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Compulsive spending is a secret addiction seldom discussed but more common than anyone is willing to admit. For years, I hid purchases, bought things on impulse, and lived with constant feelings of shame and guilt. They owned me. I felt like I didn't deserve anything, and there was no one to talk to about it. I would sneak things into a shopping cart, even if I was the one going to the checkout. One day, after I had found freedom from another chemical addiction, I had a moment of clarity around my spending ...
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Compulsive spending is a secret addiction seldom discussed but more common than anyone is willing to admit. For years, I hid purchases, bought things on impulse, and lived with constant feelings of shame and guilt. They owned me. I felt like I didn't deserve anything, and there was no one to talk to about it. I would sneak things into a shopping cart, even if I was the one going to the checkout. One day, after I had found freedom from another chemical addiction, I had a moment of clarity around my spending addiction and, like magic, a light came on. I began to see clearly a way out. I began to apply the Twelve Steps to my compulsive spending. Little by little, one day at a time, I gained ground on those powerful sister demons, guilt and shame. They began to lose their grip on me. I felt a new freedom. I wanted to share that freedom with others. Recovery is a gift you work for, and freedom is the reward.
One day I left a fabric store, after also having gone to a quilt shop, where they had told me I needed a certain thread to accomplish trouble-free hand quilting in order to conquer my frustration with regular machine thread. Neither the quilt shop nor the general fabric store had the color I needed. It was closing in on three o'clock. I knew rush hour traffic would be building on the main arteries. My mind began racing about the best way to beat the traffic and get across town. I wanted to see if another store had this particular spool of thread in the color I needed. I couldn't get it off my mind. I was blind to traffic lanes, other drivers, traffic signals, and even my exact location. I was entirely focused on one spool of thread. I wasn't on my cell phone. I wasn't texting. I wasn't putting a CD in my car player or applying lipstick. I was only thinking of one damned spool of thread. Suddenly, I snapped out of it! I realized that I had been hand quilting on one particular piece for several months with another kind of thread entirely. I wasn't going to slowly, agonizingly remove all that stitching one stitch at a time. I came to a stop at a red light. I quite suddenly snapped out of it. The spool of thread took its rightful place somewhere in the background, and the moment before me came into focus. I knew, without a doubt, my life was whirling out of control. The spool of thread was my wake up call. Tears began leaking out of the corners of my eyes like hesitating, apologetic raindrops. I felt sick to my stomach. I knew the familiar signs of being in trouble- again-with obsessive thinking and compulsive spending. I am an addict. My brain does not function like those of other people. I was disgusted and ashamed. Addictions are always connected to shame.
Following close on the heels of that awareness, probably at the next stoplight, was the awakening to the utter absurdity of the entire two-and-a-half years of the obsession with Publishers Clearing House entries. I even spoke out loud to myself in the car and said "It just isn't about the money! If I had $5,000 a week for life, I would spend $5,000 a week and more!" In that moment, I knew beyond a doubt that I was then, and had been for a long long time, taken hostage by, in bondage to, the addiction of compulsive spending. In the car that day, I actually adapted the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous to be, "I admit I am powerless over my compulsive spending, and it makes my life completely unmanageable!"
