Consumption Crazed, originally published in XPress Magazine, Dec 21, ’09

Consumption Crazed

The costly consequences of shopping addiction.

by Lea Wiviott, Editor-in-Chief

DECEMBER 21, 2009 4:41 PM

Marissa Brown went to Macy’s today for a new pair of boots and pantyhose, but came back with four times more merchandise than she had planned to purchase. The tights will eventually find their way into drawers that are already stuffed with many tights and countless pairs of leggings.

Making room for new goods that are not needed has resulted in turning the attic above her bedroom into a makeshift storage unit. The downstairs closet has also turned into a burrow for extra jackets. Brown’s townhouse is immaculate, with the exception that there is clothing everywhere. “You will play tricks on yourself to get it and it becomes the most important thing,” says Brown, who does not want her actual name used due to the stigma of shopping addiction. She slides her mirrored closet door open, and stuffs her new Stuart Weitzman leather boots on top of a mountain of shoes before sliding the door closed.

This wall-length closet is squished with seventy-five jackets, along with around fifty pairs of jeans, in addition to the boots. Yet Brown feels such a sense of euphoria when she acquires anything new that she has trouble controlling her consumption. “When I see somebody with something I want, it doesn’t matter where it’s from or how much [it costs], I have to have it and I’m good, I always find it,” Brown explains.

Many people can relate to Brown. According to Terrence Shulman, founder of Shopaholics Anonymous, “a shopping addict is someone, male or female, who shops excessively in a manner that produces negative consequences yet refuses to or is unable to curtail or stop this behavior.” Shulman says shopping addicts are unable to control themselves despite negative consequences such as financial troubles, loss of time, changes in sleep or appetite, inability to keep relationships, or feelings from guilt to anxiety, along with an overall loss of control and preoccupation with shopping.

According to recent studies, nearly ten percent of Americans fall into the diagnosis of oniomania, the scientific name for shopping addiction, which is up from six percent in 2006. Shulman says this trend is only increasing and he cites the prevalence of bargains in the recession as the culprit.

Angela Wurtzel, another addiction therapist specializing in oniomania, sees a brighter side of the recession in that “more people are open and willing to address their own limitations around money and shopping, and deal with the deeper emotional issues that have to do with deprivation, fear of deprivation, emptiness, and self worth.”

In Brown’s case, deprivation is a common theme throughout her life. “My husband never shows affection,” she says, later adding that while she comes from a wealthy family, as a child money was never spent on items like jewelry or clothes so “it was like we were poor.”

When she moved to San Francisco she therefore felt entitled to her new BMW 325i and all the wonderful offerings that the unique city boutiques had to offer–even if she were purchasing them on credit. “It doesn’t matter if it makes sense financially, you just have to have it,” she explains.

Like nearly half of North Americans, Brown spends more than she earns annually. And while the recession has resulted in her losing a portion of her retirement, it is her overwhelming love for shopping that has plummeted her twenty thousand dollars into debt. (After today’s trip, that number increased by around five hundred dollars.) The result: she has had to take out a second loan from her house as well as take on extra shifts as a flight attendant. “And I haven’t been the best about saving,” she continues.

According to Wurtzel, transferring balances from one credit card to another is also a common practice of shopping addicts, along with “getting a large sum of money as a gift and rather than using the money in a way they ‘know’ they should, like to pay a bill, they ‘feel’ their way through the experience and go shopping and tell themselves they deserve it.”

Wurtzel has even heard of women donating their eggs to pay off bills and then using the rest of the money for more things they do not need but crave to the point of obsession.

While Brown says she would never donate her eggs to fulfill her love of shopping, her problem has led to extreme measures on other fronts. Not only is her house packed to the rafters, but her marriage has suffered from her spending practices; money disputes are one reason her husband and she have fallen into estrangement.

“The problem is, during times of stress, many addictions get worse,” says Shulman. “Many people who can ill afford to continue to shop often do so even more when under stress–it’s like a drug.”

Like drugs, there are many different kinds of shopping addictions. According to Shulman, compulsive shoppers shop to avoid uncomfortable feelings or situations; trophy shoppers need special items to stem an emotional vacuum; collector shoppers, like trophy shoppers, need more and more of a particular item (usually sets) to feel complete; image shoppers buy things they hope will project an image of power or perfection to stanch feelings of inferiority; bulimic shoppers buy and return items; co-dependent shoppers buy more for others than themselves to gain love, approval, acceptance; and, finally, spendaholics, or people who do not necessarily buy things (though they may overspend on a home or a car) go way overboard purchasing vacations, dining out, and other events.

As is the case with most shopping addicts, Brown mainly buys clothes to make herself feel beautiful, but she does so at the expense of her relationships and financial security. Nevertheless, she does not want a formal diagnosis. Still, whenever she travels to a new place–which, as a flight attendant, she does biweekly, she also collects Starbucks mugs bearing that city’s name and she buys souvenirs for her family… even when they have asked her to stop.

According to the experts, people commonly exhibit multiple oniomaniac behaviors, which many attribute to the prevalence in American culture of encouragements to shop. The average American is bombarded with three thousand advertisements daily.

“There may be many different theories on how we got to be such a consumerist society. I think advertising got more clever and pervasive. I think we began to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous more. I think the explosion of malls and stores and the Internet and Home Shopping TV all played a part,” Shulman says.

While it was not always called oniomania, this problem has been around forever. President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was one of the earliest documented Americans with this disorder. Yet over the past twenty years oniomania has received much more attention. Support groups like Debtors Anonymous and Shopaholics Anonymous have since emerged. Academic movements against the mainstream American dream of making money to acquire new goods have also come into light.

Still, Brown believes a shopping lover is who she is and she is not planning on changing. She has, however, recently been diagnosed with Attention Hyperactivity Disorder. And she, along with experts, believe there may be a link between the anxiety and boredom that sometimes characterizes people with ADHD and the need to shop.

“When people are anxious, they are vulnerable to turning to easy ways to temporarily calm themselves–food, alcohol, drugs, TV, shopping… of course, when the negative consequences and secrets mount so, too, does the anxiety, and then the vicious cycle begins–more shopping to cover up more anxiety… until there is a crisis or a discovery of the problem and then the bubble bursts and real recovery can begin,” Shulman says.

“My hopes for shopping addicts are that they find the way that works for them to develop and understand this destructive problem,” says Wurtzel. “I try to tell people that they will end up having more if they work through this and come to understand themselves, develop emotionally, and create a structure to live a safe and contained life.

“My hopes are that people, especially young people, wise up about the seductive dangers of overshopping and overspending not just in terms of lost dollars but lost time, lost focus, lost relationship, lost direction, says Shulman. “We need to develop a healthy, balanced, and realistic relationship with money, credit, things–just as with food, alcohol, relationships, work, anything.” [X]

» E-mail Lea Wiviott @ LeaWiviott@gmail.com

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