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While a Boon to Retailers, Compulsive Spenders Face Addictions

October 1, 1989

NEW (AP) _ At last count a woman had 187 belts crammed into closets and stuffed into drawers, most of them never worn and hardly even looked at.

A man thinks only the most expensive exercise bicycle will help enhance his physique, never mind that he already owns a battery of body-building equipment that he doesn’t use.

Such people are compulsive spending addicts and therapists at a New York psychiatric treatment center take the affliction as seriously as the problems of alcoholics and drug abusers.

″They think that owning things makes them feel better,″ says Dr. Francesca Kress, director of psychological assessment at the Hapworth Centers, located an easy browsing distance from the city’s Fifth Avenue shopping mecca.

″As their lives become more and more of a disaster, they will treat themselves to something they can’t afford,″ says Dr. Kress, adding that maybe at the back of a buying fanatic’s mind is the thought ″Mommy and Daddy gave me presents and it made me feel better.″

Not everyone who occasionally splurges suffers from the addiction, but people who use shopping to salve troubled minds might need help.

″When material objects are used as a way to assuage feelings of discomfort, there’s a problem,″ according to Dr. Kress, who treats addicts at Hapworth’s compulsive spending addiction program.

From bargain hunters who scour discount outlets to well-heeled patrons of chic boutiques who think it’s beneath them to buy anything on sale, compulsive spending addiction takes many forms.

A person might develop the syndrome for any number of reasons.

There’s the case of a patient who, as a child, was given gifts when being told of divorce plans. The parents planted the mistaken notion that presents make difficulties go away or at least make distress easier to bear, which might have caused abnormal spending desires when the child grew up, Dr. Kress suggests.

″Rather than deal with a problem they think that they can go out and buy something to make themselves feel better,″ says Dr. Kress.

The phenomenon of people living beyond their means or being obsessed with possessions probably has been around as long as people have. Cultures that revere wealth have turned the acquisition habit into an accepted measure of self-worth and personal success.

In modern times, explosive growth in credit card ownership has made it easier for people to indulge their spending passions.

The powerful pull of plastic has cast credit-card-carrying consumers adrift in a sea of debt. Groups like New York-based Budget & Credit Counseling Services Inc. have sprung up to help consumers get their heads back above water and keep them there.

The New York budget-counseling office is one of more than 400 offices nationwide affiliated with the non-profit Maryland-based National Foundation for Consumer Credit.

The need for such services probably has intensified in recent years, due to the legacy of the self-indulgent 1970s Me Decade. In the 1980s, a period of prolonged economic growth has put money into people’s pockets while the you- can-have-it-all yuppie attitude has meant money didn’t burn many holes there.

″In our societies we’re terribly materialistic - especially in America,″ points out Dr. Kress. ″We believe there’s a God-given right to acquire, to be capitalistic. It’s almost a holy thing.″

Hapworth’s compulsive spending treatment program is one of several that the medical and psychiatric facility provides. It also runs specialized programs for people addicted to alcohol, drugs and tobacco or people with eating disorders. In addition to addicts, it treats patients seeking help with sexual dysfunctions, stress, depression and other problems.

A 90-minute behavior evaluation costs $150 and Hapworth charges $90 for a private behavior therapy session and $50 for group therapy. The center says most insurance companies cover its compulsive spending addiction program.

Besides helping patients stick to a budget and break the credit-card habit, Hapworth seeks to get to the root of their problems. Sometimes the sense of loss associated with giving up another habit, such as smoking, drinking or drug use, leads troubled people to seek solace in shopping.

In simple terms, a woman fixated on belts might be subconsciously seeking to restrain herself. A man who can’t do without the latest high-tech sports gadgetry might be trying to buy youth or a good body in compensation for some perceived failing.

Typically, compulsive spending addicts plan sprees with great longing and go into almost hypnotic trances or feel out of control while shopping, Dr. Kress says.

To control spending while being treated for the addiction, Hapworth has numerous do’s and don’t’s for patients such as:

-Never shop alone.

-Never use credit cards.

-Always use cash if possible.

-Stick to shopping lists.

-Don’t keep purchases a secret.

-Return or give to charity any duplicate items you own.

The addiction affects rich and poor, but wealthy people don’t wind up in financial difficulty unless they really go overboard.

Both women and men suffer from uncontrollable spending urges contrary to the TV sitcom stereotype of the dizzy female going ga-ga over sales.

″We’re trying to point out that this is not something frivolous. It’s a serious problem that no one takes seriously,″ Dr. Kress says.

But not everyone should automatically feel guilty about shopping.

Dr. Kress says: ″I’m not anti-materialism; it’s fine to like beautiful things. When you use it to avoid your feelings that’s when it becomes a problem.″

End Adv Sunday Oct. 1

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