Oniomania: The Rush of the Purchase

By Dorri Olds 12/28/16

Compulsive buyers are often in denial or they’ve tried to stop on their own. But without professional help, most fail. As alcoholics hide their drinking, spenders hide their behavior, often pretending they can afford it.

Oniomania: The Rush of the Purchase
The want to have can consume you.

The holidays are a trying time for people with addictions. One that is seldom talked about is destructive over-shopping. You’ve probably never heard the word oniomania. It means “an uncontrollable desire to buy things.” It’s as serious as any other mental illness and consequences can be devastating.

Kay* (pseudonym) is an addictions counselor. “I became a gamblers' counselor,” she told me, “but then realized I was trying to figure out how to treat my shopping addiction.” Similarly, she went to an Al-Anon meeting and realized she had a drinking problem. Kay’s been sober since 1989, but shopping wasn’t an issue until she quit booze. “I can pinpoint it to my mom’s death in ’91 and then the love of my life’s suicide in '96.”

This year she had a spending relapse. “That’s when I realized how serious the shopping addiction was. I live on a farm with my son and daughter-in-law, and I was sneaking things into the house. I couldn’t even remember what I bought.”

Then DailyOM popped up on her Facebook feed “with Stephanie Bennett Vogt’s A Year to Clear course and book. It’s not just about clearing physical stuff, it’s the emotions.” Kay has been taking the course, which includes a daily lesson for a year, and she learned the connection between clutter and over-shopping.

“There’s a private Facebook group,” said Kay. “A lot of us have the same issues and it’s a really good support. I’ve also done a group with Dr. April Benson.”

With substances, most treatments suggest abstaining, but it’s unrealistic to never shop. Terrence Daryl Shulman, JD, LMSW, founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, told The Fix, “This is a difficult time of year for addicts. The Internet is a wonderful tool but it’s like crack cocaine. It’s so easy to become a shopping addict. There are so many prompts: emails, pop-ups, texts.”

Home decorator and organizer Jill* (pseudonym) said, “I’ve had to fight my shoplifting since I was four.” Two years ago, she began turning to alcohol for depression. “I tore my rotator cuff and a glass of wine was comforting. Then it took two glasses, three glasses. I got scared, and said, ‘I can’t do this.’” That’s when she went to AA. She said, “I haven’t touched alcohol for almost a year and a half.”

Caught shoplifting at Kohl’s in June, she said, “It was a shock for my fiancé but we still got married in September. I have everything I need but I was feeling sad, [so] I shoplifted. I was lucky I didn’t get jail time. The judge wanted me to get help. I promised to continue with therapy and a support group and just got fines and probation for a year with community service—which of course, I’ve been happy to do.”

Jill said she still fights the compulsion to steal every day and it’s much worse during the holidays. “This Christmas,” she said, “I refused to shop to avoid temptation. Every time I’ve been caught shoplifting, it surprised me that I turned to that [behavior again] when I knew the consequences. I have a strong Christian faith, and it’s just not who I am.”

Was it for the rush of adrenaline from doing something forbidden?

“Yes,” she said. “Every time it’s because I’m feeling lost, or in pain or I don’t feel like I’m being heard. When I steal [it's] like, ‘I’ll show you,’ or ‘Darn it, someone hear me!’ Every time I got something for free it felt like I was being taken care of.”

Shulman said, “The holidays can be the best of times or worst of times. They can bring up emotions—seasonal blahs, depression, anxiety, bad memories. Family gatherings can be a blessing or a curse.”

Compulsive buyers are often in denial or they’ve tried to stop on their own. But without professional help, most fail. As alcoholics hide their drinking, spenders hide their behavior, often pretending they can afford it.

“It’s one of the top reasons that couples argue,” said Shulman. “There’s even a term for it: financial infidelity. It’s a betrayal when your partner lies about money, especially from joint accounts. It causes a lot of damage.”

The holiday season can also exacerbate overindulging children. “Kids grow up confused when Daddy wants to shop and Mommy wants to save, and Daddy says, ‘Don’t tell Mommy we bought this.’”

He had a recent Skype session with a 60-year-old man in Sacramento whose wife finally convinced him to get help. He’s been sober from alcohol for two years but he’d had shopping problems before his alcoholism. “Since he stopped drinking, it escalated his spending,” said Shulman. “It’s a perfect example of switching fixations.”

Those with mental illnesses—depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, OCD—have higher risk for addictive behaviors. Shulman said, “Most have more than one addiction. It can be chemical or behavioral.”

Shulman was a shoplifter from ages 15 to 25. He said that people who over-shop are prone to stealing after they’ve maxed out their credit or don’t want their partner to see purchases on a credit card bill. He said, “They cross a line and begin stealing. The stealing itself can become addictive.”

