Homes and interiors: With a new year beginning, it's time to clear out the clutter
The recent news that a quarter of women wear just ten per cent of the clothes in their wardrobe will come as no surprise to Lesley Wilson. A self-confessed hoarder, her clothing collection takes up two rooms and includes items ranging from a size 12 to a size 18. Some things she has never worn; others no longer fit her "but I might lose weight one day".
Diane Palmer can't throw out any kind of gift someone has taken the time to choose for her. Which means her drawers are full of silk scarves, perfumes and items of jewellery that are "just not me".
Bill Miller's mother died ten years ago, yet he still can't bear to start sifting through the paperwork that is the sum of her life.
Rachel Hazell, a 39-year-old book artist, finally realised she needed professional help when every room in her Edinburgh flat was filled with piles of books and papers. "I'm quite a motivated person, but I can get quite overwhelmed by things," she says.
She bought the Life Laundry book and asked friends to help, but in the end, she says, "I value my friendships too much. I would get upset when they challenged my 'used envelope' department that was threatening to take over half the kitchen."
"It can be a very emotional process," agrees Louise Donald, of Space and Time, and a member of the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers (APDO). "Sometimes things people have forgotten about can take them by surprise, like a photograph or a letter from someone who has died. Sometimes they have a wee cry. For some, it's a big journey they're going through because they will be coping with the aftermath of bereavement or divorce."
Her job is to provide a map to make that journey more bearable, but even admitting you need help in the first place can be a huge step. "People are terribly ashamed; sometimes nobody else has been in their house for years and even their relatives can't come to stay I'm the first person they invite in.
"Sometimes they have had an illness, things have built up and they haven't been able to physically and mentally do anything. Laundering clothes, washing the dishes, drying and putting them away, or opening your post and dealing with it it's all the little bits and pieces of everyday life that can build up and become so overwhelming for people they just don't know where to start."
Where they start, says Donald, is entirely up to them. "What I ask people is which area, if it was tidied, would make the most difference whether it's the kitchen cupboards or the pile of papers in the corner or whatever, and that's where I begin.
"But what can work for one person is not necessarily going to work for another. Some people, for instance, want their shoes photographed and in nice, clear boxes in colour order, while others want a box at the door they can chuck their shoes into. I ask them quite a lot of questions to see what will work for them."
The process hasn't always been easy for Hazell, and some things have been harder to get rid of than others. "I've been collecting World of Interiors magazine since the 1980s, and I had a big stack of them climbing up the wall. I even brought them up from London when I moved, but had I ever actually looked at them again after reading them? No. I deliberated for ages then one day I decided I could let them go."
The collection went on to the Freecycle website, where it was picked up by a graphic designer. "He was delighted to get them and sent a lovely e-mail back," says Hazell. "So it's much easier to let go of things when you know their life hasn't ended."
Psychologist Kairen Cullen says that to get to the bottom of our clutter problems, we need to examine the meaning of the objects we are holding on to. "Possessions can be quite symbolic, and that doesn't have to be physical, in terms of photographs, but it represents a time when there may have been a strong emotional content to that particular period of one's life. We can all find examples of this in fact, it's quite unusual to find someone who doesn't store any clutter with emotional significance."
Sometimes holding on to these items may be a sign we have not worked through the emotional experiences connected with them. But when we do come to offload them, says Cullen, we can release some of the emotional storage space they were occupying.
"There's an awful lot the brain is aware of but doesn't consciously make note of. If there is clutter and mess, although you may not be aware of it, you're still giving it some attention at some level, and that takes away the energy that's available for other things. If you sort out your living space, you're going to free up the energy you can bring to play in your daily life."
She adds, "Some of the most functional, effective people I know lead fairly minimalist lives and have a built-in decluttering ethic. At the other end of the spectrum, though, I've worked with people who have very congested lives, psychologically, emotionally and physically, and it's no coincidence that their living environments are very rarely minimalistic."
Because of the emotional complexities, however, different jobs can take varying amounts of time. For instance, tidying a wardrobe can be a simple matter of "what do you wear?" and "what do you like?" whereas clearing out a pile of paperwork can take hours even days.
"The post-war generation does hang on to things because they might come in handy," says Donald. "It's very difficult to throw things away, but you don't need to keep ten or 20 years' worth of bank statements one year will do. If you ever need one, you can always order it from the bank."
However, she does advise that if there is no way of getting a copy of wage slips from a company that no longer exists, for instance you should hang on to them in case of pension disputes.
As for other unwanted belongings, there is no end to their uses. She sends clothes and other bric-a-brac to charity shops, old bikes are (literally) recycled, sewing machines and tools go to an organisation called Tools for Self-Reliance and odd magazines and 1960s dress patterns go to a sculptor who makes kinetic installations with them. Then there are websites such as Gumtree, and auction houses, should you unearth something of value lurking in the attic. "I had a client who wanted the house cleared before going into hospital, and she had a fishing rod that sold for about £100 she was delighted because she wasn't expecting anything."
And it seems it's true that a tidy house leads to a tidy mind. "There's a huge psychological process," says Donald. "You feel quite satisfied in yourself it's something you don't have to worry about and your mind is freed as the junk goes.
"I had one client whose professional life was over but she still had all her clothes from that time. She thought clearing them out was going to be very emotional but she laughed through the entire session she just felt so enlightened by it all."
Trying to de-clutter can be a real task, especially for those who are prone to hoarding. We've all (I hope) sat on the floor surrounded by a pile of old concert tickets, dog-eared photographs, long-ago scribbled letters and clothes you know you'll never wear again ...and find that we're quite unable to part with them. Back they all go into the cupboard. Even the most organised among us can put off tidying certain rooms or cupboards and the longer we do so, the less desirable the job becomes. If only someone could wave a magic wand and make the mess disappear...
Make Space and Time is an innovative new company run by Louise Donald, who seems to possess one of these magic wands and thankfully is happy to share its wonders. Louise comes from a background of lifestyle management has a degree in human geography so she knows how important space is - and also how hard it is to find the time to make space!
In the office (whether home-based or otherwise), for example, she'll help clear out your filing system or implement a new one for you. By asking questions - tactfully of course! - she'll ascertain whether you honestly need to keep particular items and help you to get rid of the clutter. If you do need to keep everything, Louise can archive it all for you to ensure the files you need are always at your fingertips.
Moving home's always a stressful experience, hardly helped by the preceding great tidy-up. Again, Make Space and Time can help take the heartache out of it all. Louise is a great advocate of recycling so if you're loath to throw out clothing, furniture or bits and pieces she can arrange council or charity pick-ups; or if you've arranged to auction your items, she can oversee the process for you. These services are extremely helpful during times of bereavement, too.
Louise works throughout Edinburgh and the Lothians. Why not get in touch to enquire a free consultation?