Compulsive Shopping 101

By Maddy Demberg 01/15/14

I know buying everything and obsessively thinking it'll turn me into a better me is just chasing another high. Maybe it's a problem, but maybe it's just who I am.

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Feel low, buy high. Shutterstock

I am in the middle of another cycle. I go in and out like binge eating and my terrible bouts of Internet addiction where I lose hours and days, slipping in and out of reality. Shopping takes me out of myself, out of my life. It removes me, with an artist’s precision, from reality and places me instead beneath the foggy spell of fantasy. I spend hours on the Internet looking up the designer boots and blouses, shoes and dresses I want. As soon as I see them, I have to have them. Whatever is happening outside the small perimeter of me and the computer screen is gone. I am in another world entirely. 

When I was little, my mother, my sister, my brother, and I would go over the hills from Santa Cruz, where we lived, into the San Jose Valley. It was a 45-minute drive through the mountains into the mini Los Angeles of San Jose and its suburbs. Maybe there was a reason, perhaps my mother actually needed something, but what I remember most is the impulsiveness of it, the spontaneity of my mother’s deciding, out of nowhere, that we should go shopping. We’d all pile into the family station wagon and leave our life behind.

It’s easier to chase the things, the outside, the superficial aspects of what I want; it’s much harder to really go after what I really want. 

In San Jose there were many malls (there were none in Santa Cruz). The bigger ones--the ones with Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus--were the ones we liked the most: these stores glittered with promise. As we snaked through the aisles we could see what we might become: beautiful, special, one of a kind. This desire was embedded in me, a magnet that still pulls me away from the dingy everyday of my life to this other preferable world with its glamour and hope. Some people reach for self-help books or gurus; I learned early on to go straight to the source. 

We’d spend an entire day driving to the various malls, eating mall food burgers and fries and milk shakes. And during the day we’d glide in and out of the shops following our mother as she sat in the shoe department trying on exquisite stilettos, getting made up at the cosmetics counter, fingering jewels as we watched on. We’d brush by racks of blonde and silver fur, get lost in the pale pink satin and black lace in the lingerie department, getting sleepier and sleepier as the day wore on and falling asleep, finally, in the black of night in the back seat of the car, heavy with pleasure.

Like magic, inside the frenzy of shopping, the world disappeared. No more budgeting of every dollar, no worrying about money, about where the next dollar was coming from, or whether or not our father could sell enough cars to bring enough money home to avoid being evicted again. Inside the swirl of shopping everything else vanished. It was as if we’d taken a pill or exited one world for another. 

My own spending began as an escape. In high school my parents gave me twenty dollars a week for allowance, presumably to teach me how to budget, how to save. Instead, I’d always spend the entirety of it by weekend’s end. I’d catch the bus downtown and walk straight to the record shop where I’d spend my allowance on as many albums as I could afford. What I had left, I spent on a slice of pizza and a scoop of bubble gum ice cream. 

What I learned was how buying things gave me a sense of power. For those few moments my usual state of powerlessness evaporated. Also, as soon as I decided what it was I wanted, that thing became something I had to have. I would do anything to get it. It, whatever it was, became the answer to all my problems and as long as I was in the chase after it, I was filled with hope. This hope helped me immensely. It got me out of bed, changed my mood from despondent to optimistic. But the funny thing was that as soon as I had the thing I wanted in my hands, the hope vanished. But from the moment I decided what it was I needed until I had the thing in my hand I was removed from my self, from my life. I was high, in fact. So once I had the thing and the hope vanished, I’d have to begin all over again. I had to begin the next chase. 

They say that shopping raises the body’s levels of dopamine and endorphins, and so it isn’t a stretch to say compulsive shopping is a drug. I eventually put down the shopping and began using heroin instead. It was less work and a stronger dose. 

When I was twenty and homeless, with no friends and no job, I spent my last five hundred dollars, money I’d put aside for a month’s rent at the SRO I was living at, for an exquisite emerald green designer dress. I’d seen it in a shop window and couldn't stop thinking about it. I had to have it. Something inside me told me if I bought the dress, I’d be transformed. My life would change. I would become the beautiful girl I had always wanted to be. But, hours later, alone in my room, with no money and no prospects for making any money, I felt even lower than I’d been before I bought the dress. I lay on the bed in my green dress regretting the money I’d spent. 

Less than a month later I was in a thirty-day treatment center for my alcoholism. And that’s when my new life truly began.

These days I can’t afford to spend all my money. I have a family to support. If I spend all our money, it won't just be me who is left out in the cold. So what I do with regard to my compulsive shopping is similar to what I do with my food addiction. Both of these addictions have been with me most of my life. And both have always been, for me, not just about escaping but also about self-loathing and the incessant desire to be someone else. Or, rather, not someone else but an improved version of me. So what I do with both is try, on a daily basis, to let them go. 

Compulsive shopping is about finding an answer, a means to transcend who I am and become a better, prettier, more popular version of myself. Dieting or starving is just another version of the same thing. And though I’ve been told, ever since I first walked into the rooms of 12 step programs more than twenty years ago, that this is an inside job, I still look at the women in the rooms and outside the rooms and see beauty and confidence, and beautiful clothes and bags. And when I see this I think to myself, “If only I had these things, too, I’d be finally okay.” In the rooms of AA the women with the posses of sponsees, the ones everyone else looks up to, are the beautiful ones with nice things and high-powered jobs. And so it’s hard to decide that it isn’t an outside job, after all. And it’s just as bad outside the rooms. In movies and on the TV set, the women we look up to are the women with power and beauty. And it just seems the two go together. 

And yet, the truth is that when I’m sitting in front of my laptop surfing the net for things to buy, though I feel powerful, I’m actually trapped inside a vicious circle. And though it feels as if I’m accomplishing something of importance, what I’m really doing is postponing my life. It’s easier to chase the things, the outside, the superficial aspects of what I want; it’s much harder to really go after what I really want. 

And what do I want? What I always wanted: a psychic change. The one promised us in the pages of the AA Big Book. I want my insides to be changed. I want my thinking to be changed. 

And like all the drugs I’ve had to give up, I know, deep inside, that giving up my compulsive shopping will make room for something real to happen. And in the end, I may look beautiful and dress wonderful, but that will be a side product because if I am changed inside then it won’t matter what the outsides look like because I will be content, regardless. To base my happiness on these things, these things that lose their power once I own them, is to set myself up for a lifetime of failure. 

And another thing: who am I to say that I’m not okay just the way I am? And isn’t my wanting to change myself on the outside, to appear better and more attractive, just another example of my will? When I look at photographs of myself as a little girl, I don’t think to myself that who I was needed changing. I understand that who I was was perfect. And I would never look at a child and think that that child needs improving. 

This may seem like a ridiculous example but I don’t think it is. Because I’m the same exact person I was when I was small, I’m just bigger now. And who I am is perfect and exactly as I was meant to be. When we work the 12 steps, what we are looking to change is our thinking which has been broken. Not our faces or bodies, not our clothes or our things. In fact, in the end, the only thing I am responsible for is my actions and behaviors and I try to stay on course with these by working the 12 steps on a daily basis. The rest isn’t really up to me. 

When we say in the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” this is what I imagine the prayer is referring to: my broken thinking, my self-loathing, and my inability to accept myself as I am. And so, instead of focusing on the outsides, I think I’m going to try focusing even more resolutely on my insides and let my Higher Power take care of all the rest.

Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about her battle with anorexia.

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