Julia's life had become a bottleneck of bad things. On top of her crumbling marriage, the 33-year-old was juggling toddler twins, a sick elderly father, and her stressful job at a flailing newspaper. So a bit of online shopping felt like a welcome, and quite frankly deserved, escape.
"I'd always loved clothes," she says, "and hunting things down, like, say, the perfect blazer, let me focus on something light. But I quite quickly realised I was doing it pretty much all day and a lot of the night. When I tried to cut back, I felt really agitated. And then I'd just be back online again minutes later."
Up to eight hours every day, Julia stormed through the internet's endless retail corridors, stomach clenched tight as she searched, clicked, added to cart. At first the activity filled the gaps in her day, but soon the days melted into one continuous scroll. She did it in meetings or at the park with her twins. One day she was distractedly shopping for boots at the park, and her daughter fell off a swing. Another mum had rushed to pick her up. "I felt horrendous," she says quietly.
Ultimately, she was running from her thoughts more than toward a purchase. And while the credit card debt wasn't ideal, the worst part was her ravaged sense of self. On the one hand she knew material objects didn't matter; on the other, the pursuit of them consumed her. "I'd always seen myself as intelligent and interesting, but clearly I wasn't, because I was completely obsessed with stuff. It made me hate myself."
We joke about eating pot noodles for the rest of the month; about cramming new purchases and our guilt into the back of wardrobes. Excessive shopping—even when it puts us into debt, even when it turns the family home into a battleground—is a laugh. But compulsive spending can take over lives and demolish them. And it's these conflicting realities, the normalisation and the power to devastate, that makes the so insidious.
There is, at least, a term for Julia's past misery: Buying-Shopping Disorder (BSD). Studies place the rate of prevalence in the general population at 4.9 percent, however—much like hoarding's initial lack of recognition—it is still dismissed by too many, says Dr Mike Kyrios, Director of Flinders University’s Órama Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing. "But we clinicians see a very distinct group of people whose lives and relationships are decimated by this [compulsion], and that is the very definition of a disorder," he stresses. "Personally, I believe that the post-social media era, where influencers promote products and consumerism, also makes things worse."
Young women appear to be most affected, Dr Kyrios says, but the divide is rapidly narrowing. He says it's a potentially "very disabling condition", driven largely by "strong beliefs" that buying something will lead to emotional security, or that not buying something will lead to a "loss of opportunity". Combined with low self-worth and the drive to seek a high to neutralise mood problems, these factors go partway to explain why people can't control their urges to buy.
BSD is not formally included in the International Classification of Diseases, although it was recently listed as an example of “other specified impulse-control disorders”. In other words, it's not well-established in medical literature, which dampens the opportunity for further research and treatment guidelines. Dr Kyrios and colleagues from Australia and Germany recently developed a diagnostic criteria called the Excessive Buying Rating Scale in an attempt to change this. The scale is based on data gleaned from 358 study participants and builds on research done in the 1990s. The team's work follows decades of on-and-off study into what's been loosely known as "compulsive buying disorder" or "Oniomania”.
In 2007, significant research on the topic was published by Dr Donald W. Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa. Dr Black writes that pathological shopping "tends to run in families, and these families are filled with mood and substance use disorders." He also identified four distinct phases of compulsive buying disorder, or "CBD".
In the first phase, the person with CBD has "thoughts, urges, or preoccupations" around an item or the act of shopping. The second phase involves "preparation", such as decisions around where and when to shop. The third phase is the actual shopping experience, which can be "intensely exciting, and can even lead to a sexual feeling". Finally, Dr Black writes, "the act is completed with a purchase, often followed by a sense of let down, or disappointment with oneself".
Gemma, a 36-year-old writer from the US, describes her compulsive spending as a "state". She'll go ahead and buy another dress, despite having 25 at home, then have no money to see her doctor or to buy food. "It’s like my priorities are muddled up and I can’t see straight," she says, "especially if I’m on an emotional high, fuelled by spending." She also lives with bi-polar disorder, and overspends most often when she's experiencing mania.
It's common for BSD to accompany other mental conditions. In 1994, researchers interviewed 20 people who shopped compulsively and found that 19 already had lifetime diagnoses of major mood disorders, including anxiety disorders and eating disorders. Similarly, an Italian study in 2012 linked "inappropriate shopping" with high anxiety, obsessive-compulsive dysfunctions, depression, psychoticism, and low self-esteem.
Julia was no stranger to obsessive behaviour, suffering as a teen with bulimia and repetitive, intrusive thoughts around terminal illness. "I'm not unfamiliar with my brain being hijacked," she says, wryly. "But I was startled by how innocent the thing that hijacked me looked, at first."
Dr Kyrios and his team will submit their proposed diagnostic criteria within the next month. He's confident it will help drive research efforts. In the meantime, without strong evidence around treatment outcomes, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) seems the best bet. No particular medications have proven to be specifically effective in controlling buying.
Gemma sought help from, and continues to attend, the 12-step group Debtors Anonymous (DA), which operates worldwide. "The biggest help for me from DA is the social support," she says. "You can reach out to phone someone when you feel at risk of acting out, which is really valuable."
Julia was lucky to find a psychologist she felt comfortable with straight away, and spent a "solid six months" working on managing her anxiety, which had risen to intolerable levels as her relationship disintegrated. She also, temporarily, increased her dose of anti-anxiety medication, with the supervision of a psychiatrist. "That all helped," she says. "After I began to ease off the shopping, I also promised myself I'd stay really alert to anything that could become a crutch. For people like me, that's important, I think. It shocked me how easy it was to fall into the pit."