Interview Series: Hoarding Expert; Amy Bowles

 

Over the next few months, we will be interviewing professionals who work with the hoarding population. We are asking them to share their insight on people who hoard and people who think they have the hoarding disorder.

We recently interviewed Amy Bowles. Amy is the president of Tucson Professional Organizers, in Tucson, Arizona. She is also a member of the American Psychological Association, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD), and the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO).

Her company’s name, Been There Done That Organizing, LLC, reflects the fact that Amy herself has struggled with hoarding behaviors. She has personally been where her clients are at: overwhelmed with clutter and too much stuff. Helping people discover a less debilitating and more joyful life is her passion.

Questions & Responses:

What training have you taken?

I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and have nearly completed a master’s degree in rehabilitation and mental health counseling. I have taken classes through NAPO and ICD and I have attended 6 NAPO annual conferences and 2 ICD annual conferences. I worked with my own organizer, ICD subscriber Elaine Kraus owner of Whole Life Organizing in Charlottesville, Virginia, for 2 years when I began de-hoarding my own house. I apprenticed for nearly a year with a local therapist who specialized in working with hoarding clients. She ran a support group that I adapted and made into my own when she stepped down as facilitator. I am a member of the Arizona Hoarding Task Force and I participated in an episode of the Hoarder’s TV show in 2016 as a support organizer. I have also watched every single episode of Hoarders at least 3 times (does that count?) and have learned a lot from the show about what is helpful and what is not when dealing with hoarding behaviors.

What percentage of your clients do you suspect have hoarding tendencies?

I have determined that 53% of my current clients exhibit hoarding behaviors and/or engage in compulsive acquiring. Of those, 95% have diagnosed, co-occurring mental health disorders and/or physically disabling conditions. I also work with a large number of clients whose primary diagnosis is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Both groups experience chronic disorganization as a symptom of their diagnoses.

As you start working, are there times when you discover this is something other than hoarding?

Not usually. During the phone intake and at the in-person consultation I “interrogate” my prospective clients mercilessly (*laughs*). I know just about everything before we start working except maybe their social security number – but I’ll probably find that out too when we get to the paperwork! In seriousness, I ask a lot of specific medical questions right at the beginning – like are there thyroid issues or diagnoses of sleep apnea or diabetes – to see if there is something that medically can be addressed first. I do not want to attribute thoughts and behaviors to a mental health disorder like hoarding when those thoughts and behaviors may be (at least partially) a result of a physiological problem. I ask all about their life–history (the good, the bad, and the ugly), their mental health diagnoses, and any challenging or traumatic experiences they have lived through. Ultimately, my clients need more coaching than organizing. Some may argue that these types of questions are outside the “lane” of a professional organizer, but I submit that I am much better equipped to provide effective coaching, guidance, encouragement, and organizing help if I learn as much as possible about my clients strengths and weaknesses from the outset.

What tool do you use to determine the amount of clutter?

I prefer the CIRS (Clutter Image Rating Scale), developed by Dr. Randy Frost and the International OCD Foundation.  If there is evidence of animal hoarding or squalor, then I may use Christiana Bratiotis’ HOMES assessment, the Uniform Inspection Checklist created by Marnie Matthews, or the Clutter Hoarding Scale® developed by ICD. Using these scales can help me provide other helpers, like code enforcement, Adult Protective Services, Child Protective Services, pest control or landlords, with a better idea of the extent of the problem.

How do you determine if the working area is safe for you and your client?

I start by asking to meet all family members, to make sure everyone is on board with the process. I have also been known to Google particularly troubled clients, and to sometimes perform background checks on certain clients. I also find out in advance if clients have pets, and at the in-person consultation, I determine if those pets need to be crated or put outside while we are working. In addition, I ask first by phone, and then in person about pest infestations, bedbugs, mold, mildew, leaks, rotting food, the use of candles or other fragrances, and the use of space-heaters. Once we begin working together, I also request that clients move objects that are located near HVAC systems and encourage them to keep it that way.

