Richard Wilson, 31, is a writer and part-time community fundraiser. He lives in London with his wife Heleen, 28, who is an ethical fundraiser
Of all the 'holisms', you wouldn't think that 'clutterholism' would be too nightmarish an affliction. But describing himself as 'pathologically untidy', Richard Wilson says he's driving his wife crazy thanks to his innate ability to hoard.
'I keep promising to sort out the mess I continually create,' he says. 'Heleen and I have lived together for four years and I'll have brief periods where I sort it out, keep the clutter to a minimum, but I inevitably crack. I really do have to nail it - I feel terribly guilty. It's hardly surprising we've started arguing. My desk seems to eat things up. I once missed out on a sizeable tax rebate because I lost the form in all the clutter. Worse still, Heleen missed an important hospital appointment too because I'd "filed" her post on my desk.'
The fact that he and his wife are about to buy their first house provides the ideal starting point. Up to now, Wilson's workspace - his ultimate problem area - has been a corner of their bedroom. Luckily, the place they are about to move into has a separate study, but Wilson knows he'll need to work hard to keep it clutter-free from day one. It's not going to be easy. His clutterholism is deeply ingrained: he has been messy since childhood. 'One of my sisters was sanctimoniously tidy,' he begins. 'There was definitely a sense of competition, but I knew I'd never win, so I just allowed myself to be pigeonholed as the untidy one. Mum would get so frustrated with my mess, and every so often she'd swoop in like a North Sea trawler and chuck piles of things out - sometimes things I desperately wanted to keep, bits and pieces I'd written. That was awful, a real source of tension.'
His main issue is hoarding paper - printouts, torn-out newspaper articles, gig flyers, business cards 'from people I will never contact', bills, tax forms - but it's sentimental ephemera like old birthday cards or letters he finds hardest to let go of. 'I feel unbelievably guilty, murderous even, if I even think about chucking out anything people have taken the time to write. It's as if I'm killing off part of my life or part of the person who gave it to me, the sense of losing something precious.'
He says he does have a filing system of sorts ... 'But I liken it to a failed state - the structure is nominally there, but the whole thing's collapsing. It's one huge, stressful mess. I think my main problem is that tidying rarely feels urgent, particularly if I'm on a roll with my writing. At one point I promised myself I'd spend 15 minutes a day clearing up ... what shocked me was how hard those 15 minutes were to find.'
Another obstacle is the fact Wilson actually feels at ease in a semi-messy environment. 'I'm definitely more attracted to homely, more cluttered spaces than stark, super-clean ones. I think I also attach some kind of moral righteousness to untidiness, definitely equate it with creativity, too. Yes, it's stereotyping, but I tend to think people who are obsessively tidy often think in straight lines, see life in a more blinkered way.' Whatever his prejudices, he's determined to change and is hoping that combating his clutter instinct will be the start of a whole new him. 'It fits into a bigger picture. I'm starting to feel the untidiness may be a symptom of not being totally in control of what I'm doing, of how I spend my time. Hopefully this will point me in the direction of knowing what I want to achieve from my life as a whole.'
Annya Ladakh, a personal organiser based in London, set up Clear Space, the first business of its kind in the UK
There are many reasons why people accumulate clutter or are just very untidy, or both. There are lots of reasons why they feel they need to sort it out, too. What seems most important to Richard is how his untidiness is affecting his partner, so our key goal will be to reach a point where none of his clutter encroaches on her space. Someone else's mess is always infinitely more irritating than your own, and I'm often called in to help because it's started to cause conflict within a relationship. Another goal will be for Richard to understand that he can be both tidy and creative. I also want to ensure that he has no feelings of guilt or inadequacy linked to his clutter problem, because those emotions are only going to block him and hold him back.
First of all we'll need to reduce his junk and paper to an appropriate amount. Then it's all about organisation, finding ways to prevent it all building up again. When we meet, he'll be in the new house and it will be the first time he's had a space of his own to write in. What I want to do is help him customise that office space, and feel good about it. I'll help organise systems he feels comfortable with and find ways to reduce the amount of 'stuff' coming in. Maybe he can start scanning articles rather than hoarding the originals. He could also get a 'memory box' for long-term memorabilia and a 'memory board' for short-term items - somewhere to pin those fliers and tickets for concerts, plays and exhibitions: that way he'll feel he still has his things around him without creating more mess. Photos in frames really clutter, so if he has lots of those, he could create a collage of pictures on the wall instead, too.
Another of Richard's problems is procrastination, so I also want to work out a pattern of tidying that suits his lifestyle and energy patterns, one he can realistically commit to. At the moment, I think he tries to tidy at the wrong time - ie at the end of day, when not only is he doing the job he least wants to do, but he's doing it when he's feeling tired and distracted. Clearing up in the morning is usually best.
