I Feel Terrified in Restrooms. Here’s Why.

I need privacy to pee. If there is nobody else in the restroom, then I can pee freely, but when there is someone standing next to me, even if my bladder is close to exploding, my urethral sphincters will not open. I stand there, desperate to pee, yet completely unable to.

Everyone else starts to pee, and I’m still standing there not peeing. I start to worry that they’re wondering why I’m not peeing. I worry that they think that I’m just standing there so that I can get a look at their penises. “That’s a really weird thought,” I think to myself; I’ll explain where that comes from later.

I make sure to make it very clear that I’m not looking at their penises; I stare pointedly at the wall, or up at the ceiling. I end up feeling even more anxious, because now I’m worried about, and focused on, what the other people in the room might be thinking about me. I can’t just relax and let the pee flow out.

After a while, I will put my own penis away and find an open stall, a place where I can pee in peace. Even in the stall, it’s hard for me to relax, because I worry that someone will hear me, or that someone will not hear hear me. So then the urination stand-off continues. This is a common condition, called paruresis, which may affect more than 10% of people at least once in their lives.

Actually, things have gotten a lot better in the last few years. This article tells my story of recovery.

A comedy rant I did about public toilets in general

In the past, this affected my life much more than it does now. When I was younger, I used to get into situations where I was in a public place and I would be in pain from needing to pee, but I wouldn’t even try going to the bathroom. That severely limited my enjoyment of life.

Over the years I have developed various techniques that can enable me to pee in public. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I think that whether they work depends on the particular external circumstances combined with my internal state. I’ll tell you about a couple of these approaches first, and then I’ll tell you about how I think this problem started.

Men peeing in public in Varanasi, India — wikimedia

The foundational technique, and the one that I learned first, is to stare at a point on the wall and try to put all of my attention on it. I make my mind collect into that point. If I can focus my mind sufficiently, it seems to draw all of the mental energy away from the pee-preventing psychological complex, which then loosens its grip on my urethra, allowing me to pee.

I have varied success with this point-focusing approach. It is very much based on my ability to focus my mind on any given day, an ability which is unfortunately reduced—by definition—when I am feeling particularly neurotic. So this solution is often not available on the days when I need it the most.

A more effective technique, which I have used often, is to puff myself up internally. I try to think of things that I have accomplished and then imagine that I’m somehow more important that the other people in the room. Alternatively, I imagine that I’m a king and I’m just visiting this restroom to experience how my loyal subjects live. I know that this sounds painfully arrogant and narcissistic, but it’s what I have needed to do to empty my bladder.

At age 11 or 12

I used to think that two different traumas were are the root of my problem. The second one happened when I was about 11 or 12. I was on my own in a bathroom at school, peeing against a metal wall-urinal, when some older kids sneaked up behind me and pushed me into the urinal. I put my hands out to stop myself from hitting the wall, and I pressed the palms of my hands against the wet surface of the urinal. Thinking about it now, I’m sure that nobody ever peed against that part of the urinal, and it was probably relatively clean; also pee is actually pretty clean. I don’t remember how I felt, but I must have been surprised, even shocked, and at least somewhat disgusted. I probably felt scared as well.

Before I share the next bit with you, I want to point out that we all have traumas, and that we were all fucked-up by our parents. Our parents were fucked-up by their parents, and we undoubtedly have fucked-up, or will fuck-up, our kids. Anyone who tells you that they have experienced no traumas and/or had a perfect childhood is either lying to you or is delusional, or both. I’m sharing my healing and recovery process with you not to single-out my mother as a “bad mother,” nor to play the role of the victim. I’m sharing my journey with you to help to normalize and bring awareness to these issues. I think it’s very important for the mental health of us all to be open and honest about the possibilities for growth, healing, and integration (which I write about later).

At age four or five

I think that a more significant traumatic experience happened when I was four or five. I went into a men’s restroom on my own at one of the big, old museums in London, while my mum waited outside. It was probably the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum. When I entered the room, the only person in there—unless there was already someone in one of the stalls that I was not aware of—was a janitor. I went into one of the open stalls, closed the door, and started peeing. Mid-flow, something above me caught my attention. I looked up and saw a small mirror on the end of a stick and I could see that someone was looking at me. I felt terrified. I immediately forced myself to stop peeing, did my trousers (pants) up as quickly as I could, and left the restroom as quickly as I could. As I left the room, the janitor was no longer there, and I assume that it was the janitor who had been watching me.

With my heartbeat racing, I ran to my mum and told her what had happened. My mum minimized it, and said something like, “It’ll be okay.” I remember feeling really strongly that we should tell someone, probably someone at the information or welcome desk, which was nearby. I think that I tried to persuade her tell someone. I wanted to make sure that the same thing didn’t happen to other kids. To be fair to my mum, not believing kids about things like this is very normal, and was probably even more so in the 1970s. Also, minimizing and not wanting to “rock the boat” is very understandable.

There’s no doubt that this earlier trauma was more significant, and the later trauma, of being pushed into the urinal, probably stacked on top of it. The later trauma probably compounded and strengthened the emotionally-charged complex that activates in public restrooms. The resultant post-traumatic response is what prevents my urethra from opening, in conflict with my conscious choice to pee.

Recently, I started to become aware of a pattern. When I enter a public restroom and there is only one other person in the room, I feel very anxious. I noticed that I actually feel terrified of the other man in the room. Until recently, this had been occurring below my level of conscious awareness.

As a young man, even though I remembered those early traumas, I hadn’t realized how they were connected with my inability to pee. It’s very common, by the way, to have blind-spots like this in relation to traumas. Of course I feel anxious in restrooms. Of course I’m terrified of being in a restroom with another man that I don’t know and trust. Of course I have intrusive thoughts related to unwanted urination voyeurism.

As my self-awareness in this area increased, I developed another psychological strategy that I have developed for peeing. While I’m standing at the urinal, unable to start peeing, I send my mind back to that experience when I was four or five. In my mind, I enter the bathroom as my current adult self. I see what is happening, I enter the stall next to the little Duncan, and I drag the guy out of the stall and beat the shit out of him. This approach is very effective and lets me pee immediately. However, I feel even worse about this approach than the one where I puff myself up and think arrogant thoughts. I don’t like to perpetrate violence against anyone, even in my mind.

A while back, I was working with an NLP coach on a problem I was having with trusting my own judgement and taking action on it. During that session, as one might expect, memories of that museum trauma were indexed. The coach helped me to re-pattern those memories through an imagined experience of reporting the incident to the museum authorities and to the police. What resulted was a clear and strong perception that (of course) my judgement was sound. Of course someone should have been alerted to the problem. Of course other children needed to be protected.

As in most situations, anger, aggression, violence, and hatred are expressions of disempowerment. While it’s understandable—even human—it’s weak to be emotionally reactive, weak to attack, weak to harm, weak to perpetrate, and weak to abuse. It’s weak, and self-harming, to do these things even in the privacy of our own minds. Even though it’s weak, without self-awareness and a process of integration, it’s unavoidable.

When I need to pee, I have stopped beating up that janitor. Now, I imagine listening to little Duncan tell me what happened, and then I walk over to the information desk at the museum with him, and he tells them what happened. Then we call the police and tell them what happened. As I imagine this, I feel that part of myself finally able to grow up inside, from four or five, though 11 or 12, on up to my current age. I fill my body with confidence, no longer needing to puff myself up to be larger, no longer needing to attack to feel strong. Now I can relax, and my body can relax, and I can often enjoy peeing in peace even in the presence or other people.