Everyone appreciates public toilets, but for anxiety disorder sufferers they’re truly indispensable. Lucy Gable explains how toilets help her deal with her agoraphobia, then counts down her five best and worst in Auckland.
It’s mid-morning and I am sitting beside a stone-walled harbour on the southern coast of Croatia. The landscape is heartstoppingly beautiful, a scene so tranquil it could be a classic painting hanging in a small-town art gallery. My family and I are due to catch a shore-hugging tourist barge to the walled city of Dubrovnik. But I’m refusing to board. I’m 21 years old and on my first international holiday as a legal adult. I should be filled with the joys of travel – hot Croatian waiters, fantastic cheap wine, sunshine and abundant cheese – but my panic is getting in the way. Through my sobbing panic, I struggle to find the right words to explain to my baffled family what I need to feel better.
All I know is that getting on a water bus to putter across the sparkling Adriatic harbour for a total of 20 minutes fills me with sheer dread. My catastrophising brain is filled with visions of me hurling myself overboard, screaming like a banshee, in a fit of fight or flight panic. Not unlike a cat trapped in a small hatchback, rolling backwards down a hill towards a cliff, while on fire (the hatchback, not the cat. I’m not a monster, even metaphorically). In the end, I make our whole group wait around for another hour until the next boat docks; this one is only deemed acceptable by me due to the inclusion of a toilet.
I had been diagnosed with a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, a Panic Disorder and an Agoraphobia Disorder a few years prior, but it would be years until I truly understood my disorders or how to manage them effectively.
On the same trip, while wandering the streets of Florence, my Mum told me I was a fantastic travel companion because I could always be trusted to find a usable public toilet. In any country, in any city I am able to identify a decent toilet in a moment’s notice. This is my superpower, finding toilets. If someone out there is adept at crafting stretchy superhero outfits, mine should be pool-table green with a big black “Vacant” toilet sign on the front. Please and thank you. But however lightheartedly I frame it, I must concede that my toilet-detecting abilities are a shit trade-off for a life filled with panic attacks.
So, how did a phobia of public spaces and social interactions become the radioactive spider which engendered my superpower? To start to understand, you need to know what agoraphobia is and what daily issues it causes.
If you were to ask a person at random, most would say they know what agoraphobia is – the fear of outdoor spaces (literally: the fear of the market place, or agora). But other than those who suffer from it, few truly understand what an agoraphobic person goes through, and how they cope with the disorder in everyday life.
Firstly, I’d like to point out that most of us do manage. We are not – as some sensationalist documentaries would have you believe – prisoners in our own homes, peering out from a crack in the door to greet our increasingly worried families, refusing all efforts to lessen our inevitable slide into full-on Simpsons Crazy Cat Lady territory. We hold down jobs, and have social lives, hobbies and relationships, but in some situations, ostensibly normal tasks can become far more complicated.
In essence agoraphobia, for me*, is a fear of losing control of my body. This includes the fear of losing control of the parts of my body that are not necessarily always under my control. For example, the involuntary muscles which go about their corporeal routines without conscious effort: the stomach, intestines, oesophagus – the entire digestive system, in fact – the bladder and the skin, notably the sweating, twitching and blushing parts. My need for physical control extends to my physical autonomy as well – my ability to get up and leave any situation if I should feel the need to. Agoraphobia is about always having the choice to leave any situation which makes me feel uncomfortable.
The issues arise almost always in between one place and the next. Buses, trains, cars with other people; sometimes walking with other people; strangers’ houses; queuing in banks or post offices and taxis are all major issues for me. Once I get to a “safe” place (home, work, a cafe or a bar – pretty much anywhere I feel safe, which has a toilet) I can get on with life like anyone else would. But on a bus or train I’m often unable to get up and walk away – at least, not in an instant – and if my body were to go off on a rant (be it passing out, sweating profusely, throwing up, twitching randomly, or God forbid needing number ones or number twos) well, then I’d be fucked. Herein lies the opportunity for panic.
Simply put, my agoraphobia is a massive control freak and a total fuck-trumpet.
As the owner operator of an anxious body, I’m painfully aware that my guts can make the aforementioned physical transitions at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, those lightning quick changes feed my phobias, powering the vicious cycle of physical discomfort and panic. Until somehow I find myself locked in the public toilets outside the Point Chev library, trying to scrape together enough mental fortitude to take a bus home, only to retreat back to the cubicle again and again, crying my eyes out in impotent frustration.
