Coping with Agoraphobia by Shopping

About 20 years ago, I plopped into a therapist’s chair and whined, “I hate to shop!” He laughed and said, “Do you have any idea how many people sit in that chair with the opposite problem?”

I should have fired him on the spot (except he was otherwise an excellent psychologist). I really did suffer from anxiety when shopping. Even though it was not technically agoraphobia, I use the term literally based on the root, meaning “fear of the marketplace.” I wasn’t afraid to go out and had no problem with open spaces, but I hated shopping. I joke that I shop like a man: I know what I need, I know what store should have it; I go to that store, find the item, pay for it and leave. (I’m very good at rationalizing if it’s not exactly what I had in mind, thinking “it’ll work.” This sometimes happens to my regret and I wish I had spent a little more time looking for the right item.)

One thing my therapist failed to recognize, because at the time I didn’t know about it either, is that allergies and possibly pregnancy (according to one otolaryngolist) had caused a type of Menière’s disease,  a disorder characterized by tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vertigo and, I learned in a Menière’s support group, “the Kroger effect.” In other words, fear of  shopping.

My problems began during my second pregnancy and became worse in the months after my second daughter was born. We were living in the D.C. area and I had every test known to medicine at the time at George Washington University and the Washington Hospital Center.

Humans maintain balance in three ways: through the eyes; by our kinesthetic sense of where the body is in space; and the balance system in the ears. If one or more of these is compromised in any way, disorientation, vertigo, anxiety, even nausea, may result. Shopping malls, video arcades—any place with lots of visual (and aural) input can be overwhelming. The vestibular system in the ears is already compromised with Menière’s. The only thing that could make it worse would be to have to walk on an uneven surface—escalators at the mall can add stress. I once had lunch at a Dave and Buster’s. The dining area was fine, but I had to go through the video arcade to get to the restroom. I should have held it.

Christmas was especially difficult. I made gifts—knitted scarves and slippers, baked goods—anything to keep from going shopping. Online shopping has helped, and our family has winnowed down people we buy Christmas gifts for, which I think is sensible anyway. It’s not that I’m cheap; I just think the obligation of buying gifts takes away the meaning. According to Scroogenomics, by Joel Waldfogel, it doesn’t make economic sense either, so I feel vindicated.

I once wrote a poem about my dislike of shopping:

69 Things I’d Rather Do Than Shop

A recent survey revealed that 46 percent of women preferred shopping to “great sex.”

Not me.

Not shopping.

I can think of 100 things I’d rather do than shop, the first of which is sex.

The others are

reading …eating…swimming…watching a movie…singing…dancing…talking to a loved one…talking to a friend…walking…lying on the beach…seeing art…visiting a public garden…listening to music…attending a concert…attending a play…doing art…cleaning…washing dishes…ironing…writing…hearing a lecture…watching TV…playing a board game…going for a drive…cooking…being a tourist at home…traveling…going to the library…having a massage…giving a massage…getting my hair done…getting a manicure…getting a pedicure…getting a facial…working out…sitting in a hot tub…bird watching…rock collecting…sea-shell collecting…visiting an aquarium…visiting a planetarium…gardening…washing my car…crawling through a bat cave…taking the dog for a run…boating…cross-country skiing…ice skating…going to church…meditating…praying…decorating a Christmas tree… knitting…mending…sewing…working on a poetry book…hosting a literary salon…meeting with the poetry group…proofreading…going to happy hour with co-workers…going to a party…watching a sunset…watching a storm…watching the surf…doing poetry readings…hearing poetry readings…playing with my grandchildren…reorganizing my files…

Well, 69 things, anyway.

And there is nothing, not one single thing — presuming I’m fed and sheltered — that I’d do instead of great sex. So there.

Over the years I have learned coping skills: I avoid malls and video arcades; I shop at the same grocery store wearing virtual blinders and stick to my list. Heaven help me when they remodel the store—I whine to the management! I use familiar stores, so Walgreen’s and Target are my second-best friends after the grocery store, and as an artist I prefer my local Hobby Lobby store to the cramped, poorly lit Michael’s.

