In the early scenes of 2009 rom-com, “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” the protagonist Rebecca Bloomwood is having an imaginary conversation with a mannequin, in which the mannequin is enticing her to purchase a gorgeous green scarf with a price tag that would even give the clothes-horse Kardashians, sticker shock. Bloomwood has no need for this silk scarf, she has a million others in her manhattan apartment, seam-splitting with all the couture cornucopia that she has collected over the years. But yet, this scarf is seducing her, calling her name, perhaps even whispering that it will  make her green eyes greener. May have claimed that it was Hermès, but better. She is smitten by the slick speech, by the riveting rhetoric happening in her head. New York seconds later, before she realizes that she does not need it at all, that she is drowning in debilitating debt, that she has absolutely no space left in her shared, sardine-stuffed apartment, she is at the cashier presenting all her personal plastic. Even when a card is declined, that doesn’t hinder her, she must. Have. That scarf. Feral, she runs out  and pounds the pavement looking for change. It is an affair, comic, tragic, hare-brained.

Critics loathed the movie mostly for its ambiguities regarding materialism and consumerism, but for those who savored it, this specific scene strangely resonated. It was GIF-worthy. According to researchers of a landmark 2006 Stanford Study, shopaholism (also referred to as retail therapy, oniomania and affluenza), or in clinical terms, Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD) isn’t just a hackneyed narrative played out in reality-tv, sitcoms or rom-coms, it is “a hidden” American “epidemic,” where they estimated that about 6 percent of the national population, approximately 17 million Americans, suffered with Compulsive Buying Disorder. We spoke to Terrence Shulman, author, certified counselor and founder of the Shulman Center, a treatment facility specializing in Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, and he believes that this figure is “conservative,” as a more recent study cited in the American Journal on Addictions, asserts that nearly 7 percent of Americans, approximately 20 million Americans, are categorized as compulsive buyers. While University of Virginia estimated that about 9 percent of Americans, struggle with compulsive buying. Shulman, however believes that this disorder currently impacts about 20% of the US population. Whatever statistic we consider, the numbers are staggering, millions of Americans are tussling, even floundering with this issue.

So while we may find Rebecca Bloomwood’s reckless and senseless desperation in this movie, belly-shaking amusing, it is sobering when we realize that truth is zanier than fiction, that Art does simulate Life. That compulsive shopping is pandemic, and that secretly several of us have stashes of unworn merchandise hiding in crumpled shopping bags with tags intact.

So what is Shopaholism? It is not just another made-up compound word by some syllable-obsessed sesquipedalian.

Shopaholism, technically, Compulsive Shopping Disorder, is classified as a Behavioral Addiction, or a Process Addiction. Unlike substance addictions, Behavioral Addictions isn’t based on an addiction to a physical substance but is based on an addiction to a behavior or a process, in this case, the experience of shopping. Compulsive shoppers aren’t exactly addicted or attached to the items they buy, but they are addicted to the emotional-high, the quixotic rush they experience when they purchase an item.

This begs the question, why do people become compulsive shoppers? And why are the statistics staggering? Is it nature, or nurture or a blend of both? There isn’t an absolute answer to this colossus afflicting America but like any addiction, it can be assumed that shopping addicts are shopping to fill a space, to stuff a hole, to scratch an itch.

“Why do people shop til they drop?”

Many compulsive shoppers are not shopping because they necessarily need that Cartier watch,  or that Louis Vuitton Manhattan, or those exorbitant, ultra uncomfy Jimmy Choos, they might be expressing a craving for control. For example, if a parent was frugal, children might spend their adult years overcompensating for the lack of stuff they were deprived in their childhood. Similarly spouses that are tight-fisted may inadvertently spur a shopping addiction in their partner. Their partner might go buck wild, spending willy nilly because they need to feel a sense of autonomy.

Trauma and loss are other plausible causes why some shop til they drop. Rather than face the pain, shopping becomes an inexhaustible escape. An oasis where they can submerge their sorrows in a sea of pointless purchases.

While for others, perpetual shopping is a way to avoid confronting uncomfortable situations, such as an dysfunctional relationship or a toxic workplace. Compulsive shoppers may be shopping to postpone a mammoth decision, such as writing a novel, or starting a business, or applying to graduate school. Compulsive shopping in this context, becomes a manifestation of their procrastination.

In the narcissistic society we respire in, where celebrities are deities, and image is the whole caboodle, serial shopping can be seductive. If one is not secure in themselves, perhaps splurging on a pair of red-bottomed Louboutins that they spotted Beyonce sporting, might verify their worth. Or ordering the latest Reva Tory Burches they peeped Jessica Alba in, might make them feel enough. Material goods become status symbols for those who feel socially inadequate. As therapist, Dr. Adrian Furnham elucidates,  “Material goods are fashion statements and value statements. Possessions are a way of reinventing yourself, of compensating for faults…All goods can be a political statement. Just as shunning certain products and proudly/defiantly showing off others can be literally a political badge so there is code for the materially minded. Labels count, and some shout.” Similarly, Author and therapist Dr. April Benson, expounds, that compulsive shopping closes the gap between actual self (how people see themselves) and perceived self (how they would like to be seen). Obsessive shopping is all about gluing gaps, wadding voids, cementing holes. Compulsive shopping can be about pretending, pretending to be wealthy, powerful, privileged, special.

