TO anyone else, it looks like a wardrobe full of pretty clothes but, lately, it's begun to look more like a fact I can't escape: I'm a full-blown, dyed-in-the-very-expensive-wool shopaholic. It's only recently that I've seen the gossamer-fine line between shopping for the stuff we need . . . and the splurge that is one too many.
Earlier this month, some friends attempted to stage a style intervention with me. Yet their gripe wasn't that I was committing a fashion faux pas; rather, I had too much of a good thing.
One rifled through my overstuffed wardrobe, picking out dresses at random. "The tags are still on this . . . and this one," she called out, accusingly. Yet like any other addict, I had my excuses in a row: I can't fit into that one, yet. It was on sale, M'Lud. That'll be in style for seasons to come. This one's an investment piece, Your Honour. I got that one for free. (High risk behaviour, this: lying to yourself and others.)
Things reached a nadir last weekend when I found myself standing in the queue at New Look, all the while guarding an eBay bid on my phone. I won the dress in question, but the high wasn't as dizzyingly sweet as it once might have been.
When I missed out on another eBay bid later on -- during Friday dinner with friends -- my mood instantly blackened, the night all but ruined. I knew things were bad when a friend wailed, a full four hours later: "Are you still going on about that dress?'
To salve the situation, I went into AlWear and picked up three other dresses the morning after. It was only when I met a friend for lunch and she peered down at the bag in my hand, not a little alarmed, that I reckoned things might be . . . well, a little awry.
"You don't need these," she shrieked. "You write all day in your pyjamas, from home . . . where exactly will you wear all the dresses?"
Granted, it smacks of First World Problem, and given the economic hardships that are rife, spending -- let along writing about it -- seems a touch vulgar. But as I've realised, there's more to it than merely buying stuff you don't need.
I justify my spending in the usual ways: I don't smoke or take drugs, so why not spend on what I want, seeing as I'm not chained to a pricey vice?
That bag on sale is €15; sure you'd spend that on two drinks of an evening. Of course, this rationale only works when you forego the drinks.
Also, I'm a bargain fiend; give me Penneys over Brown Thomas any day. I don't go in for designer threads, preferring a moment of triumph in a charity shop. I'm a flea-market maven, and sure they're practically giving that stuff away. That's not being a shopaholic, right?
Um, wrong. Shopaholism stems not from greed or being a fashion victim; it can often be caused by a need to fill an inner void. Some shopaholics seek approval or excitement, while others are perfectionists. Others like the idea that there is an aspect of their lives that they can control, or that there is a part of their life that can be instantly gratified. In other words, it isn't called retail therapy for nothing.
Other compulsive shoppers like the emotional balm of an addiction or compulsive behaviour, but shopping leaves the person functioning properly compared, at least, to other addictions. It's a way of self-destructing without inconveniencing anyone and remaining fully sober.
Add to this the idea that as empowered, modern women, we're Worth It, and the line between self-gifting and an addiction problem becomes ever more blurred. It's the easiest thing to do because self-gifting is seen as something that independent, stylish women do. A lot. Not only do we feel encouraged to walk down the street looking for all the world like an A-lister . . . we feel entitled to.
"People don't window shop anymore, they just buy as though it were a leisure activity," says author/counsellor Cathy Breslin (www.cathybreslin.com). "Just because you're not drunk or feeling the effects of drugs, doesn't mean that there isn't a dreadful urge and compulsion to keep doing this.
"There's often an underlying cause to this addiction, which can often by explored with an individual through counselling," she adds. "People often only seek help when it has got out of control and affected family relations in an adverse way."
Shopaholics can even be broken down into types: there's a compulsive shopper, but there's also the trophy shopper (who needs the perfect accessory at all times), the bargain shopper (who gets a thrill from the hunt), the collector shopper (who has many variations on the one item), the bulimic shopper (who buys and returns) and the image shopper (who likes highly visible stuff). And, as I've realised, the types aren't mutually exclusive.
The debts soon start to add up. "Very often the money isn't there, and it can have a serious effect on family finances and a person's ability to manage money," she says.
US-based therapist Matt Prager, who wrote a digital essay entitled Can't Buy Me Self-Love (available at www.thisorprozac.com), writes of this idea of taking from Peter to pay back Paul. Or rather, Jean-Paul.
"The commonality here is that you're giving yourself a gift in the present in the hopes that the underlying issue will all just work itself out and go away in the future," he says.
"How you spend your money tells you everything about how you view yourself. The problem, in fact, is your effort to derive meaning from objects. If you want a $700 sweater, by all means go get one -- just realise that neither the money you spent nor the sweater itself actually means anything."
In Ireland, Debtors Anonymous (www.debtorsanonymous.org.uk) meetings are held weekly in Dublin, while hypnotherapists and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) experts are also of some help to those affected.
"NLP might help a person re-pattern their thoughts," says Breslin. "When they're bored or sad, people go shopping looking to be fulfilled. NLP interrupts that thought process."
Any expert is likely to address one burning question: how much does a person have to buy in order to finally feel satisfied? I think I already know the answer, but here's hoping that I accept that truth soon.