Support group helps to declutter

Susan Fakkema has a clutter problem. Her Renton house isn’t dirty. It’s just full of stuff. Cluttered.

Susan Fakkema has a clutter problem. Her Renton house isn’t dirty. It’s just full of stuff. Cluttered.

She calls herself a “creative messy person.”

“My house is never dirty, but there’s things around,” she says.

Things like old clothes bought 40 pounds ago, fabrics, books, prints from the art gallery and framing store she ran for 25 years. And thousands of Madame Alexander dolls.

Fakkema’s four-bedroom home is so full of this stuff that she has spent the past year and a half getting rid of it. And she’s not done yet. She considered hiring a company to help until she discovered it would cost $65 an hour for an estimated 10 hours. Fakkema thought the job would take 40 to 50 hours.

But she’s had some decluttering success. She’s sold about 100 of the dolls. She’s also hauled about 18 garbage bags of possessions to the Salvation Army. The black bags were full of suits worn by her late husband, clothes from her late mom, waste from her redone kitchen and various other knick knacks.

Now if only Fakkema could get members of Clutter Busters Support Group to do the same. She hands out big, black garbage bags to her group’s members at weekly meetings, Friday mornings at the Renton Senior Activity Center. She donates the full bags to the Salvation Army. Or she will, once members bring in bags.

“None have been able to do it yet,” she says.

Not Aimee Thornton, whose Issaquah home is filled with stuff belonging to her, her husband and her late mother. Not an older woman who says her house is “gradually getting full – fuller.” She did not want to give her name.

Not the other, also unnamed Covington woman who lives by herself but has a three-bedroom home packed with possessions for five: her mother, her sister, her former roommate — “who was a real hoarder” — her former roommate’s mother, and her.

These possessions include a foot massager, an assortment of chairs, her dad’s army trunks, Beta tapes, three VCRs and a 100-pound box of tea. She has two of many items, from fair trips she took with her former roommate. During a move to Seattle from Los Angeles, the pair ran out of time and left their house with the front and back yards full of assorted fair junk. A TV crew filmed the former roommate standing in the mess, waiting for four charities to arrive for pick-ups.

Sherril Balken may be the worst of the members. Stacks of boxes reach the ceilings of her Renton Highlands home. Narrow paths — what Fakkema calls “goat trails” run between the boxes. Balken gets bruises running into the boxes. Balken and her husband haven’t eaten dinner at the table in 20 years. The only sofa seating is a tiny spot for her dog. And the couple doesn’t entertain because there’s no place to sit. One of her daughters refuses to visit.

“She can’t handle it,” Balken says.

Balken doesn’t like the mess either. She calls her front room an “embarrassment.” But she still declines Fakkema’s garbage bag at a recent meeting.

“Mine is still sitting there,” she says.

Balken wants to rid herself of unnecessary belongings. But she is attached to those belongings.

“I pick up one thing and think of the times I had with it,” she says at the recent Clutter Busters meeting.

As Fakkema says, “The hardest thing is ‘Where do I start?’”

As Clutter Busters group leader, Fakkema tells the members where to start. Start, she says, not with the clutter in your house, but with the clutter in your mind.

Fakkema says holding onto possessions — clutter — is called “obsessive-compulsive hoarding” or “creative messy disorder.” She says these disorders often arise from emotional issues.

Many Clutter Busters members are widows. Others were sexually molested. Fakkema says most clutterers have low self-esteem.

Balken suspects she developed her hoarding tendencies during her upbringing. She grew up in a trailer. She slept on a fold-out chair.

“I had no bedroom, no nothing,” she tells her fellow Clutter Busters members. “My mother was a very, very organized person. I guess I reverted to the opposite.”

Balken says she’s been a hoarder and clutterer at least 45 years.

Fakkema says her clutter problem likely started in her youth. She was sexually molested at age 4. Her mother expected excellence, but provided no positive reinforcement. She later went through a three-year period when four of her relatives died.

Her husband died in 2000 of leukemia, after seven years of suffering. Fakkema closed her art gallery and brought her supplies home. Her sister died in 2002, followed by her mother. Six months later, Fakkema’s youngest son died. She removed the 30 year old from life-support two weeks after he collapsed while grinding stumps in Maple Valley. After he collapsed, Fakkema’s son lost oxygen for 15 minutes, which caused brain damage.

Fakkema says her son was “a rock” for her. She lived on the couch for three years after his death. She slept 14 hours a day. She couldn’t leave the house without taking anti-anxiety medication. She often considered killing herself.

“I laid in the fetal position for two years,” she says.

She rented a room to a college student who took care of her chores. Meanwhile, she began buying dolls off eBay — $30,000 worth. She planned to re-outfit the dolls and resell them on eBay. But she bought more dolls then she sent back. Some days she bought 20 dolls a day.

“I was trying to fill the empty space left by my son – it’s not been done,” she says.

Fakkema’s discovery of the online group Messies Anonymous jolted her out of her hibernation.

She says she’s no longer emotionally attached to her dolls. She started Clutter Busters at the senior center this summer to help others shed their attachment to possessions.

“There are a lot of different stories why people become compulsive,” Fakkema says. “They think things help them but things don’t. Only awareness does.”

Clutter Busters members spend meetings sharing their challenges, goals and progress. They take hoarder self assessments and read from books that urge them to stop making excuses and just get rid of their stuff.

Easier said then done.

“I’m slowly, slowly, slowly getting rid of it,” Fakkema says of her stuff.

And she’s helping Clutter Busters members do the same.

“This group has made me figure out why I’m holding onto stuff,” Aimee Thornton says.

The wheelchair-bound Thornton battled cancer and has a breathing tube. But she’s making progress, even if she only has enough strength to work 15 minutes at a time.

The unnamed older woman pledges to bring two to three bags or boxes to the next meeting. The unnamed Covington woman has decided to “just let go” of her possessions to “whoever will take them.”

Sherril Balken also says she’ll try harder to declutter her home. She joined Clutter Busters in August.

She relies on the group to keep her on the clutter-free wagon. She fell of that wagon and hit three to four estate sales during a recent two-week break from the meetings.

“I can’t say it’s helped yet, but I certainly go home with a high,” she says.

Fakkema says helping clutterers declutter is like psychotherapy.

“One thing that’s really, really important is that somehow people become empowered in themselves to see a light,” she says.

That light will be different for everyone, she says. But she is sure that with Clutter Busters’ help, that light will appear.

“Every person has thanked me for some epiphany,” she says. “It’s got to click in their head. It’s not me, it has nothing to do with me. That’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to get people to get it.”

Clutter Busters

Clutter Busters Support Group meets Fridays from 9:30-11 a.m. at Renton Senior Activity Center.

According to Clutter Buster leader Susan Fakkema, you may be an obsessive-compulsive hoarder if you answer yes to any of the following questions (no to question three).

• Look around. Has stuff been creeping and overtaking your home?

• Is it hard to find a flat space to put anything?

• Do all the things in your home serve a purpose?

• Is your clutter costing you emotional pain?

• Do you avoid letting people into your home because you are embarrassed of how it looks?

• Do you frequent garage sales, thrift stores, discount stores just for the thrill of the “find?” Then do you have no place in your home for your “finds?”

• Is your clutter making you depressed, overwhelmed or suicidal? Do you need help getting control?