If necessary, to keep myself safe while working, I will wear an N95 mask, or a respirator, if needed. Of course, I have Tyvek suits available, goggles, and a variety of gloves. I also have waterproof and regular boots, if needed. At most clients’ homes I simply wear a hat and jeans and either a short or long-sleeved t-shirt and sneakers.

Do you usually work alone or with a team? If you work with a team, who do you want on your team?

I find it very difficult to work with a team, though I do enjoy it when the opportunity arises. I have involved a team for some short-term bigger jobs, but I find my strength is in the one-on-one work. And I have found that most clients simply aren’t ready for the team approach until we have worked one-on-one for 18-24 months. I would love to clone myself… because this is exhausting work. I would love to find someone like me, who has overcome hoarding and can help others change their minds in order to change their lives.

Would you be willing to share something you learned – maybe the hard way from a client?

I have learned that 4 hours of yelling at me is my limit. (Thankfully, such experiences are few and far between and the overwhelming majority of my clients are no different than me: they are creative, interesting, funny, thoughtful, helpful humans whose lives have taken a massive wrong turn.) I have a fairly high tolerance for chaos, and my boundaries tend to be somewhat flexible. I am non-judgmental because I know, first-hand, that most of my clients need love, affection, compassion, empathy, kindness, and encouragement more than anything else that I could provide. I have learned that the course corrections most clients need are small but there are a LOT of them needed for clients to effectively turn their lives around, and I am in there with them for the long haul.

I honestly believe that most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can with the skills they have. But still… four hours of yelling is my limit.

I guess I have learned my most valuable lesson from myself, and it is this: My unhelpful behaviors and actions do not determine my value, just as my helpful behaviors and actions also do not. My value remains unchanged, no matter what I do. And I am worthy of love, affection, forgiveness, and everything good in the world. I do not have to earn it. And this is true for everyone. I want to pass this understanding on to my clients, and if they gain nothing else from me, it is this truth that is the catalyst for significant, positive change. I think it was Carl Rogers who said “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Generally speaking, hoarding is primarily a collection of unhelpful thinking and behaviors, and good news: once we figure out how to accept ourselves, both thoughts and behaviors can be changed!

What advice would you give someone who is considering going into the field?

Make sure that you have figured out what empathy really is. And maybe… give up the idea of organizing (*laughs*). You cannot focus on the “stuff,” because it’s not about the stuff! Hoarding is having an emotional problem letting go of stuff – it’s not about about acquiring too much stuff, but about letting go of it.
Ultimately, clients need unconditional acceptance, consistent, unwavering, optimistic hope (that they will regularly borrow from you), complete faith in their ability to change their thinking, and an arsenal of self-help tools that you can share to help them develop their self-efficacy and self-esteem as they venture into effective decision making. You want your clients to become independent and to have faith in themselves that they are capable of making good decisions. They have made so many unhelpful decisions (on a regular basis) that this trust in themselves (and in otherMake sure that you have figured out what empathy really is. And maybe… give up the idea of organizing (*laughs*). You cannot focus on the “stuff,” because it’s not about the stuff! Hoarding is having an emotional problem letting go of stuff – it’s not about about acquiring too much stuff, but about letting go of it.

Ultimately, clients need unconditional acceptance, consistent, unwavering, optimistic hope (that they will regularly borrow from you), complete faith in their ability to change their thinking, and an arsenal of self-help tools that you can share to help them develop their self-efficacy and self-esteem as they venture into effective decision making. You want your clients to become independent and to have faith in themselves that they are capable of making good decisions. They have made so many unhelpful decisions (on a regular basis) that this trust in themselves (and in s) is hard to come by. Stand by their side, earn their trust, and then teach your clients to stand on their own, and trust themselves.

Do you have a shareable list of resources for people challenged by hoarding or their families?

