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You might be a shopaholic if ...

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.

Not that funny
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 till ou drop. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Heck, President Bush even called it patriotic to splurge. Where's the harm?

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."

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

For starters, according to Dr. Donald Black, 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."

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."

As long as we're exposing myths, 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."


-- Posted: March 14, 2003



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