Dorothy Breininger, also known as Dorothy the Organizer, has seen it all when it comes to people who fill their homes, sometimes literally to the rafters, with too much stuff. After years working on A&E's hit show Hoarders, the professional organizer isn't fazed when she sees, and has to sort through, what many see as plain gross. (Think 120 bottles of urine stored in a bathroom.)
We recently spoke with Breininger about how to help someone who is hoarding, her own strategies for keeping her home clutter-free and the biggest surprises she has seen in a hoard.
What are some signs that someone has a hoarding issue and it may be time to enlist outside help?
I encourage people to use their five senses. Here are some examples:
Hearing: People who hoard often share, 'Oh, my electricity's been off,' or 'I've got plumbing issues.' And they always seem to blame it on the landlord or the city, or somebody else. When you hear that, that's a sign.
Also when you're in the home, you want to listen for—I'm sorry to say it—but the movement of rats or mice.
Smell: [You may notice a] strong odor when you walk in the home or when you actually meet the individual. At least half of our hoarders show up with an odor accompanying them.
Sight: [You may see] tinfoil in the windows. Wood in the windows. Blankets covering the windows or sheets hanging in most of the windows. Or [you may] sense there are boxes pressing up against the window, or that the curtain's disheveled because there's stuff leaning against [them] as a way to conceal what's inside. That is the biggest [sign].
Touch: When you enter the home, do you feel a strong need to keep your hands in your pockets? Do you keep your hands around your waist, or look for gloves? [Or maybe] you're you're reluctant to accept any gifts given to you. They want to give you this lovely gift of 'something' and it looks like it's got little rat droppings on it, or cat urine. And you don't want to touch it!
Taste: After we leave a home, especially if we worked in the home, the smell goes up our nostrils. Then we go out to dinner and we always talk about how we can almost taste the hoard. It just flows through that olfactory system.
Are there other signs?
If people say, 'I really don't want you to come in right now,' and they meet you outside, [that's a sign]. Finally, you [may] notice they are losing their desire for self-care. Dirty, stained clothes, disrupted sleeping patterns—they're night owls sorting through stuff and they're asleep by day, when they used to have a job.
What's your first move with someone who's hoarding?
The first thing I do is hug the person who hoards. That's the breakthrough.
Then lovingly ask some questions, and write down their answers. And I underline and bold that: write down their answers. You want to take that information elsewhere in a few steps from now.
What kinds of questions are you asking?
Are you OK with the amount of stuff in your home?
You've got a lot of stuff here, tell us about it.
Do you think you might want to get help getting organized? Notice I said 'organized,' not 'clearing out.' And they might say, 'Well, maybe in some parts, but I think everything else is pretty much OK.'
What does organizing look like to you?
Hey, if you were to get organized, what would you really rather be doing? That helps them state something outside of themselves, outside of their home that they can see as a reason why they might want to get organized.
What do you do with the answers?
I would take that information to a therapist or an organizer to get a professional opinion about next steps. That's what a family member would do. Now, apart from the hugging bit, someone could do that for themselves as well [but that's less likely to happen].
What are the biggest challenges when you first show up?
The biggest potential challenge is always trust. I'm the organizer. I'm the person who's perceived as the one who is going to throw everything away.
What do you do about that?
I address the obstacles by human touch. Hugs, hand-holding, a soft touch on the face. A verbal reassurance that they get regularly throughout my visit. That's my way of doing it. The other thing I do to address the obstacles, which people never see on the show: I meditate on the person before I start the project. I try to understand what it's like to live their life. If the person is into Wicca, and she likes to create spells on people and do a little bit of witchcraft—we've had one of those on one of our shows—I try to see what that is like. That way, when I get into their stuff, I'm really looking for [items] they want and need, so they can continue to do what they feel their business is, or what they feel their life is about.
The idea of holding onto something that makes you happy has become pretty mainstream, but for someone who hoards, does that approach make sense? Or is there no limit for them because they want to hold onto everything?
