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My Shopping Addiction: A Survivor's Tale

One of the stars of a new TV show tells The Fix about her problem and her path to recovery.

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Sarah Downey's prognosis is "really
excellent."

By Will Godfrey

10/15/12

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Tonight brings the first episode of My Shopping Addiction—a TV show from Oxygen that follows compulsive shoppers as they seek help. One of the shopping "addicts" featured is 32-year-old LA resident Sarah Downey (her episode airs on October 29). Until about six years ago, Downey was an "extremely wealthy" married woman, she tells The Fix, and enjoyed a lifestyle of private jets and vacation homes. But then, "My husband had an affair, and I walked out, never to return. I don't agree with infidelity."

Her shopping problem followed her divorce; she now "absolutely" considers that her breakup prompted it. She started visiting thrift stores as part of a new career: styling rock bands and artists, like Marilyn Manson's drummer, by sourcing interesting clothing. "I'd go in there to find a leather jacket for someone else," she says, "and end up getting it for myself." She developed skill and pride in being able to find, for example, "a pair of Jimmy Choos, never yet worn, for 30 bucks." Her habit exploded when she started dating a man who frequented goodwill stores: "We were just like two junkies together," she recalls. That relationship, which she considers to have been harmful, ended six months ago. At the height of her problem, she was often spending hundreds of dollars a day on clothing, and behaving in some "very illogical" ways: "I have very large feet, size 10, but I would find myself buying size six-and-a-half shoes anyway." Looking back, "I just didn't realize that I was that out of control."

Of her portrayal on the show, Downey insists, "We're really not prepared for anything that happens each day; we're totally blindsided." She accepts that on screen, "You're seeing me at my worst, but that's ok." She credits the experience with "totally" changing her lifestyle, partly by helping her learn to shop normally once again. "I'm a stronger person now," she says. "I feel like I'm back to where I was before this whole thing started."

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is Professor of Psychology at California State University and one of the experts featured on My Shopping Addiction—she's credited by Downey with "hitting me the hardest" about the reality of her problem. She tells The Fix that shopping can can become an "an addictive mode of behavior that can cause financial and relationship problems." What's more, out-of-control spending often accompanies other compulsions: "If you can't regulate one area, you often can't regulate another." Shopping, she continues, is "a funny kind of animal," because most addictions manifest themselves in ways that are unpleasant to others, while "the response to the results of somebody's shopping addiction will often be, 'Oh, you look fabulous!'" She recommends a cognitive behavioral treatment approach that "tries to figure out the thoughts and emotions that drive the behavior." Very often, says Dr. Durvasula, compulsive shopping is "a control issue"—a "defining event," like Sarah Downey's traumatic breakup, is also "not at all unusual." Buying things, she says, "would make Sarah feel rejuvenated, but of course it was only a temporary fix." The good news is that "the prognosis for Sarah is really excellent. She did a great job because she was really motivated to make a change." However, her shopping "is something that will always have to be monitored," because there's always the risk that "when she comes up against a stressful situation again, shopping could be her go-to habit."

The first episode of My Shopping Addiction airs tonight (October 15) at 11pm EST.

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