I have this thing. It’s not an addiction, per say. More of…a non-constructive self-soothing mechanism I learned from my parents.
My parents both have slight variations on the same childhood story. They each played hooky one day from school, intercepted the milkman form, ordered a bunch of pies, and gorged on them before their parents got home. They were found out, of course.
Maybe lots of kids did this. I don’t have lots of parents to ask. Just the two I was born with. But it says a lot about them. Neither of them are ever satisfied. “More” is the operative word.
We know that hoarding is a reaction to trauma. Hoarding is basically an unhealthy attachment to objects. The stuff that one collects is supposed to fill the hole punctured in the hoarder by the trauma. But as I learned listening to a very intriguing podcast on the search for Richard Simmons, when someone is a bottomless bucket, you cannot fill it. It will continue to drain and drain, and then the person will lay the blame on you for not feeling full. You don’t fix a hoarder by giving them everything they want, and you certainly don’t fix a hoarder by taking everything away. You have to mend the bucket and then teach them to fill it with non-thingy things.
I couldn’t tell you what the trauma was for both of my parents. I know they were both pre-term babies and kept in incubators. Pre-term babies are more likely to grow up to have higher rates of introversion, neuroticism and autistic features, while scoring lower on risk taking and agreeableness.
My mom was raised rather cushy, but in a secretly violent household. Her mother, my grandmother, was cold, and my grandfather, the baby of his family, was considered to be a brat. They were a beautiful and glamorous couple on the outside, and incredibly toxic at home. Their daughters all bear the emotional and psychological scars of their participation in the family.
My father, on the other hand, was poor growing up, and his whole family has a complex about money and showy wealth to give the appearance that they made it. Very typical immigrant story. One of his sisters is an actual hoarder. My dad is more of…a glutton…when it comes to food and alcohol.
Three of my four grandparents were orphaned in some way. My father’s mother’s mother died in labor, or soon thereafter. My father’s father’s father went away to fight in the Mexican Revolution and didn’t come back for years after my grandfather was born. And my mother’s mother was left with an aunt after her parents divorced, her father disappeared to Mexico, and her mother had to find work in a time when being divorced was a giant stigma.
We all come from somewhere, and these are my roots.
I’m not a straight up hoarder. I don’t form emotional attachments to objects. I don’t cry over spilt milk or the pretty and now broken glass it was in. There have been a few times where I have been swiftly and shockingly separated from my things, and I never felt the loss. I moved out of the last house I shared with my husband over the course of two days and kept things in storage for months. And when I finally bought a house years later, and the stuff was moved in, the house flooded on the first night, and a remediation team swooped in, threw everything out of its cardboard box into a heap in the driveway, repackaged it, and stored it while the house was fixed over six weeks. It took years for me to organize and put my things away. I found post-its and bobby pins in random boxes mixed with kitchen utensils and Christmas ornaments. I didn’t cry once. I didn’t miss my things when they were gone. I didn’t feel incomplete. Just…discombobulated.
I actually like having fewer things to worry about. Living in a 6′ x 6′ sublet in Bed-Stuy for a month in 2018 cemented that fact for me. Going back to a 1600 sq. ft. house with closets and a garage filled with crap I didn’t need or identify was really hard after that and made the move to Brooklyn in 2019 much smoother.
Right now, I am in Tucson, far from my stuff in Brooklyn. Far from the stuff I have in storage units throughout the town I’m currently in that I came here to finally address. I have four storage units full of expensive things that I don’t want, don’t care for, don’t miss, and don’t really want to deal with. But it’s time to stop running from problems.
Stuff, to me, is just stuff. And yet, it’s more than that. I’m a clotheshorse. It’s a trait I inherited from both parents, and probably part of the underlying generational trauma handed down to me. The clothes don’t have to be expensive. I just feel like they solve problems. I’m very particular about fabrics, fit, colors, etc, partially because of autistic sensory issues. I don’t wear non-stretch fabrics because they feel confining. Socks are the bane of my existence.
