About Stella

Chrystine Bennett writes:

Stella Brown, a high flying professional person working in a national organisation, was hit by a serious illness later compounded by clinical depression, she has since retired.

In 2007, Stella started thinking about all the stuff that had built up around her. She knew she couldn’t manage to clear it by herself so she started looking at clutter clearing web sites. She didn’t want someone who would come and just tell her what needed to be done. She wanted someone who would get down on the floor and do the actual dirty work with her. After reading several websites very carefully, she was convinced that it would be Cluttergone.

A broken boiler pushed her to clearing some of the paper in the front hall and purchasing a shredder. Stella, looking at the piles of paper decided that even though she couldn’t deal with the clutter herself, she could stop it from getting any worse. She put a recycling bag in the front hall next to where she opened the post.

6 March 2008, she was ready to contact Cluttergone.

Stella told me during a recent visit that having screwed up her courage to make the call; she’d hung up when the phone wasn’t answered after 4 or 5 rings. Beverly used the phone memory to call her back.

Stella told both Beverly and me that she knew this was going to be a very long process and that she wasn’t setting any kind of deadline. We advised that each visit should not be longer than about 4 hours and there should be tw0 weeks between each visit.

Subsequently, I learnt from Stella that her psychiatrist was reassured by this and the fact that we were not trying to push too far or too fast and that she retained control. Stella has also more recently said that it continues to be scary to be clearing the clutter but with the support she has she can cope.


How it all begins

Beverly Wade writes:

My first contact with Stella was on the 6 March 2008. On returning home from a session with a client, I checked my phone for messages. As one of the messages had cut off half way through, something led me to return the call of one of the numbers, even though no message had been left.

Stella was so pleased that I had called back, though her nerve had gone after ringing my number, and after a chat we agreed that our consultant Chrystine would ring her the next evening to book a session.

11 March 2008. Chrystine spoke to Stella and she had had a cold and depression, asked to be rung in 10 days. Finally, they set a date: 1st April 2008.

29 March 2008. Stella called me to say that she was getting cold feet, in part because she had not yet seen our agreement document, and had some concerns about confidentiality and privacy. I was able to reassure her, as did the document, and the visit was set to go ahead.


1. The first session

Chrystine Bennett writes:

Stella hadn’t invited anyone into her home since it disappeared under all the stuff. My visit was a brave leap. We did the tour. She’d thought a lot about what we should do and she wanted to start at the top of the house in her bedroom. Stella said 'I want to start with the tops and bottoms of these wardrobes so we have somewhere to put things.'

It was obvious that she was anxious. Anxious that I would start running riot, anxious that her comfort areas would be invaded. We talked and she said that decisions were the most difficult so I said 'Okay, what don’t you care about? We’ll just do things that you don’t have strong feelings about, that don't require much thought”. "We can get rid of shoes,” she said. She indicated that she preferred being barefoot so it was easy to get rid of shoes.

The bedroom was piled with newspapers and magazines, the latter mostly in their plastic mailing bags. 'I don’t care about them.' Stella said. Right, so I ripped off the plastic and put it in a rubbish bag before handing the magazine to Stella who put it into a recycle bag. This proved to be a very important process for both of us. Stella retained complete control over what was thrown away. At the end, we vacuumed the spaces that we'd cleared, to reclaim the territory, to mark it, to celebrate.

We ended up with nearly a dozen bags of rubbish and recycling. Stella was impressed that we could clear so much clutter without impinging on sensitive areas and that it wasn’t as scary as she thought it might be.


2. We vacuum the floor!

When I arrived, Stella was ready. She had a plan.

She wanted to tackle the dining room which was filled with a collection of half opened boxes: pictures, glassware and ornaments from a recently deceased aunt. Because they weren’t Stella's with her memories attached, she figured it would be easier to have a go at getting them into a basic order. Collections of like things developed; sheet music was encouraged to migrate to the piano, glassware was arranged in orderly lines and some things that she liked were given homes in the kitchen.

Light nattering and discussions of the process accompanied our work. I had warned her that after the first visit, she might be drained the next day.

Stella said, 'I was tired which surprised me! It's not as though the work we did was hugely physically demanding.'

to which I replied,

'Thinking about and making choices is more tiring than people think. I'm impressed that you didn't cancel the second visit.'

She said that although she'd thought about it, she held onto her choice to clear the house of clutter because she knew it's the right thing for her to do.

Some things we unwrapped are meant for other family members and were set aside. Some smallish boxes were freed up.

I 'considered' the piles of papers in the front room which Stella had shown me on the first visit which she said actually had a some order to them and she sort of knew what was where. There was a pile on the sofa and two piles on the floor.

'Can I put the paper piles into these small boxes? I promise not to move or mix them up''Yes' said Stella. Each pile was 'containerised'. The bits of exposed carpet could be vacuumed which marked the territory. We had a moment's celebration! It already looked tidier.

I asked her whether she'd told her doctor about using a clutter clearer. She said he'd been concerned that she might be rushing things. But when she told him how we had limited the time to 4 hours every 2 weeks and weren’t pushing, he was pleased that we appreciated Stella’s needs.

At the end of the visit while we were still congratulating ourselves, Stella told me that she had booked a gardener to clear the back garden of weeds on our week off. I was impressed!


3.The garden has been cleared

I walked through the front door and straightaway Stella led me to the back door to show off the garden.

The jungle of weeds was gone. We looked at each other with big smiles on our faces.

