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How I'm Conquering My Compulsive Shopping by Focusing on My Mental Health

My shopping habit was the marker of a laundry list of issues I was not addressing.
Sara Radin. Photo: Clémence Polès/Passerbuys

Sara Radin. Photo: Clémence Polès/Passerbuys

The origins of my shopping habit stem back to my childhood. Growing up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, I felt immense pressure to look a certain way from a young age. My classmates all seemed happy; I, too, wanted to be happy and fit in, so I did everything I could to dress like they did. In middle school, my closet was full of Juicy Couture tracksuits in every colorway, shiny Michael Stars tops and a collection of Tiffany's necklaces, while my schedule was packed with trips to the salon to get highlights, tips and more. By age 13, I had a Louis Vuitton bag and insisted on trading in the Fossil watch my grandparents bought me for my Bat Mitzvah for a more expensive Swiss Army watch. I even had a pair of grey sweatpants that had the word "shopping" emblazoned across the butt. In high school, I bought my Vera Wang prom dress at Saks Fifth Avenue, and during my senior year, I was awarded the "best dressed" superlative in the yearbook. People thought I was fashion-forward and inventive, but deep down inside, I was falling apart.

I did have a rather privileged upbringing; my family was upper-middle class and we spent more money than we should have. Beneath our seemingly put-together exteriors and grand ski vacations, we were all silently collapsing as we wrestled with issues like mental illness and codependency — things that were more often than not swept under the rug. I bottled up my feelings, internalizing the chaos at home and trying to pretend everything was fine.

For a long time, I tried to hide my anguish behind a stylish, cheerful exterior. In my 20s, I was a chameleon, dying my hair and trying a myriad of cuts and styles whenever I felt lost or disconnected, oftentimes dropping hundreds of dollars on a whim at some of New York City's more exclusive salons and retailers. On different occasions, I dyed my hair black, red and also experimented with balayage, highlights and bangs. I frequented high-end stores like Opening Ceremony, Club Monaco and a number of vintage boutiques — both after work and on the weekends. Shopping was both a creative outlet and a mask; it allowed me to become the person I wanted so badly to be, but it also protected me from revealing my true identity.

At that time, I thought looking good would make me feel good. I dressed myself in clothes I could not afford, trying my best to keep up with the trends of the season. My love for shopping was a borderline addiction — nothing could compare to the hit of dopamine I got from spending money on clothes. I racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt, filling my closet with unnecessary denim jackets, patterned blouses and pairs of overalls. Every new item brought a temporary, though fleeting, feeling of hope — the hope that I would finally be enough. I spent all of my money and emotional energy attempting to fill my internal voids by pretending like I had it all together and dressing the part.

My shopping habit was the marker of a laundry list of issues I was not addressing. At that time, I held myself to the highest standard of perfection in which my satisfaction was linked to unhealthy expectations I set for myself, especially at work. As a trend forecaster employed by a major corporation, I was my harshest critic, doubting myself every time I achieved some level of distinction in my career. Whether it was a promotion or an opportunity, I got high off the feeling of success for a brief moment, then quickly reverted back to beating myself up internally. Ultimately, I felt empty and emotionless, constantly doing things in an ill-advised attempt to validate myself and appease the nasty voices in my head telling me I needed to be someone else in order to be worthy of true happiness. My worrying was relentless, holding me captive as if I was a prisoner, drowning in a sea of fear and self-doubt.

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My breakdown came swiftly and suddenly the summer after I turned 28. It was like a dormant volcano had finally erupted due to a slew of triggers that knocked me in some of my most sensitive areas. There was a break up, a frightening surgery, a death in my family and a dog attack. Looking in the mirror, I was pale, fragile and raw. I found myself incapable of dressing the part I had attempted to play for so long.

As I fell into a deep bout of depression following that series of unfortunate events, I grew increasingly anxious; at the same time, I stopped wearing my typical colorful, vintage ensembles. Instead, I opted for drab, loose outfits and basics in black or gray. I quit wearing makeup and shaving my legs and armpits. There were many days when I couldn't do basic things to care for myself, like shower or put on a bra. My laundry piled up, my room grew cluttered and my appearance faltered. The way I was dressing at that time no longer covered the way I felt internally, and it was a visible indicator that I needed help.

Overwhelmed by physical and emotional discomfort, I finally had to surrender to my crippling anxiety and immense distress by seeking out a psychotherapist. I learned that I was unknowingly living with an anxiety disorder, which was at fault for a lot of the unhealthy coping methods I had subconsciously adopted. Together, we discussed how my various vices — including shopping — had kept me from addressing the turmoil inside of me. Thanks to therapy, I have learned that breaking bad habits isn't something you do cold turkey. It's a slow, deliberate and lifelong process.

While I have not given up my shopping habit completely, I now challenge myself to think more about my spending habits and pause before I buy things. I have barely purchased anything since last fall, which feels like a major personal triumph. Though I do catch myself craving an afternoon of shopping once in a while, I'm able to hold back, choosing instead to invest in things that steady my mind, like reading a memoir or practicing yoga. I now recognize that engaging in self-care will help me feel grounded for a longer period of time than any new outfit or accessory ever could.

These days, I am more conscious when I do buy things and I put less of an emphasis on how I look. Instead, I try to focus on how I feel internally. Now I notice a massive difference in how I perceive my appearance and approach my wardrobe; establishing more compassion for myself has allowed me to let go of feeling like I always need to be perfect. I welcome my various quirks and neuroses, seeing them as the glue that holds me together.

My best outfit days are the ones where I feel comfortable in my own skin, no matter what I wear. Through learning the importance of decluttering one's mind and closet, I began the process of parting with old belongings, while simultaneously reconsidering how I want to present and refashion this updated version of myself. Someday soon, I hope to establish a wardrobe that mirrors this more authentic and mindful me, but I'm taking my time to get there.

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