When I met Zephie, it involved a lot of "firsts". For starters, it was my first consultation as a Professional Organizer. Up until that point, I had done organizing for myself, friends and family and my only paid organizing jobs had been as a subcontractor for another organizer. I was still toying with the idea of starting my own business when Zephie was referred to me by another Organizer and friend (Diane Campion of Organize This! in Albany, NY). So, my pending consultation with her is what kick started my decision to start my own business because I wanted to be "legitimate" before meeting my first potential client.
I was dealing with the usual pre-consultation jitters. I was thinking about what I had been advised to do at a recent seminar I attended--don't get too personal, keep it professional, you know what you are doing, etc., etc. Well, in the first few minutes of meeting Zephie, all of that advice flew out the window. We sat down at her kitchen table and shortly into our conversation we were chatting up a storm. Suddenly, I was admitting that this was my first consultation and Zephie was very understanding. And by the end of our meeting, it was more like a friendship had developed than an Organizer-Client relationship. Not getting personal was impossible for me. Especially with someone I got along with so well from the start.
The other "first" involved in my meeting with Zephie was something very unique that I had never dealt with on a personal level. And that was the fact that Zephie looked unlike anyone I had ever met before. I think all Organizers have a vision of what they think the person they're meeting is going to look like and I will admit that I was surprised when I first saw Zephie. It was obvious that she had had an accident. I didn't know what kind of accident she'd been in but I hoped more than anything the surprise wasn't evident in my face. Even if my surprise did show, knowing Zephie the way I do now, I don't think she would have minded.
Before long we began working together and we did it well. We tackled Zephie's home office first and moved on to closets and her daughters' bedroom. With each moment we spent together, a bond was being formed. We talked about everything under the sun from men to religion and got to know each other very well over the next few months. It wasn't until later in our organizing that Zephie began to tell me what the reorganization was not only doing for her home, but unleashing from her soul. Something I had never imagined possible from helping someone get their home in order. So many people see organizing as something that is on the surface. Most people think it's a space that just needs to be cleaned or a messy person that needs to be taught how to live a more orderly life. In some cases, this can be true. But for a lot of people, there are deeper issues involved and they don't realize that the disorganization in their lives is a manifestation of these issues. Zephie is a person in that latter category. And I am honored that I have had the opportunity to meet and know such a brave, amazing woman who is willing to share her story with all of you. Here is her take on what getting organized was all about:
It started long before the final days of my marriage; the chaos of cryptic notes and mislaid mail were a clear sign that I was out of control and hiding behind a whirlwind of papers and missed appointments. The Century 21 shopping bags in my office taunted me for months as if they dared me to take them on. I was more than happy to pretend that they didn't exist. More often than not, the door to my "office" was closed so that I didn't have to face the inevitable. When I finally had the courage to put the marriage to rest I also gained the courage to take my life back and to begin the journey of cleansing and purging my home. I didn't know it then, but it was the beginning of my catharsis as a woman, a writer, a more structured educator and an organized life.
Ironically, I began this journey by tearing my house apart looking for a book that I had bought two years before on how to organize your life, one day at a time. My frustration got the better of me and I gave up. Hell, the Internet has everything you can possibly access so I let my fingers do the walking. I stumbled onto a web page with an enormous listing of organizers throughout NY State. I had no idea that this was such a big business! I contacted one woman who referred me to the person who was to be my new best friend for the next four months...Heidi Gaumet.
We scheduled our consultation for Monday morning at 9am. Naturally, the kids and I were running late because Gabby couldn't find her gym uniform and Asa couldn't find her homework folder (like mother, like daughter). That morning was like most others and we were trying to "beat the clock". We're supposed to be in the car and well on our way by 8:30am. Of course, with our little scavenger hunt that morning I was forced to drive them to school in my pajamas. Since I couldn't find my regular set of keys, I had to leave the front door unlocked and put on the security alarm. Armed with a single car key, I raced to the school, dispensed the perfunctory kisses and whipped the car back in the direction of home. As I walked through the door at 8:55, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the hallway mirror..."Geeze I'm a wreck! Please let her be just a few minutes late", I muttered aloud. But no sooner had I gone into the house, the doorbell rang! "Of course she's here at nine on the dot", I cursed myself under my breath. Oh well, I would imagine that the Christmas lights and ornaments still hanging (drooping is more like it) in the middle of Spring was a dead giveaway that this was indeed the house she was about to work her magic on.
