The Birth of a Compulsive Shopper

One of the things that pursuing a minimalist lifestyle through the zero waste framework has clued me into is just how much time I’ve historically spent shopping and thinking about shopping. Where did this come from? Why do I still fell compelled to give in even though I’m so staunchly against consumer culture and capitalism, and have been for some time? And more importantly… what can I do about it?

Wikipedia defines shopaholism, referred to clinically as compulsive buying disorder, like so:

[it] is characterized by an obsession with shopping and buying behavior that causes adverse consequences. […] compulsive buying “is experienced as an irresistible–uncontrollable urge, resulting in excessive, expensive and time-consuming retail activity [that is] typically prompted by negative affectivity” and results in “gross social, personal and/or financial difficulties”.


[it] is frequently comorbid with mood, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders. People who score highly on compulsive buying scales tend to understand their feelings poorly and have low tolerance for unpleasant psychological states such as bad moods. Onset of CBD occurs in the late teens and early twenties and is generally chronic. CBD is similar to, but distinguished from, OCD hoarding and mania. Compulsive buying is not limited to people who spend beyond their means; it also includes people who spend an inordinate amount of time shopping or who chronically think about buying things but never purchase them.

Again: where did this come from? I think I can paint a blurry picture.

I grew up in two households, essentially. My parents divorced when I was very young, and they mostly stayed within short driving distance of each other so I had plenty of time with both; this was also in accordance with their custody agreement. My separated parents didn’t cause me much of any distress, the divorce didn’t wound my psyche, it didn’t turn my life upside down. It quickly became a new normal and now the idea of being raised in a two-parent household seems strange and alien to me. A little wounding did inevitably happen though. Having my time split almost down the middle for the few years after the divorce, I had two bedrooms. Two beds to sleep in, two sets of toys and belongings, two wardrobes, almost. And as soon as my weekend with the one was over, I was shuttled “home” and was surrounded by completely different things for a while, until it was time to spend time with the other parent again.

In a way, I lived up to the future stereotype of my generation almost from day one. Something of a transient since the age of 5 when they got divorced, I wouldn’t see relative physical stability until high school. But even by then, having a permanent address that I could consider my main base of operations wasn’t quite what it looked to be either.

The one parent who didn’t have full custody of me wound up moving 2+ hours away and got married again. Because of a chaotic second marriage going on for a few years with the other, the now-distant parent, empowered by their new spouse, began vying for custody and trying to compete for my affections. This meant buying me things–furniture for my room, clothes for my wardrobe, toys and computers and fun things–all in a bid to get me to decide that I wanted them to have custody. It didn’t work though. The idea of being uprooted again was not something that appealed to me, and all things considered I was getting along pretty well right where I was. They gave up after a few years and the moment I turned 18 “my room” was turned into a guest bedroom. And some of my more cherished belongings there wound up disappearing.

But the trend of “buying = love and self” continued. Every time my distant parent visited and wanted to bond with me, we went window shopping. Every time my grandmother, who I consider my “third parent” growing up, wanted to show me love, she took me shopping. It got to the point where I didn’t know how else to spend time with someone other than to go shopping with them.

And then college happened, and I was uprooted again and again: 7 times in 5 years. In my sophomore year I had a mental breakdown and considered dropping out and coming home. I remember being on the phone with my mom on the small, crooked roof of our small, crooked apartment one night, lamenting that I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. Thankfully I didn’t end up dropping out, but after that phone call I somehow found myself in the identity of “cartoonist”. I’ve been working on a comic since then, 6 years ago, and I can’t imagine where I would be without it.

But I graduated 3 years ago, and I’m back in my hometown, but it’s still more of the same. I’m renting a room from the aforementioned grandmother while I try to pay off as much of my loans as I can before starting my life with my husband up in Canada. We’ll be celebrating our 3rd anniversary this December. (It’s ok, if you don’t understand how we do it, neither does anyone else, and we don’t really understand ourselves.)

The common thread through all of this, I realized in the past few days, is that I’d always been trying to establish a sense of rootedness, a sense of place for myself, through buying. That I’ve been trying to weigh myself down, physically and metaphorically, all these years by drowning myself in stuff or else I’d feel that I could float away at any moment because I never truly belonged there.

Maybe I’ll find, when I have an apartment of my own, a place to live for an indefinite period of time, that I don’t actually suffer from chronic addiction. Maybe it’s just been so long, 20 years, since I’ve felt that I truly occupied a place and that I don’t remember what it’s like to live without that deep-seated sense of longing.

I wish I could put my theory to the test right now… but it will, unfortunately, have to wait a while longer.

People, older people, tell me that I should travel while I’m young.

I don’t think they understand that I’ve been travelling my whole life, and that the most romantic notion I can think of is to settle down.