IT HAPPENED TO ME: My House Burned Down and it Turned Me Into a Shopaholic

I’m mulling over the effect this house fire had on me, and I’m beginning to think maybe I may have developed a teensy tiny shopping problem.
Publish date:
February 12, 2014
fire, compulsive shopping

In the winter of 2008, my house burned down.

It happened exactly how you’d imagine it: a burning candle left briefly unattended, an inexplicable draft angling that supposedly innocuous little flame toward a surprisingly ignitable curtain and then within a matter of minutes an entire double story home was alight, a towering, smoking wood and brick monstrosity with the kind of blazing innards you’d see as a 10-second space filler on the 6 o’clock news.

Like winning the lottery, like being struck by lightning or contracting some kind of horrid flesh-eating bacterial infection, a house fire is one of those unexplained life-altering events that could happen to anyone and no one. Easily avoidable until it isn’t, it’s a personal disaster that’s generally only softened by the mantra you take up in the aftermath. “No one was hurt. It was just stuff.”

When someone asks how you’re doing, you'll shrug and assume an air of downtrodden nonchalance, “I’m OK.”

You’ll pretend that you're not crumbling on the inside, you’ll feign strength with every shaking muscle in your body and slap on a self-deprecating smirk, because god forbid you'd want anyone to feel sorry for you. You'll find yourself parroting the same phrases over and over again until your voice cracks and the words don’t even sound like words anymore. "It was just stuff." Baby photos and handmade quilts and your great grandmother's antique vase.

Just stuff.

Now, as I stand in my bedroom running a stocktake of the possessions I’ve collected six years on in preparation of a big overseas move, I’m mulling over the effect this house fire had on me, and I’m beginning to think maybe I may have developed a teensy tiny shopping problem.

I would have thought that losing everything I owned in the space of 20 minutes would have been a rather freeing experience. A chance for me to embrace Swedish minimalism! Or to take up Vinyasa yoga and stop shaving my armpits! To realise that my life was not made richer by the totally adorable Marc Jacobs tote I bought on sale for 30 percent off (plus 10 percent staff discount. Oh my god, I miss that tote) but by the people in it. Sadly, this epiphany escaped me, and apart from getting really drunk and crying a lot, I did none of it.

Nope. Like a drug addict who’s discovered their stash has run dry, I went into complete withdrawal for stuff. Then I overdosed. Big time. Retail was my drug. Every time I flicked my card through the EFTPOS machine, I would experience a rush like no other; my heart would thump a little faster behind my ribcage, my palms would tingle for the weight of the shopping bag, my fingers twitching in excitement around the handles as I floated out of the store, eyes glinting with satisfaction of a battle well fought. Or purchased. Whatever.

I developed a game I liked to call “Debit Card Roulette,” whereby I would not check my bank balance before buying something and instead just pray to the Department Store Gods that my card wouldn’t get declined. (No matter if it did, of course! I’d just whip out my credit card with a practiced flourish.)

I’d create elaborate backstories to go along with my completely ridiculous and totally useless purchases, too. That $3,000 gaming PC I probably didn’t need because I was only really into The Sims and the occasional game of Dragon Age? Totally for my (imaginary) boyfriend. Who was currently touring with Cirque Du Soleil in Europe. Why yes I am a great girlfriend and yes he did teach me how to do a triple backflip, by the way can I get a discount on my monitor with that?

The $400 Irish Wedding ring I purchased? A group gift to a very dear friend who was leaving us all to go on a very exciting archaeological dig in Ireland. She totally has the same size fingers as me, thanks. By the way do you have any matching earrings?

The lies were as fun as the purchase, but were also a thinly veiled attempt to stifle the overwhelming guilt that overtook me every time I beamed at the sales person and exclaimed breathlessly, “I’ll take it!” Something I didn’t realise until much later on.

I had no idea that I was trying to fill the pervasive, gnawing emptiness and sadness that was burning a hole through my heart with trinkets and brand names. (I was probably suffering from some sort of minor PTSD too, but hey, I’m no shrink.) Aside from the initial high triggered by the glorious ring of the cash register, it wasn’t really making me happy.

I’ve since grown a little wiser with my money, and while I often find myself still living pay check to pay check, I’m no longer attempting to fill some void in my life with material possessions. In part, because I already own everything already, but mostly because I’ve learned to appreciate the people in my life, more than the things.

I have a wonderful, supportive group of friends and a beautiful, loving fiancée, and my life is mostly a delight. Now that I’m moving -– not simply a suburb away but to an entirely different continent, I’m coming to understand that a majority of these objects in my room just collecting dust? They don’t mean anything to me. And it’s like the sun is coming up.

And if I’m being completely honest here, and more than a little sentimental, I’d rather be with the person I love most in the world than have any of this junk -- no matter how adorable or great it makes me feel. I’d toss it all out tomorrow if it meant seeing my fiancée a little sooner. I’ll be OK without it. It won’t hurt if I have to downsize because, after all, it’s just stuff.

Don’t worry, though. I won’t be taking a match to any of it.