Before I learned I was an adult with Sensory Processing Disorder, specifically hypersensitivity (or sensory defensiveness) I had no idea how over-responsive I was to sound.
Screaming children weren’t the only thing I hated about the supermarket. All in all, food shopping topped my list of dreaded activities. I’d rather have my liver biopsied – at least they give you drugs for that.
“You spoiled brat,” The voice of reason interjected. “Do you realize the majority of the world would trade a kidney for unfettered access to abundant food?”
Yes, I realized that. And feeling bad about myself did not make grocery shopping one bit more tolerable.
You may notice, I refer to this affliction in the past tense. Just weeks ago I made a life-changing discovery regarding grocery shopping!
As far back as I can remember I hated shopping. I am sure I would have been a grocery store screamer as a child if screaming had been an option for me. I learned very early that my mother was the only one in our family allowed to scream. If you tried it, Janie would slap you silly. I dreaded trips to the store and endured the experience and its aftermath in miserable silence.
For many years I got out of grocery shopping by being my family’s majority bread winner. I got out of a lot of difficult things that way. But when I sold my business in 2009 to become a full-time writer, it seemed wise to free up Watson to earn enough money to support us. Grocery shopping was the worst of the regular chores I took over.
Within eighteen minutes of passing through the automatic glass doors of the grocery store, I would go from determined to stupefied. The exact progression was: determined, stoic, annoyed, desperately annoyed, angry, exhausted then, lastly – barely functional enough to check out.
Stupid is the only reliable indication that I am on the bad side of exhausted. When I am out in the world I’m geared to survive. I must get home and put the groceries away before I can collapse. It’s bad enough to be undone by something as mundane as grocery shopping. For it to be fruitless and thereby a waste of time would be unbearable.
So I traversed the parking lot and the roads home and put the groceries away in a state of barely functional stupidity.
“My-bad.” I veered back into my lane.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary about the life of the hauntingly soulful singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. His son said they never went to the grocery store. They bought all their food in short trips to the neighborhood convenience store. A kindred spirit, Townes, unfortunately he drank himself to death in his early fifties.
But I was determined to master the I’m-too-sensitive-to-shop defect in my character. Even after I learned about Sensory Processing Disorder, I felt sure that this was something I could be good at if I just threw myself at it with enough force.
I am adept at efficiency, systemization and routine. My life as a sensory defensive would be wholly unmanageable without these skills. I used them all when I laid out the gold standard for grocery shopping – in two parts:
- plan a menu for the weekcheck supplies needed against supplies in stock
- make a list
- drive to the store
- make menu adjustments based on product availability
- make decisions comparing value and price
- drive the groceries home
- put the groceries away
- eat the cupcake bought for a treat (anything done well deserves a reward)
For a year I gave the gold standard my best shot. But once inside the store my ability to make a menu adjustment or choose between two products was the mental equivalent of juggling bowling balls.
I managed to fill my cart with all the items on my list by organizing that list on a spread sheet divided into columns by isle number. If I missed the item before I got to the next isle, screw it. We’d get by without it this week.
I loaded the groceries in the car and ate the cupcake (Part B5) in numb exhaustion before I pulled out of my parking space.
No matter how hard I tried, I could not keep myself from eating the cupcake as soon as I got in the car. So I altered my plan and purchased two cupcakes, one for the parking lot and one for home after I put away the groceries.
Unfortunately, that resulted in eating both cupcakes in the parking lot. I continued to adjust this portion of the plan until I was eating four cupcakes.
When I got home, I did my very best to put the frozen items in the freezer, the perishables in the refrigerator and everything else in the pantry. Then I fell into bed for the two to three hours it took my central nervous system to recover.
A couple of times I immerged from my post-shopping brain fog to discover the ground beef churning out e-coli on a dark shelf inside the pantry.
After a year I admitted defeat. I lowered my standards.
I developed the hit-it-on-the-fly-and-get-the-hell-out-before-you-crash method of grocery shopping.
- Write a short list of what you absolutely cannot live without. (Never more than fifteen items. Ten is better – no guilt in the express check-out)
- Jump in car, zoom to store, push cart from aisle to aisle, ignore any impulse to avert attention
- Shove your way through the 10 items or less express line, dash back to the car
- Drive home
- Cram both bags in the refrigerator
- Crash for eighteen to thirty-five minutes.
Efficient, effective, only problem with this method – I had to do it three to four times a week.
So…. now to the good part.
I was at HEB. I had thrust myself into the produce department. They didn’t have the small Cameo apples Watson likes to take in his lunch. I was breathing deeply, willing myself to relax while I tried to choose between fifteen inferior strains of apples.
“Long Cool Woman” blared from speakers,
mixed with the sound of a baby wailing,
metal carts clanging,
rubber wheels squeaking over tile,
all piercing the roar and chug of compressors attempting to cool an acre of produce.
My eyes scanned the wall of apples while I begged the goddess of commerce to “Shut the #@&*# music off!”
My hand, entirely of its own volition, reached into my bag. Looking for a gun, maybe?
It pulled out my soft foam ear plugs.
Hmmm… my higher consciousness considered this. I had just recently added ear plugs to my sensory defensive arsenal. Up to this point I had only used them to protect my brainstem from the radio and whiney children in my allergist’s waiting room.
I squeezed the plugs into tight tubes and inserted one in each ear.
The soft foam sounded like pop rocks for a couple of seconds as the plugs grew back to their pre-compressed state.
They slowly fill my ear canals, pushing sound out of my brain like a seawall rising against a frothy storm tide.
As the sound left my head the space around me expanded, stretched away in all directions.
I know. Space couldn’t actually expand. That would defy all sorts of physical laws.
But as my sensory relationship to the space changed, my perception altered so dramatically I experienced it as a visual change.
Sound muted, space grew and every muscle in my body relaxed.
“Wow.” I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
“This must be what it feels like to get shot with a tranquilizer dart.”
I looked around me.
People glided silently through this expanded space. No longer right on top of me, no longer tangled in a jittery clutter of vibrating menace pressing from all sides. They just pushed their carts, minding their own business.
I looked back at the apples.
Their bins made a beautiful mosaic of spheres: green, gold and red. I didn’t hate them like I did just ten seconds ago.
I read the product information, written in English now. My mind accessed information stored from a lifetime of eating apples. No Cameos? Galas would work.
I didn’t dawdle. No point pressing my luck. I loaded the twelve items on my list into the cart. But I did it at a more relaxed pace, no longer zooming through the store like it was on fire. I even backtracked for the olives I overlooked on aisle 8.
Since this monumental discovery in the grocery store, I use my ear plugs in the craft store, hardware store, department store and mall. My sensory relationship with these places has dramatically improved.
Before earplugs I was revving my nervous system into the red every time I went into a big-box store. Now I coast.
If I pull out a plug to talk to someone, the sound blasts me. Before earplugs I wasn’t conscious of how loud it was, how hard my body and brain worked to get me through it.
I couldn’t make this association before I learned about SPD. I didn’t have the right information. Realizing I have an extreme sensitivity to sound is infinitely better for my self-image than believing I am too weird or neurotic to perform the basic function of shopping.
What’s difficult for you? Any tips to share? I’d love to hear from you, Reader. Comments make my day!