Shy bladders are — you guessed it — a form of social anxiety. The technical term is paruresis. Some literature suggests that paruresis is much more common among men, as around 90% of sufferers are male. Other sources suggest that although sufferers seeking treatment are more likely to be men, the prevalence rates are nearly equal between men and women. Regardless of prevalence, unfortunately, I am one of those women.
I’ve had a shy bladder for over ten years. It’s something I have to thing about every time I leave my house. Every. Single. Time.
Like with sexual arousal, there are multiple muscles that need to be sufficiently relaxed for urination to be possible. My brain is just so spectacular that it decides sometimes, regardless of urgency, that it’s not going to let me go.
The first time I remember being aware of my fear was on a field trip in sixth grade. I was eleven years old. My class was wedged onto a charter bus, and a cross-legged friend complained to me that she needed to pee. “Duh, use the bathroom in back,” I cleverly offered.
“I can’t do that,” she said, “because someone might hear me peeing.”
Hear her? As in, people actually listen when other people use the bathroom?
I was baffled. That epiphany is likely how this anxiety started. As a youngster, I didn’t understand my shy bladder as a fear. All I knew is that when I had to pee and I wasn’t in my own home, I couldn’t. I didn’t understand why. I don’t remember using a school restroom growing up more than two or three times, max. Even in college, between classes, I would walk from building to building until I found an adequate restroom. Otherwise, I would just “hold it” until I got home.
On long family car trips when we would stop to refuel and grab a bite to eat, my mom and I would toddle off the to the restrooms. She’d yammer at me to hurry up, which made peeing on command exceedingly difficult. In a desperate attempt to force my flood gates down, I learned to repeatedly hit my lower abdomen with my fist.
For a while, my strategy worked. My guess is that I trained my body to relax through an accidental self-fulfilling prophecy. I knew that if I kept hitting, I would eventually be successful. During that first couple years, I was.
That no longer works. One too many times of feeling myself tense up despite my punching rendered the effort was futile, so I’m back to square one.
I know, I know. Going to the bathroom is a fact of life.
…and going #1 is still a lot more socially acceptable than going #2. I am well aware that peeing should not be a big deal. I’m not bothered by the sounds of other people going. In fact, I’m jealous. That’s what makes my situation even more frustrating. Mentally, I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea of urination; physically, my body won’t cooperate because, no matter how hard I fight it, the resistance is all in my head.
Most of the time, I dread public restrooms.
If there is a bathroom attendant present, I’m screwed. Shorter stalls with teeny doors and wide hinges? Nightmares. There’s just so much that can go wrong between the stages of me first sitting down and me not being able to relieve myself before I stand back up.
If restrooms are small with only two or three stalls, they feel more intimate, i.e. less private. That’s bad. Lines are more likely to form on busy days, thereby making me feel rushed, which never leads to good things happening south of my equator. And everyone can hear everything, so they know exactly when (read: if) I start to pee. I know fellow bathroom-dwellers don’t care and aren’t listening, yet the possibility that they could listen if they wanted to makes me anxious.
Bigger restrooms are easier for a pretend feeling of anonymity, but that also means more potential witnesses for my performance. I don’t like crowds. Again, I know they don’t actually care why I’m there or what I’m doing, but by the time I process that logic, it’s too late, and I’m already tense.
Single seater rooms in back corners of restaurants, on the other hand, are a saving grace, as long as there isn’t a huge gap between the base of the door and the floor. These restrooms are often secluded, and I can turn on hand dryers and the faucet to make more noise if I need help getting my stream started. This luxury alone is one of the main reasons I’m willing to pay exorbitant Starbucks prices, because Starbuckses always have at least two single-user restrooms available for customers. $5 for a chocolatey, whipped cream mess-in-a-cup and peace of mind? Definitely worth the splurge.
Bathrooms in people’s homes can be even worse.
If they’re in a remote location of the house, awesome. Those are my favorite. If they have the fan automatically linked to the light switch, so that turning on the lights creates ambient background noise, that helps tremendously. But, when the most available bathroom is in the middle of the house, I my stress peaks. My only chance is to turn on the faucet loudly. That’s a usual remedy to which I turn, as long as the faucet makes lots more noise than I can. But, even so, my anxiety reminds me that anyone who is listening could notice exactly how long the faucet’s been running, which defeats its purpose entirely.
I’m selective about who I tell, and when.
Some of the people I have told have been supportive and sympathetic. They don’t think it’s a big deal either, and they have volunteered to do whatever I need to make the transaction easier on me. Kind female and male friends never give me grief when I take a little longer in public restrooms because I’m waiting for everyone else to leave. I’ve sometimes had female friends who will talk loudly or keep a faucet running on my behalf to keep background noise constant until I’m done. Other times, female friends have offered to wait outside a restroom so we can go in separately, despite there being plenty of stalls for us both. All favors are greatly appreciated.
Past boyfriends (and my mother — Really, mom? No sympathy?) have shown the least compassion, by far. Sometimes when I share my struggle, I get an eye roll or a chuckle and an “Oh, come on! Just get over it. That’s stupid. Just, y’know, don’t think about it.”
To them I say, keep laughing, boys. Just wait ’til you’re stuck with a limp dick a few decades from now.
Fortunately, I’m not held as hostage by my bladder as I used to be.
At work, diligent listening helps me time my trips to the bathroom based on when foot traffic is lightest. The friends who I see most already know my situation, and whether they make fun of me or not, they respect my needs. I pay special attention to how much I’m drinking when I’m outside of home. When necessary, I make it obvious how much liquid I’m consuming so that no one will blink an eye to me traveling frequently to the restroom, thereby giving me more chances to succeed in relieving myself.
But, I’m not yet able to reliably go to the restroom if there is another person present, no matter how well I know (and like) that person. Lord help me if I ever date someone who is into golden showers…
Until I can overcome my shy bladder, I plan to continue surrounding myself with people who don’t mind my neurosis. Love and hugs to them all.