She wore neat slacks, a cream blouse and tucked under her arm was a clipboard. Yikes! I thought, she's going to have a list of things that I'll have to do, I won't get around to them and this will all be a flop. So many things raced through my mind in those few seconds. I took a deep breath and put my panic buttons on hold as I introduced myself and escorted her to the dining room table. I listened to her explain a little bit about her background all the while taking in the little intuitive things that you pick up when meeting someone for the first time. I guess I was sizing her up. Her demeanor was straightforward, warm and friendly. I think we were both a little nervous at first, but after a few minutes of answering some of her questions, I knew that this would work out fabulously.
We went upstairs to my office and to tell you the truth, I had never felt shame when I walked past that room until that very moment. Suddenly, with Heidi standing there, able to see what a wreck I was, I felt exposed. I was a fraud. My heart sank for a second. You see, I'm the second of nine children and have always donned the role of "the pulled together" one. I always seemed to have everything under control. In fact, many of my friends and family call me "Wonder Woman". I let myself think it was because of my statuesque build and Amazonian independence but the truth is that I was always taking on something, even if it was more than I could handle. My life was complicated, busy and cluttered enough for me to hide my true emotions behind.
The state of my office seemed to parallel the state of my life at this point- jumbled, displaced, confused but I could see the potential of the room and I was certain of my own potential. It's funny how these things parallel one another. I could see myself working long hours over the keyboard pounding out my first bestseller novel (once we got past the muck and mire). I imagined having a client stop in for a minute or the new man in my life bringing me a cup of coffee and rubbing my tired shoulders. The vision was true bliss. This is when I became certain that this venture with Heidi would guide me back to the path of my goals and dreams.
"Aw this isn't too bad ", Heidi said before I showed her the four huge shopping bags under my desk. "What's this? , She asked undaunted. "My mail", I said sheepishly. Well, let's take care of that first". "You mean you're going to go through it with me?" I said in disbelief. She smiled and without another word we took the bags downstairs to the living room, sat on the floor and started going through the four mammoth shopping bags.
It was like a little treasure hunt after a while and Heidi had to help me refocus on the task at hand a few times in those three hours. I would find something fun or interesting and start talking about it or looking at photos (maybe I was in over my head and trying to find yet another way out) but Heidi was gentle yet firm about getting our job done. We had a few piles going and Heidi's hands seemed to move like the speed of light compared to mine. "She's really good"; I chuckled to myself. Then, out of the blue, she startled me with a question. "Why do you avoid the mail?"
"What?" I answered automatically even though I heard the question clearly. "There's a reason for your avoidance of all of this you know". I was dumbfounded. I paused for a few moments and answered pensively, "I think that with everything going on around me -the marriage falling apart, day to day stress, money issues, I felt overwhelmed. I felt like I had more on my plate than I could handle and since most of things were avoidable only for a short time, I decided to control what I could avoid. The papers had started piling up for about two months before my separation and continued for the next few months. My husband and I had child support and alimony issues and I wasn't getting what I needed to maintain a household on my own. Every time a bill came due, I knew I couldn't pay it anyway so I just tossed it in a bag and figured I'd deal with it another time". "Hmmm", was her only reply while she pondered my response. I hadn't really thought about the reason I was doing this to myself. By avoiding the paperwork I was actually adding stress to my life instead of getting away from it. A friend, a therapist and an organizer all in one! I think I'll schedule a few more sessions, I thought to myself with a smile.
