Dilemmas: My house is like a junk shop, but I can't face throwing anything out

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Jo is dying to clear her house of clutter as she's a hoarder. But she gets upset when she contemplates the size of the problem. She's tried clearing out a drawer at a time, but finds herself in tears. She also has several things of some value she's keeping for a rainy day. The house is like a junk shop. What should she do?

Like a lot of women, it seems as if Jo perceives objects as more than mere "things". She has an emotional attachment to many of her possessions and it's small wonder she gets weepy at the idea of parting with any of them. I recently did my own house out - from the sighs which greeted me from the overstuffed charity shops it seems this is the time of year that everyone does it; forget spring - and was appalled to find that I'd kept everything from my son's past. His old reports cluttered up a desk; paper models we'd made together were falling to bits on top of cupboards; there were enough of his drawings and pictures to fill the Tate Gallery.

It seemed that I couldn't bear to say goodbye to that period in my son's like, despite the fact that he is now 24, and had hung on to the past both physically and, it has to be said, emotionally. There were things of my mother's, old paintbrushes belonging to my father, old clothes that I'd looked good in 20 years ago and that I sadly will never look good in again - and all of it had to go. Clearing out is not just a matter of sorting out unusable objects from useful ones; it requires a great expenditure of emotional energy.

Jo finds that the "one drawer at a time" rule doesn't work, so I'd suggest she do one room at a time or, if that's too much, half a room at a time. She should draw up a diary and work from the easiest room first - usually the bathroom in my experience, though even there my cupboards were stuffed with ancient antibiotics, horrible tubes of talcum powder and worn sheets that in another penurious life I once planned to "sides to middle".

Chucking out is something that needs to be taken gently; by the end of my week I was chucking out like a maniac, hurling old self-help books from agony aunting days into plastic bags and tearing awful torn posters of Ganesh from the walls - bought on a trip to India with a boyfriend long since gone from my life.

I could not have done this on my own, however. I had a willing son to help me, but Jo should get anyone - a friend or a paid helper - who understands her problem and is willing to help her make difficult decisions. They should sit down and talk about the criteria for chucking out beforehand - things she's forgotten about, for instance, or things she hasn't used or worn for three years. Things she finds too hard to decide about should be left in the middle of the room until the entire job is complete; then she can return to these piles and sort them into "keeps" and "chucks".

Getting rid of clutter and junk can have a very cleansing effect on your life. If you go along with Feng Shui, about which I threw away an extremely boring book by the way, you'll believe that it's not just where the furniture is placed in your house that counts as far as inner calm and energy goes, but what those pieces of furniture are crammed with.

And as you get rid of the physical memories of your past, so you get rid of memories that hold you back from enjoying the present. It may be that Jo is too depressed to clear out her house; more likely is that the clutter and junk is actually making her depressed. The sooner she goes to the auction room and gets rid of those rotting "valuables", then buys 60 black bin bags and gets cracking, the better.

what readers say

Take it one step at a time

I know exactly how Jo feels, I am exactly the same but I have made the decision to come to my senses about hoarding. Having too much clutter makes more housework and makes me depressed too, so I've started clearing out, but one step at a time. Just tackle one cupboard/drawer over a weekend, sit back and congratulate yourself. I now no longer have to hide if an unexpected visitor arrives as the house is much tidier as I am now in control and not the clutter.

Rochelle Hodds

London E18

Don't hold on to the past

I sympathise with Jo. Faced with clearing out my mother's flat after she died, I found I could not part with anything, since it seemed to be getting rid of her. In the end, I placed everything into cardboard boxes and had them moved to our attic, where they still are.

But objects won't bring my mother back; the moths and my expanding wasteline ensure my hoarded clothes are unwearable; and my son's old plastic toys won't stay the menopause. So, it's all in the mind. I'm converted to anti- clutter.

Stephanie Green

Powys, Wales

Don't leave it to a stranger

I am suffering exactly the same problem as Jo - I won't allow myself to start on any other major commitment until I have sorted out all my junk, but am procrastinating like crazy.

There is no one to pass my memorabilia on to when I die, therefore I am trying to be ruthless and get rid of it. I hate the thought of a stranger going through the remnants of my life once it is over. This is spurring me on just a little, but I almost grieve for each piece I reluctantly throw in the bin liner.

My only solution is to go through it all fairly regularly and throw away something each time. Good luck, Jo, stick at it, get rid of the past and move on in your life to the present.

Ann Baxendale

Sutton Coldfield

Relax and enjoy yourself

My advice is to accept yourself as you are and not worry too much about the house. You sound like a relaxed person with lots of friends, interests and a stimulating job. These keep you from the boring task of clearing out and having a tidy but soulless house. Your friends probably find that you have time for them and your house is

non-threatening and homely.

Miriam Gullett

Chorleywood, Herts

No need to chuck - lend it

I am a hoarder, but I am able to clear things out by "lending" them to others. I feel better knowing they are being used, and they are rarely returned.

Jo Evered

Stamford, Lincs

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I've been working in an office quite happily except for one man who seems to fancy me. He's patted my bottom when I've been leaning over to get some water, he looks at me in a funny way, and when we went away to a conference he kept making remarks about coming into my room in the middle of the night for hours of passion. Luckily he never did. Recently he caught me in the corridor and gave me a big squeeze. It's making me feel really dirty and the girls in the office say I should get him for sexual harassment. But how do I do it? How can I handle the situation? Mary

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora.

Send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning.

And if you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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