Hoarding Expert Erica DiMiele: Q+A

Edmonds resident Erica DiMiele, at age 27, is one of the youngest hoarding experts in the nation. You might have seen her on the A&E show Hoarders, helping people clean, organize, and transform their lives. We asked her about her experience as an organization expert and picked up some helpful tips on how to organize your life.

How did you get into this line of work?

I’ve always been extremely organized. I did nonprofit work after high school overseas, and I came back and thought, “There has to be some sort of industry that caters to this mindset.” And so I did some research and found out about a nationwide organization (group) with a Seattle chapter made up of organizers. So, I delved in headfirst and have been in the industry almost 10 years.

What is your best tip for home organization?

What I say is, “Clutter is just a postponed decision or an unmade decision.” A lot of people feel overwhelmed when they look at clutter — they don’t know where to start. If you view your clutter as just decisions one by one, that alleviates stress. To get started with in-home organization I say, “For everything you bring in the home, one thing must go.” Even if that’s a bag of recycling or a bag of trash. Say you buy a new sweater and you bring that in, you look around with kind of a new set of eyes and say, “OK; what needs to leave the home? Like, do I need to donate something, do I need to recycle, or do I need to trash? Do I need to shred paper?”

Why do people hoard? Do they just have a hard time letting go of things?

They do. Sometimes it’s based on a tragedy, or a point of grief that happened in their life. For example, if someone loses a spouse, the majority of the hoard might be in their bedroom because they’re trying to fill that loss or point of grief. I always say that hoarding is a symptom of something greater. People hoard for many reasons, but usually there’s some sort of trigger that happened where the hoarding behavior really picked up.

What do you think makes things hard to let go of? Is it sentimental attachment?

I’d say a majority (of hoarding) is sentimental. There’s different types of people who hoard, but the definition of hoarding is the perceived value of possessions. And so for a person who hoards, the perceived value is (more) heightened than it is for an average individual who doesn’t hoard.

What are some examples of things you’ve seen?

(In) one of the episodes I was on, a man hoarded 300 plants. He had a green thumb. I did a quote in Portland, and there was a woman with 98 cats. We had to get ASPCA involved. I worked with a housewife, and she had a collection of 500 dolls. So, hoarding can be on a wide spectrum. (For example), moms with kids naturally acquire things, and if you don’t address it with that new set of eyes, managing your clutter and alleviating your clutter day-to-day … it’s easy for the kids to be out of the house and all of a sudden you’re left with five lives of possessions and clutter that happened over 25 years.

Where is the best place for someone to start decluttering?

I’d say the bedroom. Your bedroom is supposed to be your sanctuary, your place of rest. I ask my clients where they’d like to begin, and if they have a certain spot, great, but I always recommend the bedroom. A lot of my clients suffer from insomnia and sleep issues. Studies have proven that people who hoard, more often than not, have disruptive sleep patterns because of the physiological response that clutter gives. So for them to get on a track of a good night’s rest, I say, “Let’s start in the bedroom. Are there things piled on your bed? Are you contained to one part of your bed? Let’s look at your room so you can enjoy that part and actually find some rest to then recharge and then address other areas of your home.”

Clutter has a physiological impact?

The reason people feel so good when they declutter is because clutter and sensory overload (overwhelm people) — especially for hoarders who have boxes. Think about a cardboard box: More often than not, it has an aggressive label or marketing. If your home is filled with sensory overload of words and images and information, your body has a physiological, biochemical response. Anxiety can lead to a plethora of health issues. When people declutter and streamline the clutter, they say, “I feel so good.” It’s literally your body responding to less stuff.

If there’s so much stuff that it’s overwhelming, are there certain types of items that are easier to start with?

I always save paper (for last). What I do with paper is I contain it into boxes, usually a banker’s box, and we put it in the office or to the side of the room and forget about it. Same with pictures, because those require a lot of mental exertion. For people who hoard, and they have a high volume of hoard, I’d say anything that fits into the palm of your hand, let’s not worry about. Let’s address big cardboard boxes; let’s address stacks of disintegrating newspaper. I start with the bigger items, and I feel like that’s more helpful because it’s the little odds and ends and paper clips and rubber bands that can really tire a person out. And it’s easy for people to grow weary when they’re sorting through (small items). Get the big stuff first: clothes, CDs, books. Save paper, pictures, and any little knick-knacks, like office supplies, for last. When you get the bulk out, you can go drawer by drawer.

How long does undoing hoarding take?

It just depends on the client. I always say the amount of time it takes to get this project done is contingent on the pace that you set. Usually, if I were to guess, for any case — if we’re working consecutive days in a row — five days to two weeks. But then I have clients who just want to see me once a month, and they’re not ready to go all intensive.

Do you find that part of your job is coaching people through the process?

I’d say 75 percent of my job is me sitting by my client, watching them make decisions. I’m always taking recycle and trash and donations out to my car, and organizing what they’ve already gone through. A lot of (clients) hire me because they need that second set of eyes. A lot of it is emotional support.

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