In 2013 I interviewed Winona Ryder and was surprised by how many comments people made about her 2001 shoplifting incident. The stigma remained. “With stories like Winona’s,” said Shulman, “people scratch their heads. They immediately jump to conclusions and think, ‘Why would someone do that when they’ve got everything going for them and plenty of money?’ But problems manifest in all kinds of ways. She had chronic insomnia and nightmares. And we don’t know about the other challenges she may have faced in her personal or professional life.”

Shulman believes that Ryder's story stayed in the news so long because “she took it to trial and was found guilty.” He felt that if she had come clean, apologized, taken responsibility for it, perhaps the incident would not have stuck to her. Shulman said, “To recover from problematic behaviors, getting to core issues is vital. There may be unresolved loss, trauma, self-esteem issues.”

Half of his clients have experienced what he calls “material deprivation.” They want whatever they didn’t get while growing up. Other spending problems come from parents who spoil their kids. Many parents showed love with money, Shulman said.

“They never heard ‘no.’ When they grow up and get a credit card they buy and buy, spending money on themselves, on their children. In our materialistic culture, it can be about keeping up with the Joneses. The Joneses used to be neighbors, but now it’s Kanye and Kim. Everybody wants the American dream, even if that means a designer purse they can’t afford.”

Flash sales for designer items hype people up to buy quickly. “You become like a robot,” said Shulman. “If you try to stop, you go through withdrawal. You’re preoccupied and antsy, and unless you’re in treatment you’re going to give in and spend money for the dopamine rush.”

Another problem shopper, 23-year-old college student Tanoya Poulsen, told me, “I spend money when I don’t have any. When I have the choice to pay my rent, car payment, or gas, I think, ‘Which one can I put off?’ Then, instead of saving money I’ll buy something. When I end up with a late bill, I say, ‘I’ll just pay double next month.’”

She’ll think, “It’s not fair that I have to pay for school, a car, getting to work, food, and health insurance, while other people my age get to live with their parents and the only money they spend is for their own use. When I spend money, it feels like I’m without cares or worries. I’ll feel proud that I have enough money to spend on things I want. Then reality kicks in and my anxiety lights [up], and I feel incredibly guilty and depressed [because] I spent money irresponsibly. The only help I’ve gotten is from my level-headed boyfriend who reminds me to think out future ramifications. I slip up and he helps me. Then I feel bad so I’m more careful next time. I’ve started thinking twice about things I want.”

Anxiety reduction expert Georgia Foster offers compulsive shopping addiction hypnosis. Her website states that more than 18 million people in the U.S. suffer from compulsive shopping. She told me, “People who have an addiction to shopping are not actually addicted to the things they buy, but rather the feelings it gives them.”

When anyone is going through a stressful time, like holidays, or has a history of serial stress, they feel vulnerable. “The mind tries to find ways to alleviate feelings of anxiety, grief, loneliness, boredom, fear, or low self-worth,” Foster said, “so they can feel safe.”

Foster explained that a distressed mind will behave like a database. It’ll scan the history of previous coping strategies to locate how feelings were resolved in the past. If the mind has references of good feelings around shopping, it will connect to that. “Subsequent emotions that are the same or similar will then get attached to shopping,” said Foster.

She offered an example: “Sally has been dumped by her boyfriend. She’s grieving and fearful of the future. She remembers that shopping with her sister made her feel happy, loved, and accepted. So her mind says, ‘You need to go shopping to feel better and calm down.’”

But, once the high is gone, the negativity and self-doubt return. Now the shopper is left with the original issue that upset them plus the addition of guilt over spending money, which causes more anxiety and self-loathing. “Ironically,” said Foster, “the mind thinks it’s being clever by creating the habit of shopping as a coping strategy.”

Like substance abuse, it becomes a vicious cycle. Through hypnosis, Foster trains the mind to recognize and unlearn destructive habits: “I help people learn healthier, more logical coping strategies, such as building self-esteem and learning to tune out negativity before it can take hold.”

Dr. Shulman’s advice is to find a therapist “who knows the unique features of shopping addiction.” He also recommends 12-Step programs. “Debtors Anonymous can be very helpful. If you can’t find a meeting near you, there are phone and online groups.” Cleptomaniacs And Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA) is another 12-Step option.

Kay said, “As a gambling counselor, I know that research has shown a gambling addict’s brain looks the same as somebody on cocaine. There’s a chronic compulsion to repeat the action.”

That’s also true for shopping addicts. She said, “When I’m not shopping, it’s just like withdrawal from alcohol and drugs. I can’t sleep, I’m irritable, and I don’t give a shit. I’m thinking, ‘Get out of my way!’ and I consider drinking.” Luckily, she said, “I have a really good AA sponsor. It’s difficult to work in the chemical addiction field because [colleagues] tell me, ‘Well, at least you’re not drinking.’ But destroying relationships through my shopping addiction is every bit as serious.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.