. The other half is making a
decision to ruthlessly let go of the “stuff.” This is not an easy decision for the hoarder, but it is critical if
he or she is to go on to live a normal life. If a hoarder asks for your help in tackling this problem, be kind but
firm. Remember, the hoarder usually feels a deep sense of shame and helplessness. The more you
understand it, the more you can help. Google OCHD or Hoarding and see what you will find. There is so much
information on the subject out there; more people than you realize suffer silently with this problem.
It’s spring, now, so let’s get that useless, dust-collecting, ridiculous stuff out of our homes!
Remember our anthem for this endeavor:
Toss, Toss, Toss!
For some real help from the experts, check out the Fly Lady.
This website is dedicated to the theme of Toss Toss Toss and provides endless resources, support,
encouragement, and help, as well as some great tools, for everyone from the Casual Clutterer to the Hard-core
Hoarder. Find it at: http://flylady.net
I plugged “Hoarding” into the Google search box and got many hits. You can also use OCHD, Compulsive
Hoarding, etc. Hoarding takes many forms, even animal hoarding. The link I got is below, and will take you to
Here is a link for a website for people with fear of getting rid of stuff, even trash, called Disposophobia. They
offer help for those who need it.
Leanne found the link below for a funny Google video by George Carlin called “Stuff” and wanted to share it
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