Toilets, Tins, Ghosts and Loneliness: An essay on hoarding and the other kind of high risk groups

April 1st, 2020  

It almost feels like the world has gone through another major divide over the past few weeks. You know what I’m talking about. The great toilet paper shortage rift of 2020. You could either join the soft, three layer, perfumed barricades of the life-hardened warriors stocking up on toilet paper, or compete in thinking of the funniest, driest burn, along with the rest of the people who have made the doomsday hoarders’ efforts their #1 laughing stock.

Both beliefs on the opposing sides of the (non)argument should be of course taken as valid, freedom is a wonderful thing, but I can’t help but wonder: what will you do with the all those space consuming (and let’s not forget fairly ugly) towers of packaged toilet paper? Do you realise it will actually take months to years to work through the insane amount of little white soft rectangles? Do you accept that having such generous stash on hand will also inadvertently cause you to use more generous amounts, well... per serving

And a real one: do you know how to unclog a toilet?

I’m asking, because I’ve been hoarding too. Not toilet paper, not cans of tuna, not even all that decorative crap that makes it impossible to move in your house without knocking something fragile over, no, I have been, with the skill of a professional, with the erratic freakiness of a reality show contestant, hoarding thoughts, doubts, fears, unhealthy patterns and decisions, emotions, frustrations…(insert my friends' bored voices: "Yeah Natalie, we knew that".)

Anyways, as every well accomplished hoarder knows, at some point things start falling over at you from those packed shelves, and if you’re really just stuck in isolation in your house with all your precious acquisitions, you can quickly start fearing that one day, one of those heavier cans you managed to push on top of the highest shelf, on your tiptoes and with sweat working up on your forehead, will just give in to gravity, or to the push of an evil poltergeist, hit your head with the sharper edge and take you down with it.​

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And, okay, the real threat of having an evil ghosts living in your appartment complex aside, I am trying to admit that I have learned one important thing about myself over the past few weeks, and that is that I am very good at putting things together, but very bad at dissolving them apart. Aka, in easily digestible terms (I will get banned from writing altogether for all these terrible puns one day, won't I...) for the sleepy times of Corona, I have no idea how to unclog a toilet, let alone how to clean up the sewer of my brain.

Oh you know it's real when the vending machine of your mind spits out ideas such as "poltergeist" or "let's compare emotional baggage to stacks of toilet paper" and you actually think you're being funny.

No, I promise I have something serious to say too.

According to the information given by our governments and world health organisations, the people at higher risk of being affected by the COVID-19 outbreak are our senior citizens (which the websites further define as people over 65 years of age, especially at risk if living in nursing homes or care facilities) and people of all ages with serious underlying medical conditions.

While social distancing, most widely applied containment measure all over the world, protects those more likely to be physically affected by the virus, and while it is completely essential and inarguable that we practice it, there is another high risk group, not mentioned often enough these days, one that is even more difficult to test, one that is near impossible to collect accurate data of on any given day, let alone during this weird period of general confusion, and one that actually takes the greatest hit from everyone doing the right thing.

These gloomy and uncertain times, these unpleasant please-do-your-shopping-quickly-and-stay-away-from-other-people circumstances can feel suffocating, painful, feverish or even fatal to people living with depression or anxiety, victims of domestic abuse, trapped 24/7 with the aggressor or dealing with the trauma bond fallout post separation in terrible conditions, or even “just” your regular sad folk without a social net to fall into such as family or close circle of friends.

Now, this issue gets worse if you weigh in a lack of financial security on existential level.​

Now, this issue multiplies if you take into account that some of these crippling conditions can also apply to a person who is already in the health-endangered group, and therefore finds themselves in a situation where loneliness and being cut off from the world is actually a much scarier killer than a virus on the lungs.

Personally I have found myself in a situation, where abrupt isolation, being away from my family in a foreign country without much idea of what happens next, and only rarely seeing a limited number of friends, makes it extremely challenging to deal with all my (over the years collected and neglected) personal struggles and issues, and if there is one that can take the prize home tonight, it is that I feel so very deeply lonely some days, it wakes me up in the middle of the night.

