As soon as reports of a toilet paper shortage fueled by coronavirus panic-buying surfaced, social media mockery followed. The posts asked, in tones ranging from incredulous to scathing, how stupid are these people? What does toilet paper have to do with this pandemic?
On the surface, of course, the answer is nothing. But I’m withholding my ire because I fully understand the urge to stock up on essentials. As a hoarder with anxiety, I do it year-round.
My hoarding has taken various forms, reaching its peak when I lived alone in a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment so packed with belongings I could barely navigate it. I’d have to step over piles of papers, magazines, books and clothes to make my way through the rooms, often tripping and falling as I went, and forcefully pull or push the door to get out or in. During that time, hoarding was a hazard, to my safety and my mental health. I hired a personal organizer for $5,000 to help me declutter, only to undo her efforts within weeks of going back to my old ways.
When I finally left that apartment to move into a New Jersey one with my boyfriend, I paid to have junk removers come to my home and clear out the debris.
In the seven years we’ve lived together, my hoarding has shifted. I’ve discussed hoarding in therapy, and my boyfriend has made it clear that he won’t tolerate my hoarding spreading throughout our home. I no longer have much on the floor except a few stray clothes. You might not even think I’m a hoarder if you saw the outward presentation of my home. But at heart, I still am, much of it locked inside closets, desks and drawers, and locked inside me. The current circumstances have sharpened my hoarding instincts. Before you condemn me as a selfish monster, let me share a little about why I find hoarding comforting.
For me, life is a constant unknown, with worst-case-scenario outcomes waiting to be unlocked at every turn, like a video game whose grand prize is eternal mental torture. Even sleep isn’t a respite; the dreams I remember are almost always horrific, violent nightmares. When I wake up from these dreams, rather than hazily acclimating to the day or night, it’s as if Homer Simpson’s miserly boss Mr. Burns has proclaimed “Release the hounds!” on all those rock-bottom possibilities I’d hoped to escape from when I put my head down on my memory foam pillow.
It takes no time at all for my anxious mind to concoct more, leading me to catastrophize even when the world around me is running swimmingly — so you can imagine what happens when the world is as off-kilter as it is now.
“Accumulating objects, whether it’s useful ones like paper clips or pens or fun ones like stuffed animals, makes me feel like I’m prepared (or at least, comforted). For what? I don’t know — and that’s exactly the point. When anything can happen, I need everything to guard me.”
To help me feel as grounded as possible, I surround myself with objects that epitomize safety and comfort — the more of them, the better. Whereas my boyfriend is a minimalist, I’m the opposite. Throwing things out causes me stress, because I’m always wondering: What if I need or want that item one day in the future? Accumulating objects, whether it’s useful ones like paper clips or pens or fun ones like stuffed animals, makes me feel like I’m prepared (or at least, comforted). For what? I don’t know — and that’s exactly the point. When anything can happen, I need everything to guard me.
Hoarding is a way for me to try to reclaim some form of power over all those unknowns. Hoarding used to control me, because I saved things but couldn’t easily locate a precious object when I needed it. I hoarded old to-do lists and playbills, and pretty much anything that came into my home. Swag from a conference? Kept it. Decades-old holiday cards with simply a signature? Couldn’t part with them. Those all disappeared when I moved, but I’m not cured. The way I hoard now is much more strategic.
During this time of social isolation, it’s even more important to me to feel like I’m ready for whatever comes next. The things I want to hoard aren’t fun foods like giant bags of cheese crisps from Costco, but what I’m most worried about running out of — like toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, decaf coffee, all of which have their own designated space.
The beauty of toilet paper is that I use it every day and know it won’t go to waste. More than any other belongings in my home, opening my storage closet and seeing rolls upon rolls of toilet paper, neatly stacked, fluffy, white and seemingly endless, offers me a sense of calm. It reminds me that even when the present feels utterly out of control — which is often — there will be a future where the most pressing issue will be whether to bring another roll into the bathroom with me.
Right now, though, despite being well-stocked a few weeks ago, with my local grocery stores’ shelves bare, my supply has dwindled down to a dozen rolls, and with each roll, I lose a bit of my sense that everything is going to be OK. Of course, I recognize the immense privilege I have in being able to stay home, in having work, and in having enough food and toilet paper to last me a few weeks — and that I can afford to get more. I know not everyone has that luxury.
But in order for me to get anything done other than staring hopelessly at my phone, I need to have a baseline of normalcy. To achieve that, I’ve even shelled out $94 for a case of 96 rolls, the only quantity I’m seeing available, from a site that I hope actually can get it to me. If that shipment arrives, I plan to offer some to my neighbors. To me, this isn’t about panic-buying, but about buying peace of mind ― as much of it as is available.
I wish I’d been born with an innate sense of calm, an inner certainty that everything will be OK, or even “pronoia,” the optimistic opposite of paranoia. Instead, I gravitate toward an inner truth that tells me doom is always lurking. Late at night, I’ve asked my boyfriend about the questions I’m too sad to directly ponder during the day: What will we do if we lose our jobs? Where can we move if we can’t pay rent? What happens if one of our family members becomes ill? Should I update my will?
Despite the logical knowledge that there’s little I can do to defend against these doomsday scenarios, I still prefer to make my home a fortress of security. Hoarding has been my downfall, but right now it feels like it can save me — or at least, save me from myself.
“Hoarding is not always about selfishness. In scary situations, I see it as the ultimate in self-care, a way to placate at least one of the umpteen worries circulating in my head at any given time.”
It’s easy to mock hoarders as the troubled people you see on your TV screen, or hate on those staggering out of the grocery store with carts laden with toilet paper. Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse scolded TP hoarders as either thinking they “are genuinely more worthy of comfort” or not considering that their purchase might deprive someone else of stocking up. I agree, and think stores should be limiting purchases of essential goods so everyone who needs them can purchase them, but there’s a difference between cleaning out a store and padding your own supply a little bit.
Hoarding is not always about selfishness. In scary situations, I see it as the ultimate in self-care, a way to placate at least one of the umpteen worries circulating in my head at any given time. I get that people are anxious about running out; the Newport, Oregon, Police Department took to Facebook recently to admonish people not to call 911 due to a toilet paper shortage. I’m not making light of that, but I believe there’s a hoarding continuum, and that all of us are susceptible to sliding closer to my end of it in times of crisis.
The longer this goes on, the more daily use things I will probably want to hoard — printer paper, tissues, peanut butter. The potential lack of any of these items, at home and in our grocery stores, has set my inner alarm bells ringing. I know when that toilet paper shipment arrives, my mind will get a little quieter, and I’ll feel a little more ready for whatever the future holds. Stocking up on what I can now feels more proactive than worrying about being out of work or anyone I care about falling ill. I know not everyone’s in a position to do that, but I also know that this is what I need to maintain my mental health.
My soon-to-arrive surplus rolls aren’t, of course, just about going to the bathroom. They represent the utopian mindset I hope to someday have, where happiness and abundance and inner peace are simply there for the taking, rather than feelings I have to fight my own mind, tooth and nail, to acquire. In lieu (or loo?) of that ease of being, I’ll reach for a roll, and know that there’s plenty more where it came from.
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