Physically, I was on a roll now, almost matching Heidi's pace at discerning junk from valuable, salvageable material but emotionally things began to churn for me. We worked in silence for quite some time, both of us in our own "zone". I was feeling less embarrassed about the state of my affairs by then and had already told her so much about my personal life that I felt completely at ease- so I confided yet another secret. "Heidi, since were clearing up all of my hiding places for mail or paperwork that I couldn't bring myself to face, can we tackle one more set of papers?" I asked only with a hint of hesitation. "Sure", she replied cheerfully. I stole a sideways glance at her as I opened the lid of the huge coffee table. It was filled to the rim with more paper, magazines, catalogs and even the deed to my house! About 21/2 hours later, the three bags and the contents of the coffee table were reduced to one single Barnes and Noble bag. I was really amazed to see how much we accomplished in such a short time.
My "homework", Heidi said, was to go through the remaining documents to see what needed filing and I was further instructed to pay the bills that had fallen by the wayside. With that, we said our good-byes and scheduled our next appointment. I was so proud of myself and I felt so liberated by the experience but I was exhausted both physically and mentally. I understood why I was physically drained but hadn't really considered why I'd felt emotionally sapped. I let a day or two go by before I began to do my "homework"; I thought I'd feel better by then. My enthusiasm for the project hadn't waned so I plunged into the bag with my checkbook open and a book of stamps.
I found myself working for about two hours a day that Friday and Saturday but by Sunday morning I was having a full out anxiety attack. I couldn't sleep or eat, I was easily agitated and my mind was whirling. I felt nervous and very afraid. I had written checks totaling about two thousand dollars at that point (and I had borrowed that money from my sister!). I discovered that my husband's life insurance and our homeowners insurance had lapsed at least two months before. The peril struck me like a punch in the gut but the gratitude I felt because nothing catastrophic had happened to him or my home during that period, gave me pause. There were more disconnection notices than I could count and I knew that I was virtually tapped out financially for the moment. I closed the door to the room that morning and didn't open it again until Monday evening.
I went back into my office that night, took the remnants of the bag and anything associated with my "homework" and put it on the floor; I needed to see a clean, uncluttered desk again even if only for a few minutes. Then I got online to check my email. I was so happy that I'd added Heidi to my buddy list because there she was when I signed on. I began to spill my guts- and though she didn't know it, I was crying on my side of the screen. Everything in my life seemed to have come to a head and this organizing process was unraveling more than I thought. You see one thing I hadn't mentioned so far was that in addition to coming to terms with the disaster of my marriage I was also finally dealing with the unearthing of another event, a devastating fire in which I was severely injured when I was seven years old.
I'd started writing an autobiographical book about two years ago. I knew that all that had happened in my lifetime happened for a reason and that I would be able to use it to help and heal others. When I started writing I dabbled, wrote vividly about the events leading up to the fire and even wrote about the fire itself and then, I couldn't write anything meaningful for more than a year. I had written around the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, disappointment, fear and denial. I'd never even admitted to myself that I'd had these feelings.
It all came crashing down around me in August 2001 when I was hospitalized for an infection in my foot. Because of the third degree burns, I lost my toes and a lot of muscle tissue in my feet. My circulation was poor and with such fragile skin on my feet, even the most seemingly benign scratch or wound could lead to infection. It's happened plenty of times over the years but this was a "first"- the infection traveled halfway up my leg. This particular trauma was the straw that broke the camel's back. I had a complete breakdown after about a week in the hospital on intravenous antibiotics. I hadn't been hospitalized in ages (except for the births of my two girls) and I think this hospitalization brought everything back from that ill-fated day back in February 1972. The difference was that this time I wasn't willing to suck it up and bear it.
I had been crying all morning staring at my legs. Would the infection lead to worse? Though the nurses were sympathetic they just didn't know what to do; I didn't even know what to do but I couldn't stop the floodgates from crashing in. That's when I decided; I needed help. I asked for my attending physician and explained that I thought I was having a nervous breakdown and needed to talk to someone about it.