I drove directly home. I did not go to a store for thread. I immediately thought of the therapist I had gone to for twenty five years and with whom I had talked about and around my spending many times, but I had never directly attacked my compulsion head-on. The therapist had told me she had to adopt the practice of throwing away, without even looking at the covers, those tempting mailers and lovely inviting catalogues that came slithering through the mail slot like so many Italian silk scarves. Better yet, asked her husband to go through the mail and do the "dirty work" for her. But she had left her practice due to an illness. I missed her terribly and wished I could share my realization with her. I thought of her as I wrote in my journal. I felt such relief that I had broken through so much mystery, so much pain, and so many brick walls, that the bruises and broken hearts that had been so prevalent in my long-spending journey felt as though they were sitting there on my dining room table where I was writing, just waiting to be healed. I felt only gratitude. My journal records my last spending binge:
I finally had my car fixed. It didn't cost nearly the amount I thought it would. I was thrilled. So, what did I do? I went on a spending spree. Yes, I did! Then I went out to Ligonier and worked the weekend. I also was paid extra for working at home the weekend before. Wow! Extra! What did I do? Another spending spree! Online! Then gradually I realized I could not stop! Just like taking that first drink, I could not stop. I became obsessed. I began to think of all the things I have wanted the last few months. I made a list of them. Little things, not big things. I made a list of stores. I went shopping every day. I simply could not stop. Yesterday, it hit me. There is something terribly wrong here! I felt confusion and uncontrollable fear! I started shaking. I wanted to cry, but I was driving. I wanted to throw up. I could not see well. I felt blinded. I wanted to run. I did not want to drink, but I remembered how drinking would take away all those other feelings. That's when I realized how truly out of control I was and all I could think of was getting safely home and going to bed. I am an addict.
The summer I turned twelve my sister and I traveled to Levittown, New York, to spend some time with my Aunt Bobby and Uncle Jerry and our twin cousins, who were just little babies at the time. Our father had been dead over a year, and mother had finished her masters of education so she could be a teacher and support our family. We had gone to New York so that mother could finish her exams or thesis or whatever she had to do to complete her schoolwork. Aunt Bobby was kind and loving, and Uncle Jerry had been our father's best friend. I felt safe and comfortable being with them.
Mother had given me ten dollars to spend if I needed it for things like the movies or admission to any place that Aunt Bobby might take us. The ten dollars was to cover costs for both my sister and me. I told Aunt Bobby I had it, and she told me I wouldn't really need it and to keep it in a safe place. I did. I had brought my traveling purse. One day toward the end of our visit I asked Aunt Bobby if I could walk the two blocks by myself to the five-and-ten store. She said it was okay and didn't ask why. I knew mother was coming in a day or two, and I wanted to surprise her with a present. As I walked up and down the aisles of Woolworths, my eyes fell upon a treasure of items like so many seashells on the beach. I was dazzled by the selection of things to choose from and spent so much time strolling up and down each aisle, fingering handkerchiefs, nightgowns, hair combs, hair brushes, glassware, china dishes, jewelry, wallets, and purses that finally a kindly saleswoman began to follow along with me asking what I was looking for. I told her I was looking for a present for my mother.
"Oh," said she "Let me help you." And she began to ask questions I considered silly and not at all in keeping with my mother. No, it wasn't her birthday. No, it wasn't a special occasion. Soon I began to spill out my story to this willing listener. I told her how my father had died and how my mother was going to have to be a teacher even though she would rather stay at home. I went on about how my sister and I were staying with our aunt and uncle while mother took some tests and then we had to go home where there wasn't really a father at all and I just wanted to get my mother a present because I felt sorry for her. I thought for a moment this woman was going to weep. I thought I was going to weep. Instead, I looked straight in front of me and spied a set of dishes I had seen on one of my reconnaissance missions in the aisles. They were a bright sky blue. Perfect. I said to the woman, "I think my mother would like a new set of dishes," and I moved toward the display. This kept me from crying, which is what I really wanted to do.
The place setting for four cost $9.99. I recall thinking how perfect that was. There used to be four of us and that was how it should still be, and I had exactly ten dollars. Perfect. I said I wanted to buy the dishes. When the saleswoman retrieved the box for me, in blue, of course, she mentioned that it was heavy and asked if I could manage. I said I could. It did not matter what it weighed, I would find a way to manage. When I went to pay, I learned about tax. This added twenty-five cents to the cost, twenty-four of which I did not have. I asked the woman if I could take the dishes anyway and bring back the twenty four cents later. She agreed.
