Melissa’s practical ways of talking rubbish

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Melissa Sleegers… “We all have tendencies to let clutter build up, but hoarding disorder is when clutter negatively impacts on a person’s life.” Photo by Andrew Finch
Melissa Sleegers… “We all have tendencies to let clutter build up, but hoarding disorder is when clutter negatively impacts on person’s life.” Photo by Andrew Finch
A BORN organiser, Melissa Sleegers was seeking a new direction in her career and three years ago, while surfing the internet, stumbled on the idea of starting her own home and office-organising business.

“Starting out I envisioned I would only be helping time-poor clients who need organising systems or an extra set of hands to help with an annual declutter,” she says.

“I wasn’t aware of the more complex cases that I now spend 70 per cent of my time dealing with.”

These cases include people who suffer from chronic disorganisation or hoarding issues.

“We all have tendencies to let clutter build up, but hoarding disorder is when clutter negatively impacts on a person’s life, they are unwilling to get rid of it and still continue to acquire things,” she says.

“These people are overwhelmed, suffocated by their physical clutter.

“Each case is different – some people with clutter around them see it as a protection from the outside world. For others, the clutter just piles up and they don’t know what to do. They feel unhappy and suffocated in their homes.”

Melissa is referred to these cases by community organisations, the health department, concerned family and friends and, occasionally, the hoarders themselves. Her first priority is health and safety issues relating to the hoarding.

“There are such negative connotations to being a hoarder and it’s very easy for others to judge, but my clients might see themselves as collectors, archivists or environmentalists, so my first priority is their health and safety and through that we can depersonalise the process,” she says.

From then, it’s a delicate negotiation process to help address the clutter build up.

“I develop a rapport and trust with clients; I let them know that I am here for them and that I will not be taking any of their precious things away. It might be rubbish to us but, to them, it’s precious,” she says.

“I don’t judge but my job is to motivate people to make a change. I don’t make a decision on the clutter but help find systems, storage and address problems with the client.”

Melissa explains that a gentle approach is required as a big clean out of a hoarder’s home does not tend to work in the long term and can be emotionally devastating. There have been reports of suicides following major clean outs.

One success story Melissa recalls is Frances (not her real name) who for more than 20 years struggled with hoarding disorder. Seven years ago, her well-meaning family put all her clutter into boxes, but she then found herself surrounded by a mountain of boxes all over her dining table and across her home.

“Frances kept adding to the clutter and it was creating anxiety,” says Melissa.

“She wasn’t able to function in her home or know where to start. It was overwhelming her.

“We addressed the health and safety upfront and began to gradually make decisions that she was comfortable with. She was pleased with her progress and her confidence built. She is now proud of her home – and got her dining table back. It doesn’t belong to stuff now and she feels freer.”

Melissa is a member of the Canberra Living Conditions Network, which brings together agencies and organisations that provide services to individuals and families living with squalor or hoarding issues.

Groups such as the police, community organisations, occupational therapists, fire brigade and community nurses are included in the network who meet monthly to support workers on the front line and share knowledge, resources and develop shared techniques to improve the living conditions in the Canberra community.

Melissa is looking forward to visiting Frances to help her deal with the final box this month.

Melissa’s top tips for a clutter-free home

  • Start today – stuff collects easily and creates anxiety so start making small changes, even if it’s 10 minutes each day.
  • Maintenance – break down the jobs into manageable steps or focus on one room at a time.
  • Paperwork – everyone has to deal with it so touch it once, make the decision and move on!
  • “It’s just stuff!” – in a time-poor, consumerist society, minimise the impact that clutter can make on your health and wellbeing.
  • Seek help – if it’s getting too much for you to cope with.

Allsorts Organising, or call 0411 405108.

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