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Shop 'til you're diagnosed

October 28, 2006|MEGHAN DAUM

IN THE MOOD for some self-reflection? Contemplate the following questions: How often have you felt others would be horrified if they knew of your spending habits? How often have you bought things even though you couldn't afford them? If you have any money left at the end of a pay period, do you have to spend it?

Depending on your answers, you may want to lock yourself in the bathroom permanently. These are a few of the questions asked in a recent study about compulsive buying, the results of which were published in the October issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Led by Dr. Lorrin Koran, emeritus professor of psychiatry and director of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic at Stanford University, the study found that 5.8% of respondents met the criteria for "maladaptive response," which the study defined as "uncontrolled urges to buy, with resulting significant adverse consequences."

A disproportionate number of those maladapted respondents earned less than $50,000 a year. They were also four times more likely than other survey participants to not pay off their credit card balances each month. No surprise there, maybe, but here's something that might be: They were almost as likely to be male as female. (Binge shopping -- an equal opportunity vice!)

The real news here is that we may someday have a new clinical diagnosis on our hands. The fact that Koran queried a random national sample of 2,513 people (as opposed to much smaller trials that have been conducted in the past) means that we may be dealing with a more widespread disorder than previously thought. So, over the next few years, the editors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that phonebook-sized directory that classifies everything from malingering (conjuring false physical ailments for manipulative purposes) to frotteurism (rubbing against people without their consent) will be considering whether compulsive shopping should be added to the roster.

I know what you're thinking. Why, in this overmedicated, underinsured, diagnosis-obsessed culture, do we need to pathologize something whose cure might be as simple as avoiding the mall or watching "South Park" instead of the Home Shopping Network? (Although Kenny's orange parka is pretty awesome; why not buy one just like it?)

According to Koran, compulsive shopping is an impulse-control disorder rather than a failure of will. "If it were in the DSM, it would stimulate research," he told me on the phone. "We could figure out if it was different from buying because you're depressed or buying because you're anxious. We could find out if this behavior represents disorders that could be biologically teased out."

Much to my relief, Koran said that people who spend too much in restaurants or take out monster mortgages don't fall into the compulsive category. But if you feel anxious on days when you don't go shopping, or find yourself ordering zebra figurines from QVC at 3 a.m., it might be time to get help.

"People talk about the excitement they get from being in the mall," Koran said. "It's a way of escaping negative emotions."

And, Koran said, once these shoppers buy something, "they're not interested in it anymore. Generally only about 10% bother to return what they bought."

OK, in the last six months, I have been meaning to return two pairs of shoes, a really ugly handbag that looked much better in its online photo and Ann Coulter's book, "Godless." Also, I don't always pay my full credit card balance, I've bought things I cannot afford and, at times, I would have been horrified if others knew about my purchasing habits (at least in the case of the Coulter book). But, let's be clear, that's not because I escape negative emotions by going shopping.

If anything, stepping just one foot into a mall puts me well within the range of Diagnosis Code 300.21: panic attack with agoraphobia (essential features include trembling, fear of going crazy and anxiety about not being able to escape). So I buy stuff online. Even stuff like socks. That sometimes means spending more money on shipping than on the item itself, but, for me, it's well worth not having to walk past a Sunglass Hut.

Maybe that's the root of the problem. More of us may have excessive shopping problems than was previously thought, but it's also easier to shop than ever before. I spend upward of six hours a day in perilous proximity to the biggest mall in the world, the one inside my computer. As I wrote this column, I also browsed through antiques on EBay, trolled for used ergonomic chairs on Craigslist and clicked on more e-mail solicitations from Banana Republic and Bluefly than is necessary for a person whose closet door won't shut all the way. And although Koran says most truly compulsive buyers tend not to shop online, what's to say a clinical diagnosis, courtesy of, might not lie in all of our futures?

As scary as that sounds, there might be an upside. Because kids diagnosed with attention deficit disorder now get more time to take the SAT, maybe compulsive shoppers will get a break on their credit card interest rates -- or at least be able to cut to the front of checkout lines. In any case, I'm returning the Coulter book today.

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