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Confessions of Former Shopaholics

Daniel Bortz

Overflowing closets, jewelry boxes stacked one on top of the other, unopened shopping bags scattered throughout the house--these are all telltale signs of a person with a shopping addiction. Just as gamblers can't resist a trip to the casino, those with a shopping compulsion cannot stop themselves from frequenting the mall or visiting the websites of their favorite stores. Although the addictions are significantly different, gamblers and shopaholics both surrender to a vice that can tear their finances apart. The temptation to swipe one credit card after another is hard to dispel, despite the destruction a shopping spree leaves in its path.

Approximately 2 to 5 percent of Americans have a shopping addiction. For many, the consequences are devastating: More than 1 in 20 Americans have a shopping habit that jeopardizes their relationships or careers, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

A number of misconceptions surround shopping addiction. Despite popular belief, the Internet hasn't completely revolutionized the way so-called "shopaholics" operate, according to Donald Black, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa who studies impulse-control disorders. Even though the Web has made retailers accessible at one's fingertips, shopping online doesn't provide the same sensory experience as a brick-and-mortar store. "One of the things compulsive shoppers will tell you is they really enjoy the shopping experience, and I'm not sure that Internet shopping provides them with the sensual pleasures they're looking for," he says. "They like the sounds, the smells, the feel of fabrics--you can't have that shopping online."

In addition to varying shopping methods, not everyone with a shopping addiction has their finances fall apart, since some possess the financial resources to support their spending habits. However, the majority of compulsive shoppers exhibit habits that have damaging effects on their personal lives. For instance, mothers may be hitting the mall when they should be taking care of their children, or people go shopping rather than socialize and eventually lose friends.

[See: 10 Signs You Shop Too Much.]

Much of America's growing number of shopping addicts is a result of Western civilization, says April Lane Benson, author of I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. "Consumption fuels our economy. Materialism is rampant. We think that if you can't buy happiness, you just don't know where to shop," she says. Some onlookers admire compulsive shoppers' ability to spend a lot of money, which can encourage them even more. "A lot of times, it's a smiled-upon addiction," Benson says.

Because of the way society enables their addiction, compulsive shoppers often rationalize their habits. Some think they simply have good taste, which warrants their need to keep up with the latest trends. Others falsely believe they have the assets to support their hobby. Many times, they are overlooking the root of their addiction: emotions that may include loneliness, boredom, depression, or the desire to feel empowerment.

Another energizer is the high some shoppers feel at the point of sale. But the rush is only temporary, Black says. Once they go home and see how much they've spent, the euphoria usually disappears. This can lead people to feel "buyer's remorse." Many hide the items--in the trunk of their car, in the attic, in the storage room--to conceal their shopping addiction. "They know what they're doing is wrong and obsessive, and they're either ashamed or embarrassed by it," says Black, "otherwise, why would they hide it?" In some extreme cases, people purchase a bunch of items, suffer from buyer's remorse and return the products, only to come back later to buy them again. Benson calls them "returnaholics."

According to Benson, shopaholics can never get enough of things they want but don't need. Consequently, she says compulsive shoppers need to figure out what it is they're really shopping for; For most shopping addicts, she says it's never the items in their cart.

U.S. News spoke to two reformed shopaholics, who shared their stories* of how they developed, grappled, and overcame their addiction.

Mary Hunt, founder of and author of 7 Money Rules for Life :

I was probably born with the propensity to become a shopping addict. I think it's a temperament. I wasn't able to practice it because I grew up in a very frugal family and didn't have the means to shop for things that weren't needs. So as a child, I always dreamed I was going to be rich one day and be able to spend money freely.

When I left my home in Washington to go to college in California, I got away from the tightly regulated life I had. The first thing I did was get a checking account. I had discovered a way I could spend money I didn't have by writing checks. I suppose deep down I knew it wasn't right, but it was exhilarating and satisfying. It gave me a high, a buzz, the feeling that I could get away with anything.

If I bought shoes at Nordstrom's, I'd have to buy a pair of every color. I felt the salespeople looked at me and thought, "Oh, how I'd love to be her and live this wonderful lifestyle," and that made me feel important. I had the same fantasy when I got my first gas card and had the option to go through full service. While they'd fill up the car, I'd sit there and think, "Wow, this is what the queen of England must feel like. I have a host of people waiting on me, people tending to my carriage." I knew it was just a fantasy, but it was what I wanted. Of course, if I was with a friend I wouldn't buy anything. You never want to practice your addiction in front of someone.