These are the physical aspects of an agoraphobic disorder (the same or similar to many other psychiatric disorders: panic disorders, generalised anxiety disorder, PTSD just to name a few**). If you think anxiety – or any mental health issue – is “just in your head” you are mistaken, or perhaps just ill-educated. I’d love for you to be within range when my body does it’s thing. Let’s just see how “in my head” it is when I’m projectile vomiting on you, Exorcist style, because my mind doesn’t like the look of that taxi van.
In public, when the rampaging bear of panic gets too close for comfort, my personal safe place is a toilet cubicle. The reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, because of the physical side effects mentioned above, during a panic my mind will be racing with every possible bad outcome imaginable. Such as: Do I suddenly and rather desperately need to pee? If I hold onto that pee will my bladder and kidneys explode making a huge mess all over this train and emotionally scarring the small child next to me? Am I sweating and/or feeling violently sick or lightheaded? Are those cramps in my tummy just the panic, or did I eat a bad butter chicken pie again? The answers to these questions and many more can only be ascertained in the confines of a private toilet cubicle.
The second and slightly less visceral reason for my toilet obsession is that the toilet is the one place in public where I can be completely alone without judgement. No one can, or should, try to enter your personal space when you’re in a bathroom. The lock on the toilet door is sacrosanct (I’m aware this is sometimes not the case, but let’s not get into that, as the mere thought of people barging into my stall mid-pee keeps me up at night) and social etiquette should allow me the time I need to regain my composure, check all my bodily functions are behaving and have a little cry if need be. To generally get myself back to a place where I can face the world in what I deem to be an acceptable, un-snotty or drippy fashion.
Everyone has good and bad public toilet stories. The pristine pisser and the nightmarish bog of eternal stench. Go ahead, ask the person sitting next to you. You’ll be surprised at how particular people are when it comes to their toilet habits: do they always use the second stall from the right? Or cover the entire seat with paper first? Do they check for spiders or floaters first? Do they flat out refuse to use public toilets at all? I have friends who prefer the international squatty style loos, and others who are too afraid to even try one, lest they be sucked into a swirling vortex of poo and misery. But with a superpower such as mine comes super responsibility. I endeavour to use my agoraphobia for the greater good. After all, what kind of superhuman toilet detector would I be if I didn’t share my vast knowledge with the general public? The answer: a shit one (pun, very much intended).
I am yet to have my own toilet symbol, illuminated by a mega-watt beam shone into the heavens to indicate good and bad loos (yellow light for a good toilet, brown for bad??) So, instead I started a blog, Magnificent Facilities, to direct people in need to the the best possible toilet in a panicked situation. The interwebs are also a super place for me to ramble about issues surrounding anxiety, agoraphobia and living with invisible illnesses, in hopes of educating people so they are better able to support loved ones suffering with mental health issues. I’m all about helping the husbands, wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, children, nephews and BFF’s understand our struggle. From the outside phobias may appear silly and illogical, a storm in a teacup. However, from in the inside it feels like your internal organs are slowly eating themselves until you become an old beanbag of human skin, which requires refilling with styrofoam packing peanuts.
I’ve been rating toilets for more than three years in Auckland, Wellington and many spots in between. My recent move to London will bring many more toilet treasures and terrors in the coming months.
Auckland’s worst toilets
Because we all want the dirt first.
1. Columbus Lincoln Road: -10/50
I’m never a fan of the classic “Toilets for customers only” sign but when I’m in a panic and I can barely talk the last thing I need is a grumpy old dude chasing me across the shop to tell me what I could already read on the dirty handwritten sign taped to the toilet door. I was just on my way to the counter to ask if I could use the loo and offer to buy something when I was done, but his attitude and general air of arseholeness only increased my panic attack. No help, no customer service, no return visit.
2. Mercury Plaza, behind K’ Rd: -1/50
It’s a generally accepted fact that food halls have abominable toilets. Of the three I used to visit regularly (the other two are on Queen Street) Mercury Plaza was frequently the most disgusting. The bathroom hasn’t been cleaned since 1962 and so ingrained is the dried piss-on-piss smell, it probably wouldn’t come out even if it had. There is one single toilet to cater to the clientele of this massive complex of shops and food stalls, so privacy and alone time is not something you’ll be getting here. Not that you’d want to linger, for fear that you would take away with you the pungent smell of a thousand angry arseholes. To quote myself two years ago “I would rather have my panic attack in a bush beside the road than in this bathroom.”
If the the cabin from Cabin in the Woods had an outdoor privy, this is it. The men who use the public toilet at the Cornwallis Bay wharf are the same kind who would walk into the bush with nothing but a hunting knife and a bible, only to return a week later with a pair of stags slung over their shoulders and a freckled suntan. This is a hunting and fishing man’s toilet for manly men. Men who smell and make smells. It “was dark, [had] no lights and smelled like the seventh level of hell”. I haven’t experienced many toilets with such an odiferous legacy. The smell crawled inside my head and squatted in there like a bad CGI demon.
