You want to be organized. You really do. But staying on top of the papers that are in your child’s backpack daily, the toys that somehow magically multiply overnight, and even your inbox can be hard to achieve, much less maintain. Dorothy Breininger, a professional organizing expert who specializes in hoarding and star of the A&E show Hoarders, has seen it all. Dorothy spoke exclusively with Celebrity Parents about hoarding and its direct link to mental health and how families can get organized not by buying products, but by putting their values first.
Dorothy, you’re often in extreme situations. Do you ever worry about your own health as you help the hoarders on the show?
I have allergies and asthma to boot, so yes, I absolutely worry about my respiratory health, but I also care about everyone’s respiratory health. This is the condition that we work in all the time, so I ask people to wear masks. And because I’m asthmatic, I take a puffer and Claritin before I go in, and then I’m all set. I apologize to the client in advance, but I explain that this is what is healthy for me. Actually, they should be wearing it, too, because when you kick up all the dust, it’s nasty.
What’s one of the most “challenging” situations you’ve come across?
We have unearthed some really nasty things, including dead flattened cats. Lots and lots of rodents. We’ve helped people who have 30-40 rabbits hopping around and they’re inside the walls, so we have to dig through the walls to get the rabbits out. Then, there was one woman who was looking for her dentures. The pile was so high, but we found the dentures.
Is there one person who has stuck with you after all the episodes you’ve done?
There was a woman named Nora, and she had 3,000 bins in her home. So, if you can imagine those cute stackable bins that seem organized and labeled, but the problem was that there were 3,000 of them in her home. And to even open one and take the lid off, it was taking the lid off of her life. And I cried; it’s the first time I ever cried on a shoot. I felt that the mental health for this person was so sad.
While we were shooting you mentioned that there is therapy provided for them post-show, which I think is wonderful.
I do stay in touch with the hoarders; many of them become friends! A&E has message boards and after every show we’re on the boards, so we get to know our hoarders very well. What’s fascinating is that they’ve had this story but no one to tell it to because they’ve been isolated, and their stories are so interesting.
That’s why I love the show. It’s not about being messy or disorganized. There’s a reason why someone gets to that state, some sort of traumatic incident that triggers it.
Yes. The mental health aspect is what is so important and so scary. Oftentimes we think we’re doing it for the hoarder, but we’re really doing it for the children of the hoarder. Because the hoarder never calls in and says, “Hey, I have a problem!” Usually, it’s the adult child of the hoarder or some other agency to help children who shouldn’t be living in those kinds of conditions. And that’s where my advocacy lies; for those kids and animals who can’t speak, like for the child who just wants to have a friend over or simply a normal life.
People have been saying to us, “Why is it so moving? Why am I crying more than normal?” Hoarders is not just about being an entertaining show. It’s truly teaching America (and it’s usually just in America – not other countries are hoarding like we are) what’s really going on. And it’s not the stuff, but what the stuff represents underneath. We get thousands of applications a month from people asking to help because there’s no where else to turn. It costs so much to do this especially when there’s fecal removal.
And it doesn’t have any boundaries. It affects everyone from the wealthiest to the poorest, MIT grads to dropouts alike. This disease, and it is a disease, affects everybody.
Now how did you get involved in this?
A production company called me and said that they wanted to do a hoarding show. So, we did a pilot and I wound up showing everyone the ropes. I gave a lot of the cases over to the show to see if we could cast the people. The show took off, so I’m a consultant and a producer on the show as well. I also own the Delphi Center for Organization.
Were you always organized?
Well, I was an executive assistant for deans and chancellors and CEOs for many years. That requires you to be extremely organized for another human being. But I had been a gymnast for 13 years and that requires you to be highly disciplined, too. You’re doing the same moves over and over again. So, I think that the discipline from the gymnastics really carried over. And then my dad was a trustee for a lot of people in our little hometown and I remember going to work with my dad all the time. He would take me into these places where the people had so much stuff and it smelled so badly. I remember my dad saying to me, “Even if it smells or it looks funny, I want you to be respectful.” And I think that’s where I got my training.
Now in your own organizational skills, where do you find your sweet spot and your weak spot?
Here’s the truth. I almost run out of gas in my car all the time. That is not organized! [laughs] Because I’m always on the go, and like a lot of moms, I put myself last. That is one area for me, and the other one is not getting enough sleep. The third one is that I eat too much sugar. I put that under organization because I talk about organizing your face, which is how you present yourself, your space, which is your environment, and your pace. So, if you have too much sugar, it slows you down. And those are areas where I still definitely need some work.
What are some of your favorite organizational tools for parents?
The number one thing I hear from parents is that they don’t have enough time, they’re overwhelmed, and they wish they had more time to do other things. Ask yourself if you’re a morning or a night person, and once you determine that, go with it. Then ask yourself what is the single most important task you want to do today? If you can get that clear on the one thing, and you’re going for it, you’ll usually get that done, and inside that, you’ll get a whole bunch of other things done, too.
We used to think that we needed to buy organizing products in order to get organized, but we don’t have to do that anymore. Start thinking about how your brain works and organize around how your brain works, which is different from everybody else’s. For example, I’m a piler and a stacker when it comes to paper. Take your bookshelf and take the books off. Make the piles of the things you think are most important. It’s easy to see and when the pile gets too high you know you have to do something about it.
Most importantly, once you find a system that works for you, stick with it. Don’t keep trying other systems. Additionally, it’s important to get into communication. I suggest families take time on a Sunday night to sit down and go through everybody’s calendars – do you have the milk money that you need? Are there any field trips that we need to know about. It’s all about the communication. It can totally change your school year if the family sits down and talks about the week ahead.
And include the kids. Even if they’re toddlers, let them be a part of this family meeting. It’s such good training for the younger children in the family.
You had mentioned that in many ways, your clients are like your kids.
True. I have so many clients, and like a mom, many of my clients will call me on the phone and say, “Dorothy, remember when you were here last time, and we had four sets of eyeglasses? Do you remember where we put them?” Just like a young child might do, or okay, a husband! [laughs] My clients call me on a regular basis, and I think that I intentionally didn’t have kids because I’m of complete service and available to my clients when they need me. I have some clients for years for 16 years, married, divorced, with kids, without kids, aging parents, or they have had a hardship and lost their jobs. How do you make it through some of this stuff? Well, it’s by getting organized. It’s by having someone hold you accountable. That’s what parents do for their children.
But when you think about organizing, I want people to organize around their family values. Organizing is no longer about containers in closets. Organizing is about getting your life working. So, if your family is all about nature, and you’re buying all these collections for the kids, that’s not aligned. If it’s health, make sure that your medical records are in order. Find out what your values are, organize around those top values, and you will absolutely enjoy your family time so much more.