No holiday for compulsive buyers
Endless opportunities make season difficult

Wednesday, December 2, 1998

God rest ye merry, merchants
May ye make the Yuletide pay.
Angels, we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and BUY!
-- "A Christmas Carol" by satirist Tom Lehrer (1959)

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Making fun of holiday commercialism is no laughing matter for people who can't control their shopping.

Because they can't say no at the cash register, compulsive shoppers sometimes face impatient creditors, hefty credit-card bills, strained marriages and bankruptcy.

Until this year, Lynn, 46, of Cincinnati was one of them for several years. She asked that her last name not be used.

As recently as a year ago, her monthly Visa bills were $5,000. She'd spend $1,000 at one visit without flinching at Half Price Books. She hoarded the items she bought, filling entire rooms of her suburban home with unopened toys, unworn clothes and unread books.

"Some people get addicted to alcohol, some people get addicted to gambling," the divorced woman says.

"Shopping is how I coped with my loneliness. To make me feel happy temporarily, I left my kids off at school every day and I would go from mall to mall to mall, all day, and then

pick up my kids in the afternoon. I couldn't stand the thought of not shopping.

"This wasn't just at the holidays," she adds. "It was all the time."

The boom in retailing opportunities -- from malls to Home Shopping Network to Internet purchases -- is fueling problems for compulsive shoppers, says Dr. Susan McElroy, a University of Cincinnati psychiatrist who specializes in the topic.

Shopping urges can become even more pronounced during the holidays because of heightened advertising, marketing and traditional pressure to buy.

Are you a compulsive shopper? Authors Ellen Mohn Catalano and Nina Sonenberg offer this checklist to diagnose the severity of shopping in their book Consuming Passions: Help for Compulsive Shoppers (New Harbinger Publications; $11.95):
  • I feel a lack of control over my spending habits.
  • I feel guilty when I shop.
  • I don't know -- or want to admit -- how much I shop.
  • I tend to hide purchases and shopping expeditions from my loved ones.
  • Shopping is my favorite method of relieving tension and anxiety.
  • I often care more about the action of buying than what I actually buy.
  • My closet is full of unused things.
  • I often buy things I can't afford.
  • Other people would be horrified if they knew how much I shop.
  • I buy myself things to make myself feel better.

    Each of these statements is a danger signal for out-of-control shopping. The more statements you check, the more personal work you'll have to do to control your shopping habits.

  • While compulsive shopping is not highly studied, Dr. McElroy says evidence of its increase can be found in the growing amount of consumer debt in the U.S. -- estimated at $1.2 trillion. By one estimate, consumer debt rose more than 35 percent from 1993 to 1996.

    "I've seen people in debt from a couple of thousand dollars to $50,000-$100,000 on a credit card," Dr. McElroy says. "I've seen people have to take out a second mortgage to pay off their debts.

    "Some compulsive shoppers may not actually buy anything," she explains. "They may just spend all day shopping. They find it exhilarating. For some, the shopping can be very ritualistic. Some people have to buy the same things every time."

    For Lynn, the pattern was fairly typical -- clothes, books, and toys.

    Like people with other compulsive behaviors, shoppers tend to have underlying disorders or mental illnesses that feed or intensify their shopping behavior, turning a normal activity into an irresistible or uncontrolled urge. Underlying disorders that accompany compulsive shopping, include various types of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety, eating disorders and the like.

    All incomes affected

    Because compulsive shopping is not well studied, estimates on its incidence vary from 1 percent to 6 percent of the population, depending on how such shopping is defined.

    But according to Ellen Mohr Catalano and Nina Sonenberg, the authors of Consuming Passions (New Harbinger Publications; $11.95), women and men of all income ranges are affected. Patterns include daily shopping, occasional binge-shopping, collecting, bargain hunting and buying multiples of one item.

    Dr. McElroy says compulsive shoppers tend to report similar feelings: a mounting tension or anxiety that is relieved only by shopping or making a purchase. Shopping and buying bring on euphoria and happiness, feelings that can soon crash, leading them back to stores in search of shopping "highs."

    Lynn was drawn to the camaraderie and friendliness of shopping. She enjoyed being the center of attention when she charged something. Unlike many people who get into serious financial trouble, she paid off her credit cards each month by dipping into savings.

    But when she had a severe depressive episode and spent 24 days hospitalized in late 1997, she finally realized the depth of her behavior and turned to Dr. McElroy for help.

    Typically, people who are compulsive shoppers decide to get help when they finally admit they have a problem or when "a significant other drags them into treatment," Dr. McElroy says.

    The effectiveness of treatment -- a combination of mood-stabilizing drugs, psychotherapy and financial counseling -- depends on the severity of the problem and the person's willingness to change.

    Lynn points to several factors for her uncontrolled shopping:

    • A history of depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unhappy childhood memories of shopping with an otherwise unaffectionate unaffectionate mother.

    • Loneliness.

    • Low self-esteem.

    • Inability to admit that she had a mental illness.

    If you think you need professional help for compulsive shopping:
  • Talk to a mental-health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in compulsive behaviors.
  • Call your local Mental Health Association or a counseling agency for information about or referrals to support groups for people with obsessions, compulsions or other kinds of mental health problems: Cincinnati, 721-2910; Northern Kentucky, 431-1077; Clermont County Counseling, 248-0421; Brown County Counseling, (800) 482-4811; Butler County Mental Health Board, 860-9240.
  • Contact Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a program offered by Family Service of Cincinnati. It offers financial counseling, budget planning and debt management at offices in Cincinnati, Norwood, Batavia, Covington, Florence and Lawrenceburg. 651-0111; in Indiana, (812) 537-5552.
  • Today, a relative acts as Lynn's power-of-attorney, monitoring her checkbook and purchases each month. She fills her day by taking care of a disabled brother and her mother. She plans outings with friends and neighbors.

    She involves herself in her children's school events and activities. When she shops, she sticks to a preset budget.

    "Now I ask myself, 'Do you REALLY need that?' " she says. "You may not be able to control the thoughts that come to you, but you can control your behavior, whether it's making a chart or keeping a schedule for planning every hour of the day."

    Dr. McElroy says compulsive shopping seems to be a phenomenon of people in their 30s and 40s, although the behaviors for some may start in teen years.

    "It's almost as if people are shopping to regulate their mood," she says.

    "Sometimes if you get the mood stabilized (with antidepressants or other drugs), the urge to buy lessens and the person can control that much better."

    Shopping solutions

    In her counseling sessions, Dr. McElroy often asks the compulsive shopper to open his or her wallet and pull out all the credit cards.

    "I'll ask them, 'Do you really need 10, 15 or 20 credit cards?' " she says. And then, if possible, she'll take out a scissors and cut in half the ones that are expendable or not needed -- a very tangible sign of change that's about to start.

    One of the biggest stumbling blocks to treatment, she says, is the way shoppers interpret their own behavior.

    "These people are terribly embarrassed, very ashamed about what they're doing," she says. "For the most part, it's a secretive disorder. They're very secret about what they do."

    Lynn, too, is embarrassed that her uncontrollable shopping caused such problems in life.

    "I'm glad I got my wake-up call before it got too late," she says.

    "There are a lot of self-help books out there, but to people who are having this problem, you can take all the medicine you want and go for psychotherapy, but until you're really motivated deep inside, you won't change until you recognize that you have this problem.

    "Today, I feel like I'm in control."

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