Comedy abounds in my work with the chronically disorganized, the compulsive accumulators, the hoarders. Each group is somewhat mystified by the problems of the others. The chronically disorganized guy who is always behind schedule can’t understand why other people can’t keep their dining tables cleared off. The compulsive accumulator who carries new stuff through his door every day can’t imagine ever allowing himself to be late to work. There’s a huge amount of opinion and emotion, justification and rationalization. Nowhere is this so true as in the case of food hoarding.
Food hoarders cannot bear to throw away food for any reason. They also can’t bear the thought of running out of anything. The result of these two overwhelming emotional drives is that they are constantly surrounded by vast amounts of food, a certain portion of which is spoiled. The majority of what they eat is pushing the limits of edibility, even though they are constantly bringing in streams of fresh new food. This makes perfect sense to food hoarders, who may be following in the footsteps of entire generations of their family.
To everyone else, it’s gross, sad, and often scary.
The saddest thing of all is that one of the main motivations of food hoarders is...
Accumulators of other types of stuff are also often motivated by hospitality. They buy “gifts” that never manage to get sent to the intended recipients, even when they haven’t seen those people for many years. (Indeed, the lack of connection is the reason for the supposed gift purchase). They stash large amounts of serving platters, bedding, board games, toiletries, and anything else they think a guest might need. Meanwhile, the house becomes so full of stuff that guests are uncomfortable visiting. At some point, people stop coming over, and that tends to be when the heavy-duty hoarding begins in earnest.
Hoarding <——> Isolation
Stuff stands in for feelings. Stuff represents aspirations and intentions. We often reach for physical objects without realizing that they are nothing more than symbols for something deeper.
I buy a workout DVD to represent my intention to take better care of my body. There, I fixed it!
I buy a crock pot to represent my intention to save money. There, I fixed it!
I buy a bunch of tubs, bins, and dividers to represent my intention to get organized. There, I fixed it!
I buy double or triple the groceries I need so that I’ll always be prepared to feed my guests with lavish extravagance. A year goes by. Same food. Hey, money doesn’t grow on trees, you know. I’m glad you’re here but you’d better finish what’s on your plate.
Preserving food is a survival trait. It’s instinctual. We’re descendants of a precarious people, nomads and hunter/gatherers who lived on the brink. Throughout human history, entire villages have been wiped out by famine, a trend that has never yet ceased. We have an innate physical drive to acquire extra calories, particularly sugar and fat, and eat them as fast as we can get them into our mouths. For primitive people such as the Neanderthals, that was the only way to survive droughts or brutal winters.
For modern people, it’s a sure-fire path toward obesity, lifestyle-related diseases of excess, and, in the current consumerist moment, kitchens packed to the rafters with rapidly expiring packaged food.
Oh, and possibly debt.
I left town for Thanksgiving. I wanted to be with my family, and my husband had to work. I dealt with my conflicted emotions by going to the store twice in one day and spending six hours cooking an entire Thanksgiving meal for him to eat while I was gone. I labeled each container with masking tape and a Sharpie marker. It lasted him five days. The detail that should stand out here is that I didn’t draw from our pantry or freezer, other than to use cooking oil and seasonings. I just made up a menu, walked to the store with a shopping list, and walked out with a bag of groceries. When I realized that I was short a few items, I walked back over there and bought the rest. I used up everything while I cooked the meal. My husband ate it all. I could do it again tonight; that’s why they call it a “store.” Because it STORES things!
(What did I buy? Three pounds of sweet potatoes, a fine fat cauliflower, a bag of mushrooms, an onion, a package of cornmeal, a quart of soy milk, a package of bouillon cubes, a bag of green beans, a container of crispy onions, a loaf of bread, and a box of oatmeal).
I myself lean toward food hoarding. Somewhere deep inside me is the firm intention to have one of every item from every grocery store I visit. Why shouldn’t I have one of every single flavor of jam and salad dressing and five kinds of mustard? What, just because it will expire, potentially exposing me and my friends and family to mold, listeria, staph poisoning, botulism, and who knows what else?
My squalor people do not, as a rule, believe in germ theory. They just don’t. They have a deep sense of certainty and okayness that no level of filth or decay can ever cause any kind of problem or health issue. They’ll cheerfully live with vermin, insect infestations, black mold, and of course spoiled, rotten food. This is partly because due to olfactory fatigue, they no longer have much of a sense of smell. They don’t even notice strong odors like spoiled milk or animal waste. If you come over and you have a problem with smells or spores, well, you’re just uptight. Loosen up! Relax! Just scrape off the turquoise part.
I say it’s immoral to trick guests into eating expired food. Withholding information from someone is violating their free will. We can only make real choices when we have full knowledge of a situation. The golden rule says to treat others the way you would wish to be treated, which creates a loophole for people who would shrug off extreme, fringe behaviors like eating moldy food. We aim to treat others the way THEY would wish to be treated, with kindness and dignity. True hospitality comes from abundance and generosity; offering spoiled food is a pretty good definition of miserly stinginess and materialism.
Two easy ways to get around this are to 1. Host a potluck or 2. Meet at a restaurant.
Radical change is a way out. For those of us who are naturally very frugal, an interesting challenge would be to see how long you can live off your existing pantry stores without spending a penny on additional groceries. Then, test your skills by buying the smallest amounts of food and rigorously consuming it before it comes anywhere near expiration. The technical term is “food discipline.” The money you save by not maintaining an overflowing pantry can be used as an emergency slush fund.
I’m working on what I call Fridge Zero right now. I plan to do a full kitchen purge every New Year, emptying my fridge and freezer of anything dubious. Because this makes me feel anxious and wasteful, I plan meals around eating everything up after Thanksgiving. By the end of December, our fridge is gleaming and virtually empty, ready to receive lovely fresh new produce. If we get surprise visitors, I’ll either go straight to the store, or we’ll all go out for burritos. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.