Turns out 1 in 20 of us — women and men alike — can’t control the urge to spend. Learn what drives this destructive behavior.

Is your closet overflowing with never-worn clothing, the price tags still waving in the breeze? Is your attic bulging with boxes and boxes of shoes that have never touched pavement? Do you buy new makeup weekly or compact discs by the fistful?

You might be a shopaholic.

Studies estimate that as many as 17 million Americans, better than one in 20 of us, can’t control our urge to shop, even at the expense of our job, our marriage, our family and our finances.

In the land of conspicuous consumption, compulsive shopping is the smiled-upon addiction, the butt of countless sitcoms and Sunday comics, one of the few disorders that it’s still OK to laugh at. Shop ’til you drop. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Heck, President Bush even called it patriotic to splurge. Where’s the harm?

Real Consequences
Manhattan psychologist April Benson, author of “I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self,” has seen firsthand how destructive compulsive shopping can be.

“One patient of mine got fired because she was compulsively shopping on the Internet all day. There are other people who neglect their children and park them in the mall constantly because that is what they need to feed their habit. Lots of marriages break up over compulsive buying. In fact, we don’t call it compulsive buying unless there is some significant impairment in some aspect of your life.”

Not only is compulsive shopping tacitly condoned by our materialistic society, it is just as widely misunderstood.

For starters, according to Donald Black, M.D., a University of Iowa psychiatry professor who specializes in obsessive-compulsive disorder, compulsive shopping isn’t a true compulsion at all, but instead an impulse control disorder.

“A compulsion is a behavior that is produced to counteract an upsetting thought; for example, I’m contaminated or dirty, therefore I will deal with that anxiety by washing my hands more,” he says.

“There is no upsetting thought prompting compulsive shopping. It is a very pleasurable impulse, and people act on those impulses.”

shopaholic

Famous Shopaholics
Nor is compulsive shopping a modern-day “designer disease.” According to Black, a German psychiatrist published the first clinical description of the disorder in 1915.

Famous shopaholics in history include Marie Antoinette, Mary Todd Lincoln, William Randolph Hearst, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Imelda Marcos and Princess Diana. Their addictions ranged from clothing (Jackie O, Diana) to art and antiques (Hearst) to shoes (the heralded Marcos collection) to gloves (Mrs. Lincoln owned 84 pairs of them).

“Now maybe it’s more prevalent now because you clearly need available goods, a market economy and disposable income, and those elements haven’t always been around,” he notes.

Men are ‘collectors,’ women are ‘shopaholics’
While research suggests that nine in 10 shopaholics are women, Benson says it’s a common misnomer to tag this as a female disorder.

“People who are part of their studies are psychiatric in- or outpatients, and women self-refer for these problems much more so than men. Recent studies coming out of Europe suggest that more men are beginning to have these problems. In addition to the fact that they don’t self-refer for the types of studies on which these statistics are based is the fact that society often calls men who are compulsive buyers ‘collectors.’ It gives it a refined and slightly highbrow image.”

The same is true of the misconception that compulsive shopping is a malady of the privileged class.

“We say that money is an equal opportunity mood changer,” says Benson. “There have been a few studies linking socioeconomic class with compulsive buying and no significant results have been found. I had a colleague who had a guy on welfare who compulsively bought.”

Black suggests we discard the notion that shopaholics are unaware of their problem.

“They are perfectly aware of what they’re doing. Intellectually, they know that their closets and maybe their attic is full, but then they will be in the store and think, well, maybe I do need this one blouse or this will come in handy or I don’t have one in this particular shade so I’ll buy it. They usually hide it from their husbands. They do have feelings of guilt.”

When it becomes a problem
What do women want? In order of preference, most female compulsive shoppers buy clothes, shoes, jewelry, makeup and compact discs.

Men? Clothing, shoes, electronics (TVs, stereos, computers, etc.), hardware and CDs.

Sounds normal enough, right? So how does compulsive shopping differ from your last trip to the mall?

“Well, they don’t buy one CD, they buy 10 CDs at a time,” says Black. “They might buy five skirts, all the same, perhaps in different shades or slightly different styles, where a normal buyer would identify a need for something new or attend a sale and buy one item.”

Benson notes that shopaholics overspend on services as well as goods.

“I had one patient who had her hair blown dry maybe two or three times a week. Between the color, the cut and the blow-dry, she was spending at least $200 if not $250 a week on her hair, and that didn’t include all the hair products,” she says.

Some shopaholics have more eccentric tastes, though they are by far the minority. Black had one patient who was addicted to Beanie Babies, another who compulsively bought garden figurines; Benson treated a man who only bought compulsively for his camper.

Similarities to compulsive gambling
Black says the typical shopaholic cycle is not unlike that of the compulsive gambler — or even the serial killer.

“What the patients will typically describe is they have a baseline preoccupation with shopping, they’re always thinking about it, and a tension builds and they have to satisfy that tension by going out and shopping. That relieves the tension, at least for the time being,” he says.

Some shop out of loneliness, others for the rush of it, still others to fill some inner need. Some seek greater self-esteem, others use it to battle depression. Some shop to return to a happy childhood, others to escape a bad one.

But few shopaholics consider it a debilitating disorder until the spiral of debt or marital discord leaves them no other choice.

All of which makes compulsive shopping especially difficult to treat.

Black says drug studies using serotonin uptake inhibitors (Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc.) have met with mixed results, as the disorder seems to respond equally well to drugs and placebos.

Benson hopes to start her own 12-step-style therapy program this fall, focusing on group techniques to change cognitive behavior. The only other group program treating compulsive shopping in this way is in Fargo, N.D.

“Frankly, there is so little research done that I’m not sure you can talk about success rate,” Black admits. “Very few people are studying this or writing about it. There are no standards for treatment, so there are no good definitions of what constitutes recovery. Is their buying down to your level or my level? Or should they abstain from shopping like they tell alcoholics? You can’t do that realistically. Maybe if you go shopping, at least have someone with you so you don’t go overboard.”

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