By the time I got married I had access to credit cards. But after a while, I had this moment where I realized I was affecting other people's lives--my husband's and my kids'. I didn't want to disappoint my husband. I told him time after time that I wouldn't go on another shopping spree. I'd cut up the credit cards and close accounts, but it didn't last forever. The pain of my actions was never great enough to make me give up compulsive shopping; there was always a tipping point. It came to the point where if I'm alone with plastic, I'm just a disaster waiting to happen. I loved my credit cards. They were my lifeblood, they were my oxygen, they were the tools that allowed me to be the person I couldn't be growing up.

After 12 years, I had wracked up more than $100,000 in unsecured debt. Even at the worst points, I would blame the debt on my husband for not making enough money to support my spending, which absolutely wasn't true. It wasn't his fault; it was mine. I blamed a lot of people other than myself.

My shopping addiction turned me into an ugly person. A liar, a manipulator. I'd lie to my creditors and my husband, but in my mind I wasn't lying--I was just being creative. I thought I was buying myself time to be able to pay the money back. But what was I thinking? I would have had to rob a bank to pay it all back.

Once I admitted to myself I had a shopping addiction, I was able to take a step back. I realized that who I am isn't measured by what I have or what I can buy. I had to realize materialistic things are the bane of my existence. I had to realize that I had a lot more control than I thought I had.

It took me 13 years to pay back more than $100,000 of unsecured debt, but I did it. To get back to point zero, I used a flow chart that I tucked into my wallet. I told myself I'd be adult enough to ask myself these questions before buying anything that costs more than $20: Do I need it? Do I need it today or can I wait? Do I already have something that would work just as well? If, say, it were an outfit for a party, I'd ask myself if I already have clothes I could wear to the occasion.

I used to be a mall rat; I'd go and just wander around. To change my habits, I started mapping out where I would go in the store to get what I needed. It was almost like I was putting on virtual blinders. I'd also park in front of the store, rather than just in the general parking lot. I'd walk in, buy what I needed, and walk straight out.

Talking about my addiction at first was hard--very hard. It was difficult for me to admit it, then it was rewarding to be able to help others, but now that I've done it, I feel talking about it has helped me the most.

Avis Cardella, author of Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict :

I think it started when I was in my mid-twenties, after my mother's untimely death in 1989. The store became a comfortable place for me. It reminded me of my mother, because I had gone shopping with her since I was a child. I also found I could displace my depression and transfer it to the product. I could get excited about seeing something, think it would make me happy or change my life, so I'd buy it. If a situation was difficult for me emotionally--say, I was having a bad day or work wasn't going well or I was feeling lonely, I would end up running to a store.

[Read: A Prepaid Card for Recovering Addicts.]

I'd go into shops and fall into a trance--into this kind of heightened shopping experience. I often felt excited, agitated, and even my palms got sweaty. I was somebody who loved to be in a retail environment. The whole idea of being around things and seeing them and touching them, it was a whole sensory experience.

I was always looking for shopping to be replenishing. When I felt empty inside, shopping was a temporary way to feel full again. I was a solitary shopper. I didn't want my friends to see me in that kind of environment. I was not somebody who enjoyed shopping with girlfriends. I saw shopping as an emotional, private moment for me.

I don't think I was able to carry on a romantic relationship during that time. I wasn't being honest about how I was spending my time or my money or what was really bothering me. I had a relationship where I had a boyfriend who started buying me things, and I ended it rather quickly because I saw it facilitating my shopping addiction and I didn't want that in my life.

It was extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that my shopping addiction was basically a means of running away from something I had to face. I had to get at this from the root. One of the first things I did was acknowledge the connection between my shopping addiction and my grief over my mother's death.

I went to a credit-counseling program and eventually cleared up all my credit card debt. After that, my goal wasn't to just say, "Ok, I'm never going to shop again." Some people say they're going to cut up all their credit cards. I think it's easy to do that at first, but in the long term, you're not really getting at what it's all about.

I needed to relearn how to shop in a more mindful way, because I wanted to take back control and learn how to like shopping again. I had to realize it had gotten to the point where I actually hated shopping because I knew it was the source of a lot of anxiety and problems in my life.

[Quiz: Are You Spending Too Much on Your Children?]

Recovery wasn't easy. When I wanted to go shopping, I'd try to occupy my mind and my body in other ways. I would go outside and take long walks; I like to be around nature. The outdoors are a much healthier place for me than the mall. Being more "present" in the shopping environment took a lot of practice, patience, and time, but eventually I managed.

I can say honestly in the last 10 years I don't have a shopping problem. I've reclaimed my power over shopping and my self-esteem.

*Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.