4. Ken Yakitori, K’ Rd: 12/50
It was an evening of disappointments; over-priced parking, bad over-priced food and casually awkward encounters with the local transient community. I had good memories of Ken Yakitori until I visited (for the final time, never again Lucy, never again) in October last year. Perhaps it has aged badly, perhaps it has changed ownership, perhaps I was so heartily drunk on sake every other time I visited that I didn’t notice everything else that was wrong with the place, but Ken has taken a dive. The toilets worked and had paper but aside from that they were in as sorry a state as my rice ball: stale, unpalatable and a bit burnt on the bottom.
5. Western Springs public by the playground: 13/50
I have heard tell that the toilets nearest the playground and Auckland Zoo in Western Springs Park have been given a much needed facelift. Alas I am a little too far away to pop down for a visit so they stand judged as I saw them last in August last year. Broken locks, wads of piss-covered reeking paper, and the knowledge that children could and would laugh and point if the final working door broke at an inopportune moment, displaying all your wares in disarray to a baying crowd of angry Mummies.
Auckland’s best toilets
Fear not! Things are looking up…
1. Coco’s Cantina, K’ Rd: 46.5/50
And the winner of the most magnificent facility, visited by me, in Auckland is Coco’s Cantina! My favourite thing about Coco’s bathroom is the attention to detail and the thought put into their stalls. Each loo has been lovingly decorated with candles, fresh flowers, handmade paper cranes and a variety of pictures reminiscent of a fashion designer’s inspiration board. You are offered all the staples – copious extra loo paper, tissues, nice smelling hand wash etc – but also copies of the New Yorker to flick through and local art works to feast your eyes on while you pee.
2. Unitec, building one: 46/50
The hidden toilet under the stairs at Building One on the Unitec campus was the first toilet to catch my panicked attention. I was 17 when I moved to Auckland, around the same time I started suffering from agoraphobia. This little toilet was my safe haven from panic and nerves when I was just learning to be a human being in the adult world. Looking back I see myself as a wobbly legged foal, taking shelter in a hidden spot which happened to have everything I could need: a window for fresh air, sink for face splashing and a locked door. This former Victorian mental hospital building has been used by art students for more than 30 years now and something about the combination of (dark) history, solid walls and artistic freedom came together at the right time for me to feel safe and calm in this tiny oasis.
3. Non Solo Pizza, Newmarket: 45/50
Look past the often pretentious clientele and the self important queue jumping yuppies and not only will you get tasty pizza but you will also get to experience a little gem of a toilet. This bathroom has just the right combination of dressed up and private that makes it a great place to hide when that family birthday celebration gets a bit much and you need a little alone time to work through your aging relative’s uncomfortable questions about your love life and their casually racist comments punctuated with the classic “Oh but I’m old! I can’t change now!” What fun.
4. Junk & Disorderly, Birkenhead: 43.5/50
Junk & Disorderly on the North Shore makes me happy in so many ways. If their shop-slash-warehouse had air conditioning I might consider moving in, so I could living among the beautiful things in a makeshift yurt hideaway, like a poorly sketched Wes Anderson character. The bathroom is the most lurid pink you can imagine: think 1980’s Kylie & Jason love-match with a side of fantastic drag queen thrown in. I loved the use of pieces from their shop and the addition of a few bits of greenery to really make the pink sing. The fact that a shop which sells primarily furniture has a customer toilet at all makes me very happy. The availability of a loo will always make me calmer and more likely to spend money. Fact.
5. Little & Friday, Belmont: 42/50
I could claim that this little loo’s high ranking wasn’t mostly due to the blackboard-painted walls, but that would be a lie. Little & Friday Belmont (between Takapuna and Devonport) is a busy place on a weekend morning, so only having two toilets may cause a few privacy issues. But the bathroom’s position at the back of the shop, away from the main crowd of Lycra-clad coffee addicts, makes it feel a little more coy. Little & Friday have achieved what I appreciate most in a loo: they have tried hard to make it nice. Because a bit of effort goes a long way.
*Disclaimer #1: Every person experiences mental illness differently. I am explaining my personal experience with agoraphobia but another person may feel it (mentally and physically) in a totally different way. For example, I have never experienced a heart attack panic where your chest clamps and you feel as though your are slowly being crushed from the inside. We are all different beings with totally different histories, experiences and triggers.
** Disclaimer #2: I am not saying that my disorders are harder or more complex than any other person’s life experience. Please, keep your undies on. Land on your own moon.
Where to get help:
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at whatsup.co.nz
Healthline – 0800 611 116
For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email email@example.com