I’ve never bought ONE of anything. Does that make me a collector or a hoarder?
There was a time when I could move everything I owned into the back of my VW bug. Give me an hour’s notice and I could be on my way to skiing in Alaska or picking pumpkins in Maine. All that’s changed. I’m a hoarder.
It’s impossible to pass up a good deal. If I run across a special on melon-ballers, I never buy just one. I’ll buy two. Or three. Maybe even four. I never want to repeat the agony of having to dash out in the middle of the night searching for nail clippers. The same thing goes for claw hammers, Preparation H, or rubber bands.
My accumulating started during the Cold War of the 1960s. When things were looking particularly ominous, the Kennedy administration urged all Americans to stock their bomb shelters with enough food to feed a family of four for a month.
We didn’t have a bomb shelter, so my dad retrofitted the hallway between our bedrooms by throwing out all of my grandparents’ wedding china, our best silver settings and 20 years of Christmas ornaments to make room for cases of every kind of canned goods known to man. We had enough Spam, canned weenies, fruit cocktail, bottled water and flashlight batteries to last us a lifetime. I still have some of those saltine crackers in the back of my pantry and the Cold War has been over for more than 50 years. I just can’t bear to part with them.
According to experts, hoarding is a pattern of behavior that is characterized by the excessive acquisition and inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that would seemingly qualify as useless or without value. That’s a nice way of saying I’m a pack rat. But, in all fairness, it’s easy to get caught up in hoarding. I, more than anyone, recognize how easy it is to get suckered into buying 50 lbs of hot wings at Costco. Not because I need them, but because they were such a good deal.
I don’t shop at Costco anymore.
It’s almost impossible to differentiate pathological hoarding from plain, old collecting. As long as I can remember, my grandfather tried to get me started collecting coins. A true numismatic, he had volumes of rare coins that dated back to the civil war. Every year on my birthday, he’d beam as he presented me with a rare coin to add to my collection in hopes that I’d follow in his footsteps. But it never worked. I’d always end up busting them out to buy beer and cigarettes.
Some people have managed to blur the line between hoarding and collecting. Graham Barker is famous for his catalogued collection of navel lint, dating from 1964 to the present. Phil Miller has even created a term for himself–he’s a Sucrologist–he collects sugar packets from all over the world. But nobody can compete with Debra Henson-Conant’s collection of burnt food or Len Foley’s array of old McDonald’s burgers dating back to 1989.
When I was in college, I collected empty beer bottles from around the world and creatively lined them up along all of the window sills in my dorm room. I thought they added a classy, international charm to the place and gave off a romantic hue when the light was right. I also used to save all the pull-tabs from my beer cans. By folding them over themselves, I discovered that I could make attractive “beaded” curtains to hang in doorways.
People hoard all sorts of things — newspapers, TV Guides (and yes, you can still subscribe to it), take-out menus from Chinese restaurants and coupons to stores that went out of business 20 years ago. Some people even hoard animals.
Every few years, you’ll hear about an old lady who has died, leaving behind 45 cats, 23 dogs, 15 alligators and cages filled with rats and pythons. Hoarding has gotten so bad that experts have come up with new terms associated with the pathology: Goat Trails. A Goat Trail is a narrow path that winds around through canyons of old newspapers, discarded food or mounds of trash. Fortunately, my apartment hasn’t gotten quite that bad. You can still see small parts of the carpeting.
The worst things that I’ve accumulated are the things that have no rational purpose. I have boxes of prescription medicines that date back to 1973. I have no idea what they do or what they were originally prescribed for, but if they were important enough to spend $20 then, they might come in handy sometime in the future–even though I won’t know if I’m supposed to stick it in my eye, rub it over my elbow or push it up my bum. And, I can’t call the doctor who prescribed them because he’s been dead for 20 years.
I’ve managed to justify hanging onto clothes that I haven’t worn since the Nixon era. While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever return to a 28-inch waist, or wear vertical striped bell bottoms, you never can tell. I might lose 125 lbs from a bizarre, flesh-eating disease or get a gift certificate for liposuction. Disco music could come back. If it does, I’ll be ready.
There are new forms of hoarding emerging as we speak. The information age has spawned e-hoarding. E-hoarding is collecting thousands of unused software programs, emails, photo attachments, videos, MP3s, iPhone apps and links to web pages that no longer exist. Even though I’ve upgraded my computer ten times, I still have every email I’ve ever sent since the day I bought my first one in 1986 and the original user’s manuals for DOS 1.0, WordPerfect and VisiCalc.
I don’t think I have a hoarding problem. Compared to others on A&E’s Hoarders and The Learning Channel’s Buried Alive, I appear to be relatively normal. But, if I did have a crisis, it’s comforting to know that there are experts who could help me with my problem: doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and Hoarders Anonymous. Closet organizers, certified professional organizers and Feng Sui consultants. People who can help pry those Richard Simmons VHS tapes from my cold, dead hands.