Mental Illness Goes Grocery Shopping

Mental illness goes grocery shopping: getting there, remembering, deciding, and avoiding people

Living alone, I have to do all my own grocery shopping. It’s been that way for years, so no big deal, right? Well, what used to be a simple task has become a bit more of a production with mental illness tagging along. It turns out grocery shopping with mental illness isn’t a great combination.

My grocery shopping process

Getting there

The grocery store is a 10-minute walk from where I live. I usually walk, but sometimes I don’t even have the energy for that, or I’m not feeling physically up to it because of assorted physical health stuff going on, so I drive. I usually go twice a week.

On the walk there I try to be mindfully aware of the birds and the tree leaves rustling and such things, but if there’s too much stimulation from people, traffic, etc., I start to experience some derealization. I tend to conceptualize this as looking out at the world from further back in my head. It’s sort of like there’s a clear jello barrier between me and the rest of the world. I’m still connected to reality, but a bit distanced from it.

This isn’t an issue for me, but for anyone dealing with social anxiety, that can be a huge barrier to push through to even get out of the house.

Dazed and confused

That mildly dissociated effect continues when I’m in the store. I generally try to go in the morning when it’s not that busy, since peak times are pretty overstimulating. I’ll avoid making eye contact with anyone if at all possible.

I don’t do well with decision-making on the fly, so I always use a grocery list. The Google Keep app on my phone takes care of that, and I’ll carry my phone in my hand for the duration of the time I’m in the store. Depending on the level of cognitive symptoms I’m experiencing, I may remember much of what’s on my list, or I may remember nothing at all, and even with the list may still not manage to get everything I needed.

I sometimes need to make my list extremely detailed, otherwise, when I’m in the store, I’ll spend ages staring at the shelf deciding what brand and package size to get. It’s not unusual for me to end up simply not getting something because I can’t make a decision about which specific thing to get. While some people overthink when trying to make decisions, I tend to under-think, and the decision-making part of my brain just goes totally off-line.

My local store did some renovating last summer and moved a lot of things around from where they’d been for years. I still haven’t figured it out and need to use the aisle signs, even to find staple items I buy on a frequent basis.

Avoiding people

I avoid the pharmacy area; it’s where I used to get my meds, but there was an issue a few years back with them not filling my quetiapine prescription right before I was about to leave on a trip. Being not particularly stable, I raised a fuss and switched to another pharmacy. I don’t have any regrets about either the fuss or the switch, but ever since I just don’t feel comfortable even being in that area of the store.

This particular store always has lots of staff on the floor during the day, and they’re all quite friendly. While that might make the store more pleasant for a lot of people, I hate it. I’ve been shopping there a long time and recognize many of the staff, and occasionally with particularly vigorous greeters I’ll stop and pretend to be absorbed in looking at something to avoid having to interact with them. Yes, I am that asocial.

Checkout time

Continuing on with the asocial theme, I’m all about the self-checkout. I have no desire to interact with a human being who may be annoying and want to do small talk chatter. I’ve been doing self-checkout at this store for years, so I’m used to it, but sometimes my mind will go blank and I’ll stare confusedly at the till for a while.

The store charges for plastic bags, and you have to enter how many you’ve used. For some reason, I can’t just look at the bagging area and instantly see how many I’ve used. Unless there’s only one bag, I have to count by physically pointing at each bag. One-two-three. I’m not sure why I can’t do that basic task completely in my head, but it is what it is.

Shopping and decision-making

Now that we’ve looked at my own experience, let’s consider some other ways that mental illness can affect decision-making while grocery shopping. The basic scenario we’ll use for the post is being at the grocery store, standing in the cheese section, and needing to make a difference about what kind of cheese to get.


Perhaps contamination obsessions are telling you that if you don’t pick the right cheese and take it home in exactly the right way, funky bacteria in the cheese will wipe out your family.

Needing to make the “right” choice

Perhaps your inner critic tells you that if you make the wrong cheese choice, your family, or whoever you might be serving the cheese to, will decide that your bad cheese choices make you a useless human being, and you’ll be stuck with that shame until the end of time.

