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It's not me, it's the mall: Why shopping gives me panic attacks

SAM ISLAND/The Globe and Mail

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It happens to me sometimes. Total panic sets in. All I can see are the thousands of items in the store, row upon row of packaged goods, colourful, shiny and mostly plastic.

I can't see my small basket, with the five items I have chosen from the hundreds: the ones I need. I feel dizzy, panicked, flushed. I know what I have to do. I must leave the store. Now.

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The first time my husband saw me abandon a full shopping cart at a Canadian Tire, he looked at me as if I were the most mangled car in a three-car pileup. Now, he follows me outside and waits as I take a deep breath of cold air, reassuring me that we need the stuff in the cart. Really, we do. Well, kind of. Okay, we can abandon half of it, but we need the toilet paper.

In the 12 years since he witnessed my first shopping panic attack, they have become much less frequent. This is mostly because, as we became parents to one son and then another, we learned to shop with military precision to avoid a total of three possible meltdowns.

I should be happy that my attacks are occurring less frequently, but I am not. You see, I don't think I have a problem. Looking at all the new products invented during those 12 years, it becomes clear that as a culture we have a problem – a product problem. We are addicted.

For instance, do we need shower gel with tiny plastic beads in it, or shampoo that nourishes the scalp, or diapers that look like blue jeans? Or the worst offender to arrive on the market recently – those individual servings of ready-to-brew coffee encased in plastic?

Companies are banking on us feeling less clean without the beads, self-conscious about our scalps and unable to use a measuring spoon (my apologies if you got one of these gizmos for Christmas).

Sometimes, I think the only reasonable solution to our obsession with creating new products is to require each one to be approved by a panel of ordinary citizens from the Third World. If they think the product improves our collective quality of life, it gets the green light. If not, it's scrapped.

That should eliminate a lot. But perhaps my idea is racist, or at least colonialist, in a way I haven't thought of yet. And why should they be burdened with our junk? I would make us do it, but I don't trust us to be in charge of our own intervention.

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In any case, intervention may not be remotely possible. As a sort of consumer-driven environmentalism has gained in popularity, companies are filling shelves with "eco-friendly" or "green" products. The problem is, they are not replacing and eliminating their other products. No, they have simply increased their product range to include eco-friendly ones, using more material and energy than they used in the first place.

Of course, suggesting that companies reduce our choices in products sounds almost communist, and no one wants that label.

I wasn't always so conscious of the environment. In high school, I watched my dad cut down a decent-sized tree with a chainsaw. I felt nothing, and waited until he was finished and the vibrating sound of the saw had left my ears to tell him it was Earth Day.

When my eldest son was in junior kindergarten, he brought home a drawing of the Earth that he had made. It was so appealing that I hung it on our front door as a wreath. It wasn't until another mom commented about how horrible it was the children had drawn the earth on PAPER PLATES that I noticed this faux pas. That night, I took the wreath off the door and slipped it into the recycling bin.

The older I've become, the more appalled I am by our constant need for more. Part of the problem, I've concluded, is that we equate owning lots of things with being an adult.

When I was younger, I thought it was increased responsibility that took you from childhood into adulthood, but we don't seem to think that any more. This is why most of us think less of an adult who still lives at home. That person doesn't have his own place to live, might not have a car or even his own TV. He might have a job, and even a kid, but it is possessions that we have decided are the benchmarks of adulthood.

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My husband and I rent our small apartment and don't own a car. Our sofa is a hand-me-down, and at age 36 we only last year bought our first TV.

For a while, our family and friends were just waiting. Waiting for us to grow up and buy a place, grow up and get a car. Now, they give us plenty of advance warning of parties so we can book our car-sharing time.

Maybe they have given up on us growing up, or maybe responsibility is making a comeback. Responsibility, that is, not just to our families and their well-being, but to people in general. Responsibility not just to our immediate surroundings, but to our planet.

So, if you see a blond woman in her mid-30s having a panic attack outside the mall, don't stare at her. Join her. Because, believe me, you are clean. You don't need plastic beads in your shower gel, either.

Katarina Ohlsson lives in Toronto.

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