Understanding your loved one’s addiction

I have heard the term "shopaholic" but can it really be a serious addiction, and if it is, what should we do about it?

I am getting a bit worried about one of my adult relatives. She has always liked shopping for things, but we have all noticed that it seems to be getting out of hand. Her answer to stress seems to be buying something. She has been caught trying to sneak clothes that she has bought into the house. I don’t know where she is getting the money for everything she buys. I have heard the term “shopaholic” but can it really be a serious addiction, and if it is, what should we do about it?

There are several different schools of thought about addiction and what it really is. Some view it as a disease, some as a genetic tendency, and some as a coping strategy that is, at some level, socially condoned.

There are aspects of addiction-related behaviour that are noted by everyone, however.

These include the ideas that: (a) the behaviour makes a person feel better in the moment and covers up a difficult or painful issue; (b) the behaviour escalates over time because it takes more and more to make a person feel good; and (c) withdrawing from the behaviour results in emotional upset and possibly feelings of anxiety and anger.

All people engage in behaviours that are, in some other people, addictions and never become addicted. We all eat food, go shopping, and many of us gamble or drink alcohol on occasion. The behaviour is considered an addiction only when the conditions discussed above are met.

The fact that you are noticing your family member’s increase in shopping coupled with her tendency to buy things in response to stress is probably a warning sign. Additionally she also appears to be trying to hide her behaviour from others.

As a person becomes aware that a certain behaviour is getting out of control they begin to feel bad or ashamed about it. A cycle sets in that goes something like: I feel stressed or unhappy, I go shopping (or other behaviour) and feel better briefly, I realize I’ve done it again and feel ashamed (and may try to hide it), now I feel bad again, and so on.

Quite understandably you are becoming worried about the patterns you see in your family member’s shopping behaviour. What to do about it, however, is a big question and I can only touch on some aspects of the answers here. I encourage you to continue your search for information and resources.

As family members it is important to maintain healthy boundaries and to refuse to lie about, minimize, or join in hiding the behaviour. Addictions thrive on secrecy and you don’t want to create fertile ground for the addiction to grow.

It is also important that the concerns about her shopping behaviour be brought to your family member’s attention. This needs to be done in a supportive but firm way. Knowing what the resources are in your community for people who are affected by addiction issues would be helpful.

As family members it is also important that you recognize that solving the problems that may underlie the behaviour is the task of the individual and that your relative will address these if and when she is ready. The old adage “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” applies here.

It can be very difficult to stand by waiting for someone you care about to decide to make a change. Therefore making sure that you and others in the family are supported is also something to consider. There are support groups and counsellors who specialize in addiction issues, and reading material available to help you.

If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at info@pacifictherapy.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Friday in the Record.