Shopaholism: addiction or luxury problem?

There is an addiction that has destroyed the lives of millions of people, sucked up billions of pounds and ruined thousands of relationships. It is the monster of consumer society, yet it is not widely known. It has a name: shopaholism.

Around two million Britons suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD), the NHS estimates, an addiction almost as common in males as in females. It is an ever more common phenomenon in today’s consumer society with the mantra ‘what I buy is what I am’.

Still, there is little awareness about the issue. “I think ‘shopaholic’ is a term that is still looked at like it’s a joke but often causes depression, severe financial and relationship problems, low self-esteem, and can lead to stealing or other desperate measures,” Terrence Shulman, counselling therapist and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, said. His organization runs support groups and offers treatment for people with compulsive disorders in the US.

“Because it is not widely known that shopping can become addictive, there is little education and pre-warning and also very few treatment options once one is hooked.”

There are many reasons why people become addicted to shopping; some to fill an inner void or to wipe out negative feelings, others to gain control over their lives or to compensate for low self-esteem.

“Shopping was a very heightened experience,” former addict Debbie Roes said. “I’m usually an introverted person, but when I was shopping I would be in an euphoric state with all my senses intensified. My voice would get louder, I’d get more energetic, I would cheer everyone.

“It was like taking drugs for me, like taking a couple of drinks,” the 47-year-old Californian described her shopping experience. “I would be in an altered state where I can’t use proper judgement. It was my emotions running the show instead of my brain.”

While most of us certainly feel some excitement while shopping, what distinguishes shopaholics from others is that this ‘kick’ is quickly replaced by guilt and shame, often even when they are still in the shop.

“Feelings of regret usually overwhelmed me shortly after I left,” Roes said. “In the car home, I would then try to justify my purchases and prepare a story I could tell my husband in case I could not hide them from him.”

The ex-stylist, who has a masters degree in Counselling Psychology, has been struggling with the addiction for over ten years, in which she had to use debt consolidation and was bailed out of debt twice by her father and an ex-boyfriend.

For shopaholics, it is the buying experience, not the clothes themselves,  triggering the thrill, so they often never use their purchases, hide and forget about them. When Roes, who lives in San Diego with her husband of 12 years, tracked how much she wore her clothes last year, she found: “Half of the items in my wardrobe I had either never or only worn once, while exceeding my budget. How ridiculous is that?”

As the title of her blog ‘Recovering Shopaholic’ indicates, she still considers herself as in the middle of a long process. “It is similar to other addictions, where you never completely recover,” she said. “I think I will always need to be more careful with shopping than other people.”

The threat of a relapse is always present, as shopping is, in the end, an everyday part of our lives. Online shopping, which is ideal for impulsive buying, increases this threat even more. But as CBD is not yet recognised as a true addiction by many medicals and health insurers, the addicts are often left to themselves.

Alexis Hall had piled up nearly £32,000 of debt before deciding to fight her addiction on her own. “Towards the end, the addiction was pretty much all consuming. I was constantly looking for the next big thing to buy, stressing about how quickly I would get it, how I was going to pay for it and then how I was going to hide it,” she recalls the height of her addiction. “I would shop every day and it didn’t matter what I was buying as long as I was buying something.”

The media relations officer from Glasgow stopped overspending within one year of shopping-abstinence, during which she wrote the book In The Red about her experiences. “I’m not sure if I had ever got to the bottom of my problem if I hadn’t written it all down,” the author said. „Now, I really enjoy the life I have. I learned so much about myself and other people because our chats weren’t about shopping anymore.”

In the USA, where the issue has gained ground as one in five Americans are considered compulsive buyers, a drug has recently been discovered that can treat the addiction effectively.

Nuedexta, actually used to treat emotional disorders, has recently been tested on compulsive shoppers with positive effects. A New Jersey based neurologist was the first to find the drug’s range of efficacy.

“Patients with disorders, such as CBD, emotional lability or kleptomania, all lack the same thing: namely, the reflexivity to determine what is right or wrong, what the consequences of their behaviour are and how to put the breaks to their situation,” Dr. Jonathan Fellus explained. “The drug re-enables this filter of judgement in the brain.”

Although Fellus’ area of research is confined to people with brain injuries, he is sure his drug will work for other compulsive shoppers as well. “You can either be born with compulsive behaviour or develop it after an event. The effects are the same and can be treated the same way,” the MD said.

The drug has recently been approved by the European Medical Association, but has not entered the European market yet. It is a first step towards awareness. Yet, as long as shopaholism is deemed to be a luxury problem, this step is a drop in the bucket. For life is about more than shopping, as Alexis Hall said: “Life is full of wonderful things and amazing people, but you miss all that when you’re gazing in a shop window.”


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