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February 5, 2009

The New Addictions

Behavioral addictions — to shopping, sex, even e-mail — trigger the same rush of feel-good dopamine to the brain as drugs and alcohol. Since these "fixes" aren't formally recognized by the medical establishment, insurance won't pony up for treatment. But that doesn't mean they can't undo your life.

woman in office elevator

Photo Credit: Steen Sunland

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"I'm addicted to shopping"

I started shopping compulsively a few years ago. I was a new mom in an unhappy marriage. I worked as a sales executive for a mortgage business, which was a very stressful job. Shopping empowered me — I somehow felt that if I bought the outfit from the happy window scene, then I might be happy myself. But things got out of hand pretty quickly. I was spending about $1200 a month on clothes; I had 150 pairs of shoes, 35 purses, and 25 pairs of sunglasses. My two walk-in closets were filled with clothes with the tags still on. And yet, I'd open my closet and say, "I have nothing to wear."

Some days I'd go to different branches of the same store — it's uncomfortable when the salespeople recognize you. It's just like being a junkie: You want the fix, but you don't want to get caught. I started labeling my friends as ones who would go shopping with me — my partners in crime — and ones who wouldn't. One friend and I would spend 14 hours at the mall. We called it Girls' Day Out. Even when I was on deadline at work, I'd be on eBay buying stuff. I started losing clients because I'd rush through appointments or skip them altogether to go shopping.

I didn't want my husband to know how much I was spending, so I would hide things, letting bags pile up in the back of my SUV until he was at work and I could bring the stuff inside. If he was home, I'd shove things inside my coat or wear them from the car into the house so they didn't seem new. I learned to be a master of disguise. But of course he noticed. He'd tell me, "You have a spending problem." I didn't feel like he should be saying anything, though, because I was still making good money — about four times as much as he was. And my husband never tried to help me with the problem. He just reprimanded me for it, which would lead to more fights.

I hit rock bottom when the mortgage industry crashed. I got a different job, but I don't make anywhere near what I used to. It's been a big reality check. I don't ever want to be in a position where I have to say to my son, who just turned 4, "Mommy can't get you that toy you want because she has no control over what she wants." I've gotten my spending down to about $600 a month. When I do go to stores, I ask myself, "Do I really need this?" It's a constant, daily struggle.
—As told to Sarah Z. Wexler

Hey, Big Spenders
9 million women in America suffer from a compulsive-shopping disorder.

Signs you may be a shopaholic:

  • Your spending is a constant source of fights between you and a loved one.
  • You don't use or wear many of your purchases.
  • You buy things with credit cards that you'd skip if you had to pay with cash.
  • You have several credit cards but are unsure what the balance is on any of them.
Ways to deal:

  • Destroy your credit cards. Pay for purchases with cash or debit.
  • Don't shop alone — you're more likely to overspend.
  • Talk to your doctor about possible depression.

NEXT PAGE: "I can't get through the day without my pills"

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