The encouraging thing is that Richard really does want to change his habits. If he manages to, he'll really benefit. He will have a better relationship with his partner, will lose all that guilt and will also have a lot more free time - the average person loses 150 hours a year just looking for things, and if you're really cluttered you'll lose even more. Basically he'll be less time-poor, less stressed, and happier all round. 020 7233 3138; www.clear-space.co.uk.
Allan Smith, a 36-year-old civil servant, and his wife Helen, 31, who owns her own marketing company, live in London from Monday to Thursday but spend the weekends at their cottage in Sussex
'Sorry about the disarray,' says Allan Smith, gesturing at a perfectly orderly sitting room. Then his wife bursts in through the side door, just back from dropping her mum home. 'Yes, everything goes a bit awry when we have people to stay,' she explains, 'and I also really noticed this weekend how it's very hard to make guests use the right recycling bin.' That's not the end of the apologies, because they both feel they fall short of ethical expectations. 'This is not our only home,' says Allan, as if in a confessional booth. The couple drive down to their timber-framed cottage in Sussex every Thursday night, heading back on Sunday to London, where they rent a small studio flat in Battersea. 'Commuting from here is just too far,' explains Allan.
You can see why they do it. The house is a very pretty Grade II conversion, and because it's not on the commuter path, it's relatively unspoiled. There's a shop and a pub in spitting distance, and more importantly - at least from a biodiversity point of view - the house is in a conservation zone on the edge of Ashdown Forest.
'Going back to London to the studio flat is difficult,' admits Helen. 'It's so small and stuffy that we tend to eat out all the time, so coming down here represents a complete change of lifestyle.' And the couple have made a really concerted effort to go green; their sportscar, for example, has been replaced by a fuel-efficient Honda Civic and they are assiduous recyclers, 'although because there's no kerbside recycling here, we do end up driving it to London,' admits Helen. 'I normally try not to leave anything on standby,' says Allan, looking aghast at the fact that he actually seems to have left the entire contents of the TV cabinet on standby. There is further shiftiness over the tumble dryer (full of freshly tumbled clothes). 'I know, I know, that's bad,' says Helen. But even this doesn't come close to the opprobrium that Allan and Helen heap on their own heads when Helen pulls out the cleaning products. 'On the whole,' says Allan, 'we really want to do the right thing, but often we're pressed for time or it's not easy enough.' Helen agrees: 'I find myself getting really angry about environmental transgressions and companies trampling on social justice these days. I feel very strongly that having a more ethical lifestyle isn't just a question of responsibility for shared resources and protecting what we have, but that it actually enhances your lifestyle.'
Lucy Siegle is the Observer Magazine's ethical living columnist
Helen's obvious passion for ethical values convinces me within minutes that she has the potential to be a real ethical activist, but her theories don't always translate into practice. She reveals she just bought a pair of jeans from the supermarket, and I start my life-changing mission straight away by referring her to the War on Want report from November that traces sweatshop production through to several supermarket retailers. I also sign her up to Ethical Consumer magazine's website (www.ethiscore.org), where she can just type in the drinks/clothing/appliance manufacturer she's considering purchasing and get a rating for them.
There are several other areas we need to look at, too, including Helen and Allan's food-shopping habits and energy consumption. Ultimately we need to get them living in just one house, as driving an average of 300 miles a week is really swelling their collective carbon footprint. I've also had a look in their bin - I couldn't help myself - and it's clear they need to adopt zero tolerance to overpackaged food, particularly from the supermarkets. I'm going to order a box of local organic fruit and vegetables (mostly unpackaged) to be delivered to the house on Thursday mornings that'll be waiting when they arrive down from London on Thursday evening. In the months to come we'll also be looking at how to stock the larder with ethical produce, which will teach them how to get back in control of their food chain and stop their reliance on eating out when in London.
Energywise, the house is leaking a lot of heat, like most houses in Britain. I am aiming to future-proof it, which means detaching their home from the reliance on oil, because by 2015 it's estimated 75 per cent of gas will be imported, sending prices soaring. At the same time I'd like them to switch to a fractionally more expensive renewable tariff with either Good Energy or Ecotricity - both companies that actually invest in building new renewables rather than just providing a rather toothless 'green tariff'. The main fire in the sitting room looks good and uses local, sustainably felled logs, but is only about 15 per cent efficient. I'm hoping they'll go for a cleaner, more efficient wood burner in the months ahead. We'll look at their outside space too - I've suggested they put up some hazel hurdles as windbreaks and increase the rather meagre amount of composting action that's going on, using a wormery to munch through any organic waste (www.wigglywigglers.co.uk). There's also an embryonic vegetable patch that needs to be given the kiss of life, and there's enough space for a couple of water butts.