Stella said: ‘The gardener was very energetic and we worked jolly hard. I was exhausted but it wasn't emotionally tiring because I didn't have to make any difficult choices. Weeds are weeds and we just pulled them up. We filled 12 bags of rubbish!’

Beverly had sent Stella the most recent newsletter with the offer of a packing list. Stella had replied:

‘Thank you for the packing list. I do not plan to go ‘on holiday’ yet perhaps a short break, given all the encouragement I am getting from working with Chrystine, may be possible sometime later in the year so a copy of the checklist would be welcome. All down to something shifting...along with the bags Chrystine and I have put out!’

‘What do you want to do today?’ I asked.

Stella replied, ‘I like the sense of movement. Can we unstick the front hall today?’

We'd been making piles of 'like' things around the house. Stella loves doing this is this because it doesn't require any thought; nothing is being thrown away. As we did the front hall, we added to the piles.

Part of decluttering is finding a place for everything. The basic sort piles are the first step on this path. Initially one is simply 'putting things away' into the piles. Looking at the volume of a pile enables us to plan how big a shelf, drawer or closet that will be needed to house them in the end.

The front hall bookcase became the home for programmes and leaflets. Coats moved from a sitting room chair to the hall. I found the box of the things cleared from Stella's desk by her colleagues when she didn’t return to work.

Stella said, ‘I'm glad you found that and not me. I can face the stuff from a distance in your hands and I know what I want to keep’

After the sorting and reorganising, we hoovered the now open floor space.

When we finished for the day, Stella’s voice had a new excited squeak. She could now open her front door to the outside world and her hallway looked ‘normal’.

The process with Stella was proving to be very educational for me. I decided to start keeping a diary of our visits and went home to write down the first three.


4. We admire the nail polishes

Opened the door. Big smile from Stella.

Not only was the hallway still clear, she'd potted up two amaryllises to sit on the front hall table.

Stella led me to the kitchen window. There was more to see, she'd also potted up some flowers for the newly cleared garden.

Several times over the past three visits, Stella had said: "I can think of things to do, but I can't actually do them unless you are here." After we'd admired the potted plants, she said: "Guess what! You know how I said I couldn't do anything without you being here, even if I could plan? Well, I've sorted out the downstairs bathroom cupboard and put away the nail polish bottles that have been living on the sitting room side table."

"That's great! What do you want to do today?"

Stella showed me two large empty boxes, which were waiting for us in the front room where there were stacks of video tapes.

"These are the oldest tapes and I want to put them into the boxes. I'm not ready to throw them away, but I am ready to start putting them away. I took on-board what you said on the first visit about videos being an outdated technology. I am upgrading to DVDs and a better TV”
On that first visit, I had slightly moved a stack of videos and had provoked a cry of distress from Stella. I was very impressed by the journey she had made in so short a time. The boxes were MUCH too big and it took both of us to wrestle them up the stairs to the spare room. We laughed and vowed to never, ever again pack anything heavy in large boxes.

Besides clearing the piles on the floor, some bookshelves were freed from videos, so we moved some books from the stair treads onto the shelves. We also started working on a new room, pushing things around and doing some preliminary sorting. There was one last surprise: Stella and I had been meeting every two weeks. She had some upcoming commitments that would mean a three-week break between meetings. Rather than doing that, she wanted to book two appointments one week apart.

Just before I left, Stella said, "You haven't seen the bathroom cupboard yet"
We went and admired the row of nail polishes in the cupboard.
When I got home, I shared my diary with Beverly and we discussed whether Stella would be willing for us to publish it as a diary. We were both very impressed by her insights and her willingness to go at a slow steady pace.


5. Opening the curtains

The night before, Stella called and left a message on my machine saying:

‘I don’t want to cancel, but I had a difficult meeting today and I’m feeling even more fragile than usual. I just wanted to call and warn you’.

I called back and left a message on her machine:

‘No problem, if you like we can work a shorter day, only three hours or so.’


Stella showed me two large empty boxes, which were waiting for us in the front room where there were stacks of video tapes.
Our first task was to move the last of the Christmas decorations from the dining room to the spare bedroom, leaving space for some treasured mementos to take their place. Next, we moved some linen and bedding which had been gathered onto the sitting room sofa. Some was put into it’s final home the airing cupboard and some into the spare bedroom from where, Stella thinks, it will at some point be tossed. In preparation, Stella had pulled up the coverlet on the spare room bed so there would be a place to put the pillows and duvets.

I’m usually early for my appointments and often spend 10 minutes reading in bus shelters, so I don’t arrive before the client is ready. This time, I ran into Stella who was running an errand as I came out of the tube station. We walked back to her place together.

Despite the phone call she was prepared and knew what she wanted us to do. But first she gave me an A.A. Milne poem “The Old Sailor” which she had printed out for me. It’s about a shipwrecked sailor who can’t decide what to do first as his situation gets worse and worse. Here’s the last verse:

‘And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved -
He did nothing but basking until he was saved!’

Stella said: ‘I think it was Cluttergone coming which stopped everything going round and round in my head.’


‘Those clothes in the hallway don’t live there.’ said Stella, ‘I just wanted you to see that I did send them to the dry-cleaner as we discussed.
‘Stella had moved boxes from the sitting room by herself. She had also set up her new TV and DVD player and was now enjoying the room.

While it sounds minor, in fact, as Stella said, she was taking on board the process that requires ‘preliminary/temporary sorting” and that putting like things together helps. Further, clearing the sofa meant that the sitting room now looks like a proper room with just a few boxes.

