I have a phobia of automatic toilets.

Well, more accurately, I just have a shit ton of bathroom anxiety.

Fair warning, I talk about peeing in this post.

And there isn’t really a point to my telling you this, except for the fact that I have googled the title of this post before and found mommy boards talking about their 5-year-old children/ the struggles of potty training in public and forums full of 15-18-year-olds all saying “I’m afraid too! I’m so glad I’m not alone!”

That’s right you 15-18-year-olds. You’re not alone. You’ve also got me, a random unestablished writer, in your ranks. We’ll probably survive the rise of the Sloans.

(Sloan is the particular brand of toilet sensor that I am most afraid of.)

Automatic Toilets

(They look like this)

Also, after that last post, I think it’s time for a little comic relief. Plus, I’ll probably wind up referencing this phobia in the future, so I figure it’s best to just get it out now.

I suppose I should maybe explain the situation first. Illustrating what exactly I mean by “bathroom anxiety” is kind of difficult. It’s not like I walk into a bathroom and instantly feel like everyone’s judging me. That’s just social anxiety localized in a bathroom.

That paragraph is going nowhere. So I guess, here are a couple of time ordered lists:

Things I assume normal people think about when they experience a bathroom:

  • “huh that air freshener sure is pungent.”
  • “is anyone in here? no? ok cool I like privacy.”
  • eew eew eew someone left a tissue on the counter
  • “huh, there’s a lot of toilet paper on the floor. I guess someone was a bit overzealous with the unrolling.”
  • “oh hey, automatic sink sensors, I hope they see my hands.”
  • ugh, don’t touch the counter, it’s wet with who knows what.
  • “this soap smells nice”
  • “why can’t the paper towel dispenser give more than 6 inches?”
  • “why is the trash can so far from the door handle? Now I have to actually touch it.”

Things I think about while experiencing a bathroom:

  • Oh good, many stalls. Is someone in here? NO? SHITTTTT.
  • No, fuck this, we can be in the space of a bathroom alone. Children do this. damn it margaret we’re not a child.
  • How do the lights turn on? Light switch? Agh no, it’s a sensor light switch, the lights could go out any time. Who knows how many minutes that thing is set to? 10? 5? I mean probably 15 or 30 but what if I’m wrong?
  • What if the light sensor didn’t register me? When did the last person come in here? When did they leave?
  • Oh god those sinks are automatic, what kind of toilets do they have? I have to pee but I don’t have to pee quite that bad.
  • why are the lights so dim in here why can’t there be a spotlight in every single stall why is that one so dark I mean come on bathroom designers, you can’t pretend that the light coming from the top and bottom of the stall door is enough to light each space, this is ridiculous
  • what if the power goes out oh my god
  • THANK GOD SOMEONE WALKED IN, now I have to pretend I was doing something with my hair or phone or whatnot so they don’t think I’m just some random bathroom loiterer.
  • okokokok they found a stall, now it’s time to find an appropriate stall, here we go. Walk like a normal person dumbass.
  • this one is well lit, let’s try that one.
  • Scenario 1: *opens stall to see automatic toilet* *Instant, paralyzing, bodily-function-halting fear takes over* NOPE. *walks right out of bathroom, will try again at the next place we go. *
  • Scenario 2: *Opens stall to see what normal people would see as a regular toilet* Ok, the flush mechanism is pretty standard, the toilet is normal looking, the flush hole is a little angular and we don’t like how aggressive the whole thing looks, it’s probably pretty loud, but we can handle that. right?? And we have time, the other person in here is still peeing.
  • Alright, peeing time.
  • *Pees like a normal person, but with slight extra anxiety because the other person finished peeing and when they flush it will probably be startling*
  • *Predictable flush-generated startling ensues, though lessened if I’ve had time to brace for it*
  • gosh I hope that person washes their hands so I have time to put my pants on while they’re still in here.
  • Shit shit shit that person was really quick with the paper towels, and now I have to flush alone
  • *Opens stall door* *clenches inner ear muscles* *Kick toilet flusher thing* *bolts to the sink area*
  • Ok, hard part’s done, now to wash my hands and get out of here.
  • *automatic sink doesn’t turn on*
  • *automatic sink turns on unexpectedly* *I jump, a lot*
  • soapsoapsoapsoapsoap
  • waterwaterwaterwaterwater
  • Towelstowelstowelstowelstowels
  • leaveleaveleave OhShitThrowTheTowelsAtTheTrashCan leaveleave
  • *Shudder*
  • Done.