I have a library of books I regularly receive from one client and share with the next. I also always keep my library stocked with the books: Buried in Treasures, Stuff and the Meaning of Things, Digging Out, Boundaries (Cloud & Townsend), and Women Who Love Too Much. I happily refer clients to my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/amybowlesbtdto/, and I invite clients to join some of the Facebook support groups I participate with – Hoarding Cluttering Support Group and Women with ADD. I routinely refer clients to the local Buried in Treasures workshop in Tucson, which is currently held twice a year for roughly 16 weeks. My own local support group, Excess Denied, is private, but those who are interested may contact me at excessdeniedtucson@gmail.com. I also offer virtual and in-person coaching and organizing, as well as public speaking on the issue of hoarding behavior. I can be reached at amy@BTDTOrganizing.com.

Thank you very much for this fabulous time spent together learning more about the work you do.

If you are or if you know a professional who works with people with hoarding tendencies, please feel free to get in touch with us. We’d love the opportunity to talk with you, too!

Be sure to check back to see who we interview next!

Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer, Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, ICD Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. Diane teaches busy people how to become organized and provides them with strategies and solutions for maintaining order in their lives. She specializes in residential and home-office organizing and in working with people challenged by ADD, Hoarding, and Chronic Disorganization.

Jonda S. Beattie is a Professional Organizer and owner of Time Space Organization based in the Metro-Atlanta area. As presenter, author of three books as well as a retired special education teacher, she uses her listening skills, problem solving skills, knowledge of different learning techniques, ADHD specialty, and paper management skills to help clients tackle the toughest organizational issues. Jonda does hands on organizing, virtual organizing, and moderates a Zone Plan Teleclass for those who prefer to work on their own with organizational coaching.

Interview Series: Hoarding Expert; Ann Zanon

Over the next few months, we will be interviewing professionals who work with the hoarding population. We are asking them to share their insight on people who hoard and people who think they have the hoarding disorder.

We recently interviewed Ann Zanon. Ann is a compassionate hoarding expert with over 8 years of experience working with the hoarding population. She is a member of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) where she holds several certificates of study in methods of working with clients who hoard. After her move to Houston, Texas last year, she discovered that the laws in Houston relating to hoarding are sadly insufficient and is collaborating with other professionals to start a Houston Hoarding Task Force to make some changes. She is planning a full-day workshop in 2020 to help educated people who work and/or live with people who hoard. She is a member of a mastermind group which focuses on education and sharing hoarding remediation methods. She also has set up a Special Interest Group focused on Hoarding through the National Association for Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO).

Ann has a heart for serving people, working hard, and helping her clients achieve their goals. Besides being a Certified Professional Organizer®, she is also a wife, mother of three grown children, and formerly owned a bakery.

Questions and Responses:

What training have you taken?

The majority of my training has come through ICD (The Institute for Challenging Disorganization) where I have earned most of the certificates offered. I have also earned my NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) CPO® (Certificate for Professional Organizers). My first training was working in an informal mentoring situation under Faith Manierre, CPO-CD® in Connecticut.

What percentage of your clients do you suspect have hoarding tendencies?

I have moved now and so my clientele has changed. When I was in Connecticut, I would say it was about 75% – 80%. However, not all were diagnosed with hoarding disorder.

As you start working, are there times when you discover this is something other than hoarding?

I do. I’ve had clients with severe ADHD and many clients suffering from depression and anxiety. In Connecticut, I worked with a lot of clients with PTSD due to the 9/11 tragedy and Sandy Hooks shooting. I have also worked with clients challenged by bi-polar disorder and one client who had Borderline Personality Disorder plus other issues.

What tool do you use to determine the amount of clutter?

At first, I used the ICD Clutter-Hoarding Scale® and I love how inclusive it is. But many clients don’t have the bandwidth to follow that scale so I often use the Clutter Image Rating Scale developed by the International OCD(Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) Foundation and Dr. Randy Frost.

How do you determine if the working area is safe for you and your client?

I rely on both my visual and tactile senses. I worked in one house where there were 34 cats downstairs but that was OK because the downstairs area was set up as a shelter and was staffed and very clean. But upstairs she was taking care of some hospice cats and this area was not clean and you could both see and feel where cats had sprayed and urinated. So, we had to dress accordingly and use gloves and masks for our safety. I also talk and listen to the client for any clues that something might be unsafe.

Do you usually work alone or with a team? If you work with a team, who do you want on your team?

