By JESSICA GUYNN
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- 'Tis the season of mandatory materialism. And some people will shop until they drop tens of thousands of dollars into debt.
Debtors Anonymous, which holds weekly meetings in cities across the country, says its fellowship swells this time of year.
April Lane Benson, author of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self," devotes an entire chapter to compulsive gift giving.
Compulsive shoppers often consider the holidays a license to spend beyond their means to buy love or boost their spirits.
And after-Christmas sales, which promise "savings" can be even worse for some people.
"There's a saying in the 12-step community that Thanksgiving is the compulsive eaters' holiday, New Year's Eve is the alcoholic's holiday and Christmas is the debtor's holiday," said one California member of Debtors Anonymous.
Shopaholism is not a fictional disorder afflicting "Sex and the City's" well-heeled Carrie Bradshaw, who is obsessed with Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik stilettos and all else haute couture. Nor is it a formally recognized disorder.
Move to categorize
But a Stanford University psychiatry professor, Lorrin Koran, and other mental-health professionals are leading the charge to label compulsive shopping as a mental disorder -- an effort that has met with skepticism from those who believe it is merely a symptom of an underlying condition such as anxiety or depression.
Dr. Koran says compulsive shopping is not just a destructive habit but a bona fide medical condition that merits a separate listing in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual.
"We are talking about something that is very common," said Dr. Koran, who is conducting a nationwide study to measure the pervasiveness of compulsive shopping.
That type of research is still in its infancy, but one study estimates that as many as 8 percent of Americans suffer from that addiction, which can wreck relationships and finances.
Yet few take it seriously. Retail as therapy is an accepted American pastime. Called "the smiled-upon addiction," compulsive buying often ends up as a punch line in jokes.
"Unlike alcohol and drug abuse, society condones consumption; it fuels our economy," Benson said. "Debt is the American way. It's a national epidemic."
Consumer spending -- much of it financed with debt -- helped pull the country out of the last economic downturn. The typical household has eight credit cards with an average balance of $7,500. Many people don't finish paying for Christmas, interest charges and all, until July.
An entire industry -- shopology -- has sprung up to help retailers figure out how to get shoppers to spend more. Each year American retailers roll out the red-and-green carpet and sleighs full of advertising to reel in shoppers.
This holiday season, the average consumer was expected to spend $702.03 on gifts, up 4.5 percent from last year, reports the National Retail Federation, and an additional $89.25 on themselves or their families.
Though most people spend within their means, compulsive shoppers cannot. "The holidays aggravate a problem that is present all year long," Koran said.
Feelings of emptiness, low self-esteem, loneliness or the pursuit of the ideal image can lead people to shop compulsively, Benson said. People suffering from depression and anxiety also shop to self-medicate, she said.
Like gamblers or binge eaters, some people literally get a shopping rush, said Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College. They "enter almost a dissociative state or trance," he said. "Their focus of attention gets so narrow that all they think about is the item they are looking at and how wonderful it is."
Can't buy it
And yet, compulsive shoppers usually end up feeling remorse or shame, hiding their purchases from family and friends.
"There are so many things they think they need, but the truth is they can never get enough of what they really need, because what they are looking for is not something they can find in a store," Benson said.
Irrational consumerism can carry a high price: financial meltdown. Take the world's most famous shopaholic.
A Midwestern transplant in her late 20s, Karyn Bosnak, who was earning a six-figure salary as a daytime television producer in New York, wanted the lifestyle to match. She picked out a Manhattan apartment and a personal trainer. She indulged in a regular routine of manicures and pedicures, bikini waxes and blond highlights and frequent excursions to Fifth Avenue to indulge her expensive tastes for La Prairie cosmetics, Prada shoes and Gucci bags.
"I had never been a television producer before" Bosnak said. I felt out of my league. I figured if I looked like one of them maybe they will think I am one of them. Shopping gave me that extra boost of confidence."
In debt, jobless
Soon she racked up more than $20,000 in debt on seven credit cards. Then she lost her job.
"I always thought I could make the money and pay it back, that it was manageable, Bosnak said. "It was just a hundred dollars for this or a hundred for that. But it was the hundred dollars on top of the hundred dollars on top of the hundred where I got into trouble."
So Bosnak took charge and stopped charging. She moved to a more modest Brooklyn pied a terre and got a roommate. She trimmed expenses and sold her fashionable wardrobe on eBay.
Then she grabbed her laptop and cyberbegged her way out of a tangled financial web by asking virtual strangers for handouts.
Five months after launching SaveKaryn.com, she paid off her debt. And her misfortune found fame. Publicity led to a book deal which led to a screenplay for a Hollywood version of her story (a smaller town girl falling into deeper debt).
Now Bosnak, 32, focuses on earning interest rather than paying it. She has turned her Web site into a resource for other "financial screw-ups" who send her loads of e-mails seeking advice about how to dig themselves out of debt.
She carries a Discover card, which is not accepted at Bloomingdale's and other upscale department stores. She pays cash for everything. She cuts and colors her own hair. She buys knockoffs.
Bosnak used to spend a lot more money during the holidays, lavishing expensive gifts on family and friends. Now she exchanges gifts only with her family. Her more-frugal sister shops; she splits the cost. She no longer lugs home a Christmas tree or strings holiday lights in her apartment. She didn't even send Christmas cards this year.
But just the sight of a Bloomingdale's display window or the Neiman Marcus online store can stir longing. "I could just see myself getting back into that," Bosnak said. "I have to stay away from these places that I know are bad."
An East Bay member of Debtors Anonymous says she learned how to manage money from her stepmother and father who lived on credit.
"I have lots of memories of sitting in the car as an 11-year-old child, going from one creditor to pay off the other creditor instead of being out playing with my friends," she said. "There was always a lot of anxiety around money. I got used to that and repeated it in my adulthood."
After overcoming her compulsion, she fell off the wagon last year because she allowed herself to use a credit card again. "That was my first drink," she said. "I was not conscious of what I was spending and I overspent."
This year she has set up a budget and plans to pay for everything in cash.