Today I share with you my story of caregiving, clutter, and coaching. Episode 34 of The Positively Living Podcast is about life lessons learned since before I began Positively Productive Systems!
When you listen to the Positively Living podcast, you’ll see that despite the different people and different conversations, similar concepts come up again and again. The focus of these conversations involves topics that fit the Positively Productive mantra “do less, live more, breathe easier” so it makes sense that they would be compatible and overlap in many places, but there is a deeper connection.
What each guest and I have explored is how we make our lives better not by force, but finesse…by staying curious, seeking to understand ourselves and the world around us, and then keeping what works, and releasing what doesn’t.
Let me repeat that last part: keeping what works, and releasing what doesn’t. When we want to make space for what matters in our lives, we must first decide what does matter, and then take action.
This is why I say when you want to reduce overwhelm, get organized, make changes…that decluttering is your first step. It’s common to think of decluttering as what you do with your closet or junk drawer or even your email inbox, but it’s so much more than that.
To explain what I mean, it’s time to share my story. You’ve heard pieces of it, but now it’s time to for more…
In 2016 I founded Positively Productive Systems with the idea of helping people simplify and organize their lives…but truly it meant far more than that to me. It was because simplifying and organizing were healing for me personally and I wanted to help others heal too. My wish was that I could help people avoid the pain I’d been in, but ultimately that isn’t realistic. As Westley says in the Princess Bride “Life is Pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” So my more realistic, though nonetheless challenging goal is to help those I coach learn the skills to live life in a way that makes the hardships easier to navigate.
The hardships I knew firsthand came nearly a decade prior. I had been what’s referred to as a sandwich caregiver, caring for my mom, my kids, and a business and I had a front row seat for chaos, clutter, stress, and survival. It didn’t start out that way…it came about naturally and sort of crept up on us as we lived our lives. We knew something was going on with with my mom for years – she had high blood pressure and stress, forgetfulness, and struggles with everyday tasks so we kept our door open and an invitation to join us to live with us when she was ready. In 2007 we moved her in with us the same month we discovered I was pregnant with my son. Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with severe cognitive impairment and subsequently, Alzheimer’s Disease. My husband had a full-time job, which kept a roof over our heads and bills paid, and him away from home most days. On evenings and weekends we were both still navigating a photography business together. The brunt of the caregiving fell to me, understandably, and I cared for her through two pregnancies. I was doing everything in my power to keep a home running and care for my elderly mother who became more and more confused yet still determined to be active…all while tending to my baby, and my toddler and trying to run a business. Oh, and did I mention being a wife? Yeah, I was still that too, though mentioning it last is fitting because that was where my poor husband came in most days.
I was in the height of survival mode, trying to ignore what was undoubtedly undiagnosed postpartum depression, countless moments of anxiety, severe hormonal shifts, periodic panic attacks, and progressive health challenges like herniated disks and the limb numbness that can come with it.
I’ve been a guest on countless other podcasts sharing my story and I always find myself torn about how much to share and how honest to be. Today I’m going to be brutally honest with you, because you deserve it and honesty heals us. My time as a wife and mom and caregiver and business owner was a strange combination of heaven and hell. I imagine the hell part is easy to guess. I was angry at having to care for my mom while others had moms who helped them. I was exhausted from constant lack of sleep. I was saddened to watch my mom struggle while my son thrived, which only made her decline more obvious. I was weary from having a long list of people that I needed to put first such that I never got to me. And I was guilty that I couldn’t be everything to everyone and that I was neglecting the kind and loving man by my side who opened his home to my mom and who helped me make all this happen. The list goes on including frustration with my own health issues and grief at losing my mom in pieces.
But it wasn’t all bad. We were together, which is always precious, and I know my mom’s golden years were happy ones. I was honored to give back to the woman who had so selflessly given to me my entire life. I was grateful she let me take the lead so we could keep accidents from happening (like stories you hear of loved ones leaving the stove on) and my children had another person in our home who loved them, which I’ve always believed was a good thing. I did have to supervise their time together and we made it 4 ½ years before it was unsafe for us all to be together. In September 2011, after intense economic hardship and paperwork battles, I brought my mom to a local nursing home. On Christmas night of that year, she passed away.
After she died, I went into organizing mode and ensured everything was attended to, but I didn’t grieve the way you might expect. I experienced a strange and guilt-inducing relief that I had one less person for whom I was responsible and I had this need to focus on what had to be done next. I threw myself into planning and even considered getting a job to help us with our financial strain. My instinct was to take action and to ADD back in what I felt was missing. But something stopped me and I will be forever grateful, as it was one of the biggest life lessons, a major turning point, and the reason I’m here with you today.
When I stopped…really stopped…and looked around with honest eyes, I was shocked at the fall out from survival mode. When I say this I am not exaggerating. There were are the usual things you’d find in a home with children like toys and baby supplies, but there were also bins and bins and piles of unopened mail and unprocessed paperwork as well as supplies from our business that we were planning to close at this point and an abundance of all kinds of household supplies — from kitchen to cleaning to clothes — a combination of things we’d collected over the years, things my mom had brought with her because it was so important for her to be surrounded by HER things, and all those additional purchases we’d made because everything was so disorganized we had to buy more of what we needed.
