Online holiday deals can be torture for shopping addicts

Posted Dec. 23, 2011, at 4:44 p.m.

With the hours ticking down until Christmas, it’s the high-risk season for compulsive shoppers.

In the past, those who struggled to control their urges could steer clear of the malls. But with online daily deals beckoning 24 hours a day — Today only! Free upgrades! Half off your entire purchase if you act now! — reining in those impulses is more challenging than ever, say experts.

“There are just a lot of triggers out there,” said April Lane Benson, a New York psychologist who has treated problem shoppers for 15 years.

An estimated 15 million Americans have little control over their spending, according to the American Psychological Association. For them, just checking email during December can be like navigating a minefield.

While Kiratiana Freelon, 31, wouldn’t say she’s a shopaholic, she acknowledged it’s easy to buy things you don’t need, especially with the proliferation of coupon sites. “I get excited about a bargain … I rarely pay full price for anything,” she said.

“I felt like this was the year the whole thing just got out of hand … especially when I looked at the deals I actually used,” said the Chicago writer, who has spent about $200 for unredeemed “discounts,” including a juice cleanser.

To curb spending, she recently deleted the Groupon app from her phone. “At least it gives me more time to think before I hit the buy button,” she said

The National Retail Federation in 2010 found that online shoppers start their holiday buying earlier and are more apt to grab a few items for themselves than those in retail outlets.

Anonymity and accessibility are big factors in blowing cash online — but so are the often complicated emotions intertwined with December, when anything less than an idealized Hallmark holiday can seem like a letdown, clinicians said.

“There’s disappointment, loss, bad memories … and shopping is one way to anesthetize ourselves against those feelings,” said Benson, author of “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.” “If you want love and affection, 12 pairs of boots isn’t going to do it.”

A normal, pleasurable activity turns dysfunctional when it becomes a constant preoccupation, experts say. In the extreme, it results in harmful consequences — such as bankruptcy, foreclosure or divorce. Also, it’s often done furtively, such as hiding purchases and bills from a spouse and can escalate into criminal behavior, such as retail theft or credit card fraud.

Compulsive buying isn’t listed as a distinct disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the bible of psychiatry — but it is under review for the new edition, the first overhaul in 20 years, due out in 2013.

Generally, it is treated as an impulse control disorder, such as gambling. The pulse-pounding, heart-racing euphoria is the same, whether hitting a jackpot or scoring a coveted bag, said Vickie Lewis of Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill., which specializes in addictions.

In the last year, calls about shopping and spending to Proctor’s 800 number have increased by 50 percent, Lewis said. The usual protocol for treating such disorders is outpatient therapy and 12-step groups, but in some cases can include hospitalization.

In one landmark case in 2001, a Chicago woman, Elizabeth Roach, embezzled nearly $250,000 from her employer to finance her splurges, which included a $9,000 purse and a $7,000 belt buckle. It was the first time a federal judge reduced a sentence, citing a shopping addiction.

“It’s not about getting things,” her attorney told the court. “It’s about trying to find a way to deal with the pain.”

One suburban Chicago woman can relate. A few years ago, she started accumulating “tons” of jewelry — to the point that she was secretly draining her and her husband’s retirement savings.

“Everything was just so shiny and pretty … I’d look down at this bracelet and it just made me happy,” said the woman, who did not want to be named because she was embarrassed by her spending struggle.

Only when confronted by her husband did she seek help. Eventually she came to realize her obsession coincided with her only child leaving home that she came to see the luxury goods as a substitute.

Still, for all the heartache, mixed messages abound. People who would be concerned by other out-of-control behaviors wink at “retail therapy” or view Black Friday as frivolous fun, Lewis said.

“Society just doesn’t recognize it,” she said. “If this were heroin, people would be devastated … but with shopping, the reaction is: You go girl!”

Niquie Dworkin, a clinical psychologist in Lakeview, Ill., said clients often come in for other issues, such as depression or anxiety and, as therapy progresses, realize they have a spending problem. “If you’re overwhelmed by your feelings, it’s about reaching for something quick.”

The ease of technology — along with credit — takes the speed to a whole new level. And while addicts can avoid alcohol or cigarettes, it’s almost impossible to live without a computer, experts said.

“Everyone who is struggling … is able to engage more [in destructive habits] than in the past,” Dworkin said. “It’s just a click … and it’s dangerous.”

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