There was a time, not all that long ago, when clutter surrounded Sybbie Fox.
During college, and in the years after, her living space was rarely tidy. Stacks of papers everywhere. Piles of laundry. Unmade beds. It never ventured into the realm of hoarding, never made it that far. But it wasn’t always pleasant.
“I have pictures of my dorm room, with me sitting in the middle after a party,” says Fox. “Stuff everywhere. And we didn’t care.”
In the years since, Fox has undergone a monumental shift, coming to appreciate the virtues of de-cluttering so much that she recently formed her own professional organizing business, Right the Ship.
But the Prairie Village mother of two also understands what it’s like to be one of the countless Americans who fall somewhere on the “clutter-hoarding scale” created by the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. The first level requires no professional help to clean up, but level five requires teams of professionals.
Clutter made the news this month when it played a role in two area house fires, but normally it’s the silent cousin of hoarding.
Hoarders have typically garnered the mainstream interest in recent years — there are currently at least two separate cable shows dedicated to those suffering from the affliction — but much more common are what might be described as “clutterers,” or the chronically disorganized.
Unlike hoarding, which is more extreme and can be defined as a psychological inability to part with one’s possessions, clutter can simply be the obstruction of some key living areas, the slight congestion of entrances, hallways and stairs, or the inconsistent upkeep of housecleaning.
It’s a vice that all but the most meticulously organized are probably guilty of, at least to some extent. We get busy, let things pile up. We keep possessions we know we’ll never need. We buy newer versions of things we already have, failing to toss the old model in the process.
And in the meantime, it all starts to pile up.
The drawbacks of a perpetually unkempt living space are numerous.
Clutter can increase stress, lead to relationship problems and, in its most extreme forms, become a bonafied safety hazard; last week, in two different fatal house fires on the Kansas side of the state line, officials cited clutter as a hindrance to their rescue efforts.
“The potential for injury is doubled or tripled when you have fires of this nature because of all the obstacles that you have to endure,” says James Garrett, a spokesman for the Kansas City Fire Department.
At its heart, our packrat mentality stems from our aversion to doing without, says David Kantra an Alabama-based psychologist who has written about clutter.
With so many choices these days, we’re constantly bombarded with things that we wish we had. Not having them can create a mental discomfort, and in many cases, we do what we can to get those things.
As an example, Kantra uses the iPhone. When the iPhone 6 was released, many Americans felt the need to get one. Seeing others with the new phone only intensified that desire, and in an attempt to avoid feeling left out — even if they had a perfectly good iPhone 5 sitting at home.
The prospect of getting rid of one of our possessions, meanwhile, can be equally discomforting. We feel guilty about tossing an item given to us by a friend or loved one, or convince ourselves that there might come a time, however far down the road, where it might come in handy.
In the case of an old iPhone, maybe it still contains photos. Maybe it could still be used as an iPod.
“There’s a multitude of reasons that we hold onto things, but the basic one is: ‘I may need it,’ ” Kantra says.
The result is a collection of goods — many of which we no longer have a need for — that grows by the year.
Regina Lark, who serves on the board of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) in addition to running her own professional organization operation, is the author of “Psychic Debris, Crowded Closets: The Relationship between the Stuff in Your Head and What’s Under Your Bed.”
In working with clients, Lark tries to help in two primary ways.
There’s the decision-making, in which she attempts to subtly help someone arrive at the conclusion that they might not need, say, a closeted suit that hasn’t been worn in years. And then there’s the maintenance — making sure that a client isn’t just going to simply revert back to his or her old habits.
“The decision-making is really tough, and the maintenance is almost as tough,” Lark says. “It’s called chronic for a reason.”
Take Fox, the reformed clutterer now dedicated to helping others stay organized.
Growing up in a home that included both her mother and grandmother, she says, things were always kept extremely neat and tidy. She didn’t have any cleaning responsibilities, and never learned how to complete common household chores like laundry.
So when she left for college — perhaps as a rebellious measure, perhaps simply because she didn’t have the necessary tools — she began to let things go. Clothes piled up. Empty food containers collected. With things like schoolwork and a social calendar garnering the majority of her attention, keeping a tidy dorm room was far from a priority.
In the ensuing years, however, she slowly realized the necessity of upkeep, and she forced herself to do it. She started taking junk mail straight to the trash can, for instance. When she passed a sock on the floor, she’d force herself to pick it up then, not later. She took an organizing class at a local church.
Before long, she had become something of an organizational guru.
“It was very slow, very gradual for me to learn how not to be cluttered, because my brain is cluttered,” says Fox, who cites attention-deficit disorder as a contributing factor to some of her disorganized past.
“So it’s just a matter of developing new habits.”
It wasn’t until last year, however, that she began to consider making a career out of it.
While helping a widowed family member de-clutter as a favor, she watched a burden lift from her relative, and before long, Fox was working to get certified as a professional organizer.
“It’s pretty tangible change,” Fox says. “You really, really see how you make a difference in somebody’s life.”
Today, her website is stocked with before-and-after photos of projects she’s worked on, and she is on her way to attaining certification through the industry’s de facto governing body, NAPO.
And though she occasionally finds herself battling some of her old disorganizational demons, she has come not only to love her clutter-free life, but felt a need to keep the momentum going, as well.
“You just get on a roll,” she says, “and it feels good to get rid of stuff.”