My friend Jacob’s Thrift Horror blog notwithstanding, I get most of my clothes at thrift shops. I needed a long black skirt for my first Texas Choral Consort performances and didn’t want to wander around trying to find one and didn’t have time to make one. My husband, a director, often uses thrift shops for costumes for his shows and suggested I try Savers for the skirt. The first thing I tried on was comfortable and fit perfectly, and I also found a sheer long-sleeved blouse to go with it—for a total of $14.

That was my gateway. I have a tapestry jacket I get tons of compliments on every time I wear it.

A pair of Ann Taylor Loft black jeans. Tommy Hilfiger shorts. When we were getting ready for our holiday trip I wanted some nice winter pants for our New Year’s Eve dinner at Paula Deen’s restaurant and found a pair of Ann Taylor lined wool pants.

Ann Taylor lined wool pants, about $7

Most of these items ran about $7, but I have a sundress I paid $1 for at the mission store of a neighborhood church.

My one-dollar sundress.

Last fall we went to Rockport with our granddaughter, and after a day of perfect beach weather a cold front came through. We had taken summer clothes, so I went online and found a Rockport thrift shop. Gary got a jacket and I found a pair of black sweat pants that are now my favorite winter knockabout pants. We also got Chloe a beautiful doll, all for less than $20.

Jasmine had an earring poking dangerously. We cut it off and superglued it back on.

In addition to the prices, I like the selection. If I’m looking for a pair of black pants, all the black pants are together, and all the sizes are together, so I can skim through in a few minutes and try on a few pairs (yes, there are dressing rooms in thrift shops). The store either has or doesn’t have what I want. Unlike the mall,  you could go to 15 stores, and in one department store alone the black pants might be scattered among juniors, misses or career dressing.  You could spend an afternoon and not find what you like.

Chico's silk shift, about 50 cents.

My younger daughter has been shopping at thrift shops for years and now has a successful eBay clothing business, Phoenix Rising Resale. She finds designer brands, and the store where she shops sells by weight, so she can pick up a silk blouse for pennies. I bought a silk Chico’s shift there that cost me about 50 cents.

In case you think there’s an “ick” factor, the clothes are clean and the stores don’t smell any worse than retail at the mall. In fact, think about everyone else who’s tried on the clothes at the mall; the thrift shop items are probably cleaner.

Friends tell me of their favorite stores and I share mine. My mother was, and my sister and cousins still are, avid thrift shoppers. So is my husband. I normally don’t consider buying shoes, but on our holiday trip to my sister’s we stopped at one of their favorite stores and I tried on a pair of tassel loafers, a brand I later found are a mid-price sort of “earth shoe,” and they are so comfortable I wore them the rest of the trip and all winter with pants and jeans.

I rarely go to the mall now, except to Eyemasters for glasses or to walk when the weather is cold and rainy, and I silently thank all those shoppers for buying new retail so I can continue to find the same items for a fraction of the cost at Goodwill or Savers. My daughter told me she nearly bought a pair of shorts at Old Navy the other day and just couldn’t buy new retail any more.

Retirement had also helped reduce my agoraphobia. When I worked everything had to be crammed into evenings and weekends, and going out in Saturday traffic and dealing with weekend crowds was enough to make anyone agoraphobic. I don’t mind going shopping on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, often for household items because we have redecorated and reorganized since I retired, and you don’t have to try on a dish drainer.

I still shop with a list and stick very close to it. If I need to go to several stores, I have a route mapped out in my mind and try not to deviate from it.

I will never just “go shopping” for no reason other than to go shopping, and browsing still makes me a little dizzy after about 20 minutes, so I’m not cured, just a whole lot less anxious. I actually sometimes even enjoy myself.

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2 responses to “Coping with Agoraphobia by Shopping”

  1. becomingcliche says :

    I buy ALL of my clothes at thrift stores. Sometimes with the price tag still on.

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