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What Grocery Shopping Is Like for Someone With Lipedema

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Here’s the thing most people don’t realize: for a person with chronic pain, a trip to the store isn’t a casual thing. It’s not a sudden decision to just go out and get groceries. It’s something I put off and try to do as little as possible. Because it’s not just a casual trip.

I wait until the milk has run out, the eggs are gone, the bread only has a heel left. I wait until the freezer only has dismal remnants of ice and my pantry has a few forlorn cans. I wait until it’s absolutely a necessity, often living on what few meager things I have left just so I can put off this inevitable chore, this painful event.

I build myself up to it. I make lists and get everything written down that I need. Then I take that list and pare it down even further. Do I really need that soup? That’s three aisles over from where I need to go. Do I really need that cheese? I can make do with the powdered cheese – it’s on the same aisle as this other thing on my list. It’s a constant dialogue, trying to get the list to be as short and compact and easy to manage as possible. Because I know – I completely know – this is a trial, a task, a monumental undertaking, and I’m not looking forward to it.

It starts with a pain pill. I don’t like taking them. Usually they’re some sort of narcotic, because that’s all that can really take any sort of edge off the pain. There’s nothing else quite as effective at managing it. I try to take these only when I’m absolutely at the screaming point, when every joint is yelling, when muscles hurt to move, when I feel like my entire body is aching and I don’t even want to move. My motions are slow and steady and I’m very, very careful not to bump anything or put pressure on anything, because that’ll increase the pain. So I take the pain meds and give them a few minutes to start helping.

Then it’s the car. Or van. Forget truck! Trying to get into a truck when you have chronic pain is a near impossible task. For many people with chronic pain, driving is a near impossible task. So I find someone to help me, a spouse or a neighbor. They’re going to drive me to the store. This is great. Except…their car is low to the ground. Their van is high above the ground. Now I have to face the task of getting into a vehicle.

I already know the seatbelt won’t fit me right, so I’ve got a seatbelt extender. I mange to get one leg in. I squeeze my butt into the seat. There are things already digging into my hip, my thigh. My leg doesn’t like this small space – it’s already putting pressure on my skin. Getting my next foot in is torture. It’s lifting, turning, pushing, pulling, all to get my legs into a small space in a car. They hurt already. They’re already starting to throb. My arm is already starting to hurt from bracing.

So I’m in the car, and I get to the store. Now is the walk to the electric carts. These are always just inside the entrance, but I have to get there first. So I’ve got my cane, and now I have to get out of that car or van. I’m about to put all of my weight and pressure onto one limb, one leg that already aches. So I do my best. I brace. I put my arm on the side of the car. I put my other arm on the door. I’m putting more pressure on those arms. More pain.

So I’m out of the car, and now I hobble to the carts. And it’s the usual carts. We all know these carts. The seats have no cushion, and often have sharp edges that dig into the backs of my thighs, against the back of my legs. The steering arms inevitably dig into my stomach when I try to turn or maneuver. The foot space is so small my feet and legs stick out to either side. We all know this. We’ve seen these at every store, and every store is the same. They’re standardized…this is exactly what every store is required to have.

So I get into the electric cart, after bending to unplug it, after making sure it’s charged, after trying to get comfortable on the seat. It’s impossible to get comfortable. At this point, I’m probably sweating a bit. I’ve reached that uncomfortable stage where I just want this over with and done.

So! Into the store I go!

I head for the produce first. It’s always at the front of the store, so it’s easiest. But it’s not. Not really. Plastic bags are not in my reach. Scales are not in my reach. The actual produce itself is not in my reach. So now starts the up-and-down routine. Brace myself, do a half-stand, grab the produce I need. Put it in the cart. Find the bags I need. Brace myself, do a half-stand, get the bags. Lean way over to get the produce back out of my basket; the handles dig in yet again. Now the scales. Weigh my produce. Now I’ve tied up my bags of produce. I’m good. My belly is throbbing with my heartbeat, my arms hurt from reaching, my legs are protesting the small space and those half-stands, but I’ve got the produce in the basket.

So on to the meat counter. The meat counter is always taller than I am. That’s how it always will be. So they take a while to see me. I’m below eye-level – they don’t know I’m there. I often wait for some time before I’m even acknowledged. So once that happens, I get to order my meat. Yay! So I wait for my order. They’re in a hurry. They go ahead and set the package on top of the counter, and head to the next customer. Leaving me looking up at that counter, trying to figure out if I can stretch just far enough to reach it. Can I use my cane to shove it off the counter and into my cart? How much effort is it going to require to get that meat off the counter and into my basket? Sometimes someone will be kind and help me. More often than not, I’ve got to stretch my arm and try to grab it, upsetting my balance, causing my entire body to scream at the stretch.

I’d rather be home right now. Home where I can bundle myself into my chair and attempt not to move. Attempt to not feel the pain that is now shrilling at me. I have to do this, I have to get through this.

At this point, pain is starting to make me sweat. I’m breaking out a bit, my heart is fluttering, I’m a bit lightheaded. I know I need something to drink. Cold water. Cold water to help with the sudden sweating caused by the pain. So now I have to take a break.

I go to the self-checkout and buy a bottle of water. I had to open the soda case and get one out. Pushing the door, reaching in, closing the door. Scanning and bagging and paying. All motions that are causing my arms to hurt more.

I’m wishing I could take more pain medicine at this point. It hurts. I hurt. My thighs hurt from the seat. My legs are starting to fall asleep. My arms are aching. My face is flushed. I’m drinking that water hoping to feel a bit better. The cold helps a bit.

