Supermarkets are a cause of great anxiety to Carol Tobin. Here’s why.
In the words of The Clash: “I’m all lost in the supermarket. I can no longer shop happily.”
I really can’t. Supermarkets are a huge source of anxiety for me. Like most of my neuroses, I can trace this supermarket weep back to my mother. One afternoon, when I was a scrawny insecure teenager, she sent me into the local store for some groceries. I eventually made my way to the top of the queue with the goods. I took all of the items out of the basket and packed them away into bags as the shop assistant keyed their price into her till. I handed her some notes wrapped around some coins, like a sort of currency dumpling.
She soon informed me, after she had opened the little parcel, that I didn’t have enough money. My heart started racing, forcing blood to my face to redden it. The shop assistant was irritated; the people behind me in the queue were annoyed. I muttered something about running out to my mother to get more money and I fled the shop as if it was on fire, leaving a pile of disgruntled people waiting. When I got to her car, humiliated, my mother giggled as I told her what had happened in a hysterical rant peppered with expletives. “It’s character building,” she said as she handed me the rest of the money. Looking back at this moment it shouldn’t have scarred me the way it did but you never know what will scar a child, so damage carefully parents of the world.
The majority of the “Oh God, I’m going to die” moments that I have in life take place in the aisles of supermarkets. My life has flashed before my eyes in the fruit and veg section. I’ve shed tears in the dairy aisle and scrawled final departing words to loved ones on the back of a shopping list near the cheap yet tasty noodles. I’ve had to grab a brown bag from by the mushrooms and breathe into it on a few occasions. One time I was convinced that my blood had stopped flowing as a deathly chill cloaked my body. Then I just realised that I had wandered into the frozen food section.
I feel like everything is heightened in a supermarket; the lights show up your imperfections, the freezer doors mirror your insecurities. There is nowhere to truly hide in a grocery store, you can run (and I have), sure, but you actually can’t hide. Also, the music they play in these places can hugely affect your experience. There should be a rule that you can’t play Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven on a Sunday in a supermarket. Tear spillage in aisle five.
When I’m feeling anxious in one of these stores, distractions are most welcome. The best ones are focusing on arguing couples. This usually happens near the wines or by the nappies. Another helpful diversion is watching well-heeled folk in stained fur coats blissfully shoplifting.
A while back, I was in a store feeling very vulnerable. I accidentally banged into a little toddler and apologised profusely to the boy and his mother. Then the boy started mimicking my apology. “I’m so sorry” he screeched loudly. Then he laughed manically. His impression humiliated me. I sounded so pathetic and weak. From that day on I made a conscious effort to give cooler more confident apologies.
You can tell a lot about a person from the contents of their basket: alcoholic, emotional eater, emotionless eater, cocaine addict, sex fiend, unhappily married, happily married, hungry, Gloria Estefan fan. I often say to myself as I’m navigating a store, “If I were to die here now will the contents of my basket be humiliating?” and I’ll shop accordingly. I still get embarrassed buying toilet paper even though it’s a life essential. I have to fight the urge to say to the person at the checkouts, “It’s not for me, it’s for my flatmate.”
Recently I found myself hungover in the meat section of my local store. I was clutching my new bag for life, trying to track down the makings of a carbonara which I had been craving for the previous seven hours. I was fondling some bacon when a little girl tugged at my top and said, “Hey lady you need help.” “Excuse me,” I said to her bemused. “You need help,” she replied. I looked around to see if there was a former psychiatrist lurking behind some melons that had put this little girl up to it in a bid to try and win my custom back. “I am getting help,” I nearly replied. “I am really starting to work through my issues,” I didn’t say. She ran off giggling and as I attempted to divert a bead of sweat away from my mouth, the penny dropped. My bag for life had the word HELP written on the side. I had purchased it hoping it would HELP me with my shopping and HELP me do my bit for the environment.
Instead, it just made me realise I probably need more therapy. Or to do my grocery shopping online.
Tormented writer and comedian Carol Tobin prefers wielding a pen instead of a sword in her battles with her demons. @carolgertrude