How mum’s breakdown taught me the healing power of a tidy house: Her childhood home was so messy there was barely room to sit down, but BBC decluttering guru DILLY CARTER found solace in making order out of chaos
- Mum spent the rest of my childhood in and out of psychiatric hospitals
- Every kitchen cupboard was a mishmash of pots and pans and food packets
- READ MORE: Can YOU spot the cat amid the clutter in six seconds?
Mess can make me feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed. But arriving at yet another client’s house that’s bursting at the seams doesn’t faze me.
Whenever I step into these disorganised, cluttered rooms, I immediately think: ‘This is exactly how I grew up.’ Any momentary panic is replaced with the comforting knowledge that I’m going to be able to fix this.
Sometimes people are addicted to the acquisition of particular things. I once helped a client who had more than 5,000 items of clothing worth thousands of pounds stuffed into every available space in her house, much of which had never been opened, let alone worn, and was still in its original packaging.
And sometimes my work is simply life‑changing. One couple needed me to declutter their house so that they could foster a child. Every surface was covered with books and papers and ornaments, and there was precious little space for a child’s bed, let alone room to play.
But by the time I had finished, the place was warm and calm and welcoming. I was moved to tears by their gratitude, but the truth is, their clutter and mess reminded me powerfully of my own childhood home.
Whenever I step into these disorganised, cluttered rooms, I immediately think: ‘This is exactly how I grew up’
When I was growing up, every kitchen cupboard was a mishmash of pots and pans, food packets and half-empty jars. My parents’ bedroom was strewn with clothes, everything spilling out of drawers or dumped on the bed.
The fact they wasted whole days searching for items lost amid the mayhem didn’t bother them. I hated having to clear a space on the sofa every day after school just to be able to sit and watch TV.
My mother, Freda, now 82, and my late father Deya weren’t hoarders, they just never put anything away. They were both brilliantly clever chartered accountants running a successful business together. But as workaholics, they didn’t register the extent of the mess that surrounded us. Or that having a pleasant space to live in was a basic personal need.
We lived in a beautiful house in Middlesex, set in a well-heeled cul‑de-sac and backing on to a pretty lake. I spent idyllic summers playing outside on the banks of the lake with the neighbouring children. But indoors it felt such a muddle.
There was just one room in my house that got any care — my bedroom. I kept everything perfect, my bed always made and everything in its own place. I tidied my belongings away, keeping this room my sanctuary, my refuge from the chaos.
Looking back, I can see how our chaotic surroundings reflected my Mum’s inner turmoil. When I was ten, she had a complete mental breakdown and spent the rest of my childhood in and out of psychiatric hospitals, which at my age back then was obviously a lot to process.
When I was ten, she had a complete mental breakdown and spent the rest of my childhood in and out of psychiatric hospitals, which at my age back then was obviously a lot to process. Pictured: At three with mum Freda
I’m 42 now, but remain affected by the memories of visiting her there. This was the 1990s, when psychiatric wards weren’t the welcoming places hospitals try to make them today. I’m convinced the stress of living in a house that felt like you were drowning in stuff played a large part in the mental illness that cast a shadow over much of her life.
It wasn’t much fun for me either. And yet, I feel a whole extra layer of indebtedness towards Mum. Everything I have, even my career as a decluttering expert, which I was inspired to take up because I found living with her mess so difficult and the tidiness of my own bedroom so very soothing, is because of the life my parents gave me.
They rescued me, aged three, from a Sri Lankan orphanage. Abandoned there as a baby, all I had was the metal cot I slept in and an uncertain future. Without Freda, who couldn’t get pregnant and was the driving force behind my adoption, I dread to think how my life might have turned out.
Dad, who died of dementia aged 79 in 2010, was Sri Lankan — they met when he moved here to study accountancy so it seemed right to adopt from that country. I don’t remember life in the orphanage, or coming to England. Mum loves telling the story of how they brought me home in a taxi to find all our neighbours standing outside their houses, wanting to welcome me to our friendly neighbourhood.
I was raised in a loving home where, materially, I wanted for nothing. But I often felt suffocated by the clutter within it. I moved out in 1998 to share a flat with a very tidy friend.
It was the experience with Mum that pushed me towards setting up my business in the first place
I manage with minimal ‘stuff’ and have lived a calm and organised life ever since. Every item I own has meaning or purpose. The few clothes I have fit well and suit me; anything I buy is genuinely useful or something I love.
