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Living With Shopping Addiction

When your wallet is a threat to your well-being

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Right now, anything we want is just three to five business days away: One-click ordering. A shopping tab on Facebook. ‘Buy’ buttons on Twitter. Buyable pins on Pinterest. Apps that make it possible to make a purchase on Instagram simply by writing a hashtag in the post’s comments section. It’s never been easier to buy things without considering that dollars are instantly zapped from your bank account.

Not only that, but there are ads encouraging you to buy, buy, buy on every website, social media platform, subway ride, radio station, podcast, event, television show, and streaming service you encounter. You can’t exist without hearing the siren song of the "newest," "hottest," "coolest," "latest," "life-changing," and "must-have" thing that can crash your proverbial ship while you simply try to get safely, and affordably, from point A to point B.

Now, imagine if your casual "OMG I’m addicted to shopping" were actually a neurological addiction that dictated your life. In the US, 6% of people have a shopping addiction. That’s 19,303,740 Americans. People who are in debt (which many, if not most, compulsive shoppers are) owe an average of $16,140.

"It’s a smiled upon addiction,"says Dr. Benson.

Still, shopping addiction is a disease that you can make light of without getting shamed off the Internet like a Kardashian. Sites offer up cutesy quizzes and lists to describe the actions of "shopping addicts." Expect phrases like "The bags under my eyes are Prada," or "You literally have nothing to wear." Why is a disorder that, in the words of Avis Cardella, a former shopping addict and author of the book Spent, can cause "debt, destruction of relationships, and self-loathing," not treated with the same seriousness as other addictions?

"It’s a smiled upon addiction," says Dr. Benson founder of Stopping Overshopping, an organization that helps people overcome shopping addictions. "It’s something that fuels our economy," Dr. Benson explains. Also, shopping is something everyone does, so a shopping addict’s behavior often appears as standard social conduct. And unlike a drug or alcohol addiction "you don’t have the obvious impairment in cognition," explains Dr. Kim Dennis, CEO of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, which helps treat uncontrollable shopping, among other addictions. Unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, shopping addiction is largely a quiet compulsion, hidden in envelopes sent by credit card companies.

We’ve even seen this life altering addiction played for laughs. In games for tweens, kooky t-shirts featuring unlicensed characters, and internet memes. It's even the subject of a 2009 romcom, Confessions of a Shopaholic — based on the wildly popular series of novels by Sophie Kinsella. Isla Fisher plays Bex, a woman whose love for shopping has left her with a debt so large she finds herself being harassed by a collection agent. Of course, in the end, Bex recoups the money she spent on clothes and even strikes up a romance with her boss. If only every obsessive shopper had Hollywood magic at his or her disposal. Instead, shopping addiction can and has wreaked havoc on people’s lives. Unlike Fisher’s character, usually isn’t motivated by a love for retail.

"Whenever I felt that emotion starting to get too strong, I would go shopping."

Cardella tells Racked that her own behavior was spurred by emotion, not a lust for great shoes. "I was shopping to deal with my grief after having lost my mother," she says. Shopping, for Cardella, filled the enormous void left by her mother in the same way that alcohol, drugs, and food might fill that absence for another person. A compulsive shopper goes through the same mental processes that any other addict goes through. When someone is feeling down or anxious, he or she often looks for ways to lift their spirits. For so-called shopaholics, the way to avoid these feelings is to spend. "Whenever I felt that emotion starting to get too strong, I would go shopping," Cardella explains. "It became a profound part of my life… I think a lot of people do deal with shopping in pretty much the same way. You have these daily stresses, you’ve had a bad day, you had a fight with your husband, or your boyfriend, or your girlfriend, or whatever and you go and shop just to take the edge off."

So, while ads or a particularly attractive purse can trigger a shopping addict’s behavior, there are often more powerful internal factors at play. Often "an environmental component," explains Dr. Dennis. "Typically for people who develop addictions, this includes adverse life experiences, sometimes as a kid, sometimes later in life… the addiction would become an escape for them." In fact, a shopping addiction often fills in or overlaps with another addition.

And even if someone is able to recover from something taken more seriously, for example alcoholism, a shopping addiction can easily take over as the behavior that’s now filling that person’s pleasure center. Buying things as a way to grapple with "overwhelming stresses that there person can’t otherwise cope with on an emotional level" can develop into an addiction, says Dr. Dennis. "When the person engages in this behavior, they have natural opiates released in their brain and that gives them a sense of high or euphoria. At some point, the high aspect of it goes away and they’re doing it really to get rid of and escape from underlying emotions — a lot of times depression, grief, and anger can be part of that."