And women aren’t the only violators. Though society stigmatizes women as the shopping offenders, the poster-kids, the forever-face of consumerism, compulsive shopping isn’t a disorder that is unique to them. Women may be socially assigned the shopping role, however men can be just as vulnerable to this illness as well. Shulman believes that, men may not “overshop,” but “they overspend.” While women buy more frequently, they tend to indulge in lower-cost items such as household goods and apparel, men may statistically shop more sporadically but they may gravitate towards the big-ticket items such as electronics and automobiles. Some may contend that even these generalizations are vague and problematic, that men are not above the allure of costly kicks and clothing, case in point, pulitzer prize winning author, Buzz Bissinger who racked up a jaw-dropping $638,412.97 with his self described “Gucci Addiction.” Like Rebecca Bloomwood in the movie, Buzz Bissinger wrestles with himself before he caves to his lunacy, “I have to have it. I don’t have to have it. I need it. I don’t need it. I can afford it. I can’t afford it. It is the cycle familiar to anyone who fetishizes high fashion. I see a black leather biker jacket I know I must have, even though I already own roughly fifteen jackets of similar style. But the leather is unlike any I have ever touched—and trust me, I have touched a lot—butter rich, with that irresistible gleam that can light up any night.” In his own words, Bissinger describes his addiction as the “futile feeding of the bottomless beast.”

So why is enough, never enough? We reside in a consumer-crazed, materialistic society. The push and pull to shop is unending, with unrelenting advertising claiming that we are what we wear, we are what we have, or that this sale is the sale of a lifetime, snooze, and you’ll invariably lose. Emails pushed to our inboxes not just daily, but hourly with “hysteria” about the things we have to right away. Breathless ads on social media blaring “flash sales.” And what about those intoxicating infomercials? 24 hour shopping channels are particularly notorious for driving shopping addicts into a spending frenzy, so that they can hoard their homes with WTF junk, courtesy of QVC.

And, counterintuitive to conventional wisdom, compulsive buying isn’t just the disease of the affluent, it cuts across classes, like Bissinger or the fictional Bloomwood, lower class Americans can fill a room with Payless shoes, and thrift store clothes, while average Americans can scour sale racks or consignment stores that sell upscale, luxury brands. As Shulman states, “Over shopping is over shopping whether it’s at high-end stores, thrift stores, garage sales.” Anyone in any income bracket can succumb to seduction of consumerism.

Perhaps what makes compulsive shopping the phenomenon of the 21st century is credit cards, the magic plastic, paired with the painless ease of online shopping. As Shulman puts it, the internet is like “crack cocaine,” both are “cheap, easy, and incredibly addictive.” Not only can consumers purchase items without tangibly handing over money, they can do so subtly, discreetly, surreptitiously, repeatedly on their computer, on their tablets, on their mobile phones. With the ubiquity of apps, as the hashtag goes, “There’s an app for everything,” consumers can shop at any time, it only takes a single click for the desirable item they’ve been eyeing to be dispatched to their door. They can premeditate their purchases, or they can be trigger-eager and impetuously press “purchase,” and no one will suspect a thing. And with this implicit secrecy, compulsive buying mushrooms out of control.

In fact, Compulsive Buying Disorder is no longer a phenomenon peculiar to industrialized countries in the West, but a phenomenon, plaguing the whole globe. Consumers worldwide, from Pakistan and India, to Morocco and Kenya are spending, and spending. Protracting technology is contracting the world, globalization is shrinking the sphere, and commercial and cultural borders are being obscured. Shopaholism and materialism are being traded like goods, even smuggled like contraband. It’s no longer just “Houston, we have a problem,” it’s “World, we have a problem.”

So what is the answer to this postmodern pandemic? What is the solution to this problem? A problem that if left unresolved will inevitably eventuate in devastation; hoarded homes, condemned because they are no longer fit to live in, unemployment because the shopping addiction has superseded professionalism, debilitating debt because of maxed out credit cards, and ruined relationships because significant others are no longer willing to be the sacrificed for this insidious addiction. There is also the troubling triplet of anxiety, depression, suicide. Compulsive shopping may be the socially acceptable “smiled upon” disease, but it can be dangerous, destructive, and damning.

 “ Solutions to Shopaholism”

As with all the big problems, there are no swift fixes, nor a one-size-fits-all remedy. Financial Advisor, Derick Gant, offers some suggestions that point those afflicted in the right direction. First and foremost, seek help, set up a consultation with Derick Gant so that he can work with you on how to eliminate debt as well as avoid it, he can also discuss with you effective spending strategies.

Speak with a certified therapist like Terrence Shulman who specializes in helping those struggling with compulsive buying. Therapists help you figure out what is compelling you to shop, and help identify your triggers, the more you understand why you shop, the more likely you will stop.

Also, stay accountable, secrecy is the quintessence of any addiction, and joining a support group like Debtors Anonymous will keep you in check while you resolve to overcome this issue. Secrets keep us sick, so don’t suffer in silence, come out of the shadows and surround yourself with others who will walk alongside you.

Write down your goals, journal about your journey, keep an account of how much money you spent, the time you expended, the emotions you experienced. When you are documenting your day-to-day experiences, you are more likely to be intentional about your purchases. Like a food addiction, shopaholism is complex, it’s not like alcoholism, you can’t avoid stores or shopping altogether, but you can be more purposeful and pragmatic about it.

Next, eliminate your triggers, cut up credit cards, unsave cards online, pay only cash for items, don’t window shop, only buy items on your needs-only shopping list, unsubscribe from promotional email lists, throw away catalogues, quit watching QVC.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, replace your shopping habit with a pastime that fulfills you, perhaps it is taking a cooking class, learning a new language, traveling, or joining a charity. With the right resources, moxie, and discipline, you can and will kick this!

By Martha Snehalatha Chandran-Dickerson