Photo courtesy Touchstone Pictures

Before I get into the meat of this post, I am going to throw out some truth bombs that might help give some context:

  1. In high school I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
  2. I have been taking various antidepressants since I was diagnosed, the first being Paxil.

When I was 20 or 21, I had been on Paxil for about 7 years. Apparently, after 7 years of use, SSRIs can stop working. Hooray! I didn’t know this, and just thought something was seriously wrong with me. I had a pretty fantastic life: I had just moved into a house my boyfriend (M) and I bought, my relationship was fantastic, I had a wonderful group of friends, and although I didn’t like my job a ton, it was in the field of marketing and I was learning a lot. So it seemed I should be extremely happy and stable, but I wasn’t. Instead, I felt angry, depressed, antsy, and completely out of control.

Shopping has been one of my favorite activities since I was a little girl. Not only do I get pretty new things, I find it soothing. It’s also a great way to distract myself from any troubles life throws my way. It’s called retail therapy for a reason. So naturally, when I started feeling really shitty, I went shopping.

Only I didn’t feel better afterwards.

You can probably see where this is going. I kept feeling bad, so I kept shopping. I enjoyed the rush of having new items and the feeling of control I had. (The control I felt was a total illusion, however, because as I was shopping, I put almost everything on my credit card and didn’t think much of it.) A few hours after my shopping sprees, though, I’d feel a terrible guilt over what I had just done. At this point M started to notice my new clothes and shoes and asked me about it. I told him that they were on sale, or that I had had this piece of clothing for a while and he never noticed. After awhile I started getting really defensive when he’d ask me about things – I even started hiding my shopping bags (not unlike alcoholics who hide their empties). He seemed a bit skeptical, and I felt terrible for lying to him, but I did it anyway. I kept thinking if I just bought more stuff, I’d feel better, and that the guilt would go away.

One day after I had completely maxed out my credit card and over drafted my bank account for the umpteenth time, I still didn’t think I had a shopping problem, but I was feeling very unhappy about the fact that I barely had any money leftover to pay my bills. I sheepishly went to M and asked if I could borrow some money to cover some expenses. He asked me why I needed it, and when I told him that I just didn’t have the money, he asked why I had money for clothes and shoes, but not for my insurance or groceries. I didn’t have an answer. I did end up bursting into tears and telling him everything: that my secret shopping had been going on for about 6 months and I was deeply in debt. I also told him about my crushing anger and sadness and how completely out of control I felt all the time, and that shopping was the only thing that quelled it for a period of time. He listened, and was (rightfully) angry that I had been lying to him, but more than anything he was concerned. He asked me if I was still taking Paxil, and when I told him yes, he told me I needed to get in to see someone, because something was wrong. I didn’t even think there was a possible connection until he mentioned it.

The next day I called my psychiatrist who referred me to a psychologist down the hall from his office. I went to see her a week later. I laid out everything and asked her if there was such a thing as shopping addiction. Apparently, there totally is. And I exhibited all the tell tale symptoms:

  • Compulsive buying
  • Fear of being discovered
  • Getting a rush from spending money
  • Hiding evidence of purchases
  • Lying about spending
  • Shopping alone
  • Shopping when angry, depressed, bored, or lonely
  • Spending even if you know you can’t afford the item
  • Thinking about shopping between trips

After our first session she got together with my psychiatrist and I was switched to Effexor, an SNRI (side note: I’ve been on Effexor ever since and love it.). At this point we started talking about why I felt the need to shop and got deeper into the issues I was having. I only saw her for about 6 months, but she really changed my life and helped me out.

Photo courtesy 401(K) 2012

Now that my emotional issues were being taken care of, I had the looming physical evidence of my shopping addiction: my huge credit card debt. I created a budget for myself of only my essential items and bills and used almost everything I had left over to pay off my debt. It sucked. A lot. I had no spending money to go out with and quit shopping cold turkey (I also stopped reading fashion magazines and blogs – two of my favorite things!). I was determined, though, and within two years I was able to pay everything off! I also learned a lot about budgeting and personal finance during this time and am now diligent about balancing my checkbook and keeping a budget for myself. I was also able to win back M’s trust in my financial aptitude by being so dedicated to righting my wrongs.

I still love shopping, but I have rules for myself, such as not buying something unless I really love it. This may seem simple and obvious to you, but to me it was a huge turning point. If I’m unsure about an item, I won’t buy it. If I’m still thinking about it a week later, though, then I’ll return to the store to see if it’s still there. If it’s not, it wasn’t meant to be. If it is, yay! I also always make sure I have the money to pay for things and don’t just blindly put it on my credit card. My shopping trips are also less frequent. I no longer feel a rush simply by purchasing something, but am excited about what I buy and getting to wear it. Shopping isn’t my go-to when I’m feeling a bit down anymore, either. For that I turn to running (so much healthier) or just talk to M about it. He’s proud of me for getting help and fixing my problem on my own rather than asking for help or shying away from the responsibility. I am, too.