"When the person engages in this behavior, they have natural opiates released in their brain and that gives them a sense of high or euphoria."

The unique way a shopping addiction develops also prevents it from overlapping with what some may assume is the next phase of being a shopaholic: hoarding. All that stuff being accumulated has to end up somewhere, right? But for shopaholics much of the pleasure comes from spending the money, while hoarders tend to act on a completely different mental process. "Hoarders are holding onto things because they have a fear of letting go or a fear that they’ll need these things and it’s almost as if they need to surround themselves with these things as being a form of comfort," Cardella explains. Dr. Dennis adds that shopaholics will do what she refers to as "bingeing and purging." "They go out and buy bunch of stuff and then go back and take all or half of it back." Shopaholics can also get the same rush they desire from buying a present for someone, while a person who hoards would want to keep everything in case they need it. According to Dr. Dennis, hoarders seek a sense of security that does not concern someone who compulsively shops.

To help combat the problem, programs and rehabs have been created to help shoppers break the cycle. However, receiving pleasure from spending money is what can make recovering from this behavior so dangerous.

Therapists need to charge for their services and websites need the money from ad sales, but it's notably fraught when these ads populate with images from retailers, as they did during in my own research into this subject of treatment. The process of spending money to get over an addiction to spending money feels counterintuitive. Even worse, there are also certain unsavory groups that can prey on a shopaholic’s spending addiction by asking for more money after each step conquered, Scientology style.

Like many other addicts, Benson’s addiction was born out of negative shopping experiences with her mother.

The field is not without its heroes, though. Dr. Benson is largely considered the preeminent voice in helping people overcome their shopping addictions and for pushing research in the field forward. Benson was inspired to get into the field by her own addictive attitude toward shopping. Like many other addicts, Benson’s addiction was born out of negative shopping experiences with her mother. When Benson eventually received her own spending money shopping own her own became "intoxicating," she writes in an article entitled "When Shopping Heals."

Now, Benson has created a free website that is as valuable a resource for people fighting a shopping addiction than anything else out there. There, Benson touts her 12-session program that helps people conquer their addiction (the full program, which is more akin to a drug rehab program than something like Alcoholic’s Anonymous, costs $1,250).

The program begins with an examination of how over-shopping began for each patient, which includes discovering what the patient experienced in the past and how that experience might relate to what’s going on now. They look into why they continue to over buy and what triggers the need to shop. Benson says triggers are commonly emotional. "Feeling insecure, feelings of having been betrayed, feeling guilt, anxiety, depression, all of those can trigger desire to feel better, and for many people, shopping is a way to try and feel better," she says, "And like any other substance or behavior, you have to do more of it to get the same high."

Benson then asks patients to consider the consequences of their addiction; to imagine what people will say at their funerals, and think about what they want them to say. Patients keep a journal that examines every purchase they make — and grade it by necessity — and go through a shopping experience that they regret. They learn how to use their strengths to defeat their compulsive behaviors and come out with a plan on smart shopping and avoiding what Benson calls the "six major shopping magnets: catalogs, TV ads, home shopping network, malls, standalone stores, and the Internet." Social pressures are also to be avoided and blueprints are drafted for dealing with high-risk situation.

"We live in a you-wanna-feel-better-go-buy-something society," Dr. Dennis explains.

Benson's program is one of the few focusing on shopping addiction that’s been empirically tested and proven. "That’s very unusual," Dr. Benson explains. "There are very few studies of treatment, other than drug studies, that have been done."

Other doctors are using common behavioral therapies to address the issues. Dr. Dennis runs a rehabilitation center where she creates solutions by getting to the root of triggers and creating coping mechanisms. This is used in tandem with 12-step rehabilitation programs, like Debtors Anonymous, to help people deal with their disorders.

"We live in a you-wanna-feel-better-go-buy-something society," Dr. Dennis explains. A society that makes people feel like "something outside of themselves is going to be their solution," she says. The problem lies in advertising’s ability to make people feel less than without a certain product. So maybe there is some unintended horror in Harper’s Bazaar's "15 Signs You May Be a Shopping Addict." "No matter how many times you try to put yourself on a budget," the list reads, "you always end up back where your heart truly belongs — swiping your credit card with a feeling of total satisfaction." But when retail therapy necessitates actual therapy, the laundry list of signs grows a lot more serious.

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