I bought new underwear this morning. Socks, too—both white and dark. And for good measure I threw in a ribbed blue tee shirt. Altogether it came to $45.00, give or take. And now here it is five hours later and I still feel guilty.
I believe I have a problem. It is not one I have seen mentioned anywhere—and trust me, I spend a lot of time just dinking around on the Internet. If such a problem had already been identified, named, support-grouped, stretchy-braceleted, and bumper-stickered I would have come across its existence somewhere.
I am not sure what to call the problem, though I do have some sense of the root causes and a too-strong awareness of the symptoms. I’ll start with the symptoms:
• When confronted with a need around the house, I will always think about what we already own that can be improvised to get the task done
• I wear clothes even if the clasp has broken, a stain has appeared, or they are worn all the way through. (ALL of my socks have holes.)
• When I have gotten to the point where the need to buy something new is simply undeniable, I will delay the actual purchase far beyond the point that it is okay to do so
• I alternate between the three pairs of socks that I own, even though two of the pairs are not technically “pairs” but instead simply close-color cousins
• When I do finally make a purchase of clothes for myself, I feel guilty for weeks. Really. (Today’s utter binge will have me feeling bad for at least ten days.)
As far as the causes go, I have pinned them down to the dual afflictions of Roman Catholicism and being one of six kids in a staunchly middle-class family. My Catholicism, though long abandoned, lingers in the stunning levels of guilt I feel over an amazing array of thoughts, actions, intentions, omissions, desires, fears, hopes, temptations, and PURCHASES. My upbringing as one of six kids in a family without a lot of money has left me with the notion that my needs are just not that important. I was raised to believe that making due is far better than buying new.
These two strains combine to form a powerful thread in my personality. It may come across as simply “cheap” to the uninitiated, but to me it is something different. It is a clinical reluctance to buy new things. It might even be worthy of inclusion in the DSM-V. My default response any time Erica or Isabel suggests, (or worse, states outright), that we need to buy a new anything is to list all the other things we could do in lieu of spending money. “We don’t need a new colander, we can just use an old tee shirt.” “Who needs an eyeglass repair kit? A short bit of paperclip wire will hold those together.” “New shoes? Duct tape!”
There is sometimes an oceanic gulf between identifying a problem, and actually changing the resulting behaviors. I have by now identified my problem. I have taken a cue from psychiatric tradition and named it from its Greek roots, vorophobia—fear of having a lot of stuff.
But now that it has a name, I am left with a question of treatment. What do I do?
I am experimenting with strategies to consolidate the guilt by saving so-called necessary purchases until I have at least four items on my list. Once I have four, I go and buy the things as quickly as possible. To be clear, the guilt is most severe when the things I am buying are for myself alone, with no possible larger purpose. That is why I threw in the tee shirt today. I do “need” one, since all of my other casual shirts have race logos or stains, or both, on them. I figure instead of making four separate trips to the store and marinating in four separate infusions of guilt, I get it all over with at once.
I have decided to take my experiment one step further today. Erica and I are heading to New York for a play and on the train I will be wearing new socks, new underwear, and my new blue shirt. You may not realize it, but I will be taking quite a risk. If you happen to be on the 4:12 Metro North to Grand Central and a guy in your car seems overly-agitated, has pupils that are fixed and dilated, and seems to be emitting little hicks and squeaks driven by deepest despair, call 911 right away and report a case of rampant vorophobia. (But please, tell the paramedics to be careful with my shirt if they need to use the paddles.)