11/05/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's the Cure for Shopping Dread?

In my wallet, I have a receipt for a pair of eyeglasses. It's an old-fashioned receipt: unwieldy and rectangular, with an imprint of my credit card -- the kind of receipt I wrestled with when I was 15, working at Fred's Restaurant, ringing people up incorrectly. The receipt is my ticket to claim my glasses when they come in, which is probably something that wouldn't make most people feel triumphant. It probably shouldn't make me feel triumphant; it's the kind of thing I should be good at by now. These transactions should be effortless and weekly -- I need glasses, I get glasses.


I lost my last pair in a river in Alaska. I was in a raft, attempting to paddle, spacing out. It was the summer after my first husband died, keys and glasses and days slipped through my fingers. It was 1999, 15 years ago. In those years I have managed to grieve more and then less, teach, quit teaching and start again, fall in love, study Spanish in Mexico, have two children. I have not managed to get myself in the door of the glasses store.

My reluctance isn't about trying not to consume, or feeling the errand isn't worth the time. I'm not sure what it's about, except that I dread the part where the saleswoman will start picking things out, and I will have to put them on, and none of them will be great, and she'll love the especially ugly and expensive ones, and then I'll have to choose. Do I sound like I am still 15? How could I have not learned this skill?

The problem is, I've treated shopping the way I've treated playing the guitar or meditating -- it's one of those things that I intend to learn to do, but I never get around to. I waited until three weeks before my first wedding to start looking for my dress. During those three weeks, I drove around Denver, causing panic in saleswomen throughout the city. My friend Forest came to my aid, and took me to her favorite store. Eventually we found a nice dress, after which we had two hours to find shoes. I grabbed some so-so sandals, figuring no one would see them under the dress anyway. I wasn't bothered; Forest felt terrible, like she'd failed at her appointed duty to make sure I got this right. All through the reception, she kept glancing at my feet and shaking her head.

I don't want to give the impression I'm a slob. While I tended toward jeans and oversized sweatshirts when I was 17, I understood at some point that I needed to move on. But in a way I still stick to a uniform. I probably should have been a guy, because I can't help the fact that when I find jeans that fit perfectly, I buy two pairs and wear them until they get holes in the knees. They are comfortable, they look good, and that's where I stop, because then I don't have to go to the store. I have my dress-up uniform, too -- a look acquired with the help of my friend Daniel, who is always happy to see me expand my wardrobe. (We have a plan to trade skill-sets - he's supposed to help me learn to enjoy shopping, and I'm supposed to help him learn to enjoy saving money.)

What's hard for Daniel to understand is that I am store-avoidant. I can't quite explain it myself. I don't avoid many things in life -- I'm fine with hard conversations, tough times, jumping into the freezing ocean at midnight. But it takes me an inordinately long time to get around to replacing shoelaces, or buying a sunhat. I don't even like the grocery store. I try to like it each time I make the large weekly trip for my family, and though I don't look forward to it I always get it done. But if I could, say, trade someone my trip to the grocery story for their weekly visit to a sick relative in the hospital, I probably would.

Stores that hold things I'll be wearing conjure the most dread. Nothing seems to ever come out right. It might have all started when I was 15. After years of devoting myself to ballet, I gave it up. I'd been dancing four times a week for hours at time, and I hadn't realized this had affected my body much, until I went from being flat-chested to wearing an underwire bra in the span of a month. I stared in the mirror horrified to see a Dolly Partonish figure, but with Michael Jackson hips. Thus, the large sweatshirts, paired with Levi's. I've gotten used to the body, but I can still end up feeling humiliated, trying to find swimsuit and dresses to fit it.

Plus, being five-foot-one, the clothes that work for my frame don't quite work for the rest of me. My personality feels suited for loose, casual things, and yet if you put those things on me I am barely visible under the fabric. So the typical visit to the store involves the saleswomen pleading with me to try on whatever I've chosen in a smaller size. It doesn't seem to matter what size I choose, they want me to go one smaller. I do, and then after trying the clothes on at home and feeling uncomfortable, I bring them back. Daniel once complained that Americans, unlike Europeans, dress as if they need to be able to hop up and play baseball at any moment. Exactly! I told him. If I can't move around, I feel restricted, and what's the point of that?

But I need to change my attitude toward shopping, because not only do I need clothes from time to time, I'm worried that I'm rubbing off on my daughter. She's only six and she already says things like, I hate outfits. To most mothers this might not sound like a bad thing, but it makes me nervous. My friend Lorraine laughed when I told her this. She said she tries hard not to let her daughter see her fuss over her appearance; she thinks it's great that my daughter sees me throw on my jeans uniform or my dress-up uniform and walk out the door. It's true; I may be the only mother out there saying she wants to encourage her daughter to shop. I don't want her to shop excessively; I just want her to learn how to do it well, so she's got the skill when she needs it. I want her to think, I need a new shirt, and then proceed to go get one, rather than having a month (or in the case of my glasses, 15 years) lapse between the thought and the deed.

So I'm trying to get on track, to take care of purchases when they occur to me, the way I take care of other obligations in my life. Which is why I'm very happy to be heading to pick up my glasses. I wish I could say that I'd purchased them on my own, but it actually took Lorraine, saying, why don't we do it now, there's a place down the street. That's the kind of thing she knows, a place down the street. And there I was, staring in the mirror under the saleswoman's scrutiny, and I couldn't tell which frames looked good and which didn't, honestly, but I trusted Lorraine, and none of them were perfect anyway, which if I can remember -- that none will be perfect, that it's not about something perfect but something good enough -- I may be able to change my ways.

Excerpted from Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping, edited by Kerry Cohen, with permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.