Not trusting your judgment

The self-doubt monster might be sitting on your shoulder all the way to the checkout, and perhaps all the way home, hissing at you that you know sweet bugger all about cheese and you’re not even close to being qualified to make any cheese-related decisions.

Overwhelmed by pros & cons

More options is not necessarily a good thing. With 3 options, you’ve got 3 sets of pros and cons to weigh. With 10 options, you’ve got a headache. If you’ve got 20 options, your brain might explode.

Thought paralysis

This can happen a few different ways. You might be paralyzed by indifference, and you couldn’t care less what kind of cheese you get, because you really don’t care about much of anything lately. You think you might possibly care when it’s time to eat the cheese, but it’s hard to make a decision based on a future possible interest.

You might also be paralyzed by overthinking. Similar to getting overwhelmed, this paralysis gets stuck in overanalyzing. Going so far in the analytical direction leaves you with nothing in the right here, right now. Wikipedia offers this quote from Alfred Henry Lewis: “The best thing is to do the right thing; the next best is to do the wrong thing; the worst thing of all things is to stand perfectly still.”

Or, like me, you may be paralyzed by underthinking. The part if the brain that makes decisions is away on vacation. The relative merits of the different cheeses don’t even enter the equation.


What? There’s cheese? I didn’t even realize I was in the grocery store…

Same same… and same

Decision-making can be avoided entirely if you get the same cheese every single time.

Manic buffet

Then there’s the manic need to have as much cheese as possible, as quickly as possible, and throw in the most expensive cheeses from the deli for good measure. Credit card limit? What’s that?

So there you have it, a multitude of ways that mental illness can affect the experience of grocery shopping. Do you have relatively simple routine activities that you’ve needed to adapt because of your mental illness?

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70 thoughts on “Mental Illness Goes Grocery Shopping”

  1. Physical impairments cause as many (and often similar) issues with getting things done as mental ones for me. One thing that’s relatively new though is I can’t make calls. I don’t know what it is. I get amped up even trying to call my sister.

    Probably a sign of being on dangerous mental turf since usually that’s something I look forward to.

      1. I’m thankful to know myself (and these issues) enough to see it building and be able to take steps. There was a time I didn’t and would “suddenly” find myself in real trouble.

        I’m also thankful for this community and those helping to break the stigma and making it possible to talk about these things. (That’s you. 😊)

  2. When I was living alone I also hated grocery shopping as it makes me anxious. I prefer to go when it isn’t much crowded and also no big rows.

  3. betweentwopoles

    I love the self-checkout line. I am definitely asocial, and I always like it when someone uses that word instead of the overused antisocial. I had some friends in college who were psychology majors, yet they still called me antisocial because I was shy and didn’t enjoy being in big groups. I enjoyed your story. I can relate with a lot of it. Thanks for sharing your struggle.

      1. betweentwopoles

        Yes! And the mentality that it’s bad for the economy is incredibly stupid. 😂 Some people NEED it for our sanity.

  4. This is a great way of describing how I feel. I never thought of it as dissassociation though. My husband does most of the shopping and I go when I need to get my meds. Otherwise I stay away. Online shopping has become my best friend. Thank you for sharing you are much braver than I am.

  5. Hi, I have not been in any store for about one and a half years. My family usually go and get everything. First it was because of the Bipolar and now because of the dementia. When I stand in front of the toiletries, there are so many to choose from, that I get so confused that I just simply leave it. The other day my husband decided I can go buy myself a chocolate. At the checkout the lady recognized me and chatted me up, while she rang it up. Then I took the chocolate and just left. She ran after me… auntie, you forgot to pay….

  6. I know how you feel with the grocery store in the sense of knowing where everything is. When ever I go to a different store I am lost and my anxiety with my eating disorder overtakes me. I start putting the most random things in the cart. Mostly binge food. It happens especially when I am alone. I have to stick to my walking routine from the produce section, to the milk at the other end, and circle back to the first couple isles by produce. The routine makes me feel peace and calm. When its knocked off its tracks, I feel lost.

  7. This article pretty much describes me when I out grocery shopping. I despise small talk with the cashiers and all I want to do is get what I need and get out.

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