Combatting clutter: Kansas business helps people regain control of their homes and lives
“For some people, getting rid of things is like throwing away a part of themselves,” says Wichita decluttering expert Beck Bright-Samarzia.
Before Beck Bright-Samarzia gets down to work, she suits up: back brace, gloves, N-95 mask.
Inching through one of her clients’ living rooms, between stacks of boxes and bins, she explains she used to wear an industrial-grade mask inside — before they got the dust under control.
“It might look like not a lot has happened,” she said, “but so much has happened.”
Through her Wichita business, Paper Shift ICT, Bright-Samarzia helps people deal with their stuff — mostly when there’s way too much of it.
People call her after a loved one dies and it’s too overwhelming to sort through their belongings alone. Others need help gaining control of their own possessions, often due to mental illness or physical limitations.
Jamie Park, who lives here, deals with chronic pain. The house, just south of downtown Wichita, has been in her family for generations — and for generations, she said, her family has struggled with hoarding.
“It’s kind of crazy growing up in this environment,” she said. “I couldn’t see the floor growing up.”
Park, now in her 20s and a caregiver for her aging parents, is trying to break the cycle. She wants to make the space more livable.
Bright-Samarzia recently helped her clear out the laundry room so she could reach the washing machine. She’d been going to laundromats for years.
“Oftentimes, hoarding is generational,” said Bright-Samarzia, a former therapist. “People pass it down to their kids and their kids and their kids. But somewhere down the line, someone says, ‘Enough.’”
Down in the basement — where Park will soon move with her kids — the duo start sifting through a half century’s worth of memories, relics and junk: Old pay stubs. Abandoned baby toys. Tangles of unidentified wires.
Park steers clear of the more sentimental stuff.
“People think, ‘I have a lot of photos; I’m going to start with that,’” Bright-Samarzia said. “But you’re going to get stuck on memory lane. The feelings are going to come up regardless, but go through photo albums and mementos last.”
More than a decade ago, Bright-Samarzia got a call from a man who would become her first client. He asked whether she could help him sort through about 20 bankers boxes full of unopened mail. It had been building up for years.
After six months of chipping away after work and on weekends, they got it under control.
“Then I put him on quarterly maintenance,” she said.
Earlier this year, Bright-Samarzia decided to quit her job at a mental health professional education company to focus on her decluttering business full-time.
The work can be intense, both physically and emotionally. She said a lot of people are reluctant to ask for help because they’re in denial about how bad the situation has gotten — or ashamed they can’t handle it on their own.
Even if they acknowledge they need to pare down their belongings, the process can stir up complicated feelings.
“For some people, getting rid of things is like throwing away a part of themselves,” she said. “It’s the support of the emotional side that is an enormous component to this. That’s how I use my counseling stuff.”
At its core, hoarding is a difficulty parting with things. It often involves the compulsive collecting of things, too.
It’s not always extreme, but it can be. When it begins to significantly interfere with a person’s ability to live their life or use their home, mental health professionals might diagnose them with a hoarding disorder.
People of all ages and backgrounds struggle with hoarding, but Wichita therapist Nancy Trout said issues with clutter often begin to appear in childhood and worsen with age as mobility issues make it harder for people to do the physical work of clearing it out. Grief and trauma can trigger or exacerbate the issue.
“The stuff becomes kind of a protective nest,” said Trout, who runs a monthly support group for people who struggle with hoarding.
She said hoarding often exists alongside other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and the issues can feed on themselves.
“Anxiety and depression may have been part of why the problem started,” she said, “but the fact that the hoard is still there makes people more anxious and depressed.”
She thinks most portrayals of hoarding in popular media — including the reality TV show Hoarders, where teams go in and gut the homes of people with extreme hoarding problems — don’t focus enough on the complex mental health issues at work. The hoarding often returns, she said, if those aren’t addressed.
“If someone is still acquiring, it doesn’t matter how much stuff they get rid of,” she said. “They will refill the space.”
Less than 3% of Americans have a clinically diagnosable hoarding disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association. But Trout said the number of people who struggle significantly to manage their belongings is much larger.
Even if they don’t have the strong attachments to items that characterizes hoarding, they may not have the motivation, energy or executive functioning skills needed to keep everything organized either.
Trout has come to think of our relationship to stuff as a continuum. Some people can’t cook in their kitchen or sleep in their bed because they’re covered in piles of clutter. Then there are people who can’t stand even one object being out of place.
Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.
The key for anyone who wants to bring a bit more organization to their life, according to Bright-Samarzia, is to start small. Don’t try to do it all in one day — and celebrate the small victories.
“Dedicating your time to really making the changes you want to make is hard,” she said. “So be nice to yourself.”