Yesterday, I told the story of Elsie, the 90-something woman who lived at the nursing home where I worked in the 1970s. She was an extreme case, but there were others like her, who would hide food and occasionally even swipe the belongings of their less alert neighbors. Not to mention the men and women there who were obsessed with the idea that someone was stealing from them, or that their possesions were missing, which was rarely the case.
I became very curious about these patterns. It is true that certain kinds of dementia and stroke can profoundly alter a person’s personality, perceptions, and behavior patterns. And it is also true that there is a complex psychological disorder known as pathological hoarding. But (in my absolutely layperson’s opinion), neither seemed to fit, at least not to my satisfaction.
As part of my job, I was to collect the personal histories of as many of the residents as possible, and I began looking for some clues about these folks. Without exception, according to their families and their own faltering memories, there was no history I could find of thievery, and not even very much rebelliousness.
But every one of them had something big in common – an early history of serious poverty. It turned out that when Elsie was about seven years old, her little sister had died of complications from hunger. As far as anyone could determine, Elsie herself no longer had a conscious memory of this. But it explained everything about her food hoarding, and particularly the kinds of food she preferred – birthday cake, sweet treats, goodies you would want to give a little child. It also explained why she seldom ate them herself.
I learned then how deep such wounds might go. Each one of those nursing home folks had been shaped in their early years by scarcity and basic survival fears. And all the success and security in their later lives had never quite healed those sorrows, it seemed.
In my own work with my clients over the years, I have seen many such wounds. There was a whole generation, now reaching the age of those folks who had lived at the nursing home, who were profoundly affected by the Great Depression. But even some of my much younger clients, who appear to be confident, powerful, and wealthy, turn out to be deeply haunted by memories of hunger, loss, and the struggle for survival.
If we are exposed to such traumas, especially when we are very young and vulnerable, can we ever overcome their legacy? Tomorrow, I’ll share a few thoughts about that.