When retail therapy isn't enough

Last updated 14:52 22/05/2013
SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP: There's a fine line between retail therapy and full-blown shopping addiction.

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Lucy, 35, is a shopping addict. She is seriously in debt and struggling to recover both financially and emotionally from over a decade of binge consumption. "I was overweight at school and when I lost it I noticed a shift in my behaviour," she said. "I began substituting overeating with shopping. Every time I felt bad about myself, my body or my relationship, I would shop until I felt better."

This behaviour escalated in times of stress. At her worst, she was shopping online every night, hiding more than $25,000 worth of debt on a credit card that her partner didn't know about. "I was buying anything and everything," said Lucy. "Toys for the kids, hundreds of lipsticks, books - it didn't matter as long as parcels kept coming. I believed I needed and deserved all the stuff but as soon as I unwrapped it I felt guilty and empty - so I'd shop again."

Women have long used retail as a form of therapy but what's the difference between a love of shopping and full-blown addiction? Experts agree that the line may be finer than you think. 

"Though not an official diagnosis, psychologists see a lot of people who are 'addicted' to shopping in that their behaviour is excessive," says clinical psychologist Jo Lamble. "They spend more time and money than they planned to, feel uneasy if they don't shop and find shopping eases emotions such as boredom, loneliness, depression, anxiety and anger."

Closest in symptoms and triggers to sexual addiction, binge shopping is often borne from a desire to fill an emotional or physiological void. "When my marriage broke down I started shopping to fill in time on the weekends," said Agatha, 55. "Being around people in the shopping mall made me feel less lonely. I'd have conversations with shop staff and they were nice to me when I was buying up big. It became a replacement for company."

Compulsive shopping is a disorder, which provides a physical rush similar to that of drugs, alcohol and gambling. "Sometimes excessive shopping is a sign of something more serious like mania, hypomania or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)," says Lamble. "But in the majority of cases, it's a short term fix for feeling bad". 

The UK's Mail Online reported that six out of 10 women admitted they do not live within their means, while four in ten women regularly lie to their partners to cover up their spending.

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Sir Elton John spent close to $50 million in under two years on his shopping addiction. A famous drug addict, he replaced cocaine with consumption of a more material kind admitting to cupboards full of unworn clothes and boxes of shoes he didn't recall buying.

In 2002, television journalist, Karyn Bosnak amounted a $20,000 debt from shopping addiction. When she lost her job, she created a website savekaryn.com which asked the public to donate one dollar toward her debt. The plan worked and Karen went on to change her life, break the addiction and write Save Karyn: One Shopaholic's Journey to Debt and Back.

Popular culture glamourises excessive shopping.

We're saturated with images of celebrities lugging over-sized designer bags from expensive stores into their expensive cars. For most people, this type of imagery may promote a bit of jealousy - "I wish I had the money to shop like that" - but to the predisposed, it can fan the flames of addiction. "Shopping is an escape from my daily grind," says Lana, a 25-year-old receptionist. "I take selfies with my shopping bags and post them online. I like knowing that people are following me like a celebrity. I spend my whole salary on shopping."

In standard cases the treatment for shopping addiction focuses on changing behaviour and patterns.

"Treatment looks at what's underlying the negative feelings and substituting healthy behaviours like exercise, a bath, time with friends when they have the urge to shop," explains Lamble. "Setting goals like saving money for a holiday or a special purchase provides incentives. It's a good idea to have a support team around the shopaholic who will be there to encourage and support their journey."

Lucy is on the road to recovery, seeing a psychologist and slowly paying off the debt she accumulated. "We've had to really cut back on all any kind of spending," she said. "I feel so guilty that I put my family in this situation. I want to make it up to them and that means never shopping again."

- Sydney Morning Herald


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