When A Shopping Addiction Isn't a Joke

Gym Buddy Daria: Where would you wear those?

Me: To church.

Daria: No, seriously. [Long pause.] Oh land, you are serious.

What does it say about me that when I saw these pink and gold sparkly beauties from across a crowded store, I knew they had to be mine? That secretly I dream about being a Vegas showgirl? That my next experiment should be cardio pole dancing? That I hate my ankles and want to cripple myself?

Actually - and you have no idea how hard it is for me to admit this - what it says about me is I have a shopping addiction. My overly full closet and endless supply of tank tops have become a standing joke with the Gym Buddies, but the truth is that the punchline is becoming more frightening than funny.

The problem with me is that I have an addictive personality. I've been this way as long as I can remember: I find one thing - gymnastics, swing dancing, computers, drawing, writing, fitness, nutrition - and focus on it with an intensity that makes Final Jeopardy look like an ADD convention. This thing becomes a part of my identity so much so that the only way to get me to quit is to pry it out of my iron grip by force and a lot of therapy.

In some aspects of my life this ability comes in handy - it's how I got through all of high school, college and grad school with nothing less than an "A" ... ever. But more often, it turns a good, fun pursuit into a huge time-sucking problem. Compulsive over exercise, anyone? There is a fine fine line between passion and obsession. And me being me, it seems like as soon as I kick one obsession (my fixation with finding the healthiest way to eat, ever) another creeps in to take its place (shopping for fitness stuff).

Thrift stores are my crack. I've always been a clothes-horse, yet I've always been frugal so consequently I'm a regular at garage sales, thrift stores, clearance racks and freepiles. Only recently, however, has it begun to take on a life of its own.

I first realized I had a problem about 2 months ago when I walked into my favorite thrift store and felt my whole body just relax. My heart rate slowed, my breathing relaxed, my mind calmed and I kind of went into a trance walking around the store and picking up various things. This wouldn't have been bad if all I'd done was blow an hour looking at other people's discarded junk but I couldn't leave without buying things. Things I didn't need or even necessarily want but things that gave me a rush to purchase.

And then there are the online sale sites. The first thing I do every morning (after I read my blog comments which always make me smile, laugh, think and occasionally cry) is check all my sale aggregators. And if something is a "great deal," I have to buy it. I get this single-minded, almost sick feeling that I have to buy it right now, before it's gone. And so, very often, I do. As soon as I click "confirm" on the order page I get a huge rush. Usually followed by immediate buyer's remorse. And when I get them, I hardly ever like them as much as I thought I would. (I might also have an obsession with returning things.)

It sounds ridiculous. I know. I tried explaining this to my husband and he looked at me as if I'd sprouted Anna Nicole Smith's head.

The real issue, at this moment, is not the money. I don't really spend that much and I return a lot of what I buy (confession: I bought and returned 9 pairs of jeans in November). More even than the time issue - which can be considerable what with all the researching, surfing, looking and returning - is the emotional issue. My shopping has turned into THE way I calm myself. Shopping soothes me. It used to be that I had to hit the gym for a grueling workout to combat my ever-present anxiety, but now I get that same effect from buying stuff. (We won't even discuss the problem of where to put all those things - I have a closet the size of a mini-fridge. It's like a clown car in there.)

It also feeds my insecurities and increases my body checking behaviors. I'm getting so much better but I still care very much about how I look. I am certain that people judge me to be worthy or unworthy of their time, love and attention by how pretty I am. And since I'm not conventionally very pretty I feel like I have to make up for that with my clothing. I know this sounds like vanity (perhaps it is and I'm just in denial?) but it feels like insecurity. It feels like I'm trying to fill a spiritual hole with physical things. It feels like I'm trying to love myself from the outside in.

And that has got to stop. Because it will never be enough.

Other addictions, like my disordered eating, have taken over my life for years, and I refuse to let that happen again. The waste of time, energy, talent and money is phenomenal and reprehensible. While this hasn't yet progressed to the level that some of my other addictions have, I can feel the cycle beginning and I need to stop it now. The first step, naturally, is admitting I have problem. Done! The second step is to stop hiding it. Done! (As soon as I hit publish on this post, anyhow.) The third step is ... what? I came across this article on Zen Habits called "The Case Against Buying Christmas Gifts" and it made a huge impact on me. Is it possible to just quit buying things? I'm not sure what to do next. How do I quit this? And more importantly, how do I find a healthy activity to reduce my anxiety that won't become an all-consuming addiction?

A friend once looked at me and said, with a smile on her face, "You are a frivolous human being." I'm afraid she might be right.

Have any of you had any experience with a shopping addiction? Do you have an addictive personality too or are you able to keep everything in balance? Why am I so bad at moderation?!

P.S. I will thank you now for the free therapy.

Written by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!

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