Interview Series: Hoarding Expert; DorothyTheOrganizer
Updated: Feb 14
Over the next few months, we will be interviewing professionals who work with the hoarding population. We are asking them to share their insights on people who hoard and people who think they have the hoarding disorder.
We recently interviewed Dorothy Breininger. Dorothy, also known as DorothyTheOrganizer has worked years on A&E’s hit show, Hoarders. She has served on the board of directors for the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, is a member of the Institute for Chronic Disorganization and sponsor for the Los Angeles Hoarding Conference. She has appeared on the Today Show, Dr. Phil Show, and featured in the LA Times, Forbes Magazine, Women’s Day and Entrepreneur Magazine. She has authored Stuff Your Face or Face Your Stuff, When I Roll Out of Bed Tomorrow Morning, I Just Want to Be Happy, and co-authored Time Efficiency Makeover: Own Your Time and Your Life by Conquering Procrastination.
Dorothy is a sought-after national speaker, a United States Small Business Association Award Winner, and a multi-year recipient of NAPO’s “Most Innovative Organizer Award”.
Questions & Responses:
What training have you taken?
I started in 1995 and almost all is self-taught. The first cases I worked with, I did not even know was hoarding. I got in on the ground floor around the time when Randy Frost and Gail Steketee were doing their research. David Tolin was writing his book and doing research also. I called on some different local government agencies like HUD, Adult Protective Services (APS), the Housing Authority, Code Enforcement Agency to name a few to see if they were willing to help with some of the cases. In 2003, with other local government officials, I started a hoarding task force. In 2004 the CDC started calling hoarding an epidemic. I learned from working with all these people and groups.
As you start working, are there times when you discover this is something other than hoarding?
Sometimes the person who is calling about a family member (who they believe has a hoarding problem) actually is so overwhelmed with clutter in their head that they perceive the other person’s clutter or collection as hoarding. Their mind is over-full of thoughts. You can call it mental clutter or mental hoarding. Some famous people in LA have so many fans that are always receiving gifts. They also get tons of swag and freebies from vendors and awards shows. The celebrities don’t know what to do with all of this stuff, so they keep it. They generally have very big houses with lots of room, but these items accumulate. Is it a hoard? To some perhaps. To the celebrity, it’s a mass validation of the successful career.
As an aside, I want to say that I work for a show called Hoarders. We realize that this label “Hoarders” is not a nice label to use when talking about an individual with a challenge.
What tool do you use to determine the amount of clutter?
I use the ICD® Clutter-Hoarding Scale®. Therapists use it and when I teach, I pass it on. But I also use the five senses. Hearing: both what people say and noises in the house, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste. I also look for visual density. If you look at a shelving unit and you see it is not only full of books but also stuffed full. In all the nooks and crannies between and on top of the books. Then they add a hook and may add a string that they connect to another hook and put items on the string. That is visual density.
How do you determine if the working area is safe for you and your client?
Two ways. First, I just go on an assumption that it is always dangerous. Even if I don’t see anything at first, I assume something might be under the hoard. Second, if there is any obvious abusive behavior going on. (for example, substance abuse or verbal abuse), we may walk away from a job. We also ask them how they would like to be referred to – not as a hoarder but perhaps as a collector or a packrat.
How do you put your team together when working on a project?
We want physically strong people usually for the TV show – emotional strength or physical strength. Everyone must know that there should not be any laughter in front of or too near the client. If the client hears laughter, they assume people are laughing at them. The team must be super respectful and must be able to touch and show affection. When doing interviews, we ask each applicant to “share about a tough time in your life.” It is important to have a personality fit.
Do you have different lead organizers depending on the level of the hoard?
Yes, on a just-completed hoard we had 40 people working. It was a huge job. Some of the people were friends and family. We also had bio teams and community teams. We place the teams in different areas around the home. Most of the people on the teams have no training. I train them as we go. Each team has a leader. For this hoarding job I had 6 teams. Every morning we had a team meeting. The worker bees are on one side of the room and the team leaders are on the other side. I give general instructions to the whole group and more specific instructions to the team leaders.
Do you come up with a set of rules when working with a client?
It depends. If a client gets bogged down and can’t think of any rules for things to keep then, we work on some criteria like “We can get rid of it if it’s soiled or if it’s broken.”
Would you be willing to share something you learned – maybe the hard way – from a client?
In my 30s when I started working, I was absolutely sure that my way would be the best way to complete a job and I was would do marathon work – overtime, into the night, very late. (laughter). I pushed too hard. I learned that when a client pushes back, that means something – like they are tired, can’t work as fast as I was expecting. I was always willing to compromise my health, or sleep or healthy eating to keep working. I’ve changed big time here.
We are fascinated by the fact that before you started on the show, you once spent a year and $40,000 of your own money helping a 76-year-old avoid jail. Could you tell us more about that event?
I bring this back to NAPO. I became program coordinator and then chapter president of my local chapter. LA county called NAPO and asked if anyone could work with a person who hoards. Because of my volunteering, I was known in the NAPO Chapter the call was referred to me. They had a “hoarder” that was going to be put into jail if he could not meet code compliance. I agreed to take on the job. Then they told me, “But, we can’t pay you.” This individual (Lloyd) lived in a tough neighborhood in LA. He had 5,000 bikes and bike parts. He had all these wheels hanging from the ceiling. It was a beautiful hoard. He was an engineer in the past and was now sleeping on a recliner on the front porch in an area where there were murders regularly.
I had to pay people to help me.
We formed a task force for Lloyd. Building and safety, vector control, HUD, Senior Services, professional organizers, volunteers, City Council women, prosecutors, a judge – we all formed this task force. We saw a lot of crossovers on what the groups did. I did not get paid for this work and I did pay many other individuals for their help on this case. Once the clean up was done, Lloyd met a woman from church and he proposed to her. Of course, we organized the wedding and we ended up on the Today Show with Ann Curry and Katie Couric! Shortly after this the Hoarders TV Show contacted me.
What do you think about the expression “passive decline”?
Judith Kolberg and I were in Japan at a conference in December and I heard her use the term, ‘passive decline.’ It’s not a term I’ve used so far. I do feel it effectively describes the state of a home in which there is very little human activity anymore – either because a person has run out of space, energy, and motivation to either deal with the hoard or add to the hoard.
What advice would you give someone considering going into the field?
#1. Self-care. Get yourself in the right frame of mind. If you intend to stop work at 5:00 – then stop. If you need extra sleep, get it. If you must take a moment to return an urgent family phone call while with a client, excuse yourself and do so (off the clock).
Do you have any articles or books that you’ve written that you’d like to share?
DorothyTheOrganizer Master Organizer Class releasing in October
Thank you very much for this fabulous time spent together learning more about the work you do.
If you are or if you know a professional who works with people with hoarding tendencies, please feel free to get in touch with us. We’d love the opportunity to talk with you, too!
Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer, Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, ICD Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. Diane teaches busy people how to become organized and provides them with strategies and solutions for maintaining order in their lives. She specializes in residential and home-office organizing and in working with people challenged by ADD, Hoarding, and Chronic Disorganization.
Jonda S. Beattie is a Professional Organizer and owner of Time Space Organization based in the Metro-Atlanta area. As presenter, author of three books as well as a retired special education teacher, she uses her listening skills, problem solving skills, knowledge of different learning techniques, ADHD specialty, and paper management skills to help clients tackle the toughest organizational issues. Jonda does hands on organizing, virtual organizing, and moderates a Zone Plan Teleclass for those who prefer to work on their own with organizational coaching.