Finally, we did some preliminary paper sorting in the living room. This is the paper which in the first visit Stella had said ‘Ignore those piles, I know what’s in them’. On the second visit, she let me put several piles into boxes, leaving the boxes where the piles had been. Today we ended up with two bin liners of rubbish and three bags of recycling!

The crowning moment of the day came when Stella opened the curtains and said.

‘I could imagine having someone around for a drink, now!’


6. Playing with clothes

Only a week had gone by since our last meeting instead of our usual two-week interval. Stella was going to an event on what would have been our regular meeting time. She wanted me to come for an extra visit both to keep momentum going and to help her figure out what to wear to the event.

When I got to Stella's, there was a bit of a holiday atmosphere, we were playing hooky! We weren't doing any work, just playing with clothes.

Stella opened the door saying: ‘You know how I told you that I can't really do anything when you aren't here? Well, I'm really taken with the whole like with like bit, so I do just shift things around so like things are together’

I said: ‘That's great! Just that bit of organising makes the next stages so much easier. AND, I see the living room curtains are still open!’

Clothes as a clutter issue are a difficult thing for Stella. All her professional life is stretched out in closets with bits of her illness dotted in. Until this week, we hadn't touched clothes at all. Stella wasn't ready to 'clear clothes'. But that wasn't what we were planning: We were looking for something to wear. Stella asked me to put on my designer hat.

‘Okay," I said, "Tell me about this event and how you want to present yourself’

Stella gave me all the details and I started going through her closets while she watched. She couldn't touch the clothes herself, but she could watch me doing it.

We found an outfit with which she was happy; made up of things she had forgotten she had in sizes that she thought would be too small. We also found some other clothes that pleased her and could be worn on other occasions.

Oh, and there was a great side-effect: We actually had gone through the whole of her wardrobe, not shifting or pitching but certainly agreeing on some candidates for the toss. The dark spell was broken. The clothes are no longer a no-go area.

We had some extra time, so we did a couple of bags of paper. Stella has been gradually shifting bags of paper down to the ground floor to be sorted.

She described coming back after getting the morning paper on a morning: ‘I come in, pick up the post, put it down in the living room, make a cup of tea. Then I sit down and open the post. '

Real life, quiet pleasures.


7. Permission to publish the diary

I had seen Stella six times and sharing my visit diary with Beverly. We had started talking about the possibility of a diary after the third visit. Before and after photos are very popular, but nowhere had we'd seen describes how to get from Before to After. Doing a diary would be our chance to do that.

We did not want to unsettle Stella or to make her feel that her confidentiality was under threat. Asking her was something that we thought about very carefully.

I had decided that if Stella’s special event in the previous week had gone well that I would ask her how she would feel about a diary over lunch, on my seventh visit:

"Beverly and I have learnt a great deal from working with you. What has been particularly interesting is how insightful you are about the process and how you see it. We would like to put up a diary on line so that other people can understand better how it all works and how much control they would have. Of course, we would not give away any personal details and you would have total editorial control. If there is anything you do not want included, out it goes!"

She listened carefully and said she would like to see a sample. That turned out to be harder than either Beverly or I had thought. There were several drafts and many weeks passed before we had something we were happy to show Stella.

She then spent a while thinking about it. To her it was important to have control over what was written, to be sure of anonymity and that the diary would be running several months after the event. At first she was worried about the possibility that knowing the diary was to be written would effect what she discussed with me.

Stella is a precise reader and has picked us up on errors and inconsistencies. She is keen to maintain the momentum for decluttering and has also liked being able to reach out to other people in her position.


8. Clearing the stairs

Stella let me in and we sat down to discuss how her special event had gone.

She said: "It was a bit much for me and I am still very tired, but I did it. I did leave a bit early, but I did manage to speak to everyone I'd planned to"

I said:"Sounds like a success to me. What do you want to do today?"

"I want to do the stairs. My life is changing. It used to be that I would come down the stairs once a day. Now I find myself going up and down a lot and I'm trying to move things around. The loose stuff on the stairs is getting in the way and it is really irritating to look at. Having the front hall done has been good. This feels like the next step to opening the house up. I like the whole 'clustering thing'; putting like things together. Gradually, the clusters are finding homes.

"Among other things, we found two small mixed bags. Stella said:"Put those in the living room they can be our 'after lunch job'."

We usually work for 3 hours and then have lunch. The 'after lunch jobs' take about an hour. After we had cleared the loose bits, I suggested stacking some of the paper filled boxes more tidily.

"Hey, here's some magazines that we missed the first time around." We both laughed. In any big job, there are always things missed the first time around. It's also kind of relaxing to do those things for which the strategy has been set.

Stella and I started removing the magazines and empty envelopes; not serious sorting, just pitching the obvious junk. Before long we had two big bags of recycling, a black bin liner and all the remaining paper contained in boxes and neatly stacked. I did some hoovering which is our way of signally space has been reclaimed rather than being a thorough clean.

We were both excited by the stairwell. There were still piles of books, but as I said to Stella;

"I've seen interior design magazines with books piles on the treads in a very artful way"

"Oh, good" she replied, "I don't want to leave them there forever, but in the meantime, it looks okay. If someone comes to the door, I can open it knowing that they will see a normal hall and normal stairs"

"Oh, yes!"

"It's going to look even better when I get those pictures hung in the stairwell and that will mean that they won't be cluttering up the floor.