First, they sent a social worker to my room but she was clearly wet behind the ears, so I requested a psychiatrist. I had a feeling that what I was about to go through required more than a "There, there, it'll be O.K.". The doctors came in and began asking a series of questions. "Have you gained or lost any weight in the last year?" "Thirty-five pounds", I replied. "Do you have difficulty sleeping?" the second doctor asked. "All the time", I replied casually. "How often to you experience pain?" She asked. "Every day", I answered just as casually as before. This astonished them and they looked at each other for a moment. They went on to clarify what they meant. You see pain had been a daily occurrence for me since the fire. The doctors couldn't believe that the only medication I'd taken over the years was Tylenol or Motrin. They assured me that I wasn't "cracking up" but that between the loss of sleep, daily pain and a lifetime of not talking about my emotions, my body and soul were putting the breaks on for me. They wrote me a referral for a Pain Management specialist and a counselor.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I was glad to hear that I hadn't gone mad. On the contrary, they were amazed that I'd gone on my whole life without a breakdown. It was on that day that I decided to make decisions that were in my best interest and not everyone else's. Prior to the hospitalization, I had taken a step in that direction; I told my husband that I wanted a separation. He had already been out of the house for about two weeks when I became hospitalized but I didn't think that the sole responsibility for my children's care should land on my mom and my sister. I asked him to stay with the children until I returned. When I came home from the hospital, I decided that it was still in my best interest to have him move out. Once he moved out, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had a lot of work ahead of me and I didn't want the distraction of a bad marriage marring my progress.
I began pain management therapy, which was part holistic healing and some very good drugs (smile). I had not, until that day experienced a day without pain. I was prescribed medication for pain and a sleep aid. I was to take the sleep aid for seven to ten days so that I could achieve restorative sleep. It's amazing what a good week of sleep can do for you! Living without pain was an experience that put me on a natural high. I was still however very emotional; I was crying all the time (in my eyes without provocation) and I still felt anxious and agitated. After a few months of counseling, I started to feel better but there was still something nagging at me. I decided to push it aside and focus on getting my house in order...hence my experience with Heidi.
Organizing my office led to my second meltdown; now I know that sounds scary but for the average person it shouldn't be that bad. I just happened to have a lifetime of unresolved issues that I'd suppressed until now. Feeling overwhelmed by what I'd taken on brought on that first panic attack. I'd finally sprung a leak. I felt the pain ooze out in trickles as I tackled each phase of my office organizing. I would cry while in the midst of filing or feel a sense of mourning as I looked at photos or reminders of the life I was leaving behind. Oddly enough, this came as no surprise to my counselor. He said "Zephie, organizing your office and your home is not just about getting your house in order, it's about working through your accident as a child. "Look at the terminology you use for how the pain feels...oozing...a scab that keeps getting peeled off (sorry for the grotesque visuals but a girl's gotta say what a girl's gotta say). I want you to start journaling when you have theses emotional episodes and we'll sort them out a little at a time. It's going to be hard work though", he said straightforwardly. Now, organizing had become part of my healing process.
Now that I knew I'd have help with the physical task of reorganization and the emotional task of unearthing my secret monsters, I was braver and scheduled a few more projects with Heidi. We worked on three other closets and my children's room over the next few months. I hadn't been able to completely close any of those closets in years (now there's a metaphor if I ever saw one!) The sense of accomplishment, pride and honor that I felt after seeing my office in order and a new filing/mailing system, I knew I could move on to bigger and better things. People around me noticed the difference not only in the way my home was shaping up but in the way I was shaping up as well. I'd become more gentle, understanding and communicative. It's amazing what happens when you unload, purge, choose and restructure. That's Heidi's basic formula for reorganizing.
