My anxiety makes interacting with any stranger a stressful and unpleasant experience, but store cashiers were especially problematic for me. There was something about a uniform and position behind a counter that turned even a teenager working their first summer job into an intimidating authority figure.
I would somehow lose the ability to speak at the register, murmuring as I avoided eye and communicating via nods and shrugs. I used friends and family as a buffer, either by sliding my purchases in with theirs, handing them the money afterward, or just by begging them to stand beside me for moral support.
I even had dreams about being able to take my time in a store, looking at what I wanted, paying without having a panic attack.
My fear of the checkout line meant shopping alone was nearly impossible. I fantasized about it, probably more than I should admit. I even had dreams about being able to take my time in a store, looking at what I wanted, paying without having a panic attack.
Reality was slightly different. When I finally worked up the courage to step inside a small, nondescript thrift store near my college campus, all I felt was the cashier’s eyes on me. I was the only customer. Maybe I should leave, I thought to myself. Does she think I’m stealing? What if I trip and break something?
Another woman walked in, which just made the situation worse. Can she see what I’m looking at? I wondered, glancing down at the shirt in my hands. They’re judging me for it. I can’t pull this off; this shade of blue isn’t my color. I put it back on the rack and left the store, deciding going in was accomplishment enough—maybe next time I'd buy something.
Two years later, as I bumbled my way through interviews for anything that required an English degree (I felt I couldn't afford to be picky) and my first student loan payment date approached, I started applying to cashier jobs at local stores, simultaneously hoping for and dreading rejection.
On my first day at the craft store, my hands shook as I counted change. I was fortunate that the woman training me was patient and understanding, because everything that could go wrong seemed to. I didn’t make eye with the customers, forgot to ask them if they had any coupons, and was constantly told to speak up. More than once I shut the cash drawer before handing out change, which meant the manager had to type in the code to unlock it while I slowly sank into a puddle of shame and disappointment. It didn’t take very long for me to realize I was either going to have to fake it—or get fired.
It didn’t take very long for me to realize I was either going to have to fake it—or get fired.
So I started to pretend like I was acting. I memorized the same lines for each customer to pull off the part of a cashier: Hello, how are you today? Do you have any coupons today? Do you need a bag? Sometimes I slipped and said the lines out of order. When this happened I’d force a laugh. “Long day,” I’d joke.
Humor has been one of my biggest coping mechanisms for anxiety; I can turn a stressful social situation into a mediocre stand-up routine with just the right amount of sarcasm and hyperbole if need be. It didn’t take me long to incorporate this into my shift. If the customers laughed, it meant they weren't noticing my hands shaking as I scanned their purchases. It also meant they weren't yelling.
That was the worst. You would think rational adults wouldn't verbally abuse a cashier, but people would threaten to have me fired on a semi-regular basis, usually over something beyond my control, like an invalid coupon. I learned quickly that if people are laughing at the start, they are more likely to take minor setbacks in stride.
As the weeks turned into months, my hands stopped shaking. I tried new jokes on my regulars. Some even remembered my name. Customers weren’t scary anymore; I knew what to expect from them. I started asking people questions beyond my script: about their jewelry, their purchases, their days.
I started asking people questions beyond my script: about their jewelry, their purchases, their days.
I soon learned about time served in various wars, books published, kitchens remodeled, weddings attended. Customers came back to show me pictures of their projects. I attended a play at a local children's theater because I knew the costume designer, a regular at the store. She caught my eye after the performance and waved.
Around that time was when I realized, I love people. They are funny, thoughtful, and all so incredibly different. Everyone has their own fascinating stories, and it seemed like the more interesting the story, the more willing they were to tell it. With each story I heard, I learned strangers could actually be really nice instead of scary.
Then change crept in to other parts of my life. When I’d go shopping and the monologue of questions and insecurities started crashing down on me, I would tell myself, Pretend you belong. Pretend you work here. And I’ve taken to using my “cashier voice” when I make important phone calls or go to a job interview.
While I had been in and out of therapy for my anxiety since I was a young teenager, working in retail was a way to take the techniques I had learned, like mindful breathing, out in the wild. Because it was either show up or get fired, there was no way for me to chicken out, like I'd done on so many would-be solo outings before. As I became comfortable with my surroundings, work became a safe place to experiment, as I pushed the limits of my anxiety.
Even though I have since moved on to a new job involving a cubicle, I still feel a kinship with cashiers. There is no more frightening unknown lurking behind the counter; the unknown has become warm and familiar. Working in retail certainly had its drawbacks, but I look back fondly at my experience because of how it shaped me into a more confident and secure person. While I know trial by fire isn’t what's best for everyone, the social immersion ended up being infinitely better for my anxiety than what therapy alone was able to provide.