Sunday, June 13, 2010

Getting Stuck at the Grocery Store: Shopping and OCD

grocery aisle
There are many ways OCD can manifest in relation to the grocery store, from fear of contamination, to checking to make sure you didn't leave anything behind, to over-responsibility(this package is a slightly different color--has it been tampered with? Should I report it to the manager?). Grocery shopping made me break into a cold sweat because each item I chose had to be exactly the right item. Partly this was a learned behavior. I watched my mother set aside the first item in a row and dig behind until she found one in pristine condition, examining each one closely. When I became an adult I did start to realize that the disqualifying flaws were usually invisible to most human eyes.

My OCD added a whole other layer of scrutiny to the process of shopping. I needed to know if I had the right rationale for choosing an item, and went into long mental analyses of why an item qualified or not--from nutrition to manufacturer, to whether I disliked the tv ads, to company ethics, to the size of the can, to price, ad infinitum. I was searching for a "just right" feeling, and absolute assurance that I was making the right decision.

I was afraid of making any mistake and regretting my choices, or that my husband would dislike my choices. My mind could generate seemingly infinite rationales for why I was picking one brand over another or one size over another, and if it didn't "click" with certainty, I had a feeling of dread, and I feared it would never go away. If I got to the point of picking up an item, and putting it in my cart, I might turn around and take it back out if another question came to my mind. I could get stuck in front of the shelves for 1/2 hr choosing one thing. I was exhausted and frustrated.

I also had an urge for completion. Once I went into a thrift store, planning to be there a few minutes. Instead, I started looking at the old china and dishes, and felt compelled to look at each and every piece. When I started to walk away, I'd feel panic rising up in my throat, "I'm not done." 45 minutes later I finally dragged myself out of the store, thoroughly disheartened. In the grocery store, I'd feel compelled to look at all my options, and in U.S. grocery store, that can take a long time. Even people without OCD feel that sense of overwhelm at times when faced with permutations of a single product that can take up an entire aisle.

I had noticed that however much I agonized over a decision in the store didn't determine whether I actually liked the product once I bought it, but the OCD was tenacious, and to keep my anxiety level down, I gave into the achingly slow process of going back and forth, looking at the top of the shelf to the bottom, putting an item in the cart, taking it out, circling the store. Once I went to a fabric shop and circled around for an hour until I finally chose a book as a gift for someone. The clerk said she'd noticed my wandering, but thought it seemed like "purposeful wandering." I felt embarrassed that someone noticed. Yes, it was purposeful in the sense that I was trying to tamp down the anxiety, but aimless in the sense that I didn't want to spend an hour this way.

It was even worse when I'd leave a store not buying anything, after an hour or two circling around it. Once I went to an arts & crafts store to buy a photo album, and my mind kept generating reasons why a particular album wasn't "perfect"--the color, the shape, the size of the pages. I'd try to designate one as "important"but once I picked up an album, the other criteria would suddenly seem urgent. After a couple hours I finally chose one, because it was on sale, but then when I got to the checkout, it wasn't on sale like I had thought it was, and I panicked and put it back.

Shopping was one of the first issues I dealt with when I started Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy. Next, I will be writing about a trip to the grocery store with my friend J., who is a spontaneous shopper--talk about an Exposure!


  1. Just found your blog! I can totally relate to your shopping experience, great post! It is so helpful to know that others are going through this. It sort of drives home the point that we are dealing with a disorder, and it makes it feel easier to tackle.

  2. Glad you found my blog! Yes, the first time I read something by Dr. David Veale about how people with indecision OCD put the kind of effort into deciding about routine things that most people put into deciding who to marry, it was amazing! I always thought it was just me being odd, rather than a disorder that can be described, and dealt with.

  3. I kind of figured out a solution to this problem. I used to do the exact same thing spending long amounts of time in stores unable to make decisions or just looking at things.

    My favorite dog became very ill early this year. I decided that I could not leave him home alone and he had to go with me everywhere. So when I go to the store, he waits in the car for me. I can't leave him alone in the car very long (I leave the car running with the ac on and lock the doors with a second key), but still won't leave him for more than about 10 minutes.

    So I am forced to go into a store, make decisions, check out and leave.

    It is bad in a way, as I feel as I have just shifted my anxiety to my dog, but at least I get in and out of stores quite quickly now. It also makes me plan out a list in advance so I know what I need to get and where I need to get it from.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.