Dear American Psychiatric Association,
As a mental health clinician for over 10 years, it has come to my attention that a critical contemporary disorder has thus far been omitted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
At precisely 10:57 p.m. last night — after arguing with my husband about why he always asks me where specific items are located in the refrigerator while staring directly at them — I diagnosed my husband with “Male Refrigerator Blindness.” I realize this might seem ethically suspect, so please hear me out.
I must credit my good friend Melissa H. who first brought this disorder to my attention after her husband Karl* (name changed to protect identity) asked her for the 427th time where the Tabasco was, while staring directly at the iconic red-capped bottle on the top shelf of the side door.
Lest you think this is a medical, rather than psychological disorder, let me assure you that my husband has 20/20 vision. I’m the one with the cockamamie eyesight. And yet — I can always eventually find every item that I need in the fridge without consulting with the only other adult in the house.
So when my husband asks, even before the fridge door is fully opened: “Hey babe – where’s the (insert any item)?”
I answer every time: “Right in front of your face, honey.”
And, approximately 1 to 10 seconds later, my husband locates the item in question.
“Ah, found it,” he says, in a voice that registers both irritation and surprise, as if the item was borne out of divine conception in the belly of our refrigerator.
For some reason (and no doubt due to the pathology), it is always an item that is right-smack in front of him — never one that is actually buried in some far corner of the fridge behind a gallon of milk or inadvertently misplaced in the butter drawer.
This disorder appears to be a type of dissociative amnesia, in which there is a breakdown of a husband’s perceptual and memory functions. Although I have yet to discover an obvious psychosocial stressor that explains it.
In any case, I’ve applied my clinical knowledge to help establish criteria and specify types for this culturally pervasive disorder, and I do hope you will consider appending the next edition of the DSM with this diagnosis.
The 4 “types” of Male Refrigerator Blindness (per my current research):
• Impulsive type – Said husband will aggressively rummage around in fridge, knocking items over and wreaking unfocused havoc in every drawer and compartment.
Symptoms – messy fridge, spilled milk or OJ, heavy cursing, need for spouse to push subject aside and restore order in fridge
• Lazy type– Said husband doesn’t bother looking for item at all, and asks in rhetorical fashion while sitting in an armchair with legs up on an ottoman, or while moseying in the general direction of the kitchen: “Honey, do you know where the (insert item) is?”
Symptoms– sing-songy-tone of voice, sloth-like movements, poses question while in another room, answers his own question and finds item if nearby adult will pause long enough before answering
• Selective type – Said husband will find some items successfully, but have difficulty finding other items. For example, my friend’s husband cannot locate a carton of half and half, but knows exactly where to find the rogue beer in the back corner of the fridge at precisely happy-hour-o-clock.
Symptoms – inconsistency, signs of preferential attention. Often predicated by what snacks husband requires while watching football playoffs or playing Wordle.
• Delusional or paranoid type – Said husband appears disoriented, exhibiting heightened confusion, perhaps due to fridge light sensitivity, or automatic beeping when fridge door is left open, or the belief that fridge hum is a UFO, aliens have confiscated the item from the fridge, and are now making a hasty departure. In more severe cases, husband may become belligerent, insisting that an item was not there when he looked and was put there to trick him or make him look bad.
Symptoms – blinking or cursing repeatedly, pacing, walking in zig zags across kitchen linoleum while scratching beard or back of neck, failure to remember why item was needed in the first place
While research is warranted to determine treatment options, there are a few promising interventions, including extinction, positive reinforcement, and stuffing husband’s face into the cheese drawer for a few seconds to help improve memory by sensory pairing.
MRB does increase spousal stress; said spouse might become concerned that their husband is displaying signs of early onset dementia. Spouse might also suffer an excruciating uptick to her mental and emotional load, as she is forced to respond — like clockwork — to husband’s incessant or rhetorical questioning, belligerent shouting, abuse or harassment.
Other related mental health issues include refrigerator-induced panic attacks, episodic road rage, vivid nightmares, increased cannabis use, temper tantrums, divorce ideation, or harm to self, pets or other people in the immediate vicinity. There’s good evidence — gleaned from ex-pat friends, colleagues native to foreign lands, and badly-subtitled Scandinavian movies on Netflix — that this might be a global cultural issue.
I would like to note that there are evolutionary reasons why modern men — and not women — are displaying this disorder. In prehistoric times, women acted as the gatherers for their families, and knew where to find edible plants and berries, and how to cultivate and store them. Women have evolved in such a way to survive that they now hold an internal map of kitchen inventory at all times — they know exactly where the peanut butter jar is in the pantry, can identify unlabeled brown leftovers in the freezer, even what needs to be picked up at the store without a shopping list.
There is a gender component to MRB rendering men at greater risk, although there are certainly gender, as well as non-binary, exceptions.
Thank you for your time and professionalism regarding this sensitive topic. Now please excuse me, while I help my husband locate the Costco-size multipack of string cheese for our child’s lunch box that is staring him directly in the face.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff, LMFT