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Two Decades Later, Hoarding is Still my Comfort Food

"I’d spend hours organising everything, arranging produce in categories and rotating packets according to their expiry dates."

Written by Marin Scarlett.

It’s been more than ten years since my Nanna died, but I still think about her every day. When I test my blood sugar, when I eat, when I inject the insulin required to meet my pancreatic shortfall. Most of all, when I’m in the supermarket.

I was seven years old when I went to live with my Nanna, a northward shift of four hundred miles from my native East London to her council flat on the outskirts of Glasgow. I knew that she hadn’t particularly wanted to become my surrogate mother, not when she had just begun collecting her state pension. But she stepped up, relieving my foster carers of their withdrawn, mute charge, and it was in the supermarket that our relationship began to flourish.

Nanna had been diagnosed with diabetes in her teens, as I would be some years later. She had spent the bulk of those decades taking fastidious care of herself; carefully monitoring her sugars and rotating her injection sites, always keeping a watchful eye on her figure. She was a beauty, and had largely eschewed the twentieth century’s waves of feminism in favour of exercising the soft power privy to very beautiful women.

Everything that we wanted, every shiny packet that caught our eye or crumpled agreeably under our fingers, went into the trolley. I loved seeing it pile high.

Then my grandfather had died. Grief could not be quieted, or stilled. It could only be drowned, by the angel delight and golden syrup tins that Nanna eagerly liberated from the supermarket shelves.

Her determination to counter perceived years of deprivation, coupled with my formative memories of a rumbling stomach at bedtime, were a potent mix. From the time we selected the biggest supermarket trolley to the time Nanna collected her receipt at the checkout, our weekly trips could easily take us two hours. We meandered the aisles, contemplating the fresh produce, canned goods, even the toiletries at length. Nanna liked to be prepared; buying one of anything was surely pointless when you could buy two while you were there. Any doubt as to how many were already in the cupboard? Better grab a few more to be on the safe side.

Grief could not be quieted, or stilled. It could only be drowned, by the angel delight and golden syrup tins that Nanna eagerly liberated from the supermarket shelves.

We’d make sure to visit the confectionary aisles last, and our already gentle pace would slow to a crawl. Everything that we wanted, every shiny packet that caught our eye or crumpled agreeably under our fingers, went into the trolley. I loved seeing it pile high.

At the checkout, I would slip through and wait on the other side for Nanna to move up the queue, watching other people as the food came through on the conveyer belt. I felt giddy when too much came through at once and it began to pile up quicker than the shopper could pack it into bags. When our things came through, I’d step forward to help but deliberately slow my pace in order to watch it all stack up, the packets from behind pushing up against the ones in front like an arcade coin game. When the bags were eventually piled back into the trolley I’d watch Nanna reach into her handbag for her money that would make it ours, confident that she wasn’t about to realise she couldn’t pay.

Back at home, I loved the cupboards being full. I’d spend hours organising everything, arranging produce in categories and rotating packets according to their expiry dates.

Back at home, I loved the cupboards being full. I’d spend hours organising everything, arranging produce in categories and rotating packets according to their expiry dates. When I was finished, I would periodically return just to open up the cupboards again and admire my handiwork: the neatly stacked packets of digestives, ginger nuts and custard creams, the gleaming rows of two-finger KitKats, club and penguin bars, the piled-up packs of Werther’s Originals, the one shelf dedicated exclusively to Tunnocks teacakes and wafers.

Nanna sometimes disturbed my layout to replenish the stashes that she kept all over the house. Bedside drawers, lounge shelves and even bathroom cupboards kept everything she craved within arm’s reach of desire. Numbness crept through her extremities as the rampant sugar abraded her blood vessels and her frame softened from its former slimness.

She gave me security: my own room and bed, clean clothes every morning, the same school for four straight years. I heard about my grandfather often: his ginger curls, shapely legs and sharp mind. The tapestry of tattoos that documented his years of naval service. The retirement they should have had together. I listened and, stable in my routine, I bore uncomprehending witness to her slow, saccharine suicide.

I listened and, stable in my routine, I bore uncomprehending witness to her slow, saccharine suicide.

It has been more than twenty-five years since I have ever seriously had to worry about going to bed hungry, and yet – many New Year’s resolutions and CBT sessions later – I have yet to fully shake off the impulse to buy more, and more. In times of stress the urge ramps up, howling at me to enter the corner shops or convenience stores I pass on London’s city streets. When I do make a scheduled supermarket trip, I force myself to walk past the trolleys and select a basket, knowing that the creeping strain on my biceps will help strongarm me from the aisles to the checkout before I can accumulate too much more than I need.

Several times a year, I force myself to cart my excesses down to the local food donation point and feel a wrench in my gut to part with them, even as I know that I could never have gotten round to eating them before they expired. I feel guilty for the waste, and for not simply donating the money instead. But I try to give myself grace, even as I keep trying to realise safety as a state of mind, and not something that one more pack of biscuits can ever achieve.


About the Author

Marin Scarlett is a writer and activist. She currently works with the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance.

Follow on IG: @marinscarlett_ |

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