So now I tackle canned goods. Not so bad, not that difficult. Except when they’re on shelves above my head. Then I’m getting up again and pulling down cans. That same half-lift that I detest so much. But I get it done. I get my canned goods.

Off to the frozen foods and dairy. Here’s the fun part! I can’t open those doors and drive my cart. I can’t maneuver. So I’m going to have to get up completely and open those doors myself and get the items I need. I play the up-down, up-down game. Open the door, pull out the cold stuff, stick it in the cart. Close the door, sit down, move a few more feet. And so on. Over and over until I get everything I need. The cold makes my arms hurt. My legs hurt from constantly getting up and having the edge of the seat dig in.

But I’m done. The frozen foods are done. I’ve gotten the gallon of milk I needed. At this point, I hurt. That electric cart, it’s been digging into the backs of my thighs. That seat, there’s no cushion. I’ve had people tell me before that I’m so fat, I’ve got natural cushion! I shouldn’t be hurting just from sitting in a cart! But yes…yes I am. Because that fat…it’s not normal fat. It’s not this delightful, jiggly, squishy fat. It’s like bags of hard marbles. It hurts. It presses on nerves. It’s hard and not at all a cushion. So sitting on this cart for more than about half an hour is agony.

At this point, I’m looking for a bench. I need a break. I need to spread out a bit, give myself a break. The cart is confining; I’m already developing bruises across my torso from the handles digging in every time I need to maneuver. So it’s a type of blessing to see a wooden bench I can sit down on to take a break.

Except…the stores don’t have these as often anymore. There’s a bench maybe at the back of the store, near the layaway. Or at the front of the store, where everyone will see me. And then I’m the fat person sitting on a bench next to an electric cart – and that’s all people see me as. And children often will point or say something. And if I don’t have someone with me to be an advocate, often I’m in so much pain all I can do is sit there and just…put my head down and sigh.

But I’ve got my groceries. Hopefully I didn’t need to go anywhere else in the store. Hopefully it was just groceries, and I don’t need to try to lift dog food or pick out clothes. I don’t have the energy left. I’m starting to feel just…tired. I’m doing my best, but I’m hurting, inside and out, and my body is starting to say it’s done. Let’s get this over with.

At this point, I’m headed to the registers. And if I have someone with me, great. They can unload. They can lift bags. If I don’t…welcome to an all-new hell. I have to get out of the cart. Again. I have to lift all my groceries onto the belt, leaning against the counter to brace myself because I am already feeling the strain. My legs are weak, heavy – it’s like wading in cement. There is nothing except the feeling of “let’s get this done. Let’s get this over with.”

So everything gets scanned, everything gets bagged, and hopefully I have the nice cashier that will put the bags in the cart for me. If not, I’m lifting those now as well. And my arms are hurting now.

I’m leaving the store, and I’m one big ache. Everything. Hurts. I just want to get home. So I load everything into the car. Every bag. Every painful bag, one by one by one. I know I can’t get that cart back into the store at this point. I know this. So I’m forced to leave it there, in the parking lot. I endure the stares of people who are upset I’m doing this. I can’t yell at them to say, “I hurt. I cannot do it. I physically am not capable anymore of walking back.”

Getting into the car…same thing. Hurting. Trying to maneuver. My knees are stiff; they’re not bending like they should. Lifting one leg into the car is like lifting a ton of bricks – my legs are feeling heavy and unable to be maneuvered. I can see they’re already swelling, puffy skin over my shoes. I just want to get home and get my feet up. Get home, get my shoes off. That’s all I want.

So I go home. And get out of the car. Here’s another fun part. Now I’m putting all of my weight onto one foot to get out of the car. Leaning that aching painful arm on the edge of the door or the side of the car to just get out. This is a special kind of agony. Because the edge of that door is digging so painfully. And my leg wants to twist – it barely wants to hold me up. But I get out of the car. I hobble to the door. Hopefully you’re on the first floor, or the door isn’t very far. Hopefully. If not…it’s a trek through a fog of pain and misery. I get the groceries in by some miracle of will and endurance.

And that’s it. I drop the groceries by the fridge or pantry or freezer. And I sit…I get in my comfortable chair. I wait for the pain to abate enough to function. That’s all I want. To function. That’s all I could wish for: to function long enough to put the groceries away. Forget fixing food. Forget eating or doing anything other than the most basic task. I’ve used up every spoon. I’m bruised. My spirit hurts. My body hurts. My legs ache, my butt aches, my arms ache. It’s all one big ache.

And so I sit in my chair…and I wonder if I can take more pain medicine. Is it too soon? Too early for another dose? Forget taking Aleve or Advil or Motrin or Tylenol. The only thing that ever takes the pain away now is narcotics like hydrocodone. And I hate that I had to have my doctor prescribe them, but living with the pain is just unbearable. So I take my pain meds and I wait…trying to keep still, trying not to move. Let them work, let the pain go away.

And eventually, it goes away just enough to let me function. Lets me microwave some food, lets me get the groceries put away, lets me do basic things again.

And that’s how grocery shopping is for someone in constant pain, for someone like me with lipedema, a disease of the fat that causes constant pain and discomfort and humiliation. That’s what it’s like to be in public. That’s why I won’t shop by myself. That’s why I only shop once a week, less than that if I can help it. That’s why I have to get myself prepared before I go out in public. It’s a great trial of pain, but I do the best I can.

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Thinkstock photo via Kwangmoozaa.

Originally published: March 14, 2017
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