An hour to go before my counselling appointment, I’m in the State Library of Victoria. My glutes are clenched and my stomach is churning. I’m concentrating hard on neatly lined up book spines until the urge passes. I can’t hurry to the bathroom because the risk of not getting there in time is too high. Best to stand still. Lost between rows of bookshelves would be my sweet spot except for the forever looming threat of a hurricane in my bowels.
As soon as the urge is under control, I hasten for my appointment. When I arrive, my psychologist Ivana asks what I’d like to talk about. I usually have more pressing family issues to raise but my lifelong struggle with incontinence is fresh in my mind.
“At what point exactly do you notice the urge come on?” Ivana asks.
“Well, it only happens when I’m at the library or the shops, any shop. Nothing happens as I enter. I guess it always begins while I’m in the middle of browsing,” I say.
I can tell she knows something I don’t. She explains that what I am experiencing is a visceral high-anxiety response to making choices in those particular settings.
I don’t understand. I emphasise that these are activities I really enjoy; anxiety is far from me at the library or at a bookshop.
It turns out that while I’m aware in my head of my relatively new capability to make decisions, my body hasn’t caught up and is still having a stress response to being in places where I’m surrounded by choice. The reason for this becomes clearer.
Growing up, I had little agency. From my clothes and hair to how I spent my ‘free time,’ my parents selected almost everything for me. As my schooling years went by, they chose my electives for me. I had to forgo subjects that excited me, like Visual Art and Media to study Technology and Biology instead.
Her words hang in the air between us as I awaken to forgotten memories of my parents fighting during every weekly visit to the shops.
The ultimate sacrifice was in Year 12, when they decided that I would be studying Accounting within a Commerce degree, only because I had proven that I wasn’t cut out for Medicine, Law or Engineering.
They dismissed every other suggestion I pleaded for them to consider. To them, I wasn’t qualified to know what was best for me. And they believed that one day, my husband would be making most of those decisions anyway. I wasn’t equipped with decision-making skills for adulthood.
Ivana helps me to see my anxiety is compounded by the fact that I rarely had positive experiences at the shops during my childhood. Her words hang in the air between us as I awaken to forgotten memories of my parents fighting during every weekly visit to the shops.
My dad would angrily loiter outside the shops, waiting for my mother’s ever-stretching ‘five minutes’ to end. She had forced him to come. My sister and I, in our childish compassion, would split up between them so that neither of them would feel like we are taking sides. Eventually my dad would threaten to leave without the other half of the family and on rare occasions, he did.
We felt sorry for our mum, who was trying to fill a void with her rampant spending; our dad kept her on a tight leash in so many ways and this was the one thing he couldn’t control without her breaking down. We also sympathised with our dad. He knew what it was to suffer from poverty back in his childhood village in India. And us kids were caught in the middle of their public arguments at the shops.
Thinking back on these memories makes my stomach and shoulders tighten. Dwelling on them gives me tension headaches so I try not to. Ivana encourages me to process the thoughts of resentment that arise by talking them through with her and other people I trust.
I still often walk into shops on an imaginary tight-rope with the voices of my parents in my ears, telling me when I’m making good or bad choices and to hurry up
These days, I still often walk into shops on an imaginary tight-rope with the voices of my parents in my ears, telling me when I’m making good or bad choices and to hurry up. I have to actively remind myself that they are no longer in control of my life until the volume of my own voice gets loud enough to drown the others out.
Lately I’ve been telling myself that borrowing a work of fiction over self-help at the library, doesn’t make me a lazy human. That choosing a dress with straps instead of sleeves doesn’t make me a bad daughter. That I don’t need to freeze up at the shops unable to choose between salt-reduced or protein-enriched peanut butter calculating the ratio of benefit. That my life choices are not being tallied to see if the good ones outweigh the bad ones.
The fact that I am a conscious consumer at all is fantastic progress. Over the years, I have curated my own set of strongly-held values; my parents don’t understand all of them but I don’t need them to. What I need is to trust myself with the decisions I make based on those values. I am letting the truth sink in that my life choices are mine. And I can take my time.
Ruhi Lee is a freelance writer.