Given the opportunity, our hoarding clients would most definitely want to keep every broken bowl, toilet bowl—because they can use it and make an excellent planter. They would want to keep a broken plate from the bottom of an old moving box that they haven't yet unpacked, because that's going to make a cool glass-art frame.
Of course that stuff sparks joy, I mean, what toilet bowl wouldn't? So while all of my clients should have the opportunity to keep items they love, or 'spark joy' if you will, we do have to ask a different question, or we're in trouble.
How do you get a hoarder to be part of the process of getting rid of stuff?
I ask them to rate their stuff. I've developed a five-point value system that teaches my clients to rate their items on a scale from 0, which has no value, to 5, which has the highest value. And you can only have one item at the highest value.
This allows them to prioritize all of their 88 rolling suitcases and bags into a priority order. And it's not an exaggeration—someone on our show would have 88 bags, easy! They just keep the 4s and the 5. But that's the hard part on the show—getting through those items that are rated 0, 1, 2 and 3. So that's where the problems always occur.
How do you handle resistance when you're at someone's home?
On the show, especially, the resistance always comes when everything is outside the house. As the organizer, unless it's pouring rain, I want it all outside so we can sort and stage. That's when the resistance comes—because they can see everything! And what do I do? I yell, 'STOP! STOP EVERYTHING!' And everybody stops.
I stop, to reassure the client. I let them hop on the trash heap to see what was thrown out, I'm holding everybody up, everybody's pissed off. I let them look my organizing assistants in the eyes, and ask them questions about why they threw [an item] away, I take them into the house, I show them how much we've accomplished.
I praise the person who hoards, even though they've done nothing maybe, up to this point. Suddenly they get a feeling of calmness, and for the rest of the team, it's like being at the start of a NASCAR race When the flag gets waved (by me), we all go back to work. But I stop—at least once a day, because the client is freaking out.
Is part of that because it becomes real to them?
Yes. Everything is out. Picture it: You're at an airport and you have your suitcase. Everything is in your suitcase. There might be some dirty undies in there, but there also might be a beautiful new piece of jewelry you just bought. And right there at the airport, with all these people you don't know, everything from the suitcase is out and sorted. You've lost control.
What has been the biggest surprise you've run into at a home?
You would think that 120 bottles of urine pulled out of a bathroom, or finding a $20,000 uncashed check, or meeting someone who has frozen endangered species in their freezers might be my big surprises. It's amazing to see it, but I expect those types of behaviors from somebody who hoards.
What really surprises me is how much the loved ones—the spouses, the partners, the adult siblings, the adult children—are willing to enable the hoarder's behavior. That stuns me every single time!
Are there signs someone is going to fall back into their old ways as soon as you leave?
If the individual who hoards picks up the phone to get help for themselves, they have a really good chance of succeeding. But that doesn't really happen. If the individual is forced to clean out their hoards, it is 100 percent likely that they will fall back into their old ways, unless they agree to ongoing support.
What are some examples of ongoing support?
Therapy, organization, medication or at the very least, a 12-step program. Any of those will help them and reduce that percentage. Often people who hoard have depression, anxiety or other illnesses—such as diabetes or heart disease—and they don't always take their medication as prescribed, which causes decreased clarity in decision-making and lack of motivation to keep up with new habits. Making sure that one's medication is being taken as prescribed and in the right dosage can be a factor in their success, or lack of success, after a major cleanup.
Tell me about some of your own strategies—with your own stuff.
When people try to give me things, I say, 'No, thank you.' I take in very little. On the show, [ clients] all want to give me something: They have desks that are beautiful, clothes that they plan to give away, things that are my size. No, thank you.
With friends and family, I set up agreements. We don't buy birthday gifts, anniversary gifts or going-away gifts. If it's a wedding, yes. Otherwise, we give time or we give experiences. That cuts back on the incoming clutter.
What are some examples of bad advice?
For people who are trying to help somebody else, avoid these three sentences:
- Light a match to it.
- Back up a dump truck and get rid of everything.
- Just bulldoze the darn thing.
I say it jokingly, a little, but we hear it on every single episode, we hear it from every single client. And the minute you say something, it threatens the person who hoards and makes them hold on tighter. Do not joke around.