When I got sober, and my mind and body began to process and experience the emotions I had avoided for so long, my sweet merciful brain first gave me joy.
But for cross-addicted folks like me, getting clean is sort like the Whack-a-Mole game at your local arcade. Just as you manage to stomp down one life-threatening attachment, another one pops up grinning and bucktoothed.
It started with pencil skirts. I suddenly realized that pencil skirts were what I needed. I’d wear them every day with kitten heels and cute tops tucked in at the natural waist and they’d be flattering and I’d finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
So I set out collecting pencil skirts in each color. I needed black, of course, and red, turquoise – but maybe also a pale blue? – pink, orange, mustard yellow. Sometimes I’d think I was done and then all of a sudden it would occur to me: “Green, Jesus how could I forget green?”
Only when I’d scoured all my favorite stores (H&M, J Crew, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie) for the desired item could I breathe, in brief respite from the nagging anxiety of completing my collection. Until the next unwanted itch -- boots, maybe, or cardigan sweaters -- started to tickle my obsessive brain.
According to the Shopaholics Anonymous website, the “Collector shopper” is a type of compulsive shopper who “has to have complete or many sets of objects of different colors of same style of clothing." I'm also a "Bulimic shopper" -- I buy things online and immediately return them so that I'm forever waiting on refunds as my bank account is worn down in tiny shipping fee increments.
Of course, shopping addiction is at its core about compulsion. Other times it starts with an item glimpsed in a store window that wriggles into my subconscious and pops up days later, suddenly essential, crowding all other thoughts into cramped corners of my brain. Then when you are talking to me I am not there because I am thinking about these specific lipglosses or tops I am going to buy after I leave you, the same way I couldn't focus on conversation if my drink was less than half full.
I still find myself standing in stores I didn't mean to enter clutching an item I can't afford or bear to put down. This is why the treatment for compulsive shoppers is similar to the treatment for hoarding behaviors – therapists practice non-buying excursions, taking patients into stores and having them leave without buying anything. This is an excruciating thought to me -- Each time I love something, I feel I have no choice but to buy it, that more money will somehow come from somewhere to set right the imbalance.
When I look at that shirt or pair of shoes, or the dresses, especially the dresses, I don’t think about how I look in them, I think about who I’ll be in them. Each item is a ticket that is going to finally deliver me to the person I want to be -- whole, complete, acceptable. How can you leave an item like that on the rack?
Then after first wearing, or sometimes as soon as purchased, the luster fades and they're just garments again, hanging limply in my closet like a patch of next-day pumpkins. A few of the dozens of unworn items in my closets with the tags still on:
My history with a slew of store credit cards goes like this: Get card, max out card, cut up card, pay off card, order new card/have cashier look card number up at the register, and start again. Every bonus check or tax return I have received in the past decade I have intended to save, then watched helplessly as I slowly spent it. No matter how much money there is, I manage to spend it all. I am constantly toggling numbers in my head -- deducting pending purchases, adding hoped-for freelance checks to pending refunds and subtracting rent, trying to magic it all into coming out even.
Other women are no help – when it comes to shopping, we’re a whole gender of enablers. Maybe your credit card debt is in the 5 digits and you don’t know where rent is coming from, but the women around you will still say things like, “But you need good boots for winter!” and “Yes, but it’s so YOU.” Cashiers give me just-between-us-girls smiles when I decline their shopping bags, choosing to consolidate so it looks as if I’ve been to one store instead of three.
Once, after overdrafted my credit card for the million time, I made my same tired old joke about running away to Phillipines that usually defused the tension between my partner and I. But this time, instead of laughing, he erupted. He took me to my closet and yelled: “LOOK AT THIS. You don’t need any more clothes or any more shoes for the rest of your life.”
And he was right. I have enough of these things not to repeat an outfit for the next year. I cut up my credit cards and vowed not to buy either of these items again. I lasted a few weeks.
Today I no longer spend money I don't have, but I continue to spend every penny of the money I do have. To be honest, I have too much on my plate just staying clean to even really start working on compulsive shopping. A lot of days I think that if buying a new dress is what keeps me from picking up a drink or a drug, then I can handle that today.
But it's painful as hell to keep soberly making the same mistakes over and over again against your own best intentions -- to look right into the face of a self-destructive compulsion and understand exactly how it will hurt you, and then do it again anyway.
This is how progress works in recovery, painfully fucking slow while you keep throwing your full force at a problem for each millimeter of movement. And just as you start to get a handle on one problem, another one pops up its ugly, furry head. The key is to keep whacking the shit out of them.