I push the cart along, heading directly towards my next item. I have shopped at this grocery store for years – for years before my injury – so I know where everything can be found. I have picked up the salami and romano cheese; now it is time to get tuna and then some beans directly across the aisle. After that, I’ll grab some olives at the end of the row, then swing into the chips aisle to find something to go with my egg salad sandwiches this week.
I like the sense of mastery that comes from knowing where everything is in the store, the efficiency. I like having good food, and I like getting the brands I know I enjoy. What I don’t like, what I resent, is the energy expenditure. What a stupid, meaningless exercise to waste myself on. Regardless of what I get today, regardless of what I accomplish, in a month or two I’ll have to come back and do it all again.
I would rather be spending this time writing, or resting, or gardening in the sun outside. I would rather be talking to a friend, or in a coffee shop, or – no, actually no – not doing my bills. There are so many things I would rather be doing than food shopping. Says everyone, everywhere. It is not only the driving to and from the store (30 minutes each way) and the shopping (1 – 1.5 hours). It is the hauling it to the car, and then hauling it out again into the kitchen. Then, it is still not done. There is the unloading of the bags, and the finding space for every item so it can be found when needed. All told, for this task, I am easily looking at three and a half hours of my life, of my best energy spent. The best energy of the whole day, spent to shop for food.
What a waste.
There is no economical way around having to do it ourselves. Today, I am surprised by how much I resent this task, resent the hours and energy food shopping takes from the rest of my life. It burns in my gut. I’ve even been irritated enough to kvetch to Mary about it several times beforehand. Irritation. Frustration. A waste of my energy. So boring. This is a new thing, this irritation and boredom, something that has only manifested in the last six months or so.
In the years following my mTBI, food shopping has been a pleasure. Or a privilege. Rather, an opportunity at success. It was a big deal, for me to succeed at food shopping alone. It was miserable. It was clearly too much. It was a trial of my ability to focus, to drive a car, to find the needed items. It gave me a headache to load the items into my car, or even push a full shopping cart around the store. It was insanity.
But still, it had to be done. And I was determined to do it. Why? Because I needed to succeed. Succeed at least at one thing, even if I couldn’t succeed at much else. I needed validation of my existence, I needed to feel even a hint of independence. I needed to cling to the idea that I could contribute to my household, that I was an adult.
All those feelings, all wrapped up into such a mundane task. And it was a battle, for months, for years, to do it. A battle with myself to find the items on my list, to tolerate the fluorescent lighting, to deal with the noise of carts and people. A battle with my limitations, with my world.
The trick, in the grocery store, is not to see anything. Really. Trying to see items on a shelf is a quick way to become overstimulated, which quickly leads to overwhelmed, which almost invariably leads to anger, tears, and leaving the store. So, it is best not to see.
Obviously, I don’t wander around with my eyes closed. What I mean by not seeing is not allowing my brain to process my surroundings. I have become adept, over the years, at the soft focus. Enough awareness of my surrounding that I don’t run into anything. Not enough awareness of my surrounding to waste energy processing information that I don’t need to know.
And it is amazing, really, how little I need to know to accomplish the task of shopping. I don’t need to know the year, I don’t need to know where I am, and I don’t need to know how many types of balsamic vinegar the store caries. I just need to be able to spot the one I want, once I am standing directly in front of it. That exactness is made possible by me knowing – truly – precisely where everything we buy is located in the store.
Most of the world, certainly most of the store, I simply don’t see. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t need to exist, for my purposes.
The worst – both now, and earlier in my recovery – is when I am sent to find a new item. So much processing, for such a small thing. So many questions, so many choices. What section will the item be located in? What sort of item is it – something in a bag, a bottle, a box? Do I need to get a particular brand? If so, what are the colors on the bottle, the markings?
And then the scanning must commence. Scanning in a grocery store feels like giving blood, it feels like my life is flowing out of me as I stand there in the fluorescent lighted aisle, looking… looking… looking. Certainly my best mental energy is being spent, trying to make my eyes see something new and unknown. Sometimes I have to stop before I find it and then quickly leave the store because it all becomes overwhelming. Sometimes I am able to narrow it down to a segment of shelf. Then, there are more choices. Which one do I want? If they don’t have the exact brand requested, which one should I choose? Low sodium? That’s good, too much salt is bad for us. But it’s tamari sauce, and the main taste is saltiness. Regular, or organic? The one made in the U.S., or the one clearly from an Asian country? What are the ingredient? Does this one have additives, this one not? Decisions decisions decisions.
All that struggle, just because Mary wanted me to pick up something new at the grocery store. All that struggle, for something most people can do on a whim. But, alas, in this, I am not like most people.
I am glad I have graduated from struggling and pain, although I regret losing that sense of success at a task well done. I much prefer to be on this side of my healing process. Doing a mundane task and feeling resentment and irritation, but underneath those feelings is mastery of the task and a basic competence and wholeness of soul. I appreciate, now more than ever, what a gift it is to be competent. Even for such a small thing. Even in such a small way.