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Christmas a Sore Trial for Compulsive Shoppers

December 7, 1986

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) _ Evan Steffens doesn’t smile when she sees ″Shop ’Til You Drop″ sweatshirts or ″When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping″ bumper stickers.

″I find that really offensive,″ says the counselor at Miami Valley Hospital. ″It’s not cute anymore.″

Not when every other Wednesday she has a room full of people trying to cope with a disease - compulsive shopping - that Ms. Steffens says is as serious as alcoholism or compulsive gambling.

It is a disease up to half of us suffer in varying degrees, although men are less likely to be forced to admit it, she says.

And this is the worst time of year for the fledgling Shopper Stoppers program, the time when holiday bells likely are attached to cash registers.

″They’re going to have to plan their Christmas shopping like they would plan World War III,″ Ms. Steffens said of her patients.

On a recent Wednesday night, nine women gathered at the hospital to share their experiences and a little gallows humor. Each serves as another’s listening post and moral supporter.

One woman who asked the penalty if she missed a session was told, ″You get to pay my next (department store) bill.″ Another said she never had to worry about staying fit, ″I was racing around the malls so much.″

A third said she realized her trouble and threw away her credit cards. ″But that didn’t help because then I just got ahold of his (her husband’s) cards. It was a vicious circle,″ she said.

Nancy McKee and Jerri Kiesler were part of that vicious circle early this year when they admitted themselves to the hospital’s psychiatric wing, suffering severe depression.

They founded Shopper Stoppers after hearing of a similar group in California.

″I’ve known it consciously for 10 years, although it’s probably gone on longer than that,″ Mrs. McKee said. ″But everyone I talked to would say, ’That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. If you don’t want to go shopping, don’t go shopping.‴

Mrs. McKee, 40, who worked as a medical assistant, estimated she spent at least half of her family’s combined income of about $39,000 a year in impulse buying, much of it on food. She said she has been ″clean″ for two months.

Like any compulsive disorder, such shopping is not easy to stop, Ms. Steffens said. At the root is the person’s poor self-image and a perception they have been neglected or denied, she said.

She lists 10 questions people can ask themselves, saying that if a person answers yes to more than three of the following, they probably should consider seeking help:

1. Are you within $100 of your credit limit on all of your credit cards?

2. Do you juggle your bills, paying some on time and some after their due date?

3. Do you make only the minimum payment on your revolving credit cards, thereby incurring substantial interest charges each month?

4. Do you hide new purchases from your partner?

5. Do you buy new clothes but fail to wear them for weeks or months at a time?

6. Do you frequently throw out clothes you’ve never worn?

7. Do you feel anxious on days when you don’t go shopping?

8. Are you unable to enter a store without buying something, even if it isn’t what you were looking for?

9. Do you put off meetings with friends because you prefer to go shopping?

10. Do you feel others would be horrified if they knew of your spending habits?

″I was trying to get approval by the way I looked,″ Mrs. Kiesler said.

She said her clothes-buying binges dated from the time of her first job when she was 16.

″You get high. You get a real rush; you get a sense of power,″ Mrs. McKee said. ″You’re in the store standing next to someone wearing a Rolex watch and a mink coat and buying Oleg Cassini perfume, and you think, ‘I can do that, too,’ and you whip out the MasterCard.″

Later, she said, ″You get hit with this tremendous rush of anxiety and guilt. Panic sets in.″

Other eras had materialism, but not the ease of credit cards and a generation expecting immediately to have the lifestyle their parents may have taken years to build, Ms. Steffens said.

Common signs of compulsive shopping are the inability to control debt and a fear the bills will be found by a spouse or partner, Ms. Steffens said.

Mrs. McKee and Mrs. Kiesler, who was an office manager, said both had their own credit cards and had bills sent to their offices to hide them from their husbands.

Ms. Steffens predicted more compulsive shoppers will be discovered as banks and stores tighten credit and start referring people to credit counselors. There is no cure, just control, she said.

Mrs. McKee now channels her shopping energy into doing things around the house. ″I have an aversion to stores now,″ she said. She is on a $35 weekly grocery budget, ″and it’s killing me.″

Mrs. Kiesler said her husband, a reformed alcoholic, helped her adjust, but she still remembers going into a clothes store after leaving the hospital.

″I broke out in a cold sweat while trying on the slacks,″ she said. ″I just had to get out of that store, and when I did, I was fine.″

End Adv Weekend Editions Dec. 6-7

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