I used to have a bookcase that covered an entire wall of my bedroom. It was made out of wooden crates, boards, and concrete blocks. In earthquake country, it wouldn’t do at all. Most of that bookcase contained books I hadn’t read; I just accumulated them. I bought sacks of books at library book sales. I bought books for a nickel at Goodwill. I brought them home and put them on my rickety shelves, feeling somehow safer and more satisfied to have them there. I would tell people that I felt like something was going to happen, and I was saving these books in case of some unspecified calamity. I never realized that these books wouldn’t save me.
Stuff won’t save you in general.
My people are chronically disorganized. They are almost always compulsive accumulators, bringing stuff home, feeling the impulse first and conjuring a justification afterward. Not all of my people feel a serious emotional attachment to particular objects; there’s just something they get out of the selection process and they prefer the aesthetics of jumble. Getting rid of stuff, any stuff, is a problem because the thought of loss makes them profoundly anxious.
What if I need it? WHAT IF? WHAT IF I NEED IT?
One of the greatest delights for a hoarder is to prove other people wrong about the uselessness of their hoard. If they can, even one time, pull out the perfect object and solve even the most minor problem with it, then the entire collection is vital and necessary. Justification!
There are so many arguments against this, arguments that will fall on deaf ears. The goal and purpose is to be surrounded by stuff. Interacting with stuff fills the hours that would just be stressful if instead one were interacting with people. Churn it, shuffle it, sort it, stroke it, stare at it, tell stories about it, collect it, get more of it. Never let it go.
The thing about my looming sense of approaching catastrophe was that having a bunch of used books couldn’t possibly help. I had this image of myself contentedly reading my way through an apocalypse. Yeah, but... How was this going to help? I couldn’t eat books. I couldn’t use books for transportation. I couldn’t trade books for tools, food, a water filter, or anything else I might need. If there really were some kind of apocalypse, presumably I could loot books on demand. Maybe reading books on disaster preparedness might help, but only if I knew the information cold. Knowledge might help me, but thrift store novels would not.
In most crises, what really helps is money. My people are so deep in scarcity mindset that they tend to believe stuff is more valuable than money. Nobody can take your stuff from you (nor would they want to!) but money seems to go out faster than it comes in. Money goes to your landlord, the auto mechanic, the heat bill, the emergency vet clinic, anywhere other than into an emergency fund. This is part of why broke people sometimes spend money on silly stuff.
The saddest thing is when anxiety plus compulsive accumulation turns into a dangerous firetrap of a home. It’s so common for people to be trapped in their hoarded homes that emergency responders have names for it. People get seriously injured when trying to climb through mountains of stuff to get someone onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. The guilt and shame that this image inspires will tend to cause someone to dig further in, rather than to decide to clear a wider path. The stuff they feel is so integral to their lives, so much a part of their identity, sometimes simply kills them. Crushed, suffocated, burned. Logically, the stuff has to go. Emotionally, the stuff has to stay.
My people tend to be the most deeply attached to clothes, books, holiday decorations, and fabric and craft supplies. Explain to me how a single one of these items could help someone in an emergency? Oh, sure, maybe a raincoat or some thermal underwear. More than fifty shirts, though? A tub of yarn?
Food hoarding is another common problem, a cultural issue that affects even mainstream homes. Food is so cheap and plentiful that most Americans can afford to stack up cases of it. Unfortunately, the cheapest food is also the most useless in a crisis. Cases of soda, chips and snacks, pastry, cookies, candy, breakfast cereal, crackers... We often feel a sense of security from being surrounded by food, not realizing that what would really get us through a crisis would be hot, hearty meals. Dinners. Not snacks. Entire pantries and freezers might be filled with only a few hundred calories of foods like cans of green beans or jars of salsa. We can harness the inner drive to have a burgeoning, full pantry by planning and rotating our food stores more practically.
There are a few material objects that might, in fact, actually save someone. My people almost never own these things, or if they do, they won’t be able to find them. They may never have taken the time to learn to use them or make sure they are still usable, because shopping and churning are always the main goals. Buy it, pet it, stack it. The useful things we can never find are first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and go bags. Whenever I talk about go bags, someone always asks, Tell me what to buy. This isn’t a good enough response. Buying something is never the safest response. It’s information that will save you. It’s running scenarios and teaching yourself how to troubleshoot in an emergency. It’s having a plan and understanding how to adjust it when Plan A fails.
Sometimes, what saves you is no more complicated than a clear path through a room.
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.