Retail Therapy: This Antidepressant has High Addictive Potential

 Since the Chicago Tribune coined the phrase in a 1986 editorial, stating “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy”, shopping with the primary purpose of improving the buyer’s mood or disposition has achieved a certain legitimacy – and has become a contributing factor in out-of-control credit card use leading to bankruptcy.

 Shopping for mood enhancement surely contributes to compulsive shopping disorder.  There is some evidence that compulsive shoppers experience the same kind of surge in brain chemicals when they anticipate buying something that an alcoholic does when he anticipates drinking. 

 A research team at Stanford University, conducted a study to determine whether antidepressants classified as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors could curb compulsive shopping behavior.  They interviewed 2500 randomly selected adults, scoring them against a standard compulsive buying scale.  They classified the 6% who fell more than 2 standard deviations from the mean as suffering from compulsive shopping disorder and noted that behavior as measured by self-evaluation improved with medication.  Does this mean only 6% of the American public is addicted to unnecessary shopping as a means of personal gratification? Not necessarily – the real measure of an addiction is whether an individual can voluntarily cease or curtail the behavior or substance in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is doing more harm than good. Judging from the prevalence of out-of-control credit card debt among Americans with stable incomes, the number of addicts may be much higher.

 A search under “Retail therapy” on the internet revealed a number of tempting campaigns to encourage irresponsible shopping by tying that shopping to a good cause, a tactic which lottery promoters also use to overcome consumer resistance. A fundraiser in Kansas City raised $1 million for a prominent medical charity by selling $25 cards entitling the holder to a 20% discount at participating retailers. While the actual dollar amount of purchases explicitly tied to charitable campaigns is a small proportion of consumer spending, the high profile of such schemes serves as negative reinforcement for thrift in general – something retailers no doubt count upon when they allow service organizations to peddle coupon books and cookies and trinkets in the mall. 

The addict is a marketer’s dream. The addict attaches the highest priority to his “drug” of choice, assigning it a market share ahead of the necessities of daily living, ahead of his or her family, and ahead of a stable financial future. The rush a retail junkie receives from a purchase is short-lived, requiring increasingly frequent fixes. In a world of shopping channels, internet emporia, megastores and easy credit, there is not much room for savoring the contemplation of buying.   

Bankruptcy can be viewed as the debtor’s equivalent of an intensive inpatient rehabilitation center for substance abuse. As with substance abuse, some people will be able to get their lives on the right track before reaching this stage. Those in the earlier stages of a financial debacle should be wary, however, of agencies which promise a ‘lite’ solution requiring neither major modification of behavior nor a good faith effort to make good debts that can realistically be paid. Such half measures may produce temporary relief, but allow the person to dig him- or herself into a much deeper hole down the road.

Addiction is a factor in many bankruptcies

Unfortunately, addiction is everywhere in America. It’s becoming almost normative for adults to use some substance or engage in some activity to such excess that it becomes an overriding compulsion, trumping family, health, and financial solvency. The classic heroin addict has usually descended too far down the scale to benefit from filing for bankruptcy, but he has plenty of more respectable cousins still clinging to a tenuous middle class lifestyle while their compulsions drive them deeper and deeper into debt.

Alcoholism, abuse of prescription medications, gambling, and pornography are some of the commonest “respectable” addictions recognized as such by the medical community. Compulsive shopping, while not officially recognized as a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, has much in common with gambling and pornography, including inducing changes in brain chemistry that trigger craving for more. For a good discussion of the addictive qualities of compulsive shopping, see: Compulsive shopping: Illness or Bad Choices.

Teenagers may become involved with hard street drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.  When they do, it’s disastrous for the rest of the family.  An addicted family member will steal and sell household possessions, find a way to clean out bank accounts, and run up huge obligations through mandatory treatment and penalties from the criminal justice system. Addicted older adult children may persuade parents or grandparents to cosign for loans or otherwise underwrite the addiction at the expense of the parents’ financial security.

Active addiction contributes to bankruptcy in a number of ways. A budget which looks adequate won’t cover living expenses if a large chunk of it is being diverted towards alcohol or the gaming table. The addict (and often his or her spouse) will be in denial about just how much money the addiction consumes, and concoct implausible explanations for the chronic budgetary shortfall.

A mind befogged by alcohol or painkillers is prone to poor budget management and unwise spending decisions. An addict will neglect to pay insurance bills or make mortgage payments even though there is money in the bank to cover them. He or she is easily persuaded that some product or service will cure the misery his addiction fosters, and will shell out for a lavish vacation, a Cadillac-grade home-entertainment center, or a high-profile personal development seminar, incurring debt for something that fails to deliver the promised relief.

As addiction progresses is erodes employability, beginning with missed promotions and fewer hours and ending in layoff.  A person fired or laid off because of substance abuse finds it virtually impossible to get another job while he is still using.  Unless the process is somehow halted, there’s a good chance he’ll end up on the streets or in prison.

Addictions frequently lead to divorce.  The non-addicted spouse is now free of the day-to-day drain on household finances, but hasn’t taken much away from the breakup and now has difficulty collecting child support. Accustomed to a chaotic unmanageable budget, the spouse may continue to make poor decisions.  She (or he) may be headed for bankruptcy.

A certain class of addict has learned to form relationships with vulnerable individuals and then exploit them as a source of cash, persuading them, for example, to use their good credit to obtain a loan the exploiter swears to pay back.  We see clients in our office who could use some counseling or a support group aimed at avoiding getting involved with suitors whose professions of undying love and admiration are immediately followed by a request to cosign on a loan.  Some people embroiled in such relationships find support in Al-anon or Nar-anon, the 12-step programs for spouses and family members of alcoholics and addicts.

A bankruptcy attorney’s office will encounter people in various phases of this process – from those in early stages of addiction, for whom other fac