ADD/ADHD / Kate's Experiences

Grocery Store Dysfunction: New Adventures in Sensory Overload (Part 1)

Every so often, I have an encounter that so firmly cements for me the severity of my ADHD. I think I am doing better, and then bam I get smacked in the face by my symptoms. I had one of these experiences a few days ago at the grocery store.

As you can read on the about page, I currently live with my boyfriend Phil’s mother. She is a dynamic woman and I am continually in awe of her strength, especially after the challenges she’s overcome. She has some medical issues herself and going to the grocery store gives her severe anxiety. I saw this first hand at Price-Rite, when I went with her to do the weekly grocery shopping.

There were two loaves of bread. One was about ten cents cheaper than the other, but the other expired two days later. She couldn’t decide between the two. I remember having this kind of problem before I was diagnosed and put on medication, so I understand acutely how miserable grocery shopping must make her.

So I did what I usually do in instances like this. Someone cannot do a thing well but I can? I do the thing instead, knowing that when I cannot do something else, someone else will do it for me. It’s a comforting feeling, knowing that circle of support exists.

So I went to Phil and told him my plan. He would drive me to the grocery store each week, and I would run in by myself, do all the grocery shopping, and come back out to have him help me load it up. I have my driver’s license and I am comfortable driving, but driving through the woods where there is no cell reception or GPS to go to a grocery store I am unfamiliar with bodes really well for getting lost. He is prone to back pain, so it wasn’t a good idea to have him come in as well, much as I would’ve enjoyed his company.

When we brought up this idea to Phil’s mother, she was thrilled and gladly handed over the task of grocery shopping. So we were all set to tackle the situation.

I printed off the Ultimatest Grocery List and went to town marking it up. If you aren’t familiar with the Ultimatest Grocery List, it is the most massively comprehensive grocery list I have ever come across, available in regular PDF and editable PDF forms, now with vegetarian option. It’s an absolute godsend to those of us with terrible working memory. And totally free.

Now with comprehensive grocery list in tow, Phil and I went to Hannaford, a New England-only grocery store. The only way I can describe it is if Stop and Shop and Whole Foods had a baby, and Stop and Shop got custody of it, but Whole Foods kept sending massive child support payments that Stop and Shop wasn’t sure what to do with.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome grocery store. I am now quite fond of it. It’s very clean and brightly lit, and the people who work there are very helpful and friendly. But it still has that element of straddling two worlds — er, I mean, demographics — and it’s not quite sure what it wants to be.

I went in there like I meant business. I had my grocery list inside my binder, which was inside my pocket universe (giant carryall take-work-home-with-you-type bag). I put the pocket universe in the cart on the baby seat, pulled out my binder, and set it up like it was a lectern and I was about to give a lengthy speech on legumes. I clipped my pen to the front of my shirt and I was ready to go.

I got off to a good start. I made good time through the produce department after I was caught off guard by two giant fake trees “growing” in the middle of it (remember what I said about the Whole Foods making child support payments?). I headed on into the bakery and I realized I was having the start of panic symptoms.

It’s a very good thing to be in tune with your body, especially if you have any kind of illness. I learned, quite organically, to monitor changes in my body throughout the course of the day, and now my body unconsciously administers systems checks. I suspect there’s a strong link to mindfulness in my self-evaluations, but I have no way of knowing for certain.

When I was made aware something wasn’t quite right, I stopped and did a conscious systems check. Tightness in chest? Check. Heart palpitations? Check. Feelings of uneasiness? Check. Desire to flee? Check. I was on my way to a full-blown panic attack, which I hadn’t had in months, possibly over a year.

The next thing I checked to see if I was experiencing was sensory overload.

Sensory overload is the direct result of ADHD’s “attention deficit” aspect, but it is not specific to ADHD nor do all people with ADHD experience it. Basically, everything is being thrown at you and you can’t unconsciously pick out the important pieces and ignore the rest. When an autistic child breaks down in a loud place and sits in the corner and rocks back and forth, it’s very likely he or she is experiencing severe sensory overload.

After I was diagnosed with ADHD, I discovered that, for a lot of the moments I thought I was having acute anxiety and panic symptoms, I was actually experiencing sensory overload. I had too much stimulation, from too much noise or flashing lights, sometimes even strong odors, and it was too much for me to handle.

When I checked for sensory overload, I didn’t anticipate that I would have it. The store was quiet and not very busy with normal lighting. I didn’t smell anything besides pastry smells. But when I looked deeper into it, I realized I was still experiencing sensory overload, and it took me a moment to pinpoint why.

Then it hit me: I was overwhelmed and confused because I felt lost and disoriented and I was overloaded because I was trying to understand my surroundings and pulling in all the sensory input I could.

(This post turned out really long, so I broke it into two parts. Part 2 available here.)

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2 thoughts on “Grocery Store Dysfunction: New Adventures in Sensory Overload (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Grocery Store Dysfunction: New Adventures in Sensory Overload (Part 2) | The {dys}Functional Squirrel

  2. Pingback: A Basic Primer in Binder Theory | The {dys}Functional Squirrel

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