AFTER 30 YEARS as a psychologist, I retired. Behind the door of my study, I hid the shame of years of accumulated clutter.

I decided to find a professional organizer to transform my study from a psychologist’s office to a writer’s room. My 30-year career as a psychologist held my identity. Who the hell would I be if I did not have that image? I’d be a nobody, a nothing.

Few were allowed to enter the room bulging with papers, boxes, and books lined up on both sides of the room. There were notes, letters, and junk mail covering the large oak desk. Two bookcases overflowed with professional volumes, many I hadn’t read. The path to the computer was gridlocked with trash everywhere. I had to climb over stacks of paper, boxes, and books to get there.

I believed I should do this sorting and tossing without any help from anyone. That part of me was called Denial. Am I not an intelligent woman? Can’t I figure this clutter problem out on my own? Answer: No.

A variety of organizers crossed my threshold. I believed they could help me deal with the piles of paper that kept growing like some amoeba, or hydra-creature with many heads, long tentacles, spreading like a creeping uncontrollable monster. Whenever a new organizer came into the house, my husband yawned and looked away. He knew they wouldn’t stay very long. Still, I kept hiring new ones on a regular basis. I was desperate for help.

This time three names were given. The first one I called said she’d been a professional organizer for years, told me her fee (large), and explained that she only worked in four-hour segments. I told her I could do two-hour segments—maybe. She declined.

The worst one I hired just walked into the room and started throwing things away! “I need those things,” I said, in a panic as I grabbed them back. “Don’t touch my stuff.”

She argued. “You’re not letting me help you,” she said. She was right. But her method was too fast, and scared the hell out of me. That one left, too.

The friend who referred the third organizer planned to leave town permanently. I’d asked for her organizer’s number many times. “I’m not giving you her name,” she’d say. “She’s mine,” as if she was the world’s best cook, “and I don’t want to share her.” Now that my friend was leaving the area, she slipped me the paper with her organizer’s name and phone number.

Her name was Paula. I could hear kindness in her voice. She must have heard my fear—not just to let her into my study, but to let her into what lay beneath the garbage: fear of the unknown, fear of change.

When Paula came over, she placed a cardboard box in the middle of the study. That’s where the trash went. She never forced me to throw anything away I wasn’t ready to part with. It was either 1) toss, 2) save in a place I could access, 3) basement archive, or 4) give away.

I felt a mixture of sadness and relief when I tossed items away. Sometimes I wanted to jump into the Dumpster and retrieve what I threw away. How could I not feel heartache? This was death staring me in the face. Paula’s presence was a benevolent witness to my sorrow.

Here are some of the things we found as we went through some of my papers: an uncashed check for $75 from a patient dated years ago. I tore it up. We found $20 in an old appointment book. Under some papers I found an old bra. With great embarrassment, I threw it away. “Not to worry,” Paula said. “I’ve seen worse stuff in clients’ homes you would not believe.” I found an old letter from a patient, read it, and cried. It was heart-wrenching to let it go. Paula sat beside me and patted my shoulder. “You may want to keep that,” she said. She understood.

The new room took form. I gave all the professional books away. Patients’ notes were shredded. We emptied the room. Now it was ready for a new coat of paint. We moved the oak desk to the basement. I purchased a new one, an updated computer, and a bright blue rug for the room. The psychologist’s office was gone. A writer’s room emerged where I could write personal essays.

When we got to the box with the old photos, those going back 40 years, I put a pause button on. I wanted to sift through the old memories alone. The truth? The box stares at me each time I enter the room.

How naïve of me to believe that the study, now organized, my task was completed. Not so. New piles of paper grew again. Stacks of personal essays were all over the rug. I called Paula again. She came over, and, together, we structured the articles. I had to admit once more: I could not deal with the new stacks of paper without support.

Before Paula came into my life, I clung to my old identity. The letters after my name called me Doctor, as in Miss-Hot-Shot-Know-It-All. Now I’m just a plain ole writer.

Irene Sardanis is a retired psychologist. She was born in New York City. She writes personal essays, and has been published in the Sun Magazine and Voices: A Literary Journal of Voices of Hellenism Publications. She is currently working on a children’s Christmas story. She has been married for 25 years and lives in Oakland.

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