accumulating, hoarding of anything and everything - and the throwing away of nothing. They gather at the Doylestown Inn on Wednesday nights night because it's gone too far.
How far is too far?
Jack (this is an anonymous group) announced that he had completed the backyard cleanup goal he had set the week before. And it wasn't grass clippings or windblown trash at issue.
"A buddy and I gathered up about 2,300 pounds of scrap steel," Jack said. ''It's gone to the scrap yard."
The group murmured its approval.
"The dining room table has been cleared, and we've eaten off it three nights in a row," said Susie Hook of Warminster, who agreed to be identified. ''Also, my deck is completely cleared off."
Heads nodded around the room. Everybody could relate to those achievements.
Of course, Hook also had a pack rat's nightmare to relate.
"A friend called and asked if she could come over for supper," she said, drawing a deep breath. "The house was a disaster, there were still dishes in the sink from the day before . . ."
"But I went with the flow," Hook said. "We ate out on the deck."
The movement to get it together is a national one. There's even an assortment of support groups called "Messies Anonymous" and any number of books on the topic. But this group is going it alone.
The 16 members are led by professional organizers Anderson and Jacqueline Fox, who charge $5 per week to help people take charge of their lives and the mountains of stuff they've accumulated.
"We're coaches," Fox said. "Here, people can share" their secrets with
others just as messy.
Debbie, a Doylestown homemaker, remembered the moment she knew she needed help. "It was when I bought a carpet-cleaning machine, instead of letting the cleaning guys into my home," she said, laughing.
Group members say most of society doesn't understand how addicting stuff can be, or the lure of flea markets. "It's like when someone tells a fat person to just lose weight. It's not that easy," Jack said.
Jack, 63, lives alone in Jenkintown in a seven-bedroom home stacked with stuff. The electricity was turned off more than a year ago. He said Philadelphia Electric Co. left a notice that workers couldn't get in to read the meter while he was on vacation. That's OK with him. He uses Coleman lanterns instead, heating the home in the winter with wood. His answering machine runs off a 12-volt battery, his power tools off a portable generator.
A tour of Jack's house begins in the kitchen, where the counters are piled high with empty vitamin bottles, dishes, pots and pans, and the clock is stopped at 10 minutes to 11.
Tacked to the dining room wall is a yellowed invitation to his mother's 85th birthday party, dated July 4, 1988. Piles of books and papers cover every surface, stacked on the floor waist-high in some places.
On a card table in the corner of the living room is a four-inch-high pile of little slips of paper. Closer inspection reveals them to be a collection of fortune-cookie fortunes.
"I use them sometimes," Jack said. "I tape them to postcards and send them to people."
Ash from the wood stove has gently coated everything. A rocking chair is parked in front of the wood stove with a TV tray nearby.
A lantern hangs on a microphone stand next to the chair. Therein lies the secret to Jack's obsession, he admits: the possibility of new uses for old things.
A prime example is found in the basement, as Jack leads the way, lantern light flickering off the walls.
An old porcelain bathtub lies on its side next to an unused wood stove. But that's not what Jack sees when he looks at them.
"Imagine taking a bath in the open, in front of a roaring fire," he said with a smile. "That would be pure pleasure."
It's the kind of idea that tantalizes him, feeding the urge to maintain his mind-boggling inventory of found objects.
But time may run out, and Jack is now trying to organize his life to save his three adult children the burden of inheriting his massive legacy. "That wouldn't be fair to them," he said.
Toward that end, he's hired a woman to help him begin to sort it all out. ''I can see movement, but I don't want to do a whole room," he said. ''First we'll do the card table, or take the clutter off the couch."
Cleaning up a little bit at a time and maintaining orderly habits are the secrets to getting organized over time, experts say.
In the past, despair has led Debbie, the Doylestown homemaker, to think destructively.
"I've wished my whole house would burn down, so I could just be rid of it," she said. "Besides, the only things I think I'd really want are the photographs of my family."
Cleaning up can mean cleaning house emotionally for those who find that the objects piled up in their homes represent unresolved conflicts in their lives, Anderson said.
Connie Gredzinski, 29, who is not a member of the support group, knew she had a problem when a boyfriend broke up with her and subsequent dates stopped calling soon after a visit to her Philadelphia condo.
"I could feel they were looking around, thinking, 'There's something wrong with this girl,' " she said.
Gredzinski responded to an ad for Simply Organized, the support group's affiliated clutter service operated by Fox and Anderson, and resolved to change habits learned from her mother and a chaotic childhood with eight siblings.
"I never wanted to be like my mother, but I could see I was starting to become like her," Gredzinski said.
On the outside, she was clean. Gredzinski's secrets lurked in her closets, in jumbled boxes and piles of flea market finds.
With Anderson's help, the moment came when Gredzinski dug into cartons of memorabilia from her failed marriage.
"There was a T-shirt from a Florida vacation that said, 'Connie and Chris Forever' on it," Gredzinski said. "When I threw that away, I had to let go of that idea of a white picket fence and really accept that my marriage was a disaster."
The first few times Anderson ruthlessly hauled her stuff away, Gredzinski cried.
Sometimes, Fox said, clients seek personal counseling as they uncover deeper emotional problems.
But creative approaches to letting go often work just fine.
Once, Fox said, she proposed that a client designate a special chest for use in a goodbye ritual.
"We paid our last respects to each thing," Fox said of the books, clothing and knickknacks the client wanted to get rid of. "I told them to hold the object in their hands, lovingly talk to it, and then let it go (into the chest)."
Bonfires are also a great remedy, for those so inclined, Fox said.
Most recovering clutterers agree that casting off their possessions is a great relief. "I actually felt high," said Gredzinski.
Fox's theory is that unpaid bills, unfinished projects and items we thought we'd use but never did weigh us down.
"When you get rid of it, all this energy is released," she said.
Debbie, the Doylestown homemaker, has experienced an increase in self- esteem. "I cleaned my car before I had to take it on a long trip," she said. "Because I'm worth a clean car."
For Fox, that's what organizing your life is all about.
"It's saying yes to the good things in life, saying yes to taking care of ourselves," Fox said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
* To contact Simply Organized and its support group, call 340-9717.