Friday, November 30, 2007

Confessions of a Shopaholic Relapse

I suppose it's quite understandable. In a life where so much is out of my control, I found comfort in an addiction--shopping! It began at age 6 when I broke my leg learning how to ski. I was in terrible pain and my father brought me a stuffed egg guy from the hospital gift shop. The stuffed animal soothed me and was the first object in a long journey of self-medication with material things.

In the early years, toys and, later, clothes were things I turned to when I was sick and sad. They brightened my day and provided a much-needed distraction from the realities of my illness. My dependency grew and eventually, I was shopping for all emotional occasions--I shopped to celebrate, soothe anxiety, comfort sadness and remedy boredom. There was nothing in life that didn't warrant a shopping trip!

In the times I was seriously ill and immobile, my physical limitations helped to temper my shopping desires. There was only so long I could shop before I was too exhausted to continue. In the very sick days, my Mom wheeled me through the mall in a wheelchair as I piled clothes on my lap. (She was also a inexperienced driver who banged me into many poles and clothing racks! We laughed so hard!) Shopping wasn't something I did by myself, it was a bonding time for me and my mom or friends. There were so many advantages!!

Things got really out of control when my health was no longer a limiting factor. After both transplants, armed with new lungs and a prednisone high, my love of shopping consumed me. After transplant #2 it only took a few months until my credit card was maxed out at a whopping $10,000. Gulp. That is when I realized this wasn't a joke anymore. Shopaholic was a funny word I tossed around but, looking at the damage I was doing to my life, it began to ring very true. I took it seriously and decided I needed help.

I went to my therapist and we hashed out a plan. First thing was to call the credit card company and work out a payment plan that I could actually do. Second, was to get myself into a 12 step program (for real). Third, and simultaneously, was to process my need to shop and find its roots so I could spray some weed killer on them and be done with it.

Luckily for me, my credit card company worked with me and I got a payment plan that I could handle. I went into Debtor's Anonymous. I began to explore the depths of this addiction and found out it was deeper than I ever expected.

Debtor's Anonymous was quite an experience! I had never done a 12 step before but certainly knew about them from TV, movies etc. Just like in AA, you begin each meeting with the "check-in." We all sat in a circle and went around the room and, when it got to be your turn, you were supposed to say "My name is so-and-so and I am an over spender, under earner." You then give a very brief explanation of how well, or not well, you have done with spending since the last meeting. Just to make sure it was brief, we were always being timed. It felt like Pictionary, I was always hurrying because I didn't want to get caught by the buzzer. It was so nerve wracking for me and I found it very restrictive and annoying. (The most we ever got to talk was one minute.)

I was a rebel in the group because I refused to say I was an "over spender, under earner." That makes me sound like a victim. If I just earned more, this wouldn't be a problem? No. So, I said "My name is Tiffany and I self-medicate with material objects." Some people in the circle admired my new saying and others gave me dirty looks for going outside of tradition. The dirty lookers were mostly the people who had been going to these meetings for 900 years.

There were some really good tips that I learned from this group. I learned about "book-ending." This is where, when you have to go shopping for something, you call someone first, tell them where you are going, what you are there to buy and how much you can spend. After the purchase, or lack of purchase, you then call the person back and tell them what you did. Did you spend more than you said? Did buy something other than what you set out to buy? Did you go to another store? Did you not buy anything at all? This sets up accountability and really worked for me.

The other tip was the 24 hour rule. One day, I book-ended with my mother and told her I needed running shoes for work. When I went to the store, I was overwhelmed by at least 3 other pairs of shoes that "I had to have." I honored the 24 hour rule because these were not the shoes I went in to get. I called my Mom and told her that I was going to go back the next day and decide which of the 3 pairs I would get. The next day, I went back and guess what? All of those shoes were soooo ugly!! I couldn't believe how excited about them I had been the day before. At that moment, I really understood that my perception was blinded by the chemical reaction I had when I was in Shopaholic Mode. I began to understand that it really is an addiction.

Besides those 2 things, I found Debtor's Anonymous to be ridiculous. Everyone was so victimized by themselves. One guy had a thing about not opening his mail. To him, if he didn't open his mail, the bills didn't exist. Talk about classic denial! Every week he came in and said the same thing--"I planned on opening my mail this week but I didn't. I'll open it next week, bla bla bla." This had been going on for months, maybe even years. The group's response was "Thank you so-and-so!" Why are you coming to this group if nothing ever changes? Is it helping you or only serving to "normalize" your denial so you don't have to be brave and move past it? There were many people in the group with similar patterns.

