Originally created 05/27/05

Collections, junk can overrun home, hinder life



Judy Slavovsky didn't become a pack rat overnight. It took years to fill the Augusta home she shared with her husband, Peter, with so much stuff that it became too cluttered to have guests over.

"We were able to fill it and fill it and fill it until it was about to burst at the seams," she said.

The realization that she needed to start divesting the household also was a long time coming.

"It became an issue for our marriage, because my husband likes things nice and neat, but it's hard to get everything clean if you have too much lying around," she said. "I realized what I was doing was moving things around from one room to another, but I didn't know how to break out of it."

With the help of Diane Henry, a friend from the In Focus church in Evans, Mrs. Slavovsky spent a weekend last spring cleaning out the house while Mr. Slavovsky was gone.

"God sent him on a business trip to Chicago, and I called Catholic Social Services and said, 'Bring a truck,'" she said. "We cleared out boxes and boxes of stuff. It was mostly stuff I'd been saving for my children for when they were starting their lives. It was linens and furniture and hand-me-down coffee pots. I couldn't let go of that stuff because I thought I really needed to save it for them. In reality, they didn't want it."

Mrs. Slavovsky said that both she and her husband are creative, thrifty people who can look at old cardboard and see a stabilizer for mailing photographs. Empty wine bottles? They make the perfect base for a lamp, of course.

She asked Mrs. Henry to help her sort her things after the two bonded at a painting party.

Mrs. Henry turned the experience of helping family friends into an Augusta-based business called Clutter Busters. She said the toughest objects to separate people from are mementos linked to their childhood or their family.

"People also go berserk with collecting things," Mrs. Henry said. "Instead of collecting a few things, you get people who collect every Beanie Baby ever made, and then they shove them in the attic in a box."

Marsha Peebles, the owner of Augusta-based Home Coordinator Inc., said a collector displays things, but a pack rat will stack them haphazardly and even block the flow of air in a house.

Many pack rats she encounters grew up during the Great Depression or speak of having few possessions when they were young. When the need to hold onto things extends to 25-year-old magazines and old window treatments, however, it becomes intrusive.

"It gets to the point where you can't really use what you need to use," Ms. Peebles said. "One lady I worked with, in nine years she never had anyone over to her house. She just didn't feel comfortable with the way things were."

In its most benign form, being a pack rat is having a pile of magazines in the corner of the living room. In its most serious incarnation, it results in hoarding, a little-understood compulsion that might be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Pat Boudewyns, a clinical psychologist in the Medical College of Georgia's department of psychiatry, said a pack rat crosses into the realm of hoarder when collecting becomes an obsession that threatens his or her daily routine.

"You don't get many people with that problem specifically; it tends to come up in the context of other things," Dr. Boudewyns said.

"When you get to talking with them or their spouse, they'll say, 'He or she just can't get rid of anything.' Then they usually say sheepishly, 'Yeah, it's true.'"

As obsessive behaviors go, he said, the compulsion to collect otherwise useless items isn't as common as the compulsion to check things four or five times before leaving them or to wash hands until they become raw. Hoarders can be generalists or specialists, Dr. Boudewyns said, citing a woman who ran out of beer on a day when the store was closed and never again allowed herself to be without several cases.

"At one point, she had 300 cases of beer in her living room. She didn't drink it all, and she just had to have it there," he said.

That's the most extreme example he's encountered, and he cautioned that little research has been done on the behavior, in part because it's not clear whether hoarding is as harmful as other obsessive behaviors. Most of the patients Dr. Boudewyns sees hoard news magazines, newspapers and letters. They can't throw them away because they're afraid they might miss something.

What is one to do with a pack rat? Be patient.

"You can try to encourage them to throw (things) out, but the problem you'll run into is they'll say, 'I want to do it, but that takes time,' and they'll be overwhelmed," Dr. Boudewyns said.

Even though her new house in Martinez has fewer bedrooms and less storage space than the previous one, Mrs. Slavovsky isn't quite finished with her task. A Washington Road storage facility contains a trove of goods that included a computer table long rendered useless by missing hardware. The storage unit is the next project she plans to attack.

"We feel a sense of relief that our current house is more manageable," she said. "This move kind of jump-started us."

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.

Seven Ways to Cut Down on Clutter

1. Deal with the mail immediately by standing beside the trash can when you sort it.

2. If you have not used it or worn it in a year, get rid of it. If you buy something new, get rid of something old. There's only so much space in your house; eventually you'll run out of room.

3. Keep things where you use them (CDs by the stereo, videotapes by the television).

4. Get a file cabinet and use it to keep things such as bank statements, important papers, bills, receipts, medical and school records.

5. Rent, don't buy, every tool or piece of cleaning equipment you need.

6. Things from the past bring up emotions and memories, but most people don't have a room to keep all of them. Take a picture of them and make a scrapbook.

7. Put items to donate into the trunk of your car, find a charity you like and make frequent trips. Get a receipt and put it into your file cabinet.

- Diane Henry, Clutter Busters