Most people know the difference between “wants” and “needs.” I am not one of those people. My room is littered with the remnants of shopping binges; boxes of makeup and skincare collecting dust, books sitting unread for months, hobbies I grew tired of before I even emptied the bag. I’ve formulated strategies over the years to curtail my spending, ultimately failing as I justify a purchase out of my own personal budget, or worse, taking my mother’s credit and debit cards to get that one last fix…that one purchase that would somehow magically change my life once and for all.
Our society often writes off compulsive spending as “retail therapy” and to a certain extent I have used shopping as therapy. Every rejection I’ve ever felt has resulted in a trip to the mall or being up all night obsessing over whether or not to hit “submit” on an order for makeup at Sephora. Positive events in my life have also involved shopping, surely I needed a new outfit for the baptism of a friend’s new child when my closet was already full of dresses and I have Rubbermaid bins full of barely worn clothes in my room. Whatever is going on in my life can be justified with sacks of new items.
I graduated high school in June of 2006 after years of outpatient and inpatient treatments for depression, anxiety and (at the time) suspected bipolar disorder. Senior year was a particularly bright one for me, getting a jump-start on my college experience taking Psychology 101 after school twice a week finishing the course with an A. College was the first time in my life I was able to meet a diverse group of friends whom had the same interests as me, I was no longer the loner I was in high school but I still felt a driving need to keep up a certain image I had spent years cultivating for myself.
Barely an adult, the credit cards started rolling in. This was a couple years before you needed a cosigner if you were under 21, and I was the prime target. The first card I got was a Visa Capital One with the famous Van Gogh painting of The Starry Night as the background (I’m sure this is what he intended his most famous work to be used for). I ran my fingers over the numbers, examining every minute detail eventually flipping it over and signing my name with swift precision.
My friends and I would make the half-hour trek from our rural NJ town to the closest mall sometimes multiple times a week. I did not start driving until I was 21 so I would buy things for them on my card as my way of thanking them. Before long, I was in over my head hitting my $700 limit in a matter of weeks trying to figure out how to pay it off on $7.50 an hour about 15 hours a week at a local grocery store. I was repeatedly threatened with lawsuits and non-stop phone calls to my home. I cried to my mother who reluctantly gave in and helped me dig myself out of the hole I’d gotten myself into, she herself no stranger to thousands in credit card debts.
As my credit rating was plummeting, I still continued to find ways to shop with whatever money I had from my meager paycheck. My mother would hand over her Penny’s or Victoria’s Secret card trusting me with a limit she’d give me…I rarely ever kept that promise and went over countless times. If I wasn’t at school, work, or a concert I was shopping. If I wasn’t shopping, I was thinking about shopping. This was when I started losing touch with many friends. All the time I’d spent trying to perfect this image I had crafted for myself, I barely noticed when my phone stopped ringing(if the phone company hadn’t turned it off from lack of payment). The more estranged from people I became, the more I used shopping to soothe my loneliness. I never had any money to do anything other than shop. My parents were fed up, I later told my mom “nobody could hate me as much as I hate myself” after an evening of screaming about my running tally of debts with my parents.
I dropped out of school in 2009 shortly after getting a job working at a treatment facility for emotionally troubled teens. I figured this would be a great place for me to get started in the field I wanted to eventually go into while I “got my shit together.” By this time, I’d gotten most of my bills under control and I was making decent money for a millennial still living at home with no car payments or any real responsibilities. As you may have guessed, I still continued to spend money and now I had even more to spread around. My shopping habits became a running joke amongst my coworkers. I’d work an overnight shift and drive straight to Marshall’s when I clocked out waiting in my car for them to open while I ate a fast food breakfast. I’d go to the mall and return to work at closing time. I was growing more depressed and irritable, calling out of work sometimes multiple times a month because I was so exhausted. I recall my mother pointing out on one of our rare shopping trips together that my pupils were dilated. I wasn’t tripping on heroin or drinking excessively but I was experiencing the same high. How could something so wholesome become so damaging? Why was I only happy with “things?” I’ve cried myself to sleep many times over the years with these questions floating around in my head.