The breaking point for me was this woman I will call Sally. One night, during one debtor's 1-timed-minute story, Sally got up and left the group and didn't come back for the rest of the night. No big deal, we all figured she had a meeting or a date or something. The next week, during "check-in" Sally revealed that when she had left, she had actually driven to a local hotel and bought thousands of dollars worth of art. How did she pay? With a bad check. This was her "thing." What was the group's response? "Thank you, Sally!" Are you kidding me? This woman leaves in the middle of a meeting, a place where she is supposed to find help and support, to go indulge in her addiction and all we say is "thank you"? No way dude! I don't think we should have shot her or anything but how about simply asking, "Sally, why didn't you say something at the time you were having those feelings so we could help you through them?" It became clear to me that this group was not effective and it actually helped people stay stuck in their addictions. That was the last night I attended.

So, for a few months, I tried to get off of my "drugs" and it was hard. The reason I say it is truly an addiction is because, during this time of cold-turkey, difficult emotions were popping up left and right. Feelings I had glossed over with a new sweater came up to bite me in the butt. I sat outside of stores talking to myself, only to drive off and speed away from my temptations. I was jonesing for a fix. I went into a hardware store to get a key made and you would have thought I had landed in the middle of Saks Fifth Avenue! My hands danced across the shiny tools and my eyes twinkled as they scanned the room filled with things like thermoses, plants and keychains. I got that familiar high and was shaky. I wanted to buy, buy, buy. Instead, I left the store without getting my key made and knew I had a long way to go.

Eventually, the emotions stabilized and I no longer want to buy stuff at the hardware store. I can shop like a normal person and, in fact, I am so picky now I often have trouble finding anything I want! I am very proud that I have kicked the habit!

Like any other addiction, however, a person can have a relapse. I had one this week. I was cranky and agitated again (see post about PMS) and I could barely stand to be in my own skin. My solution was to go shopping. Unfortunately, it helped because I bought way more than I could afford. I know I'm in trouble when I get light-headed and I make impulse buys. I bought a pair of $60 earrings that I don't even like that much! I bought a $40 hair bobble that I can't return! I bought a cute black dress, though. Score on that one.

So now begins the part that is all too familiar. 1. Take back the stupid earrings. 2. Shuffle my finances so I can afford what I bought. 3. Center myself again in That Which Is Important 4. Start book-ending again until I get myself under control

Like a smoker who has one cigarette after 5 years of not smoking, now that I've started, I feel hooked again. All I want to do is shop more. Christmas is around the corner and it will be a challenge to keep my shopping impulses under control as I look for gifts for other people. Unlike drugs or drinking, shopping is a part of life you can't just cut out completely. This makes it uniquely challenging.

My name is Tiffany and I self-medicate with material objects!

Wish me luck this holiday season!


Laurie said...

I've tagged you for a meme--check out my blog for the details....

Garry said...

Do you agree with the old cliche "Abstinence is easier than moderation"? I am not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it probably is easier for me to avoid the chocolate cookies altogether rather than have just one. But on the other hand, I am not sure that we are designed to live a Spartan existence--it takes all the fun out of life. There has to be something in the middle. Maybe we should go shopping together! I will go into Macy's with you and say, "Ok, Tiff, which one of those dresses do you like the most?" and then you can take me to the Great American Cookie Company and say, "Ok, Gar, go sit down and I will buy you your one cookie!" LOL

Professional Patient said...

It probably doesn't help that it's the holiday season... everywhere you turn, someone (or some commerical, or catalog) is encouraging you to buy, buy, buy. I get at least 4 mail-order catalogs a day right now.

The trick to recovering from any addiction lies in resilience (I had a lapse, but now I'm back on track) rather than perfection (never making another impulse purchase). Hang in there!

JC said...

I shop to heal too.
Perhaps I'll lay off a bit though, after reading this...I really don't want to join DA!

Midlife Midwife said...

I agree with you about 12 step groups. I've been in multiple groups in trying to heal myself. They can be really frustrating. But the thing about the 12 steps? They work if you work them.

Many people go to the meetings thinking that just talking about their addictions will make them go away. No, the steps are a difficult process that makes you take a fine toothed comb to your soul and figure out where you are making mistakes in your thinking and actions. It's work, plain hard work. You came out of the program figuring out that you didn't want to continue your pattern of destructive behaviour.

You had to work to figure out how to handle those ugly feelings that drove your addiction. I think I did learn a lot from those other people who made me so mad at the meetings. It made me work even harder to not be like them. Many of them were the mirror that was held up to my face to make me see myself.

That's my two cents worth. My name is Midlife Midwife and I am a perfectionist. (I self medicate by creating unrealistic expectations of myself...because if I am perfect...I'll feel better about myself!)