For years, I did not speak about my shopping addiction; In fact, I went to great pains to hide it. At the time, I was afraid it wouldn’t be taken seriously, or even laughed at.
Therefore, it may seem strange that I managed to pluck up the courage to write a memoir about my fifteen-year compulsive buying habit and ultimate recovery. But that’s exactly what I did—with some trepidation—yet always with the hope that my story would help bring this addiction out of the closet, and offer some assistance to others who are struggling with it.
In the past two months since the publication of my memoir, I have received many emails from readers. Surprisingly, there have been almost as many emails from men as from women. Many thank me for having written Spent, and almost all tell me something about their own compulsive shopping stories. All are heartfelt, poignant, and sincere.
One in particular, which I found especially touching, was from a young man who wrote, “your book changed my life.” I was taken aback when I read this in the subject box of his email. A much as I wished my story to aid readers, I don’t think I was prepared for such a declaration.
He explained in his email that at the age of twenty-four he was already on a compulsive shopping downward spiral, deep in debt and caught in the tap dance of trying to hide it all from everybody.
He went on to explain that after a day of hard shopping, he landed in a bookstore where he found, and bought, a copy of Spent. After reading it in one hungry gulp, he felt “changed” and inspired enough to cut up his credit cards, tell his father about his financial situation, and begin to analyze the reasons why he was shopping himself toward ruin.
One of his biggest challenges, he writes, was that he had a mother who also shopped compulsively, and he had come to relate to shopping as a viable coping mechanism.
Another was that he now understood that he had been using shopping to placate a terrible loneliness and emptiness he felt inside.
Without exception, every compulsive shopper I have been in contact with has expressed this sentiment: they relate to over shopping as a desire to fill a void. As cliché as this may sound, it rings true and raises other questions: Why do so many people feel such a void? Why do we gravitate toward things to fill this void? Does shopping and surrounding ourselves with things give us a sense of permanence in a world that seems to be moving too fast?
There have been a few readers who have complained that Spent is not like Confessions of a Shopaholic. They have described my story as not as much “fun” as that popular novel. Indeed, I can attest, being a shopping addict was never all that much fun. Any shopping addict reading this right now will probably be nodding in agreement.
Still, in my discussions and signings, most readers have been interested in the realities of shopping addiction, not in a portrayal that reinforces stereotypes and fantasies. Their questions and comments have been overwhelmingly thoughtful and earnest.
This is rewarding, since I wrote Spent as a cautionary story and a recovery story. I wrote this book to help others who, like myself, have been confused, frightened or ashamed by their compulsive shopping behavior. I also wrote it as a story that highlights some of the social and economic structures that supported my shopping addiction over the past decades.
As I discovered on my journey, understanding the forces that surround me, the society and culture that presents shopping as a form of entertainment and consumption as a symbol of a better life, is an important part of understanding why shopping could become an addictive behavior.
As I explain in Spent, by trying to build a sense of self primarily based on images presented in the media or what I bought, and trying to “keep up appearances,” I risked annihilating a more central and essential self. Ultimately, the key to understanding why I was shopping compulsively meant identifying with that essential “self.”
This identification lead to change. I do hope this is the “change” that my young male reader was referring to as well. Experiencing it has ended up being one of the great comforts and luxuries of my life. Ironically, it is a luxury that can’t be bought.
Carrie Rattle is a Principal at BehavioralCents.com, a website for women focused on mind and money behaviors. She has worked in the financial services industry for 20+ years and hopes to inspire women to better prepare themselves for financial independence.