As a kid, I used to think that being “addicted” was just another way of saying “sick.”
“Addiction” was, to me, synonymous with “illness,” in the way that colds, flus, and viruses might be. It was a simplified definition, sure, but not an entirely inaccurate one. Whenever my older sister was using drugs (injectable opioids her substances of choice), all I knew was that she was sick. She certainly looked it—sallow and uncommonly thin, with bruising up and down her bony limbs. Her hollowed eyes suggested her illness was more than physical.
And, just like my sister, my father would get easily sick, too; if he spent too many consecutive nights on the bottle, the next few might be characterized by his emotional oscillation. Irritable one moment, and nearly comatose the next.
It wasn’t just the two of them, though. Almost everyone in my immediate family had, or still maintains, some kind of substance misuse or addiction. Prescription drugs are popular with my family, justified by their legality even as they create debilitating, lifelong side effects like memory loss or amplified depression, anxiety, and paranoia. Steroids have made an appearance as well. Coke. Crystal. Cannabis. It’s all there if you look beneath a few layers of suburban veneer.
Through my teens and early twenties, I thought I’d been spared from my family’s issues with addiction. Although I enjoyed social drinking, Mary Jane, and the very occasional session with other recreational drugs on a night out, I never felt out of control.
Although I don’t believe that anyone who is addicted actively chooses to become reliant on drugs, I still prided myself in not having an “addictive personality,” (which I now know isn’t really a thing). I was in control—I could use substances infrequently, for what I thought was mental stimulation, creativity, and bonding—not for survival. Not for the everyday.
In truth, my already anxious mind probably just can’t handle a come-down. But in the time I spent celebrating the fact that I’d avoided my family’s substance addictions, I’d been developing my own the whole time—not snorting lines, but swiping plastic.
In the time I spent celebrating the fact that I’d avoided my family’s substance addictions, I’d been developing my own the whole time.
Is This Really Addiction?
According to data released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2018, Americans are in more debt than ever before. Collectively, we owe about $13.1 trillion, Bloomberg reported. On an individual level, the average person around my age—less than 35— owes about $67,400, according to TIME. Much of that debt is generally due to student loans, followed by vehicle loans, and credit cards. By 25, I owed about half of that, but there were no student loans to speak of. Instead, I was $30,000 in the hole on various credit cards—these three-by-two-inch demons I began to carry around shamefully, not unlike a hidden baggie of Molly.
I started overspending in college. When the very early days of the so-called “plus-size fashion revolution” kicked into gear, the fascination I’d always had with clothing all of a sudden had an outlet. Retail previously never had any time for bodies like mine: Fat bodies with rolls and dimples and too much flesh to drape into its silks and satins. But by 2012, things were slowly changing. “Feminism,” “size acceptance,” “body positivity,” and even “fat positivity” had found their way out of the niche, progressive bubbles of the internet, and into mainstream conversation.
And more brands than ever before were creating beautiful clothes in my size. I couldn’t get enough.
I really couldn’t get enough. I’d like to say that I didn’t accumulate $30,000 in debt purely through buying pretty clothes—and, to some degree, that might be true. There were some other purchases in the mix. A couple of plane tickets when I was in a long distance relationship. Christmas gifts for the fam. Some web-designing costs when I started a personal fashion blog that would at least put all of these other purchases to use. But, really, most of the money went to pretty clothes.
I started building shopping carts on ecommerce sites daily. With every new item I added to my virtual bag, I felt something not unlike a high. A little wave of adrenaline. The feeling that everything was going to be okay now. Not just okay, but brilliant. Vivid, somehow. Brighter. Better. Like I was going to be brighter and better. Like through whatever outfit was about to travel to my door, I was going to become a little freer. More alive. More myself.
Putting on a new outfit—one that fit just right and emboldened me and freed me of my day-to-day anxiety—was, for some time, the closest thing I’d ever felt to infinite. Of course, the feeling never lasted. Such a high isn’t sustainable. It doesn’t come without a low.