All the way home to Aunt Bobby's I worried about how on earth I was going to tell her I owed Woolworths twenty four cents. And how was I going to tell her that I had spent the entire ten dollars on dishes for Mother? Would she be angry? Would she yell at me? Would she make me take them back? Was I bad? What was going to happen? I felt an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, but I trudged the two blocks anyway.
When I got back home, Aunt Bobby took one look at the box and said gaily "Well, what have we here?" I told her I bought mother a new set of dishes in a kind of sing-song tone of voice hoping that would sound happy and joyous so she wouldn't yell at me. She had one baby girl on one hip, and the other baby girl was asleep in the playpen. Aunt Bobby grinned her big, broad smile that made her eyes twinkle and her face look happy. "Isn't that sweet, Merry," she said, "And won't she be surprised." I was relieved that she hadn't yelled at me that it was a foolish gift. Then I had to confess about the twenty four cents. "Aunt Bobby," I said, "There's just one thing. When I paid for them, I didn't know about the tax and I owe the store twenty four cents. Can you give that to me?" In the flash of an instant, the smile broke apart like a clap of thunder. Her eyes formed dark clouds. "You what?" she snapped. "I didn't have enough money to pay the tax on the dishes," I repeated sheepishly, staring down at the cement block sidewalk and the lonely looking dandelion growing up between the blocks. "Well, then, you shouldn't have bought them," she pronounced in a statement clear as ever was heard. She turned on her heel and marched into the house. There it was, my punishment. I was a bad person after all. In the end, Aunt Bobby gave me the twenty four cents. She ordered me to walk straight back to the store and pay what I owed and never again become indebted to someone or, in essence, spend money I don't have. The present was spoiled for me. I never forgot her anger and wore my shame and guilt like hair shirts for many years. Yet, I had not learned the lessons of debt, impulsive purchasing, or compulsive spending, by that incident. The guilt and shame that I experienced then seemed to already have reserved seats at my table. They burrowed in for the long haul in my life experiences yet to come. They knew they would have lots of company.
Many years later and as a mother myself, I had been out with my daughter to an event. When I drove her to her car she wanted to tell me one last story. Her stories often are lengthy and more than you want to hear, particularly late at night when all I could think of was getting home and letting my dog out. I listened, still getting more and more impatient but not wanting to cut her off or appear disinterested. Twenty or more minutes later, we parted and, by this time, I was even more tired and frustrated. I felt guilty for feeling this way when all that my daughter wanted was someone to listen to her. I felt anger and frustration rising as I drove home. Because it was late, there wasn't much traffic, and I drove too fast. My poor little dog had been alone since early morning, and I was just worn out. However, when I got home, I needed to wind down after taking my dog out. I fired up my computer to read my emails.
I had slipped into another obsessive-compulsive gear. Anger and frustration can do that to me, to addicts. Before this late night session was over, I had gone to a concert web site and purchased two tickets for my daughter to a particular concert for her 40th birthday present five months out. She had said over and over, including that evening, it was the only thing she wanted for her birthday. I put the tickets, which amounted to close to $400 when all was said and done, on a relatively new credit card that I paid a high sign-up rate for. I knew even in the moment it was a foolish thing to do, but I could not stop myself. I felt guilty for feeling frustrated with my daughter. I wanted her to have what she wanted. And, I rationalized the expense. I would pay it off before the concert. After all, isn't that how credit cards work? More insanity coupled with familiar rationalization.
I am an addict, and my brain does not function in a normal way even though I have been in recovery for over eighteen years now, twenty four years. Additionally, I went to Al-Anon for eight years before I joined AA. I haven't had credit cards in nearly twenty years and now, in the past year, I have acquired three. The next day I bought an airline ticket to a workshop I am going to in a month. I thought about driving at first, but rationalized that it would be too long a drive to do alone, and there sits that credit card just waiting to be used. So easy and so quick. And so out of control.