When something new comes into the house, whatever it replaces must leave. It seemed like a natural step to set up my first business as a PA and home organiser in the early Noughties.
It was the experience with Mum that pushed me towards setting up my business in the first place. Who better to sympathise with and understand the difficult and chaotic situations people can get into than me, having lived amid clutter for all those years and seen how it affected my mum’s mental health?
I was 30 when Dad died; Mum had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder five years earlier. Soon after his death, I took time out to travel across the U.S. and Australia for two years.
I realised Mum needed to come to live with me when, in 2012, having returned from travelling with Charley — my boyfriend at the start of the trip, my husband, after we got married in Bali, by the end of it — I paid her a visit.
I was 30 when Dad died; Mum had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder five years earlier. Soon after his death, I took time out to travel across the U.S. and Australia for two years
While I was away, Mum and I had kept in touch via regular emails and calls. On the face of it, all had seemed well. But as I waited at the front door for her to let me in, I peered through the living room windows and realised the opposite was true.
There was clutter beyond anything I had seen her live with before: the room was a mess of empty food boxes, piles of unopened post and unread library books and magazines.
Clothes covered the armchairs; boxes of make-up, which she doesn’t even wear, were stacked up in a corner; carrier bags stuffed full of papers were strewn everywhere.
The only clear space was a tiny patch on the sofa where I pictured her perching to watch TV, and my thoughts flashed back to the worst days of my childhood.
As I waited for her to come to the door, I felt similar feelings of fear and helplessness. But I reminded myself I was an adult now, and whatever lay inside, I’d cope.
Once through the door, I discovered the true extent of the chaos. In the kitchen, a jumble of pots and pans — some clean, some dirty — covered the worktops, and the only food in the fridge was out of date. There was so much animal hair on Mum’s bed it seemed to belong more to her cat than to her.
I thought if I could take control of the chaos, it would be like pressing reset and she would start to feel better. But as I tackled the mess, it got worse. I discovered bags full of iTunes gift vouchers and money transfer receipts and it became clear she had been the victim of numerous scams.
I work full-time running my home-organising business and filming for our TV show. Carers come in each day and help Freda get dressed and take her medication, but as an only child, I feel that she is my responsibility
There were also boxes of pills: vitamins, diet tablets, none of which she needed. She had bought whatever any cold-caller was selling.
Mum did seem a bit better once I had got on top of everything for her. But this wasn’t a long-term solution. Charley and I discussed options — getting in carers, finding a good care home — but we concluded the best thing for Mum would be for her to live with us.
We were newly married and only just starting out at that point, but Charley never baulked at this idea. We made it work by selling Mum’s house and buying a place together big enough to build her an annexe. Knowing how important my childhood bedroom was to me growing up, I wanted my mum to have a space of her own too.
Our daughter Nelly-Reet was a toddler when Mum moved in. She spent three years in the house with us, while we got planning permission for her annexe.
She was at the height of illness back then. People would say: ‘How wonderful to have your mum living with you — she must be such a great help.’ They didn’t realise I was juggling work, a small child and a parent too poorly to look after herself, let alone help me.
But when she moved into her annexe and got some independence in a space I make sure stays tidy and clutter-free, she improved. She still has bad days. But when she is good, she can potter around, take herself off to Marks & Spencer with her shopping trolley and even cook me lovely meals.
She was at the height of illness back then. People would say: ‘How wonderful to have your mum living with you — she must be such a great help.’ They didn’t realise I was juggling work, a small child and a parent too poorly to look after herself, let alone help me
It’s tough sometimes, having my mum living here. But I find it reassuring to know that she is safe, close enough for me to take care of her as she struggles with mental illness but with enough physical space between us to each feel we have our own lives.
Medication helps, but so too does living in a calm and organised environment with clear spaces. As a child, I couldn’t give that to her. But in adulthood, I can ease her mental turmoil by ensuring she at least has a tidy home.
I have my own family — Charley, who builds TV film sets, and Nelly-Reet, now nine — to take care of. I work full-time running my home-organising business and filming for our TV show. Carers come in each day and help Freda get dressed and take her medication, but as an only child, I feel that she is my responsibility.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love my mum, and she loves me. We don’t have a lovey-dovey mother-daughter relationship. She isn’t my best friend, but she did help make me into the woman I am today. I’ll always feel a great debt of gratitude to her for that.
As told to Rachel Halliwell.
Change Your Space: Reclaim Your Home, Your Time and Your Mind, by Dilly Carter (Welbeck, £16.99) is published on Thursday. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid until March 27, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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