Deep Down, We’re All Hoarders

As published in The Rye Record on October 19, 2012

When people talk about their “guilty pleasures” I’m usually a little underwhelmed. They just seem like regular pleasures to me. They confess to eating two squares of dark chocolate in the evening. Or reading People magazine in the doctor’s office. I buy the 4-pound bag of peanut M&Ms at Costco. And I know the first and last name of the most recent “Bachelorette”. Pleasures, sure. Guilty, not so much.

My actual guilty pleasure is a doozey. It truly makes me feel like less of a person, as if some part of my soul has been chipped away. I’ve seen the bottom of more than one bag of M&Ms, and it has never made me feel this bad. You see, I watch “Hoarders”. I like to get in bed and watch mentally ill people struggle with their dirty houses on television. It feels cathartic even talking about it, and I admit it is the most despicable show on television (unless you are counting “Toddlers & Tiaras”, which I am not emotionally prepared to discuss at this time).

For those of you who value your time enough to have missed this show, “Hoarders” is a reality-style show where mental health and public safety professionals go into hoarders’ homes and clear out decades of newspapers, clothing, and soiled diapers, just to name a few items. The hoarders have amassed piles of stuff so high that they navigate their homes through narrow pathways. They face the threat of having their children taken away from them, because they have cats and other animals burrowing in piles of old pizza boxes. I’m telling you, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The guilty part is pretty obvious. The pleasure? Well, watching “Hoarders” makes me feel tidy. I look over at the perma-stack of clothes on the chair by my bed and shrug, “things could be worse.”

After the fleeting rush of having briefly and with great delusion aligned myself with the tidy people of the world, “Hoarders” always makes me think about the fine line between sanity and insanity. These people are not deemed insane simply because they amass large amounts of stuff. People who hoard money are praised as savers. People who hoard those little spoons from different countries and hang them on special spoon racks are considered collectors. People who hoard people are networkers. The thing that makes the hoarders insane is that the things they are hoarding have no value or use to them at the present time, but they have a true fear that they may need them in the future.

Hoarders seem to play a lot of “what if.” What if they run out of bleach and need the coupon that is buried deep in that old newspaper? What if videos are once again produced for the Betamax? What if I decide to start canning and need hundreds of glass jars? In this sense, I think that we all may have a little hoarder in us, just in more subtle ways.

Just to be clear, I am not a hoarder. When my kids bring colorful drawings home from school I immediately file them in a special blue bin, the one that the sanitation department picks up weekly. I imagine they deposit them in a local storage facility, but I should check on that.

But if you saw my closet you might wonder. Though I tend to rotate through the same six items every week, my closet is packed. I have a pink dress hanging in my closet that is so small that if it ever fit me again, I would immediately check myself into a hospital. But I keep it, not because I can get it over my head anymore, but because what if…what if I had the stomach flu for eight weeks in a row and then recovered to find a worldwide famine? I might need a fancy summer dress in that size. And I loved wearing that dress, back in the days when I had fewer ribs.

I am also guilty of email hoarding. Is it possible that I need all 3,712 previously read emails in my inbox? No. But the hoarding principle applies – they are of no use to me, but I am afraid I may need them in the future. What if CVS starts honoring coupons from 2010? What if that kid who emailed saying she liked my book is the last one to ever like my book? What if the soccer coach stops sending directions to the games? What if I need the order number for that shirt I bought (and returned) from J Crew last summer?

The one act of hoarding that I am most guilty of is the hoarding of my time. Again, the principle fits. I am not paid by the hour and am not scheduled to perform brain surgery at any time today. In effect, my time is worthless. But I’m afraid I might need it. I worry that the second I commit to devoting a huge chunk of time to something, I’ll need that time back. So I’m cautious with it, measuring each hour that I give away and then hoarding a big chunk for myself like so many old mayonnaise jars. What if my 14-year-old son decides to stay home on a Friday night? What if my husband wants to take a walk? What if there’s something good but disturbing on TV?

And, let’s face it — in the future I’m more likely to need a little extra time or a pink Barbie-sized dress than one of those tiny spoons from Portugal.