I’m constantly searching for clothes that are stylish, that fit my plus size body, and that are comfortable to wear. Clothes are how I express myself. They are not functional items. They are ritualistic talismans that I combine as a shield when I get dressed in the morning. The figurative morning, obviously…I am not a morning person. Clothes are a not so subtle sign to people of my wealth, my education, my artistic vision, and my eccentricity. If Coco Channel said to look in the mirror and take one accessory off before leaving the house, I am more apt to put one more on.
Shopping has been a problem for me in the past. As a freshman in college, with absolutely no executive functioning skills, I’d routinely find myself without clean clothes. Never having done laundry, it didn’t occur to me that cleaning them was a solution. I was rife with scholarship money, so I’d mosey on down to The Gap and buy more.
This was a huge bone of contention between D and me. He hated that I shopped from the word ‘go’ and treated me with the same sensitivity the United States government treated Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. I’d bring something home, he’d go through the bag, and then he’d either chastise me or give me the silent treatment. And this was when I was nineteen. I wasn’t even spending his money. He knew who I was. I never hid it. But it was one of his litany of reasons for leaving me, nailed to a proverbial church door in an email, like some modern day Martin Luther.
By the end of our marriage, I was buying things just to buy them, leave them in the plastic delivery bags on top of the dining table and never try them on. I was so dissociated from my own body at the time, I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. I dressed mostly in black, formless dresses from Target and spent my days in yoga pants and tank tops. No makeup. Maybe the occasional shower.
Now I love to get dressed up. And I still love to shop. What do I get out of shopping? Well, it’s a rush. It’s a fantasy. It’s a ritual. I walk into Zara/Nordstrom/M.A.C./Bloomingdales/Anthropologie/J.Crew and feel the frenetic energy inside. I like the feeling of being in there. I like snobbing it up in front of the store clerk to not-so-subtly let them know that I am no neophyte and they need to heel in my general direction. I like to impress them with my choices. I like to consult them on their expertise. I like to have them fawn over me. I do this because it is what my mother did.
My mother is notoriously bad with people. She will go to a store and talk up a clerk as though they are friends, miss body language cues, judge them, persecute them, cajole them, ask for way more than she deserves, and keep stores open past closing. My mother will yell at store clerks over the phone and whisper under her breath before entering a store about her personal vendetta against a specific woman at Ann Taylor.
My dad likes walking into restaurants very much the same way. There better be a reservation in his name. He better like the table. The food cooked how he wants it. His beer cold and served with an orange. And the waiter better treat him like a king. He’s less paranoid and more…well, he gets away with it. He’s charismatic and a man, and people don’t see that as a bad thing in a man.
This behavior was ingrained in me before I had a choice as to what I wanted to become. I learned how to spell my last name and address by listening in on my mother’s phone orders with Sears or JC Penney. “A-G as in ‘George’-U-I-R-R-E. 718 Roper Road, Nogales, Arizona, 85621.” I knew that when I was two.
I came to Tucson knowing the stay would be indefinite, but also knowing I couldn’t bring an entire summer wardrobe with me or every accessory or shoe I owned. I did bring most of my makeup. And by most, I mean enough to keep a troupe of drag queens in business. But since being here, I’ve bought:
- a robe;
- new linens;
- a comforter;
- throw pillows;
- pompoms to hang from my door;
- cooking utensils;
- tons of flip flops;
- hair accesssories; and
Part of the reason I’ve bought stuff is because I don’t get out much on account of the pandemic and it gives me something to do. Part of the reason is that it gives me a sense of control in a world of chaos. Part of it is that Target sucks in NYC but is awesome in Tucson. Part of it is that without self-expression, I will wither and die. Figuratively wither; literally die.
But part of it is that, like my parents, I always want more. And those two little devils sit perched upon each of my shoulders and whisper to me. I fight them off better than I used to, but this shit is deep. In some ways, I am the bottomless bucket. I’ve worked and worked on mending my own bucket. But it still leaks from time to time. The fact that I even know what the problem is helps me get through things much better than before. But I’ve wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably, on things that never made me feel quite whole. Even therapy. Even medicine. For a long time it seemed that nothing was going to stop the feeling of emptiness.
The only thing that ever worked was sitting with the truth and then doing something about it. I’ve gotten a lot better. It’s just that I like to do my sitting with the truth in a full face of makeup and something pretty and a bit sexy on my body. It ain’t the worst thing in the world, I guess.