Monday, June 14, 2010

My Grocery Store Exposure


I just watched the grocery store episode on VH1's The OCD Project, and could identify with all the fears that get stirred up in that context. I am fortunate to have a wonderful friend, J., who has been a supporter and encourager when it comes to dealing with my OCD. A few months after starting ERP treatment, in July of 2007, I told her about my anxiety when making decisions at the grocery store, and she offered to take me shopping and show me how she does it. Of course she shops at Wegmans, which was the first challenge, since the sheer variety of items makes me nervous, with visions of getting stuck trying to choose.

Shopping with J. was like going to a foreign country. She was excited. For her, Wegmans is a sensory experience, an adventure, game and scavenger hunt. We started in the produce section. J. didn't have a list, and instead moved toward whatever caught her eye, like the red grape tomatoes or the green leaf lettuce. I was already feeling dazed by the multitude of people, since I usually shop early on a Sunday morning to avoid other shoppers, the ambient lighting, and the high ceilings, not to mention the unmoored free-falling anxiety that came when imagining picking up an item in putting it in my cart without second-guessing, thorough analysis or looking at every single variety.

J. made her decisions based on her feelings which she trusted implicitly, and trusted her senses to lead her to feelings and good memories and associations with the item. Does it make you happy? Does it make someone in your family happy? In the cosmetics aisle, she smells a sample of lotion, and since it smells good to her, in the cart it goes. It wouldn't occur to J. to look at every item, because the items "call to her". My OCD on the other hand was screaming,
"What if you miss something? What if you don't choose exactly the right one? What if you make a mistake and regret it?"
On the candy aisle, J. encouraged me to choose a chocolate bar, and as she looked over at me, she exclaimed that I looked terrified. At that moment she said that the reality of my fear was expressed in my eyes. Just having her acknowledge my fear was incredibly helpful, and her encouragement made it easier to take the risk of picking up a chocolate bar in what seemed like split second pace. Then she said, "Take two," and I asked her if she was nuts! To this day she remembers the stunned look I gave her--as if choosing one item "imperfectly" wasn't enough, she asked me to take two of them. . .but I did it!

J.'s imagination was positive--she imagined it would be fun to try whatever she bought. My OCD imagination was all about feared consequences and unpleasant anxious sensations in my chest. In J.'s view, if she doesn't like the item it's not the end of the world. Maybe she might be a bit nervous, but for her it's "Oh, well." For me, a perceived mistake was panic-inducing, and my ritual was to come up with elaborate rationales for making a perfect decision. Choosing what to buy based on my preferences was an alien concept, because I'd let the OCD make so many of the decisions in order to avoid feeling anxious, and because the OCD desire was to know *for certain* what my preferences were. I made a lot of guesses that morning about what I might like or my husband might like, and for how exhausted I was at the end, I was also exhilarated that I'd thrown things in the cart and kept moving.

My OCD gave some backlash later, wanting to figure out the dangers of choosing spontaneously, and then deteriorating into self-condemnation,
"But what about fiscal responsibility? What if my judgement can't be trusted? What if J. needs to be guided more by rational thought rather than feelings? What if I wasted money? What if J. isn't a good example for me? Who cares if you went grocery shopping? Shouldn't adults be able to do this? "
But my friend's compassion for my fearfulness gave me strength. She accepted that I was scared, and that I was working on facing my fears. And I also recognized that I didn't have to become J.--that I would always have a list--but that I didn't have to operate by OCD rituals either.


  1. Good for you. You're lucky you have a friend like J that you can be honest with...and that doesn't either disown you or enable you. :)

  2. Yeah, I am immensely grateful for J! She walks that line between scaring me to death and supporting me every step of the way which is exactly what I need to kick the OCD.