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Behavior: 365 Shopping Days till Christmas

5 minute read
Anastasia Toufexis

‘Tis the season to eat and drink and — above all — shop. For most Americans, the Christmas buying frenzy is a once-a-year splurge. But for hundreds of thousands of men and women, the holidays are a special torment, a brutal reminder of a day-in, day-out compulsion. Call them shopaholics. Gayle, 48, a Chicago secretary who declared bankruptcy last summer after running up debts of $32,000, is not faring well this Christmas. She is lavishing gifts on friends and family — and on herself too. Says she, wearily: “I have not been able to control myself.”

Shop-till-you-drop types tend to draw more scorn than sympathy. Visions of Imelda Marcos and 2,400 pairs of shoes dance in people’s heads. But therapists insist that compulsive shopping can be as ruinous as gambling, disrupting families and plunging sufferers into debt. Many people enjoy the occasional spree, but shopaholics’ lives are consumed by buying. Says psychologist Georgia Witkin of New York City, author of a recently published book on compulsive behavior, Quick Fixes & Small Comforts (Villard; $17.95): “The day shapes up around getting to stores.”

Addicts plot the shortest routes to malls, pore over catalogs during coffee breaks, greet store sales help — and security guards — by name. Even when they browse with friends, they can be secretly prowling for purchases; often they sneak back to make a “hit.” Out on a spending spree, they pick out items in a euphoric daze, but many of their purchases make little sense. Says Alice, 34, of New Jersey, a brokerage-house trainee: “I was possessed when I went into a store. I bought things that didn’t fit, that I didn’t like and that I certainly didn’t need.”

Alice concentrated on clothing, at her worst spending up to $20,000 a year on shoes and dresses. Lucy, 43, vice president of an import company, lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan but has enough household furnishings to equip several families. “I have three sets of dishes for twelve,” she ticks off, “20 vases, tons of place mats, tablecloths and stemware, and three or four sets of pots.”

Some shopaholics can afford what they buy, but others cannot. Brad, a telecommunications-company worker in Chicago, is 31, but his cravings have already forced him into bankruptcy — twice. “I couldn’t make my minimum payments on credit cards, and I went out and bought a new car,” he notes. And when pinched for cash, “I would go to thrift stores because I had to buy something.”

Obsessive shoppers may be venting their anger at a boss or spouse. Observes Witkin: “They tear into the racks instead of their family.” Noel, 33, a Southern California housewife who has filed for divorce, acknowledges, “As my frustration increased with my marriage, so did my spending.” She estimates that her misery totted up to $50,000. Sprees can be an antidote to depression, loneliness and boredom. A major attraction is that salespeople are deferential and attentive. “They say, ‘May I help you?’ ” notes Linda Barbanel, a psychotherapist in New York. “They ooh and ah and fuss. You become the star in your own production.” At heart, though, shopaholics are plagued by a lack of self-esteem. Explains Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist: “People shop to make up for what they don’t have on the inside. They’re trying to fill up because they feel empty.”

Compulsive shopping is far commoner among women than men. Two-thirds of her addictive patients are female, observes Lieberman. Women typically buy clothing and accessories to enhance their attractiveness. Says Robin, 35, a Long Island housewife who squandered a $30,000 trust fund and several months’ mortgage payments on outrageously expensive outfits: “I felt I had nothing to give anyone. So I gave a fashion show.” Men, on the other hand, favor electronic gadgetry and tools, and picking up the tab at meals. Notes Janet Damon, a psychotherapist in New York and author of a new book, Shopaholics (Price Stern Sloan; $16.95): “They try to boost their self-esteem by buying an image of power.”

Society encourages spending. Buying is a national pastime. Catalogs jam % mailboxes, goodies are hawked on television shopping channels. And credit is sinfully easy. Declares Damon: “Credit cards are to a shopaholic what a bottle is to an alcoholic.” But buying provides only a short-lived high. Splurgers are assailed by anxiety and guilt, sometimes as the latest acquisitions are being rung up. Even as she handed her credit card to a salesclerk, recalls Judith, 40, a New York advertising executive, “my stomach would churn in knots.” At home, items often go straight to the closet in their boxes, and clothing hangs untouched with price tags attached.

Shopaholics may deny they have a problem for years. But many eventually turn to counseling or self-help programs, like Debtors Anonymous, which has some 145 groups across the nation, or Shopaholics Limited, a group in New York, to try to regain a sense of control over their lives. Compulsive buyers are urged to keep diaries of their moods, record when they hit the aisles, and call another member of the support group whenever they feel the craving. Among other recommendations: organize possessions, return unneeded merchandise, close credit accounts, don’t shop when tired, enter stores armed with a list and exit after one hour.

But, stresses Carla Perez, a San Francisco psychiatrist, “shopaholics have to find out what their real emotional needs are. Once they stop using shopping as an escape, they’re stuck with the raw feelings.” Those who fail to come to terms with the causes of their affliction may wind up in the throes of another destructive behavior — for example, overeating or overdrinking. Recovering bingers measure their success on a day-by-day basis. Judith is searching for alternative things to do with her time: reading during lunch hour, going to a movie, enrolling in a course. She is considering joining a gym. That may be costly. But, she says, “it’s not that expensive compared to what I’ve spent shopping.”

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