Already a fan of the A&E program Intervention, it only seemed natural that sooner or later I would find myself recording an episode of another A&E classic, Hoarders. Myself being such an OCD neat freak the concept of living in an utter state of disaster shocks, and amazes me. Yet my fascination transformed to true empathy after watching a recent episode.
This episode stuck with me because of a woman named Jill. On the surface her condition seems absolutely deplorable, and yes of course is, I can see it as well as you can, but the root of her compulsion to hoard food hit me. Jill suffered at one time from EXTREME poverty, where the simple task of feeding herself and her son was nearly impossible. As a result of living on the brink of starvation for as long as she did, Jill now is physically incapable of parting with food. If there is a sale she buys in bulk, and even if something has passed its expiation date by YEARS she is unable to part with it. Even rotting pumpkins on the floor of her living room can be salvaged, seeds harvested, planted at another time to bring again the gift of sustenance.
I say that I empathize with her sensitivity to food because while I was unemployed food was one of the biggest sources of fear and anxiety plaguing my daily life. I dreaded going to the grocery store because I knew the moment I walked in the door I would be hit with the compulsion to BUY. FEED YOURSELF. STOP DEPRIVING YOURSELF OF FOOD NOW! Yet, there was no money. My unemployment checks didn’t allow for me to pay my bills let alone eat in a healthy manner. My grocery lists were pitiful, and more times than I care to admit I walked out of the store and cried. Cried because all I wanted was to make a normal meal. One with a protein, a veggie, and maybe if I was lucky a carb. I had attempted to give up lunch entirely, and I would continue to eat items that were expired as long as the taste ‘remained.’ The amount of times I had popcorn for dinner can’t have been healthy, and I knew this, but I literally had no other options.
Once Adam and I moved in together the strain of rent was removed from my unemployed worries, but to keep from being total dead weight I asked if I might carry our food costs. It felt like the least I could do seeing as I wasn’t working, or contributing to hardly anything in our lives. Here I was, living with my boyfriend for the first time and I wanted to make him fabulous meals, bake, spend my free time creating dinners that would show my appreciation for all he had done, thank him for helping me. Yet as I wandered the aisles it was still just as desolate as before. In the beginning I depleted huge chucks of my emergency savings to simply provide us with decent meals. It was one thing to ask myself to go without lunch, it was one thing to eat popcorn and crackers for dinner, but how could I ask him to come along on this journey with me? I felt that wasn’t what he signed up for when he asked me to move in.
After many tearful conversations I agreed to fight the urge to feed us well. That wonderful man told me that Mac-n-Cheese would do, that hot dog sandwiches would be ok until we got to a better place. I loved him all the more for not shaming me for my inadequacies.
Even now that I finally have a job again, the grocery store is still a very dangerous place, but for a different reason. I always have a list, a very strict list, with preplanned meals and notes to myself, including things like, “DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THE PLAN!” Without fail items will call to me from the shelf. Items I don’t even want, meals I have no intention to make, things we’ll never be able to eat before they go bad, and before I know it I’ve hoarded. I’ve walked out of the grocery store with twice as much food as Adam and I could EVER eat in a single week all because I finally COULD.
The only difference between myself and Jill is that I still have the know-how to throw the rotten food we don’t eat away. I’m no where near her magnitude of course, and I doubt I would ever become like Jill, but I understand her panic. I knew that fear in her eyes, I know all too well the impulse to buy so you know you’ll never again have to go without.