The Addiction Nobody Talk$ About

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It’s the silent killer of finances. And society rewards us for it.

The house was still and dark, the kids were asleep, and save for my husband’s occasional snore, it was so quiet that I could hear the faint hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen from our bedroom. I should have been knocked out, too.

I was tired, sleep-deprived, and I knew I had to get my daughter to school earlier than usual the next morning for cheer practice.

But none of that mattered.

As I laid in bed with my tablet perfectly balanced atop of a throw pillow, I continued to scroll Instagram like it was my job — except for one glaring distinction: Jobs make you money, but I was spending it.

Even worse, it wasn’t my money to begin with.

I was charging things I didn’t need with money I didn’t have. And I had been doing this for years.

But I couldn’t stop.

Everybody splurges, right? To some degree, that may be true.

Like, who doesn’t cave and eventually buy the shoes they’ve been lusting after? Who doesn’t go out to eat when they know damn well they should microwave those spaghetti leftovers in the fridge? Who doesn’t get tickets to that concert because, after all, life is to be lived? (That last one is debatable now because decent concert tickets cost the same as a car payment these days, but I digress.)

The point I’m trying to make here is that most of us don’t steadfastly deny ourselves certain pleasures just because they’re not in the budget.

I was no different.

But I was an anomaly in that I kept on spending.

If I’m honest, this errant behavior started in my twenties, and I rationalized it by needing to look the part for work. My Achilles heel has always been designer clothes, and I worked in television news where appearance is everything. So I easily justified buying that silk blouse, those leather pumps, or that Italian tote.

My swanky work attire was like a gateway drug. Inevitably, the purchase of less justifiable goods soon followed: the Ralph Lauren tulle skirt (Come on, where the fuck was I going to wear that?), the infamous one-armed cashmere sweater that nearly cost as much as my rent, and the excruciatingly uncomfortable Giuseppe Zanotti high-heeled sandals that still make me cringe to this day.

Before I knew it, I was thousands of dollars in debt.

The guilt was building. But I was always able to cover my bills (which only happened because I paid the minimum on my credit card every month), and I reminded myself that it was okay because I was young and single and a nest egg didn’t need to be on my radar. I told that judgy voice in my head to quiet the fuck down because I didn’t drink a lot, go to clubs, or go on vacation and goddamnit you only live once.

Fast forward 20 years.

I’m now a married, middle-aged mother of two. I write for the local community paper, which I thoroughly enjoy but it pays peanuts. I work from home and with the exception of running errands, grabbing coffee with girlfriends, and doing my children’s school runs, I am a homebody. Black leggings, a handful of sweaters, and the same couple pairs of sneakers drive my wardrobe.

Read: My excuse for having to look the part for work has gone up in smoke.

My toxic trait du jour had been to lay in bed at night while lusting after the perfectly curated lewks of influencers, and then hop right on over to eBay or Poshmark or The Real Real to see how I could duplicate it at a discount. I never paid full price, no. But that was still no consolation because I shouldn’t have been charging anything in the first place.

I didn’t need that third pair of P448 sneakers; I didn’t need another cardigan (I wear the same three over and over and over again); and for the love of everything holy, I didn’t need a fifth pair of sunglasses when I barely wore one.

My reckless spending had been getting worse, and the pandemic put me over the top.

Adding insult to injury, we are bombarded by advertising that tells us that buying more will make us happy — better, even; politicians encourage us to spend as a means of boosting the economy; and I was particularly vulnerable to the allure of wanting what everyone else seems to have.

Additionally, those who saw me regularly often commented on how pulled together I always looked; that my shopping skills were so keen and acute that I could find almost anything.

However, my friends would shit if they knew that, despite looking like a million bucks, my savings account remained on life support and on a good day I might have $25 in my checking account.

But you know what spoke louder than compliments from friends?

The din of my indiscretions.

It rang so loud in my ears that even when it was quiet, it was never truly gone. And I had no viable excuses left: I was a full-blown adult, I was staring my children’s college tuition down the pike, and a nest egg should have been in my crosshairs for years now.

My husband had long known that I was a spender, but I don’t think he knew exactly how much I had hemorrhaged because we kept (and continue to keep) separate accounts.

But it didn’t matter if he knew. I knew.

And because I was finding it increasingly difficult to reverse course, I began to suspect that my dilemma wasn’t just rooted in wanting to look good. I feared that this never-ending quest to attain more was a symptom of a much deeper problem, but I had no idea where it was coming from.

Turns out, my hunch was right.

As I hunkered down for another late night of spending about a year ago, I opened Instagram and saw Hungarian-Canadian physician and bestselling author Gabor Maté front and center in my feed. In this particular reel, he was elaborating on how childhood trauma leads to addiction — any addiction. You can see his talk in its entirety here, but the crux of his message was that addiction is not the primary problem but rather an attempt to solve the problem, and that the loss of self is the essence of trauma.

Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.

And as a result of these traumatic events, what happens inside you is you get disconnected from your emotions and you get disconnected from your body and you have difficulty being in the present moment and you develop a negative view of your world and a negative view of yourself and a defensive view of other people. And these perspectives keep showing up in your life in the present.

So, in other words, the addiction is not the primary problem; it’s an attempt to solve a problem. And then the real question is: How did the problem arise? In other words, this is where my theory is, that it’s always rooted in childhood trauma and that the addiction is an attempt to deal with the effects of childhood trauma, which it does temporarily, while it creates even more problems in the long term.

No lie, Maté’s words cut so deep that as I took them in, I nearly forgot to breathe. The pieces were coming together, and things were — finally — starting to make sense.

In the interest of preserving a reasonable word count and in consideration of your time, I’ll just cut to the chase and tell you that my life has been one, big concomitant episode of trauma, but I didn’t realize that something was amiss until I had children of my own.

My Medium profile is chock-full of my detailed experiences, but here’s the CliffsNotes: I’m the only child of a mother who made it her life’s mission to ensure that I would always put her emotional needs above my own. It’s an impossible task for any child, particularly after said child marries and has children of her own. We are talking about a mother who is divorced, has no friends, and remains estranged from her family of origin — and her adult daughter who has only recently realized that the attempt to give her mother everything she desires is a straight-up losing battle.

The thing with this particular brand of emotional abuse is that there are no physical markers of its presence. The wounds — the guilt, anxiety, the incessant stress — are so insidious that they appear invisible. Even to the abused.

Over the past few years, I had been educating myself on parentification, enmeshment, and emotional immaturity in an effort to determine how I could continue to have a relationship — if any — with my mother. Meanwhile, I was blissfully unaware that my shopping addiction might be related.

A few weeks after seeing Maté’s reel, I entered therapy.

I take full responsibility for my actions all these years. That said, it’s satisfying to finally understand the origins of my disordered thinking.

It’s been months since I’ve charged anything.

But I in no way have this addiction licked, and I possibly never will.

The temptation to spend money on clothing may haunt me for the rest of my life.

Yet I no longer consider it a death sentence because I am now better equipped to handle the waves of impulsivity when they crash ashore in the dead of night.

This is going to be a long road, for sure.

But my mental health is worth it. I am worth it.

I reckon my peace of mind and ability to handle my finances in a responsible manner will look better on me than any ensemble ever will.

© Copyright J.C. Anne Brown, 2023

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