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Buying trouble

Compulsive shoppers can't simply stop buying when times are tough. So as money gets tight, more are seeking help.

July 21, 2008|Melissa Healy | 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.

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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.

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