My Mother, My Client
Here I have taken the opportunity to describe my work as a professional organizer with a very special client.
The morning of our appointment, my mother calls me at 7 a.m. She knows that I am already at my desk and I know that she is not an early riser.
"I'm going to the gym," she announces. "I was up from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. writing things down that I want us to do. You are going to be the organizer and I will be the behaviorist and we're going to work on our client, Pat, who has ADHD."
"Okay," I say, "I can see that my client is ready to go."
I arrive at her house punctually at 10 a.m. dressed in my professional organizer's outfit -- khaki's and a dress shirt -- instead of the gardening clothes I usually show up wearing. My client is having breakfast and listening to a program on KQED on family structure and child behavior. Most of my clients are caught up in something when I arrive. With the understanding that I am on the clock, I allow them to finish what they are doing while warming up to my presence. Like my clients, my mother is paying for my time -- an important motivation to stay focused.
When the program is over, we head upstairs to the three small rooms my mother wants to organize. This includes her bedroom, her art studio, and the adjoining sitting room/office. I sit in the office chair. For the first half-hour my mother talks rapidly about her situation, telling me the extent of her disorganization and forgetfulness and how she runs back and forth trying to remember what she was doing.
"Then I beat myself up," she says, slapping her thigh emphatically three times. I cringe inwardly and thank my Buddhist extended family that I did not have to take on this Christian self-flagellation.
"I'm going to write a book about this,' she says, "You can help me. I thought of it last night. I'm going to call it "Is it Alzheimer's or ADD?"
"How about an essay?" I say. Part of the challenge of ADD (attention deficit disorder) is reigning in all the great ideas and creating manageable goals.
My mother goes on to describe how she will start a task, such as cleaning out her closet, then try on everything, find an item that she thinks would be wearable with a few alterations and immediately go to the sewing machine and do a dress redesign until the day is gone and she is exhausted and defeated because she hasn't done what she set out to do. Then she beats herself up again.
Today, she wants to organize her closet, her message center, and her car. We start with the closet. As far as I can see, it is organized. She and her boyfriend, Robin, have already installed all the prefab drawer units and shelves from Home Depot that I would normally recommend for a client. I tell her that if we attempt a closet makeover it will take four hours to take everything out and put it back in again, and besides which, it already looks pretty organized. We agree that we will just fine-tune it, so I continue to ask questions and find out that she wants to be able to dress without spending so much time thinking about it -- especially now that she has decided to go to the gym on the mornings that she doesn't play tennis.
This is a perfect goal on which to focus our efforts. She tells me how she was so anxious to get to the gym, the night before, that she put on her exercise clothes at three in the morning and slept in them. She'd realized that she has to have her outfit all thought out, otherwise she spends so much time picking out her clothes that she ends up being late. And she doesn't like to wear the same outfit twice because she'll be bored by it. I am reminded that many of our quarrels in the past have centered around the clothes I was wearing. It could fill a book, this history, but I put it safely aside and concentrate on my mother's desire not to be distracted by decisions about her clothes.
Bearing this in mind, I have her create two sets of outfits for the gym and she puts each on a separate hanger.
"Now what about when you come back from the gym. You won't want to hang out in the same clothes or you'll be bored with them by the time you go to put them on again," I point out. So she pulls out her stay-at-home clothes and puts those together. So far, I haven't had to do any physical work. This is why I like working with ADD clients. They have so much energy that I just have to use my brain to keep us on task.
She pulls together a few pairs of pants and tells me the trouble she has finding pants to fit.
"The problem with women's clothes is that they don't have pockets," she declares.
"You noticed," I comment. A beat, as we remember and smile. My memory goes to my five-year-old, baby-dyke self, asking my mother for pants with pockets. She found me a pair with all the pockets I could have imagined, plus one on the knee with the letter "A" embroidered on it. Sweet. But we don't stop for stories. We are on a mission.
I direct her to clear out all the shoes that are not in season, so she can see the ones she needs. Then we clear off her dresser top because clutter depresses her. I help her find some baskets to contain the stuff that she does use. The client almost always has everything needed to get organized because they've been buying stuff for some time now, hoping it will help. We find one for her bedside table and one for the dresser top.
Having done the bedroom, we take a turn around the office and studio and she shows me what she has already set up. She even bought a labeler and has labeled her shelves and bins.
"You have all the systems in place, you just need something to tie it all together," I tell her.
"I feel so much better already," she says, relieved that someone else is taking on this burden. So we sit down and talk about her office space. Again, clutter is getting her down. The desk is cluttered and there are crates of files on the floor.
"We should make it a rule to keep the desk clear," I say, and remove a few items. Then I ask her what kind of tasks she wants to do at this desk and what items can remain. We look at her day planner and I show her mine. Then we talk about her concept of a message center. This is tricky because it involves communication with her boyfriend, who has established some immoveable objects that clutter up the message box. I counsel her to leave the immovable objects alone. We can work around them. And the message board can work even if he neglects to write on it, as long as she uses it. So we move the box with the immovable items a couple of feet lower and put the message board over it. Then we move some furniture around so that we can retrieve a small table and put it by the door to use as a launching pad.
Every house needs a launching pad. That's where you put stuff that needs to go with you when you run out the door. Visually oriented people create clutter because they leave things out to remind them of things they must do. We organizers then counsel our clients on using to-do lists and planners instead. But when it comes to rushing out the door, we all like the launching pad.
Robin comes in the door, takes a look at the new set-up, grumbles a bit, then moves on. It's going to work. On to the handbag. The right bag is crucial. I show my mother my bag. It's not very stylish, but it has pockets -- boy does it have pockets. Pockets designated for every little thing, so that when I look in it and see a pocket empty I know that something is missing. My mother likes this idea and immediately shifts the contents of her bag to another one with ample pockets she can designate for each item.
We come to the end of our four-hour appointment and call it quits, even though the front room is littered with stuff all over the floor. I am not worried about it, because I know my mother will see it with new eyes and, instead of being overwhelmed by it, will know what to do with it. We schedule another appointment.
"You're very good at keeping me on task," she says, "and you're very gentle about it; you don't have to judge it". Yes, that's the benefit of having a psychologist for a mother. I learned how to analyze for my own self-defense, but in the end, I know when it's not effective. All I had to do was listen to my client, find out what the story lines were and pick the one that would get us through the task at hand. Then I break down the steps of the task to find what is missing and insert the missing piece, usually a simple physical set-up. No psychological makeover, just streamline the process.
When I returned, a few days later, she was eager to tell me what was working. She didn't have to make so many decisions. It was wonderful. Yes, we had created a system that made it easy to find what she needed and since it was already planned out, there were fewer decisions to make. She had also gone ahead and cleaned out her car herself and bought a Stephen Covey day planner because it had lots of sections so all her information could go in one place.
In her studio, we analyze the storage space. She had no trouble keeping the painting space free of non-painting-related items. Except in the closet, which had clothes, tote bags, and no place to store framed artwork. We rearrange everything so we can fit the frames in. That leaves the unframed paintings and extra paper. I put on my carpenter hat and start measuring the space for a shelf. I stay in carpenter mode for the duration of our project.