Several years ago I was with a group of women friends spending an extended Labor Day weekend at the summer home of one of the women. It started out to be a gay time of eating, shopping, roaming the lovely grounds of the beautiful community where the home is located. We settled into the familiarity built on a number of years of friendship within the group. There were seven of us, all within ten years of age of each other who assembled regularly for meals, talk, and, on occasion, travel. Everyone presented a strong personality and sometimes conflict arose. However, resolution usually came sooner or later as the desire for group unity always prevailed. This particular weekend there had been more emotional conflict than usual. One afternoon several of us decided to get in a car and drive to find local yard sales. I was first in line to volunteer as a passenger even though I don't particularly like yard sales. I wanted respite from the underlying tension.
At one sale, held off the road in a big, farm-like yard there was a hollowed-out barn set up to display merchandise, such as glassware, old books, and knick knacks. In the driveway were larger items like mowers, bookshelves, and some equipment. I was walking right past all that when my friend called out "Oh, look, what a nice Adirondack chair!" Sure enough, I looked to where she pointed and there, amidst the clutter and rust of other things, sat a perfectly clean, new-looking canvas, green-striped Adirondack chair with a footrest. It looked like it belonged on a yacht in Long Island Sound or perhaps a Grey Goose Vodka advertisement in The New Yorker. The woman in charge walked up to me saying "It is brand new. I don't know what possessed me. It's never been used. And I have two of them. The other one has never been unwrapped. It's over there," she said pointing to a bubble-wrapped, long item leaning against the side of the barn. "Ten dollars apiece," she said. I wanted them. I truly wanted them. It was impulsive. I knew it right away. It made no sense, but I wanted them. Her whole compulsive spending gesture resonated with me. I knew exactly why she bought them. I would have done the same thing. Twenty dollars. I had twenty dollars. I wanted those chairs. Just like she had wanted them. I said nothing to the woman at first. I nodded and walked into the barn looking at the odd dishes, place mats, napkins, potholders, bric-a-brac, and stuff on all the shelves, but it was the chairs that called out to me. They were saying in a most gallant manner, "It's all right, we'll be right here waiting for you. It doesn't matter that you have no room for us, you want us anyway!" I heard them speaking to me on the soft summer breeze across the farmer's field. They were right. They certainly didn't belong there.
My friend and I looked all around. She bought some napkins. I bought nothing. We drove out without the chairs and on to the next yard sale. I said to my friend who was driving, who was also the woman I rode up to the weekend with, "I want those Adirondack chairs!" She said "Why didn't you say something? Do you want to go back and get them?" And I went on about how it didn't make any sense. She knows my apartment, and we talked about where on earth I would put even one, let alone two. She laughed and said, well, you can always sell them at your next yard sale and make a profit. I reminded her that I don't have yard sales. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind. Now here is the problem. Those chairs represented something to me. They represented an order of life and a class of society that I never had and never entered. They were symbolic to me. I knew that even as I tried to push them out of my mind. I knew that even as I tried to deny their call. Yet they kept whispering on the wind. "We're still here!" I heard through the night air. "We're patient. You know we don't belong beside this barn. We'll wait for you!" I heard them in the morning as I drank my black coffee from a ceramic mug.
That day we were headed home. My friend and I would drive past the farm on our way out of town. She said "If the chairs are still there, do you want to get them?" she asked me. "Yes," I said. "Absolutely!" I decided that, if they were still there, I was "meant" to have them. That was a rationalization I had worked over and over in my spending career. If an item was still on the racks, on the shelves, in stock, available - whatever - then I was meant to have it. I always used that nonsense to rationalize spending when I wanted an item, whether it made any sense or not. It had nothing to do with reality. Nothing to do with whether or not I needed the item or whether I could afford it. I simply justified the spending. I was to learn I could justify just about anything – any time! And I did. I was good at it. Most addicts are.
Excerpted from Muddy Boots in the Hallway by D. Meredith Dobson Copyright © 2012 by Meredith D.. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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