In Connecticut I always worked alone. Clients are so embarrassed to even have one person in and I did not like them to have to face more than one. Here in Texas I sometimes use a team, especially if we are in a time crunch.

Would you be willing to share something you learned – maybe the hard way from a client?

Never assume anything is trash. I had one gentleman I was working with and on top of his dresser there were little round paper balls all wadded up. I started tossing them into the trash when he turned around and stopped me. These little paper balls were a fidget thing – tactile objects he kept in his pockets that he played with to help him focus.

What advice would you give someone who is considering going into the field?

Whenever someone is coming into the profession, I tell them to get the education necessary to be successful for yourself and your client. Look at your motivation as to why you are doing this.
I was working once with a woman in her 50s. She had 2 children and her husband was straying. Her daughter told her she was marrying another woman and that they were both having babies. Her son got married to his High School sweetheart (who the woman adored) and then quickly got divorced. Her world had turned upside-down in a matter of a just a few months and the stress of these changes were more than she could handle. The woman was very depressed and cried a lot.
I came home and cried each day. The lesson here is that you must learn to take care of yourself. I learned to work with my heart when I was with the client but then get into my head when I was at home. Find out who can help you with restoring your heart after you leave a client.

Do you have a shareable list of resources for people challenged by hoarding or their families?

This is something I am working on. I will have resources up on my website soon.

Thank you very much for this fabulous time spent together learning more about the work you do.
If you are or if you know a professional who works with people with hoarding tendencies, please feel free to get in touch with us. We’d love the opportunity to talk with you, too!

Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer, Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, ICD Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. Diane teaches busy people how to become organized and provides them with strategies and solutions for maintaining order in their lives. She specializes in residential and home-office organizing and in working with people challenged by ADD, Hoarding, and Chronic Disorganization.

Jonda S. Beattie is a Professional Organizer and owner of Time Space Organization based in the Metro-Atlanta area. As presenter, author of three books as well as a retired special education teacher, she uses her listening skills, problem solving skills, knowledge of different learning techniques, ADHD specialty, and paper management skills to help clients tackle the toughest organizational issues. Jonda does hands on organizing, virtual organizing, and moderates a Zone Plan Teleclass for those who prefer to work on their own with organizational coaching.

Interview Series: Hoarding Expert: Geralin Thomas

Over the next few months, we will be interviewing professionals who work with the hoarding population. We are asking them to share their insights on people who hoard and people who think they have the hoarding disorder.
We recently interviewed Geralin Thomas. Geralin is a subject-matter expert featured on A&E TV’s Emmy-nominated show, Hoarders. She has also appeared on numerous radio and talk-shows. She is the author of From Hoarding to Hope. Geralin is a past president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO). She received the NAPO President’s Award in 2018. She has been an instructor for NAPO since 2006.

Geralin’s advice on the hoarding disorder and professional organizing is regularly quoted in newspapers, magazines, and other print media.

Questions & Responses

What training have you taken?

In 2007 I earned my CPO-CD credentials and later became a Level V, Master Trainer through ICD. In addition, I have taken many ICD (Institute for Challenging Disorganization) and NAPO classes and attended their conferences. Reading books on compulsive hoarding, shopping disorder, and, other related challenges have been exceedingly valuable.

What percentage of your clients do you suspect have hoarding tendencies?

It’s really a very small percentage. I used to be contacted directly by people with the hoarding disorder, but now, I only work with clients if their therapist is willing to contact me first. A collaborative system is a better fit for me.
As you start working, are there times when you discover this is something other than hoarding?
Yes! Usually, there is something else which has triggered the compulsive hoarding behavior. Something like grief, depression, etc.

What tool do you use to determine the amount of clutter?

I feel fortunate because collaborating with therapists means I’m able to “bounce” my findings off of them. More often than not, the situations are below a level 4 using the ICD Clutter-Hoarding Scale®. Generally speaking, in environments measuring above a 4 or 5 clients do not want or accept help. At least that’s true in my business.

What special tools do you take to a work site?