"As we left for lunch, Stella commented,

"My sister came by on Sunday to pick me up for a family do. Just having the hall done meant I could invite her in to use the toilet, if she wanted to for the first time in two years. Now she could actually go up the stairs"

When we got back from lunch, I looked around for the little bags we would set aside in the sitting room.

“I did them by myself, while you were finishing the tidying up," said Stella." And I've called a window washer".


9. Old friends

I arrived and we sat down for our usual little chat before starting.

"I'm tired, I think I've been pushing myself a bit too hard"

"Do you want to make this a 'short' day?" I asked.

"Maybe, let's see how it goes. I want to go back to my bedroom. We haven't been there since the first time you came"

We started by moving the bags we'd packed for charity down to the front hall.

"I've organised some boxes so we could pack up more videos. I think I can pack the videos up but I probably won't be able to get rid of them completely for a while yet. We may finish the house before I'll be ready to let them go."

This was our second go at packing up old video tapes. We'd done the oldest ones in the fourth visit. There were a few special ones that she was trying to find which was difficult because all the boxes look the same because they are the films and programs she had recorded herself. These special ones were the 'lifesavers' when she was ill, the ones to watch late at night when sleep won't come. Everyone knows about 'comfort eating'. These videos fulfilled the same function for Stella. These 'old friends' like bald teddy bears are not things that she wants to throw away, just because they are an out-dated technology.

Starting next to the door, we worked our way around the room clearing and organising surfaces armed with a duster. Books were put away, bric-brac was cleaned and re-displayed. More bags of paper were carried down to the ground floor for the preliminary sort.

"Getting rid of the envelopes and the junk mail is easy and I'm much more comfortable doing it. It's amazing how much goes without needing a lot of thought or making decisions "

Papers that make it through the first sorting are containerised into boxes. Loose paper looks confusing . A neat box of paper is much more approachable.

Stella had a big smile as we both admired the clear space around her bed and in the middle of the floor.


10. Spinning furniture

The night before this session, Stella e-mailed:

‘The work we did in my bedroom last session has stirred up a lot of things for me and I haven't been sleeping. Rather than do any sorting or chucking out, I just want to move some of the furniture around.’

‘Right, furniture moving’, I said as I came through the front door.

‘What do you have in mind?’, I continued.

‘The sitting room layout is bothering me. I'm spending a lot of time in here since we did the basics. I want to move the bookcase over and put that chair where the sofa is. Then I want to bring the computer table down from my bedroom’

‘Okay, so the furniture is going into a blender spinning anti-clockwise with things moving around making space for the computer table?’

‘Yeah, that's it, with you and me doing the spinning.’

Once we had the space for the computer table cleared, we manoeuvred it out of her bedroom, down the stairs and into the sitting room. Although I didn't say it at the time, I was surprised that Stella wanted to go straight back into the bedroom. I was struck by the head-down courage. It was working there in the last visit which had been difficult for her. (Stella later said she had been most impressed when I said, of the computer unit, 'We'll throw it over the bannisters'. This worked!)

‘I wanted to do furniture moving because nothing we've done is irrevocable. If I don't like it and it isn't right we can always move it all back.’

‘That's a good way of thinking about it, I can use that with other declutter clients. Since you're expecting lots more visits, we don't need to push. It doesn't really matter what we do. We can always spend a session doing something small like sorting buttons’.

Back up in the bedroom, we then shuffled a small chest of drawers that had been blocking a doorway into the space the computer table had occupied. The result was astonishing. The whole room opened up and started to feel more like a bedroom. We opened the curtains.

‘I'm still looking for a window cleaner,’ Stella told me.

We did a small amount of paper before stopping for the day. Short session, only 3 hours


11. I want to do the floral lumps!

Stella was much more chipper this time and was ready to talk about what happened between the two previous visits.

‘I was back to staying in bed, unable to do anything’

As I write this I think it must be very hard for Stella to do things in the bedroom. There is clutter to clear, but the clutter is often the comfort clutter of Stella's depression. Because, going back to bed in the down periods is a time when she needs to re-visit the comfort bits, to go in and try to sort stuff must trigger all kinds of conflicts besides reminding her of the bad times.

When I’d left at the last time, Stella had said: ‘I think we’ve found all the caches of paper’. On my way home I started thinking about two ‘lumps’ in her bedroom covered by floral curtain fabric and wondered what was underneath.

In answer to the question: ‘What do you want to do this week?’.

Stella said, ‘I want to do the floral lumps in my bedroom’. We laughed about both having thought about papers hiding there.

Once again I was impressed at Stella’s courage in going back into the bedroom that had produced a hiccup.

‘Since you were last here, I've started putting my laundry away in the drawers we've cleared.’

We passed the sitting room on our way to the bedroom and she showed me how she had built on the new furniture layout. She was pleased with how her decisions had worked. The stationary supplies that we'd found on another visit were now stored in the bottom of the computer table. She’d made some other titivations and refinements and was already making plans as to what she wants to do next in that room.

‘I want to move the TV table over. It will be a fiddle because I'll have to take it apart, but I can do that by myself.’

The choices and alterations Stella made when I wasn't there meant that the room was more than ever both hers and ’in use’.

We did find papers under the floral fabric which we carried down to the front room to join the ones that hadn’t yet had the initial thinning out. This freed up another corner in the bedroom.

To finish off we did a bit of basic paper sorting and, significantly, identified another class of paper that I could just throw out without having to ask Stella each time.

Good session, because Stella’s energy was back up we could do 4 hours.


12. The first pass

‘What are we doing today?’ I asked after we'd said Hi and how are you doing.

