While Hollywood plays it for laughs in "Confessions of a Shopaholic," compulsive buying is serious trouble for millions.
Becky Bloomwood has a closet filled to overflowing. In the movie "Confessions of a Shopaholic," opening Friday, she's always laden with sacks from high-end department stores. She has the newest "it" bag and shoes, and she can't afford any of it. Becky's drowning in debt.
Of course, this all plays out in a Hollywood reality, where Becky (played by Isla Fisher) wakes up, realizes her heels are in way too deep and fixes her life, easy as pie.
But compulsive shoppers are far more common -- and less glamorous -- than you might think. Legions of "shopaholics" like Becky incur millions in credit card debt each year; some soak countless tissues on TV talk shows.
As many as 25 million Americans are shopaholics, according to the Journal of Consumer Research. And while the recession may force some to curtail their spending, for others the plentiful discounts available now make shopping even more irresistible.
Shopaholism is diagnosed as an impulse-control disorder, much like kleptomania or obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can be an outlet for depression, seasonal affective disorder or loneliness.
"Many people shop because of problems with depression or anxiety," said Dr. Jon Grant, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "The hypothesis is that people are psychologically and biologically primed for a range of addictive disorders. For some, that's drug and alcohol addiction, and for others it is addictive behavior."
In some cases, shopaholism stems from an obsession with conspicuous consumption. It can also serve as a fantasy fulfiller, helping the buyer feel like a different person.
Compulsive shoppers often suffer from something called "escape theory," said Ronald Faber, a professor of mass communication and advertising at the U who has worked extensively on the subject.
He likens it to extreme perfectionism: Compulsive buyers, he says, "internalize negativity to an incredibly high extent. Nobody can go around feeling these horrible feelings for so long, so you look for an escape."
They find that escape in shopping, where they "get so focused on the buying episode that they're able to block out all other thoughts."
Left unchecked, compulsive shopping can lead to a vicious spending circle.
A problem for both sexes
Although women are more likely to cite shopping as a recreational activity, shopaholism affects both sexes. Males are far more likely to shop online or at auctions, according to a 2006 Stanford University study.
Like any addiction, it can be treated. April Lane Benson, a New York psychologist and author of "To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop," created a 12-week program to curb overshopping via self-examination.
Overshopping is like any other sort of addiction, she said: "Low self-esteem and a lack of self-acceptance are at the root of it."
Grant says he treats shopaholics with "fairly frequent individual therapy" and occasionally with medication to quell the urge to spend.
Some may feel that releasing "Confessions of a Shopaholic" in these turbulent economic times is in poor taste. Why would a worried public care about a woman racking up thousands of dollars on her American Express? Producer Jerry Bruckheimer argues for the story's redemptive quality: Becky tries to pay off her debts after realizing there's more to life than labels.
So will the recession be a trigger to help shopaholics stop?
Faber is a fatalist: "Compulsive buyers basically keep going even in the face of financial problems. What it might do is get people into problems earlier ... get them into legal or financial trouble."
Benson is more hopeful. "Some, because sales are so incredible, are doing it more and actually feeling more shame about it because now is the time to tighten your belt," she said. "Other people are using the economic downturn as an aid in stopping. They don't feel so alone anymore because so many other people have to cut back."
Kara Nesvig is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.