The first closet we tackled was just outside my office. We dumped everything out of the closet and onto the hall floor. There was diving gear, pillows, sweaters and even an old piece of would that I broke in half during a karate lesson! We examined the space and decided that it would be a clothes closet. We dumped, sorted, purged and re-hung the clothes in a way that would be easy to maintain. Heidi was astonished at the ease with which I was willing to part with items (part of the purging stage). I was ready for a full soul cleansing.
In the past, I learned to cope with my feelings by intellectualizing things, stuffing things away so that I didn't feel. Feelings, at least for me, got in the way of being able to function day to day. Can you imagine the energy it takes to deal with people on a daily basis that stare, point, intrude on your personal space and are just plain rude. Can you imagine the energy it takes to do the things that other people take for granted and do them from a wheelchair?
I've never been one to feel sorry for myself. My parents made it perfectly clear the day I came home from the hospital (after a three year stay -mostly in the intensive care unit) that I would be no different than any of the other eight children. I was made to do everything that I could for myself. So it stands to reason that I would go on about my life as if this disability didn't exist. The problem was that I had feelings of anger- why did I have to act so "grown up" all the time? Why did I have to be brave when I felt scared? Why was I nominated (in later years) as everyone's mother? Why didn't my parents teach me to dial 911...there were a whole host of negative feelings that I carried but hid well beneath my Pollyanna surface and I carried those feelings into my relationships.
It was my intention to make my office and the rest of my home a safe haven but in order to create the haven, I had to wade through the muck and mire of my pain. The reason I was blocked as a writer was because I wanted to be blocked. I didn't want to unveil some of the hidden thoughts and fears that I knew were locked away in the dark recesses of my heart and mind. Unbeknownst to others, I did have the occasional suicidal thoughts, self-pity parties and anxiety about my looks. I never put a voice to these feelings because people would worry about me. How could I have them all worrying about me when it was my job to keep things balanced in our family?
I was angry for years and didn't realize what I was doing to the people in my life with that anger. I controlled people with my anger when they would just have easily followed me anywhere. I was angry because I was just a child and I was expected to know how to do things that most children don't even dream about until later. I was angry that my parents left us alone that night. I was angry that I took on the role of mediator, mother, judge and jury for a family of eleven when I was just 12 years old. The anger festered and grew but I was the queen of optical illusions.
Early on, I learned to be highly functional by intellectualizing everything. I still fall back into that pattern sometimes. It was how I learned to cope with challenges in my life. I pushed the emotions to the side and "got the job done". That was what propelled me forward. The more success I had in getting the job done, the more I enjoyed the accolades I received. It became second nature to "just do it". After a while, people seemed so amazed at what seemed to me to be such commonplace accomplishments. I never thought about how difficult something was because of my inability to walk or because of the staring and constant questions.
I dated...never wanted any lasting romantic relationships...and when I finally did marry, I let anger steal many precious years of being completely loved. It's the things that you can't see in the darkness of a closet that frightens children the most and my inner child was no exception. My willingness to "go through my closets" with Heidi was just the beginning of a lifelong journey. The lesson of humility, being fearful and expressing the many angst's that I've felt over the years only came spilling out after I started purging my home and my soul.
In fact, hiring an organizer and taking care of myself was the key to the walls of the dam. Initially, Heidi and I opened the gates together but after the gates burst open, I was dragged along its path, crashing into people, objects and the pain of past and present. I decided to surrender. Heidi said it beautifully one day as we were filing..."Life should be lived with simplicity". I believe it now more than ever. It was more frightening to hurtle through the streets of my past carried by the thunderous pounding of the waves without knowing that there would be an end. When I allowed myself to surrender wholeheartedly, the dam began to slide shut. I finally understood why I resisted living a simple, organized life. It wasn't until I allowed myself to take on the physical cleansing of my home and the willingness to heal my spirit that the dam could be repaired such that it opened and closed with more regularity. It was no longer an uncontrollable force that when unleashed, brutalized everything in it's path.
Zephie Powell has been a junior high school and college educator for fourteen years. She is now concentrating her efforts on completing her first autobiographical work based on her experience as a survivor of a house fire.