Luckily both Allan and Helen are keen to embrace all sorts of ethical options, even exploring renewable-energy alternatives by trialling a mounted wind turbine on the house (like the Windsave model now sold in B&Q). However, all three of us expect that the local planning department might have a less adventurous outlook given the Grade II listing. But that's something we'll all have to find out. We're in this together now.
Claire Hall, 39, lives in Edinburgh with her four-year-old twin boys and works full-time for the Scottish Parliament. She is separated and would like to start dating again
Hall separated from her partner six months after her twins were born. It was pretty dramatic, but she coped. Now the boys are four, she would like to start dating again, but suspects many single men of her age are either commitment-phobic or regard children as 'baggage'.
'It's almost like I give off this stressed-mum aura,' she says, 'and unless men have their own children, they have trouble understanding the demands on a parent. They seem to want you to themselves.'
Approaching 40, Hall has been shocked by her sense of isolation. 'Not having a guy is a big hole in my life, especially when I'm putting the kids to bed and it's another lonely night in front of the television. I do so much caring; I would love to be cared for, even cherished, from time to time.'
Obviously, a lot of her time is spent bringing up the boys, although their father, her ex-partner, has recently moved nearby. They have a good relationship and he helps out with childcare, leaving her time to forge a life beyond child-rearing.
But dating has proved a sad disappointment. 'Men my age only seem interested in what I call "girls". It's like they've done a deal where they say: all right, I'm not going to get as much life experience, but I'm going to get the flat tummy and the no-wrinkles. It drives me mad.'
But is she attracted to the right people? After she split from the boys' dad, Hall had a relationship for a year and a half with a man 10 years her junior. 'He had been a very good friend and it developed into something more, but eventually he ended it because I think he couldn't handle the idea of being the surrogate father.'
After that, she signed up with an internet dating site, but concurrently became involved with a previous boyfriend, whom she guesses finished their affair when she said she wanted more.
Hall feels the guilt of being a single parent. 'The kids are great, but I feel bad that I've done things the wrong way round.'
And yet she would like to have another baby. 'From the age of five I've idealised the idea of pregnancy and yet my experience of being a mother has been so much more difficult than I ever imagined. I feel cheated in a funny sort of way: maybe I cheated myself.' Hall recognises that her passion to have children dominated all her early relationships - even though unconsciously she seemed to be picking unavailable and unsuitable men. So maybe she needs to go back to and look at early family relationships?
'It's difficult to dismiss your childhood as irrelevant,' she admits. 'I really hope that I'll be able to work with an expert to see what my historic problems are, and also how I move on from where I am now.'
Hall says the goal is not to bag a husband, but just to feel happier - and more hopeful - in herself, although she obviously wants to meet someone to share such joy with. If anything, she realises she needs more female friends. 'By contacting the Observer Magazine it feels like I've done something very positive, even if it is a bit in the public eye. I don't feel I've got anything to be ashamed of. If I end next year still not in a relationship, I'm not going to regard it as a failure.'
Paula Hall is a relationship psychotherapist who works privately and with Relate
There's no doubt that Claire has some practical issues to get around. She has a demanding job, hobbies and interests, and she has twins. She's fortunate that her ex-partner helps with the children, but her days off can end up being the days where you try to do everything else, there's no 'me' time.
When life is tough or mundane, it's easy to think meeting that perfect person is going to be the panacea for everything. So what can happen in a dating environment is that you come across as a bit desperate. I plan to work with Claire through phone calls and face-to-face sessions for as long as it takes. From our first call, I've established that Claire wants a relationship to be something that enhances her life, rather than makes her. The other thing that came up is issues with self-esteem, which is very common: the longer you've been on your own, the more your confidence takes a bashing. And so if you do get into a relationship, you fear you're making yourself vulnerable.
From now on, I want to encourage Claire to look at other areas of her life to boost her confidence and perspective. I start by asking all my clients to do a personal evaluation, based on the nine areas of life identified in Susan Jeffers's book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. These areas cover everything from 'personal growth' and 'alone time' to 'relationship' and 'family'. I also ask people to respond to four questions: where are you now? Where do you want to be? What's stopping you from getting there? What are you going to do about it? I might even spend a session on each of these four topics.
Finding out what is stopping Claire from moving on and finding the person she really wants, and who can make a relationship work, will be the stuff we then explore: it forms the basis of the therapy. And that can be fear of commitment, fear of failure, fear of rejection ... there's going to a lot of 'fear ofs'. Undoubtedly many of those messages will have come from childhood and previous relationships. I suspect Claire is attracted to commitment-phobes because of her own commitment issues. This is her stuff, she's choosing those people.
