Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You Can't Take It With You

The first time I heard the term "addictive personality," I knew that was me. Up, down, sideways. I feel things very intensely, and I seek ways to either boost or numb that intensity. The middle ground - where reality is embraced in its pain, beauty, and boredom - is not my default.

I've had addictions come and go throughout my life. Food was a biggie for many years. So were relationships. There was even a time when I used religion as an addiction, seeking out groups with extremist beliefs and buying everything they sold.

Luckily, as prone as I am to getting hooked, I'm pretty good at recovery. I beat the food, the relationships, and the fundamentalism. But since I always need drama, I picked up a fourth addiction a few years ago, from which I am now recovering. This one is mundane on its surface, but chock full of meaning and personal history.

Shopping. The great American pastime. Escape on credit.

I think the spending bug was always latent in me. As a kid, I had trouble saving my allowance. As a young adult I lived hand-to-mouth, with no slush fund. I never spent above my means, but I ogled other people's stuff and fantasized about owning it.

The ball really got rolling once I got married and had some disposable income. Throughout our daughter's first years, shopping became a way to escape postpartum depression and the stress of child-rearing. Of course, it was a poor substitute for actually resolving problems. But it felt great in the moment. Finding bargains gave me a sense of control and mastery.

In our effort to have a second child, we suffered three miscarriages and a diagnosis of ovarian failure - I just didn't have any good eggs left. Even spending thousands on in vitro fertilization likely wouldn't get us a baby. Talk about powerlessness.

If I couldn't buy a baby, well damn - I could spend my nights trolling eBay. I still had that. The item would arrive in a box and I could open the box. A present, all mine. Then, I'd buy something else as soon as I lost interest in the first thing. I was certain that I just hadn't found the right thing yet. Once I had, I could stop.

Eventually I had Tupperware boxes of makeup and jewelry, perfumes and lotions. I had two main excuses for buying something: It was at discount, meaning I'd beaten the system and I was special. Or, it was something few others had, again meaning I was special.

I always had the awareness that stuff couldn't really make me special - that in fact, compulsive shopping was at odds with my own values and beliefs. But I forcibly tamped down that awareness because I was too scared of facing the emptiness of infertility, the pain of marital discord, without stuff as a buffer.

When our son was born, against the odds, the shopping slowed down for a time. But then it became a way to soothe a different pain: that of having a colicky baby, a needy preschooler, and less time for myself than ever. I spent my son's sleepless nights cradling him with one arm and browsing with the other.

Finally, though, the cognitive dissonance was too painful. I was sick of the anxiety and shame that arrived with each credit-card bill. I was sick of hiding packages around the house. I noticed my daughter's increasingly urgent demands for new toys, her dissatisfaction with what she already had. Clearly, I wasn't as good at hiding as I thought. I had to beat this bug, for me and for her.

The first step was coming clean to my therapist and my husband. That meant getting clear in my own mind about how "harmless browsing" always led to pointless spending, and how much that spending amounted to in a single year.

Although it was very embarrassing, that first step was the easiest.

I then had to stop shopping, which felt very deprivational and scary. Putting down the credit cards meant baring feelings I had been suppressing for years. I talked in therapy about the dread of aging, the frustrations of caring for children, the fear of unstructured time. I grieved for the energy I'd spent on shopping when I could have been finding meaning and peace within myself.

When the urge hit, I consciously brought to mind all the fantasies I'd had over the years about finding "it," buying "it," having "it." If I let those fantasies run free without acting on them, I soon saw that they had nothing to do with "it" and everything to do with feeling whole, feeling loved. I brought to mind the hundreds of "its" I'd bought in a pique of false hope, all of them now moldering in our storage room or a landfill. They hadn't made my life better at all, just more complicated.

It gradually got easier to resist the urge. I saw my life opening up. I was present and available for my husband and kids. I felt the freedom of being able to give generously to charity, to invest in stuff we really needed. Most of all, I felt proud of myself for coming out on the other side and seeing there really was nothing to be afraid of.

Does this mean I never wander into Sephora or Bloomie's? Well, I'm not made of steel. But the wallet stays closed, which means the store is less interesting. Without the whole cycle of coveting, fantasizing, buying, and regretting, there isn't that much excitement to be had. I've started the habit of "shopping my stash," using and enjoying what I already have. This strikes a blow not only to my own compulsivity, but to the culture of impulse buying and meaningless acquisition that surrounds us.

It's gratifying to see that my daughter has read my cues and returned to her usual state of contentment. She loves collecting rocks and digging in the mud. My husband has always set a good example for her financially, and now I can, too. Talk about something money can't buy!


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board and one of our storytellers. Click here to read more posts from Lisa.

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