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Why Grocery Shopping Is a Battle After My Traumatic Brain Injury

I survived a rollover car accident.  My broken bones and bruises healed. My brain did not. I sustained a traumatic brain injury. Often the simplest tasks present major challenges.

Grocery stores aren’t war zones. It just seems that way. I fight a war against anxiety, sensory overload and difficulty communicating. I can’t easily ask for help when I need it. That stresses me as well.

I plan shopping trips like a military mission. They’re scheduled in my calendar — date, time, location. I list everything I need; item, number, location. I mentally rehearse the drive to the store and the area of the lot where I will park. I mentally review where every item I need is located. I run through my pre-combat check list. Cell phone — check. iPad — check. Car keys, glasses, wallet — check, check, check. Breathing deeply, I depart.

The bright fluorescent lights glare off the ceiling tiles. Noise echoes. My stomach immediately tightens and heart rate accelerates. I stare at the bright colors and shapes of the never-ending shelves of cereal. Red, yellow, green, brown: cave men, birds, some bizarre man thing that bears passing resemblance to a leprechaun, or maybe an elf? Even knowing my selection beforehand, my mind is still shocked by the sheer number of choices. Slowly, I sort out the boxes for the one I seek.

Violation of personal space! A man reached out next to me. I jump and step away from him. My shallow breath rasping in and out.

“Bakery, line 4284… Bakery, line 4284,” suddenly blares overhead, causing me to flinch. My hands tighten on the cart in a death grip. A child starts a temper tantrum; the shrill screaming piercing through my head like a hot poker entering one ear and exiting the other burning my brain on its journey. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” chirps the backup alarm on the scooter. My arms cover my head in a vain attempt to protect myself from the auditory assault. Ear plugs! Now! That helps. Not much. But maybe enough.

My hands are shaking and turning white from my desperate grip on the cart handle. Sweat drips down my nose and drops to the floor. My damp shirt clings to my armpits and back. My stomach roils. I float in a sea of unreality. Everything is both more urgent while seeming to happen at a distance. Realizing I have the most important part of my shopping completed, I decide to check out and return later for the rest.

The mission implodes in the checkout line. All I want is to get this done and get home. The cashier makes small talk and I try in vain to ignore all the distractions and stay focused. Empty the cart. Do I swipe or insert the debit card? “Paper or plastic?” “Um…” Blank stare. “Paper or plastic?” “Plas-tic” I say with a slight pause and stutter. The man behind me sighs impatiently and mutters.

The small talk continues “Seahawks…”  Huh? Insert the card. Just follow the prompts.  But now the bags are piling up on the counter. I have to get them into the cart… but I have to enter my PIN. Oh, no! What’s my PIN? A voice boomed over the loudspeaker, “Customer Service needed in Aisle 4.” I jumped at the unexpected onslaught and covered my head with my arms.  Bloody Hell!   My hands came down.  What was I doing?  Right… my PIN.  But what about the grocery bags?  The cashier says something but it’s lost in the crashing waves of sound, lights, and fear.  Focus.  Swipe the card.

My brain is overheated and processing slows even more.

The man’s muttering blooms into a diatribe. “Stupid… r*****.” I’ve forgotten my PIN. My anxiety and humiliation grew. I stare at the bagged groceries still on the counter, then to the card machine as it mockingly flashes “declined.”

“…shouldn’t be out alone.” He continues his rant. I stand frozen and shamed. I can’t even check out. “Hurry up… idiot… can’t use a debit card…”

The cashier prompts: “Run it as credit.” I’m confused. And tired. And so very anxious. I have to leave. Now!

Dejected, humiliated, shamed I slink-run from the store leaving my pile of groceries behind. My mission failed. I failed. I break into a defeated run to my car.


I don’t remember the drive home, but I arrived safely. So I didn’t run over anyone. The panic attack starts almost immediately once in the house. I drop to the floor and curl into the fetal position as doom enshrouds me. This time I’m dying. I know it.

Vaguely, I hear a soft purr and feel a warm body and soft fur. Brighid curls next to me. My panic slowly ebbs and I lay on the floor cuddling my cat as my pulse slows and breathing deepens.

Grocery stores aren’t a combat zone.  But they may as well be.

I called for pizza.

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Getty image by Ahimaone.