In my 30s, whenever I became depressed, I would pack myself off to a Nordstrom and spend three to four hours trying on beautiful, expensive clothing. A salesperson (who was paid on commission) would enthusiastically hustle from floor to floor collecting garments, accessories, and all manner of goodies to drape, zip, and buckle onto my body, while I posed regal and expectant on a pedestal (yes, dressing rooms had pedestals then), observing my transformation from the wretched female to—let’s face it—Cinderella.
Transformation complete, I would whip out my MasterCard, and as if endowed with a seemingly endless credit line, purchase several shopping bags worth of goods.
I drove home suffused in a cloud of retail bliss. My inner rhetoric, “I deserve this. I work hard. Great clothes make a great person.”
Little did I know then, my “high” was the result of a neurotransmitter in my brain called dopamine. Dopamine is like “dope” to the brain and creates feelings of euphoria. It is an effective, temporary antidote to depression.
Once you get a hit of dopamine, you want more. You need to reproduce the sensation of a natural high.
The retail bliss I experienced would last for hours, sometimes as long as a day or two, before fading away. Once gone, the feeling of excitement was replaced with one of shame.
Self-judgment set in like cheap perfume. What was I thinking? I can’t afford these clothes. Not only can’t I afford them, but I have nowhere to wear them. I don’t deserve them. I’m a piece of shit.
Before long, I was so despondent that even looking at the clothes evoked a nauseous reaction. The garments hung in my closet with their sophisticated little tags, sometimes for weeks.
At which point, I would pack them up, drive to Nordstrom and return everything. Racked with guilt that my returns would result in docked commissions for the salesperson who originally helped me, I slunk through her department avoiding contact.
Some might say this was a smart strategy. After all, I had the pleasure of the purchase without the long-term hit to my bank account.
Yes and no. In some ways, I inexpensively medicated my depression by addictively shopping and returning merchandise. But my “shopping bulimia” as my husband later coined it, only helped create a deeper groove of unworthiness. Similar to bulimia, my behavior was self-destructive and eventually resulted in greater depressive states.
So whether you shop and return, or are addicted to the rush of shopping on eBay, the ease of Amazon, the royal treatment of a mall, beware and be aware. Check in with your body. If you are buzzing with anticipation, overcome by euphoric fantasy, or nervously anxious, you are probably looking for a hit of dopamine.
When you notice the craving, you can make a different choice.
Won’t be easy, granted. After all, you need the latest release of the remastered Beatles…even though you own virtually the entire catalogue several times over on vinyl and CD. You need that new Coach handbag because you won’t fit in with your gal pals without it.
Instead of spending when the urge arises, try the following strategy:
Pay attention. Notice the desire without judgment, guilt, or shame. “Wow, I’m feeling a need to go buy (fill in the blank).”
Breathe. Take deep, long breaths, in with your nose, out with your mouth. Visualize your breath moving through your body from the top of your head to your feet and then further, into the earth.
Is this really a “need” or part of a habitual behavior.
If you need it, why?
If you want it, why?
If you don’t really need it, and you’re buying it because you just want it, what other need might you be trying to fulfill?
Is there another way you can nurture yourself?
Then make a conscious choice. It’s the first step to regain your sense of self.