‘I'm ready to make the first pass at the clothes, but before we start in, I want to show you what I've done since you were last here’

‘You are doing more and more between visits’

She led me into the sitting room, ‘I've moved the media table over a bit and I moved that large mirror into the hall. I've been thinking and planning to work on the clothes this time so I took down the drying frame in the kitchen where I've been keeping the clothes I wear every day.’

We had looked at all the clothes two and a half months ago when we’d picked outfits for the event she’d attended. I'd handled everything which had taken some of the ‘curse’ off her wardrobe.

Clothes carry lots of memory charges. People can see their lives stretched out in their closets. The highs and lows of a life have different wardrobes. Many women have clothes in several sizes, sometimes intentionally, the fat clothes and the thin clothes. The texture of clothes, the smell of old perfume is incredibly evocative and makes going through them an emotional thing for anyone. It was easy to see why it had taken the two and half months to come back to them and make the ‘first pass’.

Many of Stella's clothes were in the spare room. The door was open but there were clothes hung on hangers resting on the door frame. Trying to enter the room was very difficult; at least one or more hangers would fall.

‘You know I love doing clothes,’ I said. I organised it all into types: tops, trousers, skirts, dresses etc and then into colours so Stella could see how many of each thing she had and how many the same colour and shape.

The only criteria for a first pass is: Do you like it? The rejected pieces went into a bag for charity or if they were really worn-out, Stella threw them away.

This can be a big thing for many people. Worn out clothes are often the best beloved, the ones with the best memories. Throwing them away is often more difficult than giving away disliked or unworn clothing.

We made it all the way through and started a small collection of ‘memory’ clothes, things that will never be worn again but have particularly good stories attached to them. We also found some great vintage pieces for her nieces.

‘Eventually, I want to reduce my total wardrobe by a third, but I think it's going to take several of what you call passes.’

‘That's ambitious I said ‘You know, it can be helpful to keep a charity bag on the go all the time so if you try something on and you don't like it, you can put it straight in the bag.’

As we finished off, Stella said ‘This was the first time I haven't really dreaded your visit. It's not that I don't like you, but the decisions and the process is very difficult’

For those reading this, Stella and I have been meeting for four months. In spite of the difficulty, she has kept going, basically, she says, because it is easier to do that than to work out whether or not she ‘feels like it’!


13. We get lots done

7:05 am, the phone rings.

It was Stella.

‘I've a tummy upset. I don't know if it is catching because I don't know what's causing it. Just in case it is contagious, I wanted to give you the chance to cancel’

‘It's up to you. Would you like to give it a miss for today’

‘No, I don't want to lose the momentum and I've already worked out a plan for today. I think it might just be nerves.’

When I got there, Stella told me what she wanted to do, ‘We've been going through the paper and it is now slightly thinned out. I figured out some more criteria for things that can be re-cycled or shredded. So you can work on paper by yourself and I won't have to worry about infecting you. In the meantime, I'm going to work in the dining room sorting those things I inherited from my aunt. I don't want to keep it all and lots of things can go to other members of the family.’

I didn't get sick; we got lots done and were ready for the next visit.


14. Planning for the future

Straight to the dining room to carry on where Stella had left off, excavating the corner next to the piano sorting paper as we went. Piles for particular relations were confirmed and designated.

‘I want to take some of these things to my relations in Birmingham and spend the night’

‘That's a step.’ I said ‘Bigger than the day event you did three months ago. So that's part of the plan for doing this room?’

‘Yes, she replied, and some of the things will have to be shipped to the States. I've started thinking about having a family party for New Year and I'd need to have this room clear for that’

As we worked in the dining room, Stella would seize with glee anything that could be added to a pre-identified pile. She loves the creation of related piles ready to be thinned and examined and is always very excited that she doesn’t have to think about what to do but can just add it!

Bags for the charity shop have been growing in the front hall. Stella asked whether we could do a charity shop run on one of the visits. While she is absolutely ready to get rid of this stuff, parking and dragging the stuff into the shop is a bit daunting. She asked ‘Could we do it together.’

‘Sure, any time you want to do it’

We finished with all the plans very much in mind.


15. Paper again!

Paper again! As I re-read and re-visit my Stella experiences I am struck by how common her clutter is to nearly all our clients, particularly paper. As far as Beverly and I can tell: NO ONE LIKES DOING PAPER.

'I want to re-visit the boxes of paper and do a first pass of some bags of paper', said Stella when I came into the house.

Getting paper out of slithery amorphous bags and vertically into 6-bottle-wine-boxes had become very much part of our process. In spite of there being paper Stella wasn't yet ready to face yet, she was much more confident and making lots of choices with the vast majority of it.

'I've found almost all my old work related papers that need shredding. I'd like to hire a big shredder to use over the long weekend. My sister has a pile of things she wants to destroy too.

'Guess what', I said, 'Beverly called me a few days ago to say she'd finished talking to a new client who'd chosen Cluttergone because of the diary.

'By the way I said, you aren't the only one of my clients who has post they hate opening, even post that might have something good in it like a cheque. In fact, unopened post with cheques is especially yucky and seems to make people feel down and guilty.'

Somehow, when you talk about paper, clients imagine fancy file systems being beamed down into their home offices. Then like Mary Poppins or Merlin packing a case for a trip, all the papers jump into their respective files. Whereas, doing paper really means thinning down and thinning down until you are left with only things that you want to keep either for reference or because they still require some action.