I am not fishing for pity or support here, as I rationally know that my situation is not as grim as it subjectively feels, but then, it makes me think: If I feel this way, if I feel like that family size package of canned loneliness on that top shelf wiggles a little too dangerously, what about those who's cards have been dealt much worse?

Allow me for a little copy and paste action from Wikipedia (good ol' study times, where have you gone):

Loneliness is a complex and unpleasant emotional response to isolation. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people and one who feels lonely, is lonely. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and physical factors.

Research has shown that loneliness is prevalent throughout society, including people in relationships, families, and those with successful careers. Loneliness has also been described as social pain—a psychological mechanism meant to motivate an individual to seek social connections.

Loneliness is often defined in terms of one's connectedness to others, or more specifically as "the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person's network of social relations is deficient in some important way".

There has been a surge in what is called "an epidemic of loneliness" in the past years, and in addition to the elderly, of which more than 20 percent report feeling intense feelings of loneliness very frequently, the ranks are now growing with young people expressing that their ability to cope with everyday challenges and tasks is compromised by the lack of real connections, community and stability in their life, which is probably a consequence of, what a Czech writer Jan Nemec describes so beautifully, living in an age of digital sadness.

Loneliness and depression make another one of those chicken or egg type duos, and there are many cases where the distress of loneliness actually caused physical health problems too.

Now, I don't necessarily want to compare our current situation, when majority of people, including those living with no long term preconditions in their mental well-being, experience upsetting feelings from being cut from their loved ones, friends or larger social circles, to the continuous distress that for example such large part the older generation faces on a very regular basis, but if the parallel helps us rethink the way we approach the issue, it may be worth the oversimplification.

The truth is, we overlook the lonely, because it is not "a real disease". 

The truth is, while we need to (after this nightmarish pandemic ends and we stop being a walking talking threat of carrying and spreading the sickness, ofcourse) start looking out for our elderly, our seriously sick patients, our single mothers or children in group homes much more, each spending a little bit more time and putting a little bit more effort into creating opportunities for valuable personal exchanges for any of the "high risk groups" in the epidemic that already creeps silently in the shadows for years, collecting its victims without a robust media coverage, we need to start by admitting that there is no outer influence, no contagious virus, that made us so neglectful - it is our own egocentric way of living, our own insensitivity, our own fear that if we spend too much time helping others, we won't get to fulfill all those glamorous dreams and collect all the cool respect-me-now accolades.

Well guess what, when something like this strikes, you can go shove your accolades [...]. It simply does not matter how great you think you are, how succesful. It only creates a difference for you.

(Although I guess if you're a succesful rich bitch you can afford one of those fancy sudoku toilet paper rolls, and for that I rest my case. Point taken.)

We need to care more about what creates difference for others.

But there must be something we can and should do already today, things won't just magically change when our prime ministers cut a ribbon, wide grin big scissors, at a press release letting us out back into the ring.

Maybe we need to start changing our herd mentality (please pat me on the back for yet another corona term pun please please) from including small steps, such as reaching out to someone we know and we suspect might have difficulties during this time.

We need to collectively remember that loneliness also hits those we least expect, or those that are not ticking all the ordinary "symptom" boxes. Maybe we can use this time to acknowledge that strong and resilient people need a warm blanket of care too, because they are often the ones who embark on the daily missions to give what they have to give, until they run out, and they are expected to deal with everything with a certain amount of ease, but in fact are just as vunerable, as prone to burn out and as endangered by loneliness as anyone else.

Now this maybe is a rant that needs two, three, four rounds of cuts and edits, but it lies heavily on my mind, and the words collect and multiply each day, and I just wonder how we can reevaluate our connections into the future so they give as little space as possible to feelings of worthlessness and abandonment.

We're all a high risk group when it comes to it, at some point of our lives.

We should not have to be.