Interview Series: Hoarding Expert: Geralin Thomas
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 Geralin Thomas. Geralin is a subject-matter expert featured on A&E TV’s Emmy-nominated show, Hoarders. She has also appeared on numerous radio and talk-shows. She is the author of From Hoarding to Hope. Geralin is a past president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO). She received the NAPO President’s Award in 2018. She has been an instructor for NAPO since 2006.
Geralin’s advice on the hoarding disorder and professional organizing is regularly quoted in newspapers, magazines, and other print media.
Questions & Responses
What training have you taken?
In 2007 I earned my CPO-CD credentials and later became a Level V, Master Trainer through ICD. In addition, I have taken many ICD (Institute for Challenging Disorganization) and NAPO classes and attended their conferences. Reading books on compulsive hoarding, shopping disorder, and, other related challenges have been exceedingly valuable.
What percentage of your clients do you suspect have hoarding tendencies?
It’s really a very small percentage. I used to be contacted directly by people with the hoarding disorder, but now, I only work with clients if their therapist is willing to contact me first. A collaborative system is a better fit for me. As you start working, are there times when you discover this is something other than hoarding? Yes! Usually, there is something else which has triggered the compulsive hoarding behavior. Something like grief, depression, etc.
What tool do you use to determine the amount of clutter?
I feel fortunate because collaborating with therapists means I’m able to “bounce” my findings off of them. More often than not, the situations are below a level 4 using the ICD Clutter-Hoarding Scale®. Generally speaking, in environments measuring above a 4 or 5 clients do not want or accept help. At least that’s true in my business.
What special tools do you take to a work site?
I make sure my tools are brightly colored, like neon-bright, so that I can easily spot them. I bring an over-the-door hook to hang my handbag, lunch, coat etc. to keep it off the ground. I use clear containers and clear contractor bags so the client can easily see what is in them.
How do you determine if the working area is safe for you and your client?
I look for water damage, mold, mildew, rodent and insect infestations, skeletons from animals, animal or insect droppings, and rotting wood. Once I had my foot literally go through a floor because of rot. If it feels unsafe, I will let the therapist know. I will also say things to the client like, “When you go into that closet, you may want to be very careful because there is a wasp’s nest”
Do you usually work alone or with a team?
While filming the show Hoarders for TV I worked with large teams. In everyday situations I do both, but, I usually work one on-one with the client because my clients are almost always experiencing extreme anxiety. The team approach is most effective when working in neutral areas like a garage. I haven’t worked with teams as much in the past 5 years. I think most therapists prefer a one-on-one client-organizer ratio.
Would you be willing to share something you learned – maybe the hard way from a client?
One of my most complicated client situations involved a woman whose husband “diagnosed” his wife (to me and her therapists) as a person with a compulsive hoarding disorder. I had worked with this client in the past and saw/heard no indication of that but, he pleaded with me to schedule an appointment with her. When I arrived, I was shocked to see 100s of bags of things she had recently purchased. There were QVC and HSN boxes and piles of items from department stores everywhere! No matter what I suggested, she would not return, donate or gift anything. She wanted to keep everything and seemed unable to categorize anything.
I suggested we send photos of her current living conditions to her therapist. The therapist had no idea the “over shopping” behavior was going on because the client never mentioned it during sessions. The client had gone through a series of events – her mother had passed away, her husband was retiring, there were some financial challenges and lots of stress. Long story short, she had been self-medicating with some over-the-counter herbal therapy that was reacting with her prescription medications; the combination was affecting her brain chemistry. So, the lesson learned is that organizers are like detectives who sometimes help uncover important clues because we see our clients in their environments. They tell us things that they might not tell their therapists.
What advice would you give someone who is considering going into the field?
Read books and blogs on compulsive hoarding. Understand the lingo, acronyms and abbreviations. Join professional associations and organizations. Network with other professionals in the field. Make sure you document client sessions in a professional and timely manner. Have business insurance. I could go and on . . .
Do you have a shareable list of resources for people challenged by hoarding or their families?
I have a list of books, movies, and related resources on my website for the general public (1)
In addition, I created two glossaries –vocabulary lists (terms of the trade). One glossary contains general organizing terms and the other contains terms that are relevant to organizers who want to learn more about hoarding and other related disorders. You can find them both on my website. (2)
My book, From Hoarding to Hope is a good resource if I do say so myself (lol) (3) Many experts including Dr. Tompkins contributed fabulous chapters in which they provide detailed information. For example, Dr. Michael Tompkins defines hoarding disorder and explains why it’s now included in the DSM V.
1 https://www.metropolitanorganizing.com/life/hoarding-resources/ 2 https://www.metropolitanorganizing.com/career-coaching-business-forms/glossaries-dictionaries/ 3 https://www.metropolitanorganizing.com/products-services/from-hoarding-to-hope/
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.