In the first pass, doing paper means getting rid of the envelopes and junk bits, flattening the contents and making some very basic categories. The categories in this first stage are the same for everyone as they are for Stella: memories (personal letters), paid bills, bank records, work related papers, tax things, health, mortgage information. Getting rid of the obvious junk, the envelopes and the first throwaways usually will reduce the overall volume by at least a third and sometimes, more than half. Even more important, the remaining paper is now in neat squared off piles ready for the next sorting stage. In Stella's case, this is when we use the wine boxes.

'That's great!'


16. Shredding and coffee

Stella hired an industrial sized shredder.

She e-mailed me before I came, to say:

‘My sister will be here. I've invited her along to use the shredder for her paper and to check the inherited stuff to see if there's anything she wants. I also want to show her what we've done.’

It had been more than 2 years since her sister had been in the house.

I arrived at my usual 9:00. Stella told me that her sister would get there at 10:30 or so. In the end it was closer to 11:30.

Stella said, ‘I've bought 'real' coffee for us all in honor of the occasion. You've said that you don't drink instant.’

‘Wow! I e-mailed Beverly to tell her that your sister was coming and that this rates as a formal dinner party for 8. What do you want me to do?’

‘The more paper you can find that needs shredding, the better. I want to get my money's worth from this thing’

I planted myself in a corner on the floor and started sorting paper. The great thing was that Stella could have a final check of everything before she fed it into the shredder. While we waited for her sister, Stella told me what she'd done since our last visit:

‘I've moved all the clothes I still want to keep onto the new rack and I've used the old one for the ‘maybe’ items that I'm still thinking about.’

‘That's a change,’ I said, ‘When I first came, you couldn’t even touch your old clothes, then you could only touch them when I was here. Progress is definitely happening.’

It’s difficult when someone else is around to do paper, because everyone has confidential bits. We agreed that I would physically sit on some of the piles so they would be protected from casual glances.

Her sister arrived with bags of personal papers and started feeding them into the shredder. Coffee was drunk and then we all went to lunch together. In the flurry of hand washing before we left, I moved the papers I'd been sitting on into their file drawers upstairs.

After lunch, Stella and her sister went into the dining room and started going through inherited bits while I carried on sorting paper. We all talked about what Stella and I had done in the house, laughing and saying to her sister:

‘We should have taken some 'before' pictures so you could see the progress.’

I stayed an extra hour, making sure that Stella was confident about carrying on. Very quietly, and subtly she asked me for ‘a number’ I answered equally quietly, the cheque got written without trumpeting the sum.


17. Piling in heaps and a clothing rail

‘I want to book in a cleaning company to give the whole house a going over. So I want to start consolidating what we've done. There's no point in having them if they can't get into most of the rooms. Let's start with the spare bedroom.’

The spare room used to have piles of clothes everywhere making it virtually impassable. Since Stella had bought the extra dress rail*, she could now have all her clothes in her bedroom.

Stella wanted to shift some of the furniture around so we moved a large cupboard, first removing the contents and a chair. This is the room where the Christmas decorations and wrapping are kept. We took the opportunity to organise it all.

Then we spent time moving boxes around, basic piling-in-heaps. Piling-in-heaps is the first step to organising things. In order for a client to see how much and what they have, it helps to get one category of objects in one place. Stella is particularly fond of this part of the process; she calls it "like with like" and finds it has cut costs considerably. She can find things even before they really have a home so doesn't go out and buy more.


*There are lots of clothing rails on the market. Many have lots of pieces and require complicated assembly. The results are often unreliable and not very sturdy. The best rails come in 4 pieces: 2 ends which click into the bottom piece and then a top bar that fits onto the side pieces. They can be put up and taken down in less than 5 minutes and are perfect for coats at big parties. Stella has found it invaluable to have a stable rail like this with wheels.


18. A trip to the charity shop

Almost from the very beginning we had been setting aside things to be taken to a charity shop. There was now so much that it was almost blocking the front hall. If it stayed there, it would make it very difficult for the cleaners to work.

Stella said, ‘I've found a charity shop where you can park out in front. Will you help me load the car and take the stuff there?’


Cluttergone consultants don't throw things away or remove things from client’s houses. That is both the client's responsibility and their satisfaction. However, we are happy to help and will join them on trips to the tip.

Accompanying clients to charity shops has become a regular service. Going to charity shops is so much part of our, Beverly and my, lives that we hadn't realised that many of our client's find it daunting. Lots of people worry about what will happen. Will the people in the shop open the bags and examine what is being offered? Will they refuse things? 

Since the economic downturn, they have been overrun by people looking for bargains and are now desperate for stock. Except for some very exclusive shops in very rich areas, you'll KNOW which they are, they don't look in the bags and they don't refuse what you give them. There are only a few charities that accept electrical items. It is always a good idea to call before you go, because sometimes they have too many donations to process and can't accept anything else on that particular day.

We did everything we needed to do. Besides our trip to the charity shop, we formalised a filing system using some drawers in Stella's bedroom. The house was ready for the cleaning service.

‘I'd rather not be here alone when the cleaners come. Can I book you to be here? I don't expect to be able to do much while they are working, but I'd be more comfortable if you were in the house’.

‘Of course, I can just sit and carry on doing preliminary paper sorting. I'll see you then.’


19.The cleaners are coming!

When I arrived, Stella greeted me at the front door,

‘The curtains in the front room need come down and go to the dry cleaners. I'm not happy climbing ladders. Can you help me take them down and bag them up so I can quickly run them around to the dry cleaners before the house cleaners get here? I want the cleaners to be able to dust the window sills. If these go this morning, I can have them back tomorrow. So it would only mean one night without curtains. This morning, I re-checked my cleaning supplies and realised that I need a few things. I can pick them up on my way back.’

