The Lingering Effect of Scarcity

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Cleaning up the house earlier this week, I came upon a bottle of hand sanitizer that was functionally empty, as the remaining liquid was too shallow for the pump to reach. If I had found it in 2019 or earlier, I would have dumped out the little bit of sanitizer and recycled the bottle without even considering any other option. But that was before COVID-19, before cleaning products became precious commodities, before I went from store to store in search of them only to find empty shelves, before opportunists were reselling them online for ten times their sticker prices, and before a friendly pharmacy clerk discreetly slipped me a pocket-sized bottle of sanitizer as though she was passing off a top-secret document in a spy movie.

After all of that, even four years later, no way could I bring myself to waste any amount of hand sanitizer. And really, that comes as no surprise. Several decades after the Great Depression, my grandparents still could not bring themselves to leave any food uneaten, so much so that they once finished Chinese food leftovers despite knowing that my brother and I had found a boiled insect in the rice.

As I was doing my best to transfer the remaining hand sanitizer to another bottle without spilling a drop, I thought about patients of mine who are still working to recover from food scarcity that ended many years ago. Remember, food scarcity has several etiologies, including famine, financial hardship, political blockades, food deserts, and limitations imposed by oneself or by someone else. Intellectually, we know the difference between going hungry because flooding destroyed this year’s crop and putting a cap on our eating because we are on a diet, but on a biological level, all our bodies know is that they are not getting what they need. When the restriction ends, we are driven to get as much as we can of what we missed for fear that another period of restriction will come.

The solution is indefinite abundance. The more we surround ourselves with food, especially ones that were previously restricted, and the more we reaffirm that we are done with self-imposed limitations, the more the drive to overconsume decreases. (Side note: Overeating can have several different roots. Here, I am referring specifically to overconsumption that comes from restriction.) If someone finds that a specific food is particularly a trigger, the stocking technique might be helpful.

Certainly, the concept of abundance entails a great deal of privilege, such as access to foods, money to buy them, and places to store them. Some of the factors that influence access are beyond our control. To the extent that we are able to give ourselves consistent and ongoing access to a wide variety of foods and pledge that the days of restricting ourselves are over and never to return, we help to curb the frenzied drive for more and more.

And of course it takes time, maybe even a long time, to shake scarcity’s impact. Understandably, we want to reach a more peaceful relationship with food sooner rather than later, but there is no way to rush the process. We just have to be patient, ride the wave of everything that comes up along the way, and continually remind ourselves that we will always do our best to maintain our access to hand sanitizer – I mean food – going forward.

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