Compulsive Shopping – The Closeted Addiction

You’ve heard the term before. “Shopaholic.”  The reference is usually to someone always on the hunt for a new item, a bargain, or the quest to have the latest and the best.  But oniomania—the clinical term for this behavior—is no joke.  One in 12 people in the United States struggle with this disorder.  Of those affected, 80-90 percent are women.

In her new book, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict, author Avis Cardella chronicles the years she battled her compulsion to fill her emotional void with shopping forays that ranged from purchasing top of the line luxury items to second-rate knock-offs.

Raised in a blue-collar working family, Cardella was impacted as a young girl by her mother’s distinctive style of dress. She became entranced with fashion magazines in her formative teen years.

The underlying cause that Cardella points to early in her narrative, as the catalyst for the obsession that would slowly take over her life, was the trauma of her mother’s death.  In her opening sentence she wrote, “I used shopping to avoid myself.”

Cardella alternately describes her purchasing junkets as her escape, her boyfriend, her release, her therapy, and her drug. She came out of the fashion world—where she modeled briefly, was a photographer’s assistant, and then became a freelance writer. Throughout Spent, she lingers over descriptions of buttery suedes and designer creations cut from “dark blue lightweight gabardine wool.”  Some readers may not be able to connect with her New York City lifestyle.  However, they will certainly recognize her underlying desire to please others, her co-dependence on men, and her constant striving to replenish herself with another person’s love and approval.

In retrospect, Cardella realizes that she neglected to fully mourn her mother’s death. Instead, she immediately shifted the focus to her father’s needs, although her grief made her feel that “part of her was missing.”  She wrote, “I am empty, I can remember telling myself.”

Shopping to provide “respite form this void” started gradually.  As it grew, it became enmeshed with other dysfunctional behaviors.  Cardella’s romantic relationships, striving to meet the stringent expectations of the fashion crowd she was working with, and basic doubts about her self-worth were part of the mix. Constantly using language that references the need to “fill up an emotional hole,” Cardella related, “The thought of being alone sent me into a tailspin, almost a panic…Without shopping, I was afraid I would cease to exist.”

Many of the actions that Cardella describes in detail are classic symptoms of oniomania. To get a clinical point of view, I spoke with Sherry Gaba, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in addiction and recovery. She gave me a list of symptoms that included:

  • Spending unthinkable amounts of money on items you don’t need.
  • Having a closet filled with purchases that still have the tags on them and have never been worn.
  • Being financially in the hole.
  • Having credit cards maxed out to their limit.
  • Holding more than one job to pay for overwhelming bills.
  • Being a former addict or alcoholic

Gaba’s elucidations dovetailed with Cardella’s account of her experience. Often, people have more than one addiction.  For Cardella, it was her need for love and her serial co-dependent liaisons.  Although Cardella’s acquisitions were store driven, Gaba spoke of those who have gone through the same out of control buying on the Internet.  Gaba made clear, that “Addiction comes in all forms,” and that there can be a motivation to fill “that empty void,” which supersedes and is “greater than any logic.”  Gaba noted, “When your life has become unmanageable and is out of control—that’s the mark of an addiction.”  However, many people refuse to seek help until they have reached the very bottom.

The first step is to admit that you have a problem.  Gaba suggested supportive choices such as:

  • Getting rid of credit cards and paying for purchases in cash.
  • Don’t shop alone—you have more of a chance to act out.
  • Sit with uncomfortable feelings.  Learn how to self-regulate.
  • Take one thing at a time.  Be present in the moment.
  • Stay away from triggers (favorite stores, Internet sites, catalogs).
  • Question whether you really need a purchase, or just want it.
  • Consider joining a support group, as nothing can be more healing.

Gaba emphasized that getting well was “an inside job, not about having outside things.”

I contacted Cardella by e-mail with follow-up questions addressing the more concrete aspects of how she overcame her addiction.  She shared that her first proactive move was to put herself on “credit counseling.”  As she described it, “That stopped the ‘blood flow’ so to speak.”  She paid one monthly bill for all her credit cards–which was adapted to her budget.  With that financial anxiety ameliorated, it “freed [her] up to concentrate on the more important aspects of [her] recovery.”

Although Cardella was not in therapy, she recognized that her issues stemmed from psychological roots, with the core emanating from the unresolved grief surrounding her mother’s death.  She acknowledged that her “romantic relationships” had served as a way to “avoid confronting difficult emotions.”  Her biggest challenge, which she accepted, was that she “needed to face being alone to really move forward.”

Paying attention to her physical self and the mind-body connection was also “critical” to her recovery.  Eating properly, walking daily, yoga, and meditation all had a stabilizing effect for her.  Her long walks were particularly effective in staving off her urge to shop when she wanted to keep her feeling of sadness, loneliness, and fear at bay.  She revealed, “I would be walking in Central Park with tears streaming down my face.  I was forcing myself to face things I hadn’t wanted to think about for years.”

So much in Cardella’s story reflects the difficulties girls are confronted with as they traverse the passage to young womanhood.  How they are influenced by societal demands was illustrated in a story Cardella related about when she was 14 years old and “forfeited running track…in favor of sitting out high school gym class wearing my fancy clothes.”  In hindsight she understands that rather than “exploring her physical prowess,” she chose to “concentrate on her appearance.”

Perhaps the strongest presence in Spent, other than Cardella’s, is that of her mother. Graduating from fixating on her mother’s clothing and jewelry, Cardella moves instead to embracing the insights, words, and advice that will become her mother’s true legacy.  Cardella wrote in her e-mail, “It fascinates me that I had chosen to remember only my mother’s appearance at the same time that I chose to only concentrate on my own appearance.  It was as if I needed to dismiss my mother’s essence in order to keep dismissing my own essence.  It was only when I was ready to face myself that I started to face my mother’s words—who she was—rather than simply what she looked like.” When she began to read her mother’s notebooks, Cardella felt guided by her mother’s basic wisdom.

At the end of Spent, Cardella recounts the story of how she emptied her closets as she readied for a move to a new apartment, outside of New York City.  During this process, she came face to face with innumerable articles of clothing—and their respective histories (not to mention all the unopened bags.)  It was an example of wardrobe as “autobiography.”

Like Dorothy’s realization in The Wizard of Oz, Cardella connects to the simple truth that her recovery process “was about being more conscious and mindful in her life.”  In rethinking herself she asked, “Why did I feel I was not enough just as I was? What would happen if I couldn’t shop? Who and what was really important in my life?  I knew I wasn’t made of the clothing that was in my closet, but what was I really made of?  I had been shopping for an identity for all those years!”

Unfortunately, lacking estimable self-worth is all too common for women.  In Spent, Cardella takes us on her journey of self-discovery…and lets us see that it is never too late to come out on the other side.

This article originally appeared on the women’s health site Empowher.

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