‘Happy to do it. What time are they due?’

‘In about a half an hour. I booked them to arrive after you.’

Stella was back at the house with the extra cleaning materials in less than half an hour and we were installed in front of some paper piles sorting when they rang the bell.

Cluttergone consultants don't do cleaning per se. That said, we will dust a shelf before putting things back on it and we are very much in favour of using a vacuum cleaner to re-mark and re-claim territory. The house was better than when we started and this visit by the cleaning service would push it to the next level. Stella was already thinking about the step after that: having someone come in once a fortnight to clean, a regular cleaner.

I made my way through a couple of boxes of paper and had re-ordered and tidied some stacks on the coffee table by the time the service left. Stella took me to lunch and we recovered. Stella told me that she found the cleaning session difficult to manage but it was worth doing.


20. Completely clear

‘The cleaning visit really took it out of me. I haven't done much since then. Can we make this a short day? We can do more paper’

She took me into the sitting room where I had left some stacks of paper.

The coffee table was completely clear.

‘I finished them off myself.’ Stella smiled

Every time I passed the room during the session, I kept sneaking looks at it. When I told Stella what I was doing, we both laughed. It is hard to describe how important and startling it was.

‘I've also been opening some financial post by myself’


Many of our clients ‘hide’ from their finances, not opening bank statements and the like for years at a time. Sometimes it starts because they are having financial difficulties, but more often it is because they just don't want to deal with it. Luckily, many use direct debits extensively, so the bills don't go unpaid and life can go on. It is a big moment for them to retake control!

I took one last look at the clear coffee table before I left.


21.Tackling the kitchen

By now we had touched on most of the major rooms but one. On my arrival for the 20th visit, Stella greeted me:

‘I'd like to have a go at the kitchen cupboards and see if we make space for some of the things I've inherited, particularly the glasses’

The inherited things she was talking about were currently living on the dining room table. This was our first go at the kitchen which was mostly a home for drying and dried clothes. It wasn't horribly untidy; it was just unused and frozen in time with dust.

We started with the cupboard under the sink and found lots of spare rags and j-cloths.

‘I won't have to buy any for years, will I.’ laughed Stella

‘This cupboard is quite big,’ I said, ‘It would take one of those freestanding shelves which would make it much easier to keep things in order’

‘I thought that,’ replied Stella, ‘But, I've been listening to your warnings about not buying storage 'solutions' until we know what we actually need.’

As we pulled out the cupboards and compared the contents with the things she had inherited, some things went into the rubbish pile and a few things for charity. There were quite a number of things that went on the kitchen table ‘To Be Considered’.

‘I like it that you don't push me to throw out anything immediately, even when I'm leaning in that direction. It makes the process less scary.’

By the end of the session, we had done about half of the cupboards.

‘I'd like to finish this first go at the kitchen. Can we make an extra appointment for next week?’ asked Stella.

‘Sure, I'm free on Wednesday and Friday. Which one would you like?’

‘Wednesday.’ See you then.


23. The kitchen - Part 2

I arrived ready to carry on with the kitchen.

Stella led the way down the hall saying, 'I've bought some stuff for the garden; bags of gravel and mulch that we'll have to move out the backdoor before we can start'

'Okay. What are you doing out there?'

'I don't want the weeds to come back after all the work with the gardener and I've planted up a few flower pots. After that we'll see'

We started working on the kitchen drawers. Stella had inherited quite a bit of kitchen equipment from her aunt and she wanted to compare anything that duplicated what she already had. The best we kept and the others went into the charity bag.

A proper coffee break had become a regular feature of our sessions. Today, Stella said, 'I bought us croissants this morning from the bakery around the corner'

After doing all the drawers and finishing the cupboards, we started on the Welsh dresser. Stella has an interesting collection of decorative crockery which we arranged on the open shelves. Throughout the two sessions in the kitchen we'd found lots of candles and tablecloths which we stored in the dresser's cupboards.

'They're just a few more things I won't have to buy for years,'

When we finished, the kitchen looked pretty and welcoming.


24. The box room

'What have you planned for us today?' I asked as I came through the door.

'You know that bedroom where we've been dumping all the empty boxes we thought we might use to store things and those boxes full of video tapes? I don't actually know what is underneath it all.'We found LOTS of boxes which we didn't need anymore. I broke them down and we tied them into 5 bundles.

When we reached the bottom layer, Stella exclaimed, 'Oh, I'd forgotten about these. They're boxes I never opened from my last move so I haven't seen what's inside for more than 10 years and there are some here from an even earlier move that I never opened.'

'I see a lot of that,' I replied, 'People move in and get themselves going in their new house. That takes a huge amount of energy and is exhausting for everyone. The vital boxes get opened and the things needed to make the house work are taken out and put away. Life takes over before the last ones get opened. Because they don't know what's inside, people pack them away in attics, cellars, garages or box rooms.'

'What you are trying to say is that: If I haven't missed the contents for more than 10 years, most of it can probably be tossed'

'You said it. Shall we open them and see what is inside?'

As expected we found things for the tip and the charity shop, but Stella did find a few things she wanted to keep, things she thought she had lost.

When we finished, the front hall was chock full of stuff to go out. Stella had bought mince pies to go with our coffee.


