The first time I got lost in a supermarket without my mum I didn’t even notice it happening. I barely registered where I was or what I was doing. I carried my basket in a daze, stopping to pick up random items before forgetting why I wanted them in the first place. On one of my laps, I noticed some funny looks I was getting from the security guard and realised I had passed him too many times for too long a period to justify the emptiness of my basket.
I remember getting lost in Morrisons once with a friend, both of us wandering aimlessly individually before running into each other again and realising we were both overwhelmed. I guess I’m not alone.
Supermarkets can be intense places. Full of choice and option, they bombard us with colourful, enticing lines of packages. These neat packets of promise sit above small prices, more expensive in the middle, value options at the floor. Seemingly innocuous to many, a place they swing by on the way home from work or every Sunday morning for their weekly shop, when I get lost in the supermarket, the aisles seem to stretch before me. In times of trouble, I find that I gravitate towards them almost without noticing. Maybe it’s the familiar layouts or the immediate gratification of buying things. Maybe it’s the idea of food that makes my mouth water. Even in other countries, I find the local grocery store to be a safe space. I know how to move around it. I can pick up things, pay for them and then they are mine. This should be a simple process.
But there were days upon entering Lidl that I immediately forgot everything I could possibly buy. I had no plan. The bright white aisles of the refrigerated section offered ease, ready meals and sandwiches all packaged up in plastic and ready to be used and disposed of. They are a quick fix, a hit, and they know it. That faint buzz in the background, that’s not the electricity of the chiller, that’s the quiches. They know I’m tired and weak and they’re waiting to be picked up.
Fruit and vegetables were pretty and shiny and for people with better habits. Green apples and bananas were usually safe bets, items of food I’d actually eat on days like this, but the black moulding one in the fruit bowl at home squelches and I’d think unhappily about the better owners these bananas deserve. The canned goods stand staunchly atop their 50p prices, knowing I’ll rarely go for them. These aisles intimidated me the most sometimes, reminding me of their siblings back home sitting unloved in the cupboard, bought in a resolute decision to cook more.
The chocolate and crisps aisles still call to me, siren-like. I drift there when I’m down, determined to buy something to make me feel better. Another quick fix. Whatever’s on offer. A bright red tube of Pringles or a shiny purple bar of Dairy Milk will help. A leftover from secondary school where a lunchtime treat was a square of iced cake from the canteen. But more often than not, the instant comfort I longed for was replaced by nausea, flooded by memories of late nights filling a void, consumed in my bed unthinkingly. I am a big believer in the healing power of Malteasers but only when they make you feel better.
I wandered down those gleaming pathways without finding a thing, realising I’d been there for longer than is considered socially acceptable. I’d look down, realising that for 45 minutes, all I’d managed to pick up were some Activia yoghurts on offer and a packet of ibuprofen. Why was I here again? Carefully replacing the items on my way out, I try to return to myself.
Food is tied up with emotion. I have spent the last few years trying to unpick my relationship with it, trying to understand how my mental health relates to the brands I place in my basket. How on pay day I buy more fruit and vegetables and when my bank account runs low, I turn to the comfort of cheap biscuits and ramen. How I get sucked in by the marketing of Flipz White Fudge pretzels, suggesting that the offer will only last for a certain time. How I buy a packet daily during a particularly rough week and eat them without tasting them.
As my relationship with food improves, I find supermarkets less intimidating. But it is built into me that it is a place I go to browse, an activity for entertainment and not necessity. Growing up, driving through to the ASDA in Elgin could constitute a day out, me and my sister widening our eyes at the size of it. The choice available to us, filled with possibilities at low, low prices.
Now I finish my day at university or work and I get to the bottom of Leith Walk and I go to the supermarket. Most other shops by this time are closed, cafes shut, bars not really an option. So I browse, picking up things I need and things I don’t. I shop to shake off the feeling of being behind a till myself and I buy to remind myself that I need to eat. But I listen to a podcast and pick up things that I will make into a meal and I try to notice when I gravitate towards shiny, neon packaging.