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Compulsive shopping disorder: It's no joke

In June of 2006, Betty Jean Barachie of Kunkletown, Pa., was sentenced to 27 months in prison for embezzling $1.5 million over eight years from the credit union where she was a branch manager. She used the money to buy, among many, many other things, hundreds of pairs of shoes, more than 3,000 books, 58 coats, 16 chain saws and a $25,000 John Deere tractor.

A psychologist called as a witness at her trial testified that she was a compulsive shopper.

Most of the items she bought sat piled in her house unused with the price tags still on them. The psychologist said Barachie was depressed to the point of being suicidal about her inability to stop spending money.

Compulsive shopping, also known as compulsive buying disorder, can be just as addictive -- and as destructive -- as alcohol or drugs, says Dr. James Mitchell, chair of the department of neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences and lead author of a study on cognitive behavior therapy for compulsive buying disorder.

It is far more complex than financial disorganization or irresponsibility. Compulsive buying disorder is a little-studied addiction that consumes the person's life.

"What we believe and have evidence for is that people have the same kind of surge in brain chemicals when they anticipate buying something as when (an alcoholic) anticipates drinking," says April Benson, a psychotherapist who specializes in compulsive shopping and the author of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self." "It's the anticipation of pleasure that starts the brain rolling. You can see physical symptoms. People might sweat or their heart races."

Much more common among women than men, compulsive shopping often accompanies other mental health problems, including depression, alcoholism and eating disorders, says Mitchell. Sufferers tend to target certain items. For women, it's usually clothes or shoes; for men, it's often electronics or books. And like Barachie, sufferers tend not to use the things they buy.

"They store them, take them back or give them away," says Mitchell. One of the women he treated in group therapy bought so many baskets she had to rent a storage unit to keep all of them, "but she never spent any time with them."

The reasons for the behavior are varied, Benson says, but the essence of the problem stems from low self-esteem, insecurity and inadequacy. "There are also people who do these things because they don't know how to get what they need emotionally any other way," she says.

Are you a compulsive shopper?
Olivia Mellan is a psychotherapist who specializes in money conflict resolution. She also is a recovering compulsive shopper who ran up more than $10,000 in credit card debt buying clothes.

"The urge to shop overtook me like a tidal wave," she says. "I felt like I was being bowled over by waves."

She developed this quiz to help people determine if their love of shopping has crossed the line into compulsion. Answer "often," "sometimes," "rarely" or "never."

Are you a compulsive shopper?

If you answered "often" or "sometimes" to four or more questions, you're probably a compulsive spender, especially if you answered "often" or "sometimes" to the last question, Mellan says.

Next: "... high likelihood that Michael Jackson is a compulsive shopper."
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