My family life really started to unravel at the end of 2011 when my mom moved out with my brother and sister citing my outbursts as part of the reason. My brother was 17 and still in high school; having his own emotional meltdowns, DYFS was keeping a close watch on my family…an experience almost mirroring my own in high school. During this time, I lived with just my father. My dad rarely ever came upstairs, even when my mother still lived in the house he was always in his little office on his computer or watching a movie. I never had the greatest relationship with him and frankly, I was always kind of scared of him. He had a temper and was always making degrading comments about my weight. My mother was always my protector and she was gone. It was only second nature for me to keep on shopping at this point and at a more ferocious pace, unless I wanted to interact with dad.
It didn’t dawn on me that something was amiss with my father until I came home from one of my sprees one day to find the entire upstairs of the house engulfed in smoke from an empty pan sitting on the stove set to high, with a spatula melted to it. After I aired out the kitchen, I ran downstairs yelling to my dad about his absent mindedness. He acted like it was the most natural thing to do; almost burn down your house in pursuit of a grilled cheese sandwich. He just stared at me doe-eyed. Eventually after 25 years working for Verizon my father just stopped going to work, he didn’t have an answer for me. My sister and I thought he was going through a very serious clinical depression but he continued to decline in cognitive functions. My mother moved back into the house after about a year in her apartment across town to further focus on my dad’s medical treatment which would yield nothing until the spring of 2013 when he would finally be diagnosed with early onset dementia and was whisked off to a nursing home Medicaid would cover the cost of. The next time I saw him would be the photo my mom took of him moments after he left this life.
In this time span my anger towards my parents, particularly my mother, was at a boiling point. I know she happened to have a lot of guilt during the time she was gone, giving us all new cell phones and hundreds of dollars to go to the county fair, getting me my precious Lola-a Papillion puppy when I mentioned my desire for another dog. I’d grown to see possessions as a distorted display of love. I left my job of five years in the summer of 2013 and would go for almost two years searching for something new. Mom and I often took our stress out on each other. She’d scream at me about not looking hard enough for a job, I’d scream back. I couldn’t cope so naturally I began to shop again, except this time it wasn’t with my own money. I started swiping mom’s credit and debit cards to buy things online that I knew she’d never let me get if I just asked (this was where the anger comes into play). She threatened to press charges so many times I’ve lost count and I often wonder if it would have been in my best interest to go to jail. In one of my many meltdowns after getting caught I sincerely meant it when I said I deserved to go to jail. I realize that my mom loves me too much to have followed through which makes the guilt of everything I’ve ever put her through feel so much more painful.
I wish I could end this post with some big cliché triumph where I lay out some big life changing plan that worked for me to overcome my shopping “sickness.” The truth is there isn’t much literature about Compulsive Spending (or Oniomania if you want to get fancy) that I’ve found in my independent research over the years. In doing some research for this blog I found a couple of posts with titles like, “How to know if you have a Shopping Problem” and, of course, a Wikipedia page that I’m a little skeptical about. I went as far to even google: “CDC Shopping Addiction” it seems like something the CDC would at LEAST write a little blurb about in our consumer-driven culture, but what do I know?
The problem with an addiction to shopping is everybody has to (eventually) go shopping for something whether it be new socks or a toaster. My temptation to shop can be even higher at times because I now work part-time at a clothing store in the same mall I spent most of my twenties in. I don’t think I’ll ever be “cured” but through my work with my nurse practitioner and new therapist I’ve become more self-aware of my triggers. Earlier this year I was diagnosed officially with bipolar disorder and I feel good on the current medley of medications I am taking. My anger and subsequent spending with it have declined quite a bit and I don’t feel this constant cloud of “numb” shrouding me. I am working on some DBT exercises with my therapist-she wants me to join a group but I’m not there yet, it makes me too anxious.
When I first emailed Paul about my story I honestly never thought he’d reply to me let alone ask if I would want to do a guest blog, I had my reservations. What would my extended family think? My friends? Strangers on the internet? People might make assumptions about the kind of person I am because of an illness I have, but my hope is that someone else who is struggling with Compulsive Spending finds some sort of comfort in this post knowing that they are not alone and I understand the constant pressure to want to literally buy yourself a new life.
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