Oh, and like a normal person, I do also question why the trash can is so far away from the door, because you’d think these places would catch on by now that people like to use the trash can after using their paper towel to grab the door handle.

Now, this is only at play in public bathrooms. If I’m in someone’s home, the only concern I have is whether I like the smell of their hand soap, because I’m going to be smelling it on my hands for the rest of the day.

But that is a pretty generic example of what happens.

And that’s just the factors that came in with a normal public restroom. But there are so many things about a bathroom that make the situation worse, such as:

  • The lights could be off when I open the door (usually I can’t convince myself to go in if the bathroom is pitch black when I get there. It’s like being able to envision the room in the dark makes it even more of a reality that it will get dark on me.)
  • There could be an air vent or other appliance that makes noise
  • I could really, really have to pee to the point of not having the option of waiting (which always adds anxiety, because of urgency.)
  • Conversely, I could be so anxious upon encountering something that I lose any sense of urgency or need to pee, which is worse because then I know I’m going to leave without peeing and, once out of the anxiety producing setting, immediately need to pee again.
  • I could be without my phone (a source of light in case the power goes out, because that totally happens so frequently)
  • The toilet could be weird in any one of the following ways:
    • The plumbing fixture could look weird or aggressive
    • The toilet or its seat could be a color other than white
    • The toilet seat could be a weird shape
    • The toilet plumbing could be that weird super tall version of plumbing that’s rare anymore but still not totally phased out of our society
    • The toilet hole could look aggressive
    • The toilet itself could look aggressive
    • The toilet could have a lid (Not necessarily a problem, but it is alarming because it is abnormal.)
    • One of those extra high seat extenders could be affixed (I’m not against them, as I realize some people really need them, but they spook me.)
    • As is the case with my usual work toilet, the plumber could have come in and used his plumber snake on it, leaving these weird grey rings inside the bowl in a totally nonthreatening but still alarming way
  • The stall could be extra tiny
  • A spider of any size could be present somewhere in the room
  • The door could be heavy
  • The place could smell weird in any number of ways
  • Unexpected noises from a neighboring room could happen
  • The automatic sink could turn on randomly, which is startling (THIS HAS HAPPENED)
  • The latch on the stall could be really difficult to move
  • The stall door could creak as I move it
  • Someone could have just told me a story about the lights turning off while they were in the bathroom, priming my brain to think of this scenario
  • And, of course, there could be nobody in there the entire time the whole ordeal happens, so I could have no other human to rely on in case things go to shit.

I tried to find pictures of these concepts so you’d be able to see what I mean by things like “the toilet could look aggressive” but all the pictures were taken from an angle that makes them look totally unaggressive, so it didn’t help my point at all.

Me and my family are pretty convinced that this phobia stems from when I was a kid, and we’d go to the bathroom and the automatic toilet would flush on me. But that’s a fear that a lot of kids share, and they all seem to outgrow it. My siblings were never really anxious about them (probably because I always manipulated them into flushing the toilets when we went to the bathroom together as kids, and were desensitized to the noise. My child self was a complete manipulative little shit to my long-suffering sisters, who obligingly did what normal people do and flushed toilets while I cowered from a safe distance, usually the door of the handicapped stall we shared.)

And, the explanation really only covers the fear of the automatic sensors and not the rest of the bathroom anxiety. I don’t know where the hell that came from. Why am I so afraid the lights will go out on me in the bathroom? That’s never happened to me before. Perhaps it’s related to claustrophobia, I’m not sure.

Ultimately, the crowning fear has always been automatic toilets. Every once in a while I’ll find a bathroom with 3 automatic sensors and 1 manual flush in the handicapped stall, and no matter how dark or creepy that stall looks, I’ll use it happily, relieved to have an alternative to the evil infrared sensors. Context is key, people.

Having this phobia taught me pretty early how things would go when I was in public. Restaurants are hit or miss. Transportation terminals are certainly not an option. Sometimes I’d get lucky at shopping malls.

We’d go on car trips, and I learned quickly that it would be unlikely that I’d be able to pee at rest stops, so I stopped going. Better to stay seated in the car and wait until we got to a restaurant or wherever we were going, where my chances would be much better. I would limit fluids on car rides and make sure I went to the bathroom before we left. Honestly, as a kid, I didn’t drink nearly as much water as I do now, and while I don’t think I was dehydrated, I think the lack of excess fluids probably helped me with some of those long car trips.