25. Putting away in drawers

The front hall was completely clear when I arrived. All the collapsed boxes, kitchen rejects and the 'unwanted' that we'd piled up were gone.

'The car was fully packed when I set off for the tip. I could just see out of the rearview mirror. After all we did last visit, I couldn't think of a really chewy project for this visit, so I figured we could do the default one: Paper'

'Hey, we aren't always going to have highs like finding all that stuff to go to the tip. Okay so paper doesn't sound exciting. However when we finally finish the paper,that will be HUGELY exciting'

We got through 5 more boxes. Stella has some furniture with narrow little drawers in her bedroom that we have been using for filing. Putting away what was in the 5 boxes made the drawers too full.

'Can we weed out some of the older paper and maybe refine these drawers a bit?' Stella asked.

'Of course, it's your paper!'

Over coffee and cakes, Stella showed me the shelf she'd bought for under the sink. Because everything was already sorted, it didn't take very long to install it.


26. Missing paper

Stella opened the door looking very nervous and tired.

'Hi. How are you?'

'Not good,' said Stella,'I haven’t slept, it’s been a dreadful week. Monday, I went to the box that I thought was the one filled with the business stuff and it wasn’t. I panicked and rushed around looking but couldn’t find the right box and that made me even more worked up. So I stopped because I couldn’t look systematically I couldn’t even think. I needed to have someone with me. You were coming today, so I thought, I will wait for Chrystine."

'Okay," I said, 'Let’s start at the top of the house and look in all the boxes.'

So we did.

I found some old business related stuff which raised our hopes for a moment.

We’d worked our way to the front room and behind the door were some boxes that I’d labelled. It wasn't there. We methodically made our way around the room. We got to a bookcase with some boxes in front of it. Stella said 'These are my grandfather’s things 'But then she looked closer, into the bottom shelf of the bookcase itself.

'Oh my, oh, here it is!!'

'I am so glad that you actually found it yourself!' I said.

We retired to make coffee and eat pain au chocolate.

We didn’t actually do much else on the visit, we talked over coffee for 2 and a half hours, Stella reckoned that it was all part of decluttering her mind after it had gotten so full of yuck over the week.

'Usually, we talk a bit before we start, but you knew that I needed you to pitch straight in.' commented Stella 'And, usually, you ask me what I want to do, my sense of control and responsibility for deciding that was established at our first session. But this time I needed you to take the lead in how we were going to do it!'

'I’m interested that you didn’t phone or e-mail me,' I responded

Stella said:

'I didn’t think that you would know. I have always been responsible for that box. You hadn’t ever even gone through it. Why would you know where it was? If it was gone, it would be because I took the box to the tip or to a charity shop. It is important that I control panic and leave certain things for an appropriate time'

'But, we’ve been careful. Paper has either been shredded or put in re-cycle bags'

'Yes, I know,' said Stella," and if I had done something silly, I just wanted you to be here when I found out!'

The HUGE satisfaction for us both was that the process is working! We did a box of paper after lunch.


27. Much tidier now

When Stella made this booking, she was expecting friends to come for drinks before they all went out to dinner together. We were going to titivate the sitting room and consolidate some of the things we’d been working on.

‘My friends have had train problems so they can’t come today and I was up late last night seeing Obama through his celebrations. So I don’t really have a plan for this session’

‘Okay, shall we do some of those bits and pieces that have been bugging you? We could start with packing away the Christmas decorations.’

‘That’s good. Can we then go back to that cupboard under the stairs? It’s aired out now. I’ve bought some special stackable plastic boxes for things like light bulbs.’

It didn’t take very long because we’d already sorted under the stairs and disposed of the rubbish in an earlier visit.

‘The place is now so much tidier that I’ve started thinking about decorating. I’ve had these pictures framed and I bought cushions. I want to use the needlepoint cushion covers we found. Come see the dining room. Do you notice anything?’

‘You’ve removed the three vases of fake flowers you were using to screen the mess in the room.’

‘I’ve given several lots to the charity shop and the others I’ve just thrown away.
As soon as I have anything for charity, I rush out and take them immediately!’

Then we went back to our default activity: sorting paper and did a couple more boxes.

Stella said, ‘Please notice, I am actually sorting paper into piles, not just watching you or playing around the edges.’

As we worked, we talked a bit more about the last session when we had to find the box. If it had disappeared altogether, our process would have been thrown into doubt.

As we finished for the day, I said:

‘We’ve only got three more boxes of paper to do.’ Stella replied, ‘Our next default task will be the books.’


28. Sorting books

‘I know we were planning to do the books when we finished the paper, but I’ve been thinking about how we could do the sorting and I’d like to start today. I’ve typed up a list of where I want the subject piles to be. My printer is broken so I’ve put up post-it notes around the house.’

‘Right, I see lots of stair climbing today.’ I replied.

‘We will burn lots of calories. Fiction is a huge category so I’ve broken it down: Classic fiction goes in the front room along with poetry. For the moment, we’ll alphabetize the rest going down the stairs. Children’s books can go in the back bedroom.’

‘What about detective novels? You’ve lots of those.’

‘Put them in that bookcase on the landing. I want to put the special memory books, the ones from my grandfather on top of the piano.’

‘I’ve found a duplicate. What do you want me to do?’

‘Show me both copies. I’ll pick one and the other can go to my sister or to charity. The alphabetizing is bound to turn up more of them. Those will be the easy edits.’

When we finished for the day, Stella showed me where she’d hung the pictures that she’d had framed.

‘I’m really beginning to enjoy my house.’