I once encountered a little girl, Erin, at a local bakery. I was talking with her mother while we waited in line for coffee, and Erin, who was about five, was hovering near the wrought iron rack that held local papers and real estate flyers. She was a little sprite with dark brown eyes and hair, pale skin, pink cheeks and a pointed little nose – a leprechaun in a pink parka. Her mother shot her a look and she danced away from rack. A few minutes later as I turned to leave I looked for Erin to say goodbye and saw her standing next to the rack holding her coat closed; real estate magazines were slipping out of her coat down to the floor. She had all of them – dozens – stuffed into her coat. Her mom looked at me and rolled her eyes nervously – she’s a hoarder, she said, she’s got every free magazine in town stuffed under her bed. Erin looked at me and smiled proudly. I was fascinated. I knelt down next to her and looked at her earnestly.
“Erin,” I said, “I really need some of those magazines. I love to look at pictures of houses, and those are just perfect for me. Can I have some?” She looked at me warily.
“Twelve, I need at least twelve.”
She counted them out and handed them to me with a sympathetic smile.
“Thanks. Okay,” I said, “and now we need to leave some the next person who comes and needs them – can you put ten back on the rack?”
She shook her head emphatically, and her mother sighed. “Look,” her mother said, “that leaves you with a whole bunch, and then you can get a few more the next time you visit. Promise.” Erin put two on the rack clutched the remaining magazines as though her life depended on them. The mom mouthed “thank you” to me and whisked her away.
That story is one reason I have a morbid fascination with the Hoarders show on A&E. I have seen homes like the ones on the show – bursting at the seams with all kinds of things – and sometimes I recognize the distractedness and insecurities of these people in myself. There are people who use papers and books to remember people and times that mean a lot to them, people who get overwhelmed by the tasks of organizing the things they can’t part with, kids who hang on to stuff because they think they are responsible for the family memories, people who feel rejected by the world or their loved ones and so they bury themselves alive in things they have found or bought, and people who just love stuff and think everything is useful even when it’s not (the lady with all of the expired food was incredible). Their minds are frenetic and paralyzed at the same time – they can’t stop thinking and they can’t start doing. Everyone has moments like it, but these folks have decades of pain and confusion locked up with the stuff.
The part that resonates with me is the tendency people have to want their things where they can see them – the fear that if they put things away they will forget. I get that way; I like things out where I can see them. I am not good at putting things away until I am finished with them, but often they are things that really aren’t ever finished because we deal with them every day – I have my toothpaste on the counter (cap on), keep the folded laundry in the baskets for too long and I leave the half and half out until I have had my second cup of coffee. While, thanks to Erin, I have learned to recycle the National Geographics, New Yorkers (okay, I rip off the covers and keep those) and all of the newspapers every week, I just learned that leaving out the half and half for an hour drives my family nuts (we won’t go into that version of OCD right now). Leaving the cream out is clearly not a big deal, but it is at moments like this that I know that sometimes I live way too deep inside my own head, that I fail to notice outward things that are glaringly obvious to others. My emotional radar is dead-on but visual cues and practical solutions can often elude me. It spooks me.
Ironically, there is a perfectionist bent to hoarding; the sense that if you cannot accomplish something just right you need to wait for the time when it will be convenient for you to do it the way it should be done. The rationale that, not having hit upon the right solution allows you to put off a task until that magic solution arrives, which may or may not ever happen. Back in the 80s, I was working at a summer camp in the midwest, and I attended an “unauthorized” party on the beach, where we cooked lobsters over a fire. They were amazing, and so I put a smoky, delicious crustacean wrapped in foil in my backpack to take back to my friend Josh, who, on moral grounds, had declined to attend the party. Nascent foodies that we were, I thought he would be tempted by the lobster, but I should have known better. He refused to partake of my contraband. It was late and so I shoved the beast back in the foil, into my backpack and went to bed. The next morning I awoke to the now less than delicious smell of smoked shellfish and immediately took the backpack and hung it outside on a nail off the stairs behind my room – it was right on the lake and the steady breeze would take the smell away until I could dispose of it properly. That was the rub – I couldn’t exactly put the stinky creature in the trash without being detected and thus attracting unwanted attention. This was Michigan – lobsters are fairly hard to come by. I decided I would need to drive it off site and dump it in town. Except I didn’t want to put it in my car. Ew. So there it hung on the railing for days, haunting me and slowly ruining my new blue Wilderness Experience backpack. Finally, Josh, disapproving – and fastidious, as it turned out – came up the back stairs to get me for dinner one night and caught wind of the rancid backpack.
“Cripes!!” He really said that. “What the heck do you have living in there??”
I was sheepish and hostile. “It’s dead. It’s the lobster you refused to eat. I’m afraid to touch it. I’m trying to get up the nerve to take the whole thing to town and throw it in the dumpster.”
“You can’t do that – that’s your new backpack!” He was so practical. He scowled at me, grabbed the pack and marched down the stairs. I sat down on the steps and said nothing. Five minutes later he was back with the empty pack and some dish soap, and he proceeded to soap up and hose the thing down for the longest ten minutes of my life. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or annoyed, but settled on grateful because I really did love that backpack. I was also impressed. Why he was able to do that without so much as a moment’s hesitation? What had prevented me from doing the same thing? This difference in approach to problem solving is what begins me back to the poor folks on TV, hapless and helpless in facing their clutter. Some of us have to fight to take the proverbial bull by the horns, and some people can see what needs doing and set about the task like there’s nothing to it. In my case it was about having broken the rules, then having my lobster rejected, and then having to deal with something disgusting. It takes a lot of energy it takes to deal with so much bad karma. And then the guilt of watching someone else actually deal with it – no wonder I haven’t thought about it in 28 years.
There are plenty of areas in life – important ones – where I have always been able jump in and do what needs to be done, and I have since tackled many situations that make cleaning a gross lobster-filled backpack seem like fun. But there is that all-or-nothing approach – industriousness or paralysis – and I haven’t always been able to predict which impulse will kick in. I did realize a few years back that the yo-yo approach to life was bringing me down and so sought help – spiritual and pharmacological – to deal with the impulse to do way too little or way too much. It’s working out very well – and watching Hoarders is a not so gentle reminder that there but for the grace of God go I.