I think Claire needs to be looking for someone who's empathic about the fact she has kids: ie, they're not going to ask her to completely separate her relationship from her kids. Being a mum is a part of her identity: they need to know and accept that. That is probably easier if they have children themselves, but not always. There are plenty of people out there who don't have children, but can do kids. www.therelationshipspecialists.com
Chris Wright, 50, is operations manager of a heritage park and museum in North Wales. He lives with his wife and three children
Chris Wright can distinctly remember his first cigarette. 'I was 17 and had been sent to boarding school and into the sixth form. The only way to gain acceptance seemed to be to smoke - so when the cigarette was offered, I took it, smoked it, was sick afterwards and went back for more.' Now 50, he's still hooked.
Like most lifelong smokers, Wright has a love/hate relationship with tobacco. 'I smoke rollies and they're part of my badge,' he says. 'When I started, it was the end of the hippy period. I remember coming back from concerts in my VW Beetle listening to fluff on the radio and skinning up. There's a rebellious side to it - which is even more true today - that's actually part of me.' Tobacco can also be Wright's silent companion, his 'best friend'. 'I guess, when the pressure's on, when I want comfort, it's there to make me feel better.'
At the same time, it's this dependence he resents the most. 'I need it to be there, so it's the slavery. Planning ahead for sufficient stock. Literally getting out of bed to go to the garage or tearing up dog-ends of dog-ends to make a new one.' And then there's the effect smoking has on his family. Wright is married, with three sons: his eldest now smokes ('probably my fault') and his youngest has asthma ('of course I feel guilty - I've denied my family a healthy environment'). His wife was a smoker when they met, but quit before becoming pregnant more than 18 years ago.
Wright also watched his father die of lung cancer. 'I remember him telling me how he started,' he says. 'He was about to go on his first bombing mission as a rear gunner in a Lancaster in the Second World War. The padre gave him a pack of cigarettes and told him they would settle his nerves. He was 18 and smoked until he died in 2000.'
Over the years, Wright has tried to pack it in with the assistance of hypnosis, a Tony Robbins course ('the most successful, as I lasted a week'), acupuncture, nicotine gum ('which made me feel unbelievably ill') and nicotine patches ('I actually smoked while I was wearing them'). Each failed attempt is 'soul-destroying', but much worse for his family. 'You would not believe the dishonesty and the lies,' he says. 'Sneaking out for a sly fag here and there. Promising, 'I'll only smoke outside', which is fine in summer, but then winter comes ...
Wright read Allen Carr's Easy Way To Stop Smoking more than 10 years ago. 'A colleague had read it and stopped overnight, and I thought, "My God, something that works," he recalls. 'I read it and didn't stop. I can't remember much about the content except that it frightened me.' However, he is more than willing to give the Carr method another go. In fact, he can't wait. 'I want to prove to my wife I can do this, get some respect back,' he says. 'In a way, that's why I'm going public. Doing this in national paper - that's a hell of an incentive not to fail.'
Robin Hayley is a senior therapist with Allen Carr's Easyway and, following Carr's recent death, worldwide managing director
Chris has a typical attitude in both wanting to stop and not wanting to stop at the same time. He's also under a lot of pressure. His partner has been begging him to stop for years, and one of his sons is asthmatic. The trouble with stopping for other people rather than selfish reasons is you feel you're making a sacrifice. That feeling of 'giving something up' is a dripping tap that gradually wears resistance down.
On the other hand, he also said his main motivation was the 'slavery' - he doesn't like being controlled by anything, including tobacco. And being a slave to nicotine is a dreadful feeling.
Our method is available through group sessions, the book and now also the 60-minute DVD which Chris and I will view together. We don't advocate cutting down until you've completed the programme, because it's terribly counterproductive. Struggling with willpower makes each cigarette precious.
We work from the basis that the difficulty in stopping smoking is not the nicotine withdrawal but the mental feeling of deprivation, the conviction that you're 'giving up' a pleasure or a crutch. You fear an indeterminate period where you won't be able to cope, or enjoy yourself - that you'll be feeling a craving for the rest of your life. Our aim is to remove that feeling of loss and deprivation so that by the time you stub out your final cigarette you're not 'giving something up', you're gaining everything, including your freedom.
When nicotine levels drop, a smoker starts to feel on edge and uptight - he or she then has a cigarette and feels better. The feeling that this is a pleasure, that the person is getting something extra by having that cigarette, is an illusion. The cigarette gets the credit for relieving the bad feeling - it's the 'best friend' Chris mentions - but not the blame for causing it in the first place. It's the genius trap of nicotine addiction.
Our clinics have a 90 per cent success rate, and it's estimated that 10m smokers worldwide have became non-smokers using the Allen Carr book. Of course, some smokers find it difficult to accept - it's like admitting you've been taken for a fool for years. The challenge is reversing a lifetime of brainwashing in a very short time. Allen Carr's Easy Way To Stop Smoking DVD, £15.99 (www.allencarrdvd.com)
• This article was amended on Tuesday 22 September 2009 to remove one of the candidates.