I make sure my tools are brightly colored, like neon-bright, so that I can easily spot them. I bring an over-the-door hook to hang my handbag, lunch, coat etc. to keep it off the ground. I use clear containers and clear contractor bags so the client can easily see what is in them.

How do you determine if the working area is safe for you and your client?

I look for water damage, mold, mildew, rodent and insect infestations, skeletons from animals, animal or insect droppings, and rotting wood. Once I had my foot literally go through a floor because of rot. If it feels unsafe, I will let the therapist know. I will also say things to the client like, “When you go into that closet, you may want to be very careful because there is a wasp’s nest”

Do you usually work alone or with a team?

While filming the show Hoarders for TV I worked with large teams. In everyday situations I do both, but, I usually work one on-one with the client because my clients are almost always experiencing extreme anxiety. The team approach is most effective when working in neutral areas like a garage.
I haven’t worked with teams as much in the past 5 years. I think most therapists prefer a one-on-one client-organizer ratio.

Would you be willing to share something you learned – maybe the hard way from a client?

One of my most complicated client situations involved a woman whose husband “diagnosed” his wife (to me and her therapists) as a person with a compulsive hoarding disorder. I had worked with this client in the past and saw/heard no indication of that but, he pleaded with me to schedule an appointment with her. When I arrived, I was shocked to see 100s of bags of things she had recently purchased. There were QVC and HSN boxes and piles of items from department stores everywhere! No matter what I suggested, she would not return, donate or gift anything. She wanted to keep everything and seemed unable to categorize anything.

I suggested we send photos of her current living conditions to her therapist. The therapist had no idea the “over shopping” behavior was going on because the client never mentioned it during sessions. The client had gone through a series of events – her mother had passed away, her husband was retiring, there were some financial challenges and lots of stress. Long story short, she had been self-medicating with some over-the-counter herbal therapy that was reacting with her prescription medications; the combination was affecting her brain chemistry. So, the lesson learned is that organizers are like detectives who sometimes help uncover important clues because we see our clients in their environments. They tell us things that they might not tell their therapists.

What advice would you give someone who is considering going into the field?

Read books and blogs on compulsive hoarding. Understand the lingo, acronyms and abbreviations. Join professional associations and organizations. Network with other professionals in the field. Make sure you document client sessions in a professional and timely manner. Have business insurance. I could go and on . . .

Do you have a shareable list of resources for people challenged by hoarding or their families?

I have a list of books, movies, and related resources on my website for the general public (1)

In addition, I created two glossaries –vocabulary lists (terms of the trade). One glossary contains general organizing terms and the other contains terms that are relevant to organizers who want to learn more about hoarding and other related disorders. You can find them both on my website. (2)

My book, From Hoarding to Hope is a good resource if I do say so myself (lol) (3) Many experts including Dr. Tompkins contributed fabulous chapters in which they provide detailed information. For example, Dr. Michael Tompkins defines hoarding disorder and explains why it’s now included in the DSM V.

1 https://www.metropolitanorganizing.com/life/hoarding-resources/
2 https://www.metropolitanorganizing.com/career-coaching-business-forms/glossaries-dictionaries/
3 https://www.metropolitanorganizing.com/products-services/from-hoarding-to-hope/

Thank you very much for this fabulous time spent together learning more about the work you do.
If you are or if you know a professional who works with people with hoarding tendencies, please feel free to get in touch with us. We’d love the opportunity to talk with you, too!

Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer, Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, ICD Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. Diane teaches busy people how to become organized and provides them with strategies and solutions for maintaining order in their lives. She specializes in residential and home-office organizing and in working with people challenged by ADD, Hoarding, and Chronic Disorganization.

Jonda S. Beattie is a Professional Organizer and owner of Time Space Organization based in the Metro-Atlanta area. As presenter, author of three books as well as a retired special education teacher, she uses her listening skills, problem solving skills, knowledge of different learning techniques, ADHD specialty, and paper management skills to help clients tackle the toughest organizational issues. Jonda does hands on organizing, virtual organizing, and moderates a Zone Plan Teleclass for those who prefer to work on their own with organizational coaching.