Paruresis also known as pee shyness, shy kidney, bashful bladder, stage fright, urinophobia or shy bladder syndrome is a type of social anxiety disorder, that can affect both men and women, in which the sufferer is unable to urinate in the (real or imaginary) presence of others, such as in a public restroom.
Paruresis goes beyond simple shyness, embarrassment, or desire for privacy in that it is much more severe and may cause unnecessary inconvenience, because the inability to urinate, although psychological in origin, is physical in its effect, and not under the control of the sufferer. Paruresis can be mild, moderate or severe. In mild cases, paruresis is an occasional event, like a form of subconscious performance anxiety. Some may find that they are unable to urinate while in moving vehicles. In severe cases, a person with paruresis can urinate only when alone at home.
First written Jan. 2008, revised Feb. 16, 2010.
I’m standing in the middle of a random bathroom in a random downtown Seoul building. The bathroom is immaculate. Despite the hygienic appearance, there is an awful odor of rotten eggs and dookie. Sky blue tiles cover the floor and walls. There is one sink and two empty urinals. The only stall is taken by an elderly Korean man. He is grunting and mumbling in Korean, trying with all his might to have a bowel movement. As I stand outside the stall waiting for him, I picture him clutching a tall glass of orange-flavored Metamucil, praying to Buddha for sweet relief.
I suppose I could use the urinal. I could be in and out in 30 seconds, long before the old man emerges from the poopoo cave. Despite the apparent benefits, I can’t force myself to use the urinal. I approach the left one slowly, fingering my zipper nervously. “Just do it,” I tell myself, “just pee.” My brains says do it, but my body resists.
As I wait for the colonically congested old geezer, I take a moment to reflect on my unreasonable fear. Where did it come from? When did it first manifest itself?
I’ve been peeing free for years. Nothing held me back. If I had to go, I went. That all changed in 2003, my first year in Korea.
My school, YBM ECC (it’s a school whose acronyms stand for acronyms), had one men’s restroom. Students and faculty shared the same toilets in a claustrophobic closet. Like most Korean bathrooms, they are not laid out with privacy in mind. If you use the urinals, you are completely visible to any female student and staff member that walks by the men’s bathroom on the way to the ladies’ room. I tried using them a few times, but quickly stopped when boys would line up behind me trying to take a look at my wonka-donka. They would push each other out of the way, grabbing me by the shirt to knock me off balance, trying to take a look. I would fight them off, throwing a few karate kicks in their direction, simultaneously maintaining my aim.
After this happened a few times, I gave up and started using the stall. It wasn’t your typical bathroom. It was, after all, a bathroom designed for kids. The toilets were the size of urns. The kind of urn you put your dead Aunt Sally’s ashes in and then display on your mantle. Being only knee-high, these toilets were difficult to aim at. The act of peeing turned into an exercise in focus. The situation wasn’t all bad. There were no more kids bothering me, so this looked like a change for the better.
My students were bitter about my new found peeing freedom. The children, being mostly evil until you beat it out of them, plotted against me. I’ll give them credit for their patience. They waited until I was most vulnerable, a time where they could strike me a killing blow.
My first year in Korea was spent abusing my colon. I had no respect for this most sensitive body organ. I devoured spicy food that turned my face beet red and my eyes water. I would wash it all down with Hite (aka “Shite”), a cheap Korean beer. There’s only so much a colon can take before it takes matters into its own hands.
After eating a plate of Jay-uke-de-bap (EXTREMELY spicy fried rice with pork) for lunch, my colon said, “Alright, this is getting ridiculous. You’re fucking dead, buddy. I’m sick of your shit.” My colon is fond of puns relating to poo.
At about 3:20, my colon began kicking my ass from the inside. I managed to hold on until break time from 3:40 to 3:45. I raced to the bathroom, plopping myself down on the blue ceramic urn. The small toilet forced my knees up around my ears and my ass hung off the sides. Being such a small toilet, Mr. Wang hung off the front of the seat, unable to dangle freely between my legs. Ten seconds hadn’t passed when I heard three of my boy students come into the bathroom. They were laughing and speaking in broken English. There was a long pause and then one whispered, “Teacher is pooping,” followed by muffled giggles.
I saw shadows move under the door. “Go away,” I said in an imitation of a stern adult voice, “it’s not polite.” My voice only confirmed my presence and strengthened their resolve. All three boys dropped to the ground on their backs and wormed their heads and shoulders under the stall door. I can’t imagine how it might have looked to them, but it was probably something like this:
“A grown man loomed over us. He had long, hairy, skinny legs that seemed to be bent up all the way to his ears. His butt drooped over the side of the toilet like Dumbo fitting into a small bathtub. His face was contorted in shock, fear, and murderous hate. It wasn’t his droopy butt or his angry face that held our attention, but something else. The toilet was too small to hold all of him. Something hung over the front of the toilet–some kind of hairy sack with a mushroomed missile above it. We didn’t know what to make of it, so we ran away, laughing at catching our teacher with his pants down, and dying to share it with our classmates.”
After they left, I stepped out of the stall and washed my hands in the sink. I stared at my reflection, telling myself to be cool, that everything was fine. The bell rang and I walked back to class. I opened the classroom door and it was chaos. Kids were running and laughing. In addition to the three boys, there were 7 girls and two other boys in the class. They stopped when I entered and started chanting in some sort of rehearsed Satanic ritual.
“Teacher has a hairy PAY-NIS! Teacher has a hairy PAY-NIS! Teacher has a hairy PAY-NIS! Teacher has a hairy PAY-NIS!” Apparently, I had forgotten to teach them the correct pronunciation for penis.
I didn’t know what to do. The only thing going through my mind was an image of me as some kind of crazed alpha-male neanderthal jumping around the classroom beating the kids with a club while yelping like a caveman. Needless to say, little was accomplished that day in terms of academic enlightenment.
The sound of a toilet flushing brings me back to reality. The old man hobbles out of the stall, hunched over at the shoulders. He’s looking quite pleased with himself. I walk into the stall, locking the door behind me. I push and pull the door, testing the lock’s integrity. It holds. “No one can get you in here,” I whisper, “you’re safe.”