hello. my name is amy and i have a shopping problem.
for me, shopping isn’t shallow. it runs deep, deep, deep into my past. underneath appearances and right into the heart of how i coped with pain.
aside from the night before he died, my last memory of my dad is in a store in santa barbara, california. we were on a family vacation and he offered to buy me something new. i picked out a bright orange polyester dress (that was totally cool by nineties standards). when i thanked him, he said to me, “that’s what dads do for their daughters.” and i felt loved.
one month later he died. and my whole world fell apart.
in the months following his suicide there was so very little pleasure in my life or in the life of my family. it seemed that the only weekend activity we could come up with was shopping. so at fourteen i began making my weekly pilgrimage to tysons corner. for a couple of hours i got a break from the bleak and shitty reality of life after my dad’s suicide. i got to walk around a world that was bright, organized, friendly. (to this day, the smell of the mall makes my brain flood with dopamine). salespeople approached me, asking how they could help. i felt taken care of. i could pick out something new that would make me feel temporarily put together, temporarily ok. and i could put that item in a bag and take it home with me to wear the next day. a little bright spot, a little present for a sad little girl whose father went away.
the habit sunk in – my solitary teenage coping skill. when i was a sophomore in high school my mom had a bizarre health scare where she lost her short-term memory for 48 hours. i was scared out of my mind but i had no parents to console or reassure me – one was dead and the other was in the hospital. so i went to my room and took the several hundred dollars i had been saving for a trip overseas. i drove myself to my safe place – the mall – and spent it all on whatever i wanted. giving myself the gift of momentary relief from a chaotic and frightening reality.
i kept it up, through high school, through college and as an adult. my need for shopping grew and grew from a teenage passtime into an adult problem. i was drawn to it as a means of coping with mental illness – it was an outlet for my anxiety and offered some relief from the persistent sadness of depression. by looking good on the outside i could mask what was happening on the inside.
but i began to realize just how much time and money i was spending on shopping. how i frequently invented reasons to buy something new. i purchased more clothes than i could ever wear. i felt compelled by a gnawing anxiety that kept me hunting, searching for that sense of completion that i felt when i would buy. and the “high of the buy” didn’t last very long – i almost immediately moved on to the next thing that i had to have. addiction is a vicious and unrelenting cycle and i found myself sucked in.
i have often asked myself, “what are you looking for? what is it that you really want to buy?” because i am a smart girl. i know deep down that no outfit will give me permanent satisfaction. so what is it that compels me to spend hours and weeks and months and years searching online, wandering the aisles and driving around in circles?
i don’t think it’s about the stuff. i think it’s about self care. i was so young when my dad died – just 13. i didn’t have an adult set of coping skills or an emotional and mental framework within which to process his suicide. at the time of his death, i was a teenager and shopping made me feel good. i knew how to do it. and not too long before he died, he told me that buying things was one way to show someone that you love them. maybe i have been chasing that connection with him. maybe i have been trying desperately to take care of myself, trying to create a moment in which i am loved.
so what do i deserve? on the surface i feel like i deserve to shop and buy what i want. i fight giving it up – i want to hold on to it. after all of the pain and loss i have experienced i wonder what is so wrong with shopping? i could be shooting up heroin or have failed out of school. things could be worse. but what do i deserve? is shopping the best i can do for me? for my marriage? for my life? is shopping giving me the care i deserve? does shopping produce results that i deserve? is shopping the best way to cope with depression and anxiety? i know that the extent of my shopping denies me time, resources and connection with the people i love. and connection with myself. this behavior is hard, so very hard, for me to change. it’s my oldest refuge, it’s my instinct. “let me have it,” i think. “just let me have it.”
isn’t it frustrating to watch yourself acting out an old pattern of behavior that just doesn’t work anymore? like an old sweater that is too tight or an old shoe that is too small, it is squeezing the life out of me. it’s time to turn the conversation around. instead of “why can’t i have it” i try to ask myself what can i have, what do i need. what do i really need. and i look at what i feel. what i really feel. it’s so hard to sit with feelings of fear, or abandonment, or sadness. but maybe that’s what i need to do. to stop and acknowledge what is painful and then offer myself a loving response.
yes, i have been through hard times. life hasn’t always been fair to me. and yes, i deserve to be loved. i deserve my time. i deserve my relationships. i deserve financial security and a hopeful future.
can i give myself that moment? what i really need is love.