Buying trouble

Times Staff Writer

In A LAND where citizens are implored to shop as an expression of patriotism, where little girls can attend summer camp cruising the stores of a mall, and where the average credit-card holder is $1,673 behind in payments, buying things in the United States is more than a hunt for daily provisions. It’s a national pastime, a form of therapy, a means of self-expression.

But for more than 1 in 20 Americans, shopping is something darker. A study published in the October 2006 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry found that at some point in the lives of an estimated 5.8% of the U.S. population, shopping will become a source of shame, a cry for help, the cause of job losses and broken relationships, a road to financial ruin. They are “compulsive buyers” -- troubled by intrusive impulses to shop, prone to lose track of time while doing so, plagued by post-purchase remorse, guilt and financial woes and sometimes given up on by loved ones.

As the drumbeat of depressing economic indicators accelerates, they are a group coming out of the closet.


“I get several calls a month from people who say, ‘I don’t know what you call it, but this is out of control,’ ” says psychiatrist Timothy Fong, director of UCLA’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic and co-director of the university’s Addiction Medicine Clinic. For the truly addicted shopper, Fong says, “it’s not lack of willpower” that makes them unable to stop shopping. “It’s an inability to control impulses and desires and behaviors.”

Mental health professionals are actively debating how to label and treat these consumers’ problematic behavior. As they do so, clinics, self-help groups and therapists specializing in the care and rehabilitation of compulsive shoppers are popping up across the country like so many specialized boutiques. They have found no shortage of clients.

J.P., a 66-year-old Los Angeles man, is one of them. For six years a member of the 12-step group Debtors Anonymous (and so, following its rules, he’s declined to identify himself by name), J.P. calls himself “a constantly struggling compulsive shopper” and “a binge person” by nature. Echoing the observations of many compulsive shoppers and those who treat them, J.P. says that what seems to trigger his impulse to spring for something is “a feeling of needing to fix yourself . . . a sense of filling a void.”

J.P. says that buying something -- in his case, costly services such as workshops and courses -- would make him exuberant, give him a shot of energy and a sense of purpose. But the crash, which could come hours, days or weeks later when he realized he had succumbed to a costly impulse, has always been hard. “I feel suckered. I feel incompetent in a way that I didn’t feel before.

“It is an addiction,” says J.P. “It becomes an addiction because it feels the more you do this thing, the better you’re going to be. It’s completely wrongheaded, wrong thinking.”

Programs designed to address such wrong thinking are growing more numerous and better attended. In the last five years, Stanford University and UCLA have established treatment programs for those who report out-of-control shopping. A New York City therapist, after running group programs for three years from her office, is set to launch an at-home program for those who overshop.


Debtors Anonymous, meanwhile, has seen an uptick of attendance at its meetings in recent years -- a measure, says Jan S., a trustee of the organization, both of hard economic times and people’s inability to curb their spending habits accordingly. By far, most of the organization’s 400 meetings in the U.S. are held in chapters in and around Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.


Nature of an addiction

We all shop. In that simple fact, say experts, lies the difficulty of distinguishing the avid shopper, or even the occasionally excessive shopper, from the shopper who is out of control. “You don’t want to medicalize normal behavior,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, chairman of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. But a small percentage of consumers, he says, seem to suffer from “a profound deficit” in the ability to resist their impulse to shop, in spite of negative consequences. For those people, says Hollander, the term disorder “seems to fit.”

True addiction of this sort doesn’t rise and fall with economic cycles, says Dr. Lorrin Koran, a professor of psychiatry (emeritus) at Stanford, who wrote the 2006 study gauging the prevalence of problem shoppers in the United States. In good times and in bad, compulsive shoppers shop compulsively.

But in boom times, these shoppers’ passion for purchasing can be dismissed as a pricey hobby or hidden -- like so many unopened shopping bags -- in a closet. In times of economic downturn, mortgage woes and growing job insecurity, an uncontrolled yen for shopping becomes an addiction that few can afford to deny. “In hard times, people’s money may be tighter so it might cause functional impairment at an earlier stage,” Hollander says.

In fact, for a true compulsive buyer, rising food costs and gas prices, possible layoffs and a hike in mortgage rates might even trigger a perverse reaction: Stressed by financial difficulties, many problem consumers will escape their worries with a trip to the store, a browse on a favorite shopping site or an impulse call to a shopping channel.

Whether it’s the growing number of treatment programs springing up or the worsening economy, the number of people coming forward for help appears to be growing. April Benson, a New York psychologist who has pioneered a telephone-based form of group therapy for compulsive shoppers, reports, “There’s more and more traffic to my website, I’m getting more and more requests. I have to imagine that’s in part due to the economic times.”


If those seeking treatment are any gauge, compulsive shopping is an overwhelmingly female condition. Some 80% of those who come forward, say experts, are women. Koran says there’s every reason to believe that men are just as likely to buy compulsively. But “men don’t come for help,” he says.

Gender differences are very real, however, in the tastes and habits of compulsive shoppers. Women, say those who treat the condition, overwhelmingly buy clothes, jewelry, makeup and gifts for other people -- largely objects of self-adornment they imagine will enhance their image in the eyes of others. Though many male compulsive shoppers are clotheshorses, experts say they are more commonly “collectors” of things -- electronic gadgets, CDs, watches, pens, books, cars. Men, says Koran, tend to have impulse-control problems around shopping when they feel agitated, angry, elated. Depression and boredom are more often the moods that send women to market.

For both, purchases bring a rush of relief from uncomfortable feelings: Patients frequently describe a “rush” of arousal and a release from the unpleasant feelings that generally build in the hours and days before a shopping expedition, says Koran. Indeed, brain-imaging studies have shown that even in normal subjects, anticipating a purchase prompts activity in many of the same pleasure-seeking circuits that are activated when addicts succeed in finding a “fix.”

But disinterest, guilt and remorse tend to set in quickly. Their purchases are often stowed in the back of a closet or in a basement, their price tags never removed. The resulting ill feeling begins building again, and a compulsive shopper will frequently feel the need for another shopping fix. The cycle continues.

“Men tend to be much more object-driven,” says Rob Weiss, executive director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in L.A., who estimates that 10% to 15% of the men and 30% to 40% of the women his clinic treats for sexual addiction are also compulsive shoppers. While women may get lost in the process of shopping -- the peace or excitement they find in gathering -- men are more often exhilarated by the hunt for a specific quarry. “Just like they’re looking for a trophy spouse, they’re looking for that trophy object,” says Weiss. In the end, he says, “the result is the same: to fill some emotional void with objects and behavior.”


Tracking impulses

Since 2005, New York therapist April Lane Benson, author of the book “I Shop, Therefore I Am,” has had participants in her group psychotherapy sessions keep journals and shopping lists that track their moods, their impulses and their household needs. When contemplating a purchase, Benson’s patients are asked to record their answers to questions such as “Why am I here?,” “How do I feel?,” “Do I need this?,” “What if I wait?,” “How will I pay for it?” and “Where will I put it?”


Working through a 12-session telephone program with six women across the country, Benson sees “enormous progress.” Her forthcoming book, “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop,” due out this December, will include a purse-sized shopping diary, a CD offering ideas and encouragement and a laminated reminder card listing the questions shoppers should ask themselves.

For most compulsive buyers, Benson believes that losing control is a chronic vulnerability. But with rigorous self-examination, she says, “I don’t think it’s as hard as people think” to break the spell that shopping seems to cast. “People have to understand what their triggers are, what the emotional aftermath is, what happens after the bill comes. And they have to think about what their values are and their vision in life.”