In addition to all the physical clutter, I was angry and ashamed and weary. I didn’t like who I was or rather who I’d become, and though I didn’t blame myself for it, I didn’t forgive myself either. I just knew I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I didn’t want my family to live like that anymore. So I set out to change it – not just how we lived but how I approached changing, which was the second of my big life lessons.
I was living the advice “don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”. I had survived a devastating time and had a second chance to choose differently…to choose what truly matters.
I realized it wasn’t time for me to DO more, but rather for me to REMOVE more…to start clearing out…to literally and figuratively clear a path to whatever would be next for us.
I slowly began to care for myself far more than I had in years, exploring holistic remedies, and using my fascination with productivity to find ways I could do all this while balancing the continued demands of motherhood. I embraced the benefits of rest and balance, even if it took some work to implement them. Instead of adding another draining activity to my to-do list, I added gratitude and napping – still one of my favorites! Instead of buying more, I found what I needed in our home and donated more of what we didn’t need. Instead of decorating and planning more, I simplified how we celebrated. I read tons of books and listened to podcasts, embracing the advice of thought leaders and expert organizers who inspired me to clear out my home, head, and heart. And as I did this, I began to heal…but it wasn’t just me. I saw how much it changed my whole family…how much it healed US.
Full disclosure, it was slow going. I still had littles to raise and adulting to do, but I kept at it because I could see the shift happening. I sorted through paperwork one basket at a time. I would read books by doing 10 pages a day, practice gratitude with the technique I still talk about that I named “gratisnooze” where I think of 3 things I’m grateful for when I first get up. I had a lot of trial and error to figure out what worked. Every day got easier, every month saw a new challenge and a new achievement. And as the years passed, I could see the difference in all of us very clearly.
Then one day, four years later, while I was still cleaning out more, I scheduled a donation to a local church and met an acquaintance to transfer the items. We stopped for coffee and I shared my experiences of decluttering and donating with her. She nodded fervently at my discoveries and my desire to simplify and said “I want to do that too.” I knew then and there that I had to share what I’d learned. I told her I wanted to help her, she agreed, and she became my first client.
I started helping others as a professional organizer because that clutter is obvious. It’s the easiest to see for what it truly is — blocking the life you want to live — and to see the difference clearing it makes. I helped so many clients reorganize all kinds of spaces in their homes like kitchens, pantries, bedrooms, basements, bathrooms, and offices, but the thing that stood out every time was the head and heart connection to the “things”. Sure, we cleared out and rearranged the “stuff” but really, it was never about the stuff. It’s just that the stuff took over when the root cause wasn’t addressed.
So I decided the best way to help people was to help them figure out the cause of their clutter and then teach them the skills to maintain a simplified space.
There are many episodes of the Positively Living Podcast that have titles about decluttering and organizing and there are more to come, but you’ll also find this conversation thread in unexpected ones like Episode 29 on trauma or Episode 8 on toxic positivity.
In Episode 2 “Declutter Your Life with the SIMPLE System” I cover 5 types of clutter I see most often: physical, mental, digital, information, and tasks. I cover each with some suggestions on how to handle them using my SIMPLE framework. I recommend listening to that for specific steps you can take to start decluttering, but what’s most important right now is to acknowledge them and identify where they play a part in your life…or more importantly, to paraphrase Peter Walsh, where they keep you from living your life.
Clutter can show up in ways you might not expect and what you expect to be clutter might not be. Consider emotional clutter – how grief and trauma that you haven’t healed from keeps you from living life fully. Notice how your to-do list drains you each day. Remember that clutter can be saying yes to something that isn’t as important as all the other things you must then say no to, including you. Your clutter might be all the information you allow into your head and heart each day when you are already so tired. Conversely, even if someone else refers to things that you have as “clutter” it doesn’t make it so. You get to choose based on the life you are creating. So don’t let others expectations be a form of head clutter for you.
I’d love to know which type of clutter challenges you the most and what kinds of clutter or organizing episodes you’d like to hear. Click one of the social media links below or message me through my website.
As I record this episode, I am celebrating over 30 episodes in over 6 months of podcasting, with thousands of downloads…over 2,800 and counting. To all of you who have been part of this, thank you. I have had incredible guests, profound conversations, and heartfelt feedback. Thank you to those who have left reviews and shared episodes. This supports the podcast by helping others find it. If you haven’t left a review and you’ve found value in what you hear, it would be such a gift to me if you would. If you have access, Apple podcasts is one of the best. Stitcher is also a good option. If you listen on a platform that doesn’t support reviews, a comment on my website podcast page where the episode is posted will work too.
I’m so grateful you joined me today. Keep the faith and keep making space for what matters.
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Music by Ian and Jeff Zawrotny