With every new item I added to my virtual bag, I felt something not unlike a high.
The Crash That Came Next
Sometimes the lows would come after I’d worn a new ensemble a few times, only for it to lose its spark. Sometimes they’d come when a garment didn’t look as I imagined it would when eyeing it on a screen. Sometimes they’d come the second I opened up my latest box or parcel, only for that small voice in my head to remind me that I couldn’t really afford any of this. That I was a broke millennial making $20 to $40 a day as a freelance blogger. They’d really hit when it became clear that fabric couldn’t solve my problems.
I couldn’t be addicted, though. I couldn’t be sick like I always thought someone who was addicted was. Could I?
Because what was happening to me was different than a substance addiction: I didn’t show visible physical consequences. My loved ones weren’t really suffering as a result of my spending. It was hard for me to admit that my shopping was becoming out of control. I wouldn’t dare compare my compulsive shopping to the challenges faced by my family members with a substance addiction.
Still, though, I was suffering. I was becoming dependent on shopping and the high that it fed me. If “too much” time had passed without a new purchase, the despair would quickly set in. I was prioritizing shopping above paying my essential bills. Above saving money. Above putting in place any sort of foundation for my future. I was beginning to cover up my expenses from those closest to me, too, weaving lies and excuses that might explain why I couldn’t afford to go to someone’s birthday dinner, or where that new dress came from, or why I had to borrow money again.
I couldn’t be addicted, though. I couldn’t be sick like I always thought someone who was addicted was.
I often wonder why it took me five years to recognize my behavior as problematic. Even though clothing is one of our most universal, basic forms of self-expression, shopping and “fashion” are simultaneously deemed frivolous. To care so much about clothing isn’t usually thought of as “profound” or “intellectual,” but a sign of vapidity. Maybe I was hesitant to admit to such a problem with something that seemed so trivial to the outside world.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to admit that I do have the capacity to lose control. That once I find something that fills me with bliss—clothing, a series of books, a TV show, or a specific food—I do have a tendency to binge. I lose focus on most other things, devoting all of my energy, money, and time into the new passion.
In a consumerist culture, spending is arguably a requirement. It’s easy to ignore the signs of “overspending” when we are seemingly being encouraged to buy the next “it” sneakers, or laptop, or smartphone, or smartphone case, or headphones, or Airbnb getaway. It’s easy to slip under the radar and remain undetected in our compulsions, when shopping is a thing that (unlike drugs) everyone actually participates in—often proudly. And although experts disagree as to whether or not shopping is actually an addiction, my shopping felt completely unmanageable.
As cliché as it might be, recognizing the problem really is half the battle. If I hadn’t eventually reached my credit limit on all my cards, getting so in over my head that I nearly filed for bankruptcy, I may never have admitted that I was no longer in control of my spending. And, in a consumerist culture where everyone wants to buy the next big thing, it’s not always easy to see it. But staring at my bills when my first daughter was born and realizing that I’d never be able to save for her future if I carried on like this… I saw my reality with incredible clarity as I was hurtling toward rock bottom.
I wanted to do better—if not for myself, then for the small person I’d made. Nearly two years later, as I prepare for the arrival of my second child, it’s that feeling that stops me from pressing “checkout” on a regular basis. I’ve stopped linking my credit cards to my PayPal account for easy access. I’ve stopped blowing every paycheck on the latest plus-size collection on the market.
I still have a lot to reconcile with. For me, it’s been crucial to realize that, in a sense, we’re all at risk for addictive behavior—and that it doesn’t always show up in the form of substance use.
And, hell, binge culture and capitalism and the instant gratification of the internet practically demand us to indulge in excess. Some of us smoke, some of us drink, some of us spend, and some of us devote 20 hours a day to role playing games online—some of these behaviors are more life-threatening than others, but they are all ways for us to numb ourselves, to cope with the things we don’t want to cope with.
It’s perhaps when those coping mechanisms begin to feel less like an oasis and more like a black hole that we need to take action.