And I tried not to make it my family’s problem when I couldn’t use a bathroom, but I know my parents would, in the back of their head, carry around the fact that “well she still has to pee, she’s just holding it.” But at least when I was a kid, we didn’t go to too many public places for more than a few hours at a time anyway (with 3 younger siblings besides myself, my parents had their hands full.) I could usually wait until we got home. So I was less distressed by the situation and more just inconvenienced.

There were automatic toilets in the Panera I worked in at the end of high school, but somehow in the 2 years of working there, I never actually wound up needing to use them. The biggest challenge came when needing to clean them. I’d drape a cloth over the sensor, tie a few cleaning towels to a broom handle, spray the whole thing with cleaner, wipe it down with the toweled-up broom handle, gather all of my cleaning supplies, yank the cloth over the sensor, and run.

(I don’t know if you wanted to know that you may have once visited a Panera that had toilets occasionally cleaned by an anxious and neurotic teenager who was scared of the thing so bad that she couldn’t actually clean it like a normal person, but you can take solace in the fact that 1) the toilet was cleaned by other people who probably don’t have this phobia during the day, and 2) I did spray it down with sanitizing fluid, so the issue would more have been about cleaning supply residue from the places that I couldn’t maneuver into with a broom handle. …I maybe do request that you not judge me.)

And then I went to college, where the toilets in the dorms were normal and always accessible, and where most of buildings that had classrooms were old enough to have regular flush toilets. So that was just fine for me.

But then I started working. I remember arriving to job interviews after an hour and a half drive, asking where the bathroom was, being greeted immediately by an auto-flush toilet, and having to wait for a few minutes, just staring uncomfortably at the damn thing so that the receptionist wouldn’t think I was some sort of non-hand-washing slob and immediately tell the interviewer to douse herself in hand sanitizer.

And then, at my first internship, all of the toilets were automatic. They were all a particular brand though, so eventually I grew accustomed to that one brand, but there had to be other people in the room, and I had to use the one specific stall because I could trust its timer. (This brand in particular was well programmed to allow plenty of time for you to stand up and put pants back on, and emitted the same sound that many automatic soap dispensers make right before it activated the flushing mechanism, which was a nice little warning. why can’t they all do that?) I thought that maybe I had overcome my fear of that particular brand. Later that summer, however, I encountered a toilet in Sheetz with the exact same brand and model of sensor, but it just wasn’t going to happen.

I later returned to the same building for my current job at a different company. But all of the toilets on the 3rd floor are manual flush, so I’m safe. (Unless the building maintenance department decides to replace all of them with automatic sensors, which is my worst nightmare, because chances are they’d go with a different model, and I’d have to adjust myself to that one all over again, and I could never be comfortable drinking water at work.)

Husband and I live in Pittsburgh too. And this provides us many great benefits, such as sports events that we rarely go to, restaurants we rarely try, and music and art and theater events that we barely ever know are happening. At least the option is out there, right? (We do actually really enjoy the city atmosphere, the public places, the variety of things to do. We just also don’t like spending money that way right now.)

But being in or near a city means a pretty high population density, and that means most of the public spaces around here have an incentive to be modern and efficient and as idiot-proof as possible. Automatic toilets are seen by many building managers as an investment that will lead to cleaner bathrooms and fewer staff needed to keep them clean (though with all the stories on the internet of parents dealing with terrified children jumping off of a toilet that flushes while they are trying to pee, I’m not totally convinced that the floors are actually cleaner.)

This situation is only going to be worse as time moves on too. I mean, public places have been increasingly automatic since I was a kid, and that trend seems to be holding. Damn it.

But also, what happens if we have kids?? I’ll have to pretend I don’t have a phobia because otherwise the poor kid could catch it (“Mommy is scared of it so I should be too”) and this is not the sort of problem that should span generations. Maybe it will get easier. Like when I killed that spider in college with a tissue instead of 3 shoes and a textbook because the spider was on the window and a show would maybe have been a bad thing to hit on a window. I did not want to have my fingers only a tissue away from a spider, but my roommate was freaking out and it needed to get done.

I’ve tried looking at pictures of toilet sensors on the internet to desensitize myself, I’ve looked into the science of how they work (they’re infrared sensors, apparently), I’ve had a friend literally wrap toilet paper around the sensor before I went in the stall, but nothing works. Nothing takes away the carnal fear.

So I guess I’ve just got to live with it.

Or pee my pants. Whichever comes first.

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