Buzz Bissinger is a shopaholic. In a candid, 6,000-word article in GQ, he detailed his addiction: 81 leather jackets, 75 pairs of boots, 41 pairs of leather pants, and 115 pairs of leather gloves—a buying spree that burned through more than $600,000 in two years.
“I have an addiction,” he wrote. “It isn’t drugs or gambling: I get to keep what I use after I use it. But there are similarities: the futile feeding of the bottomless beast and the unavoidable psychological implications, the immediate hit of the new that feels like an orgasm and the inevitable coming-down.”
On Thursday, Bissinger announced that he was checking himself into rehab for the addiction. In a statement to NBC, he said that he had written the GQ story “because it was the only way I knew of coming to terms and getting the help I am now getting.”
The way Bissinger described his extravagant purchases—which even landed him in the front row of the Gucci men’s show as a special guest of the house—raises the question: is shopping addiction actually real? Isn’t it just a glamorous state of excess—a not-so-unfortunate side effect of being really, really rich?
After all, other victims include Lindsay Lohan, Nicholas Cage, Mary Todd Lincoln—and, some say—possibly Jackie O. and Princess Diana. But according to Dr. Donald Black, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine says, “most compulsive shoppers are not famous, they’re not wealthy. They’re just ordinary people with an unusual problem.”
But experts say compulsive spending is a very real—and serious—addiction. “Compulsive buying is called the smiled-upon addiction because consumption fuels the economy,” says April Lane Benson, author of To Buy or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. “Remember when President Bush said, ‘Mrs. Bush and I want you to go shopping?’ He didn’t say, ‘Go take drugs or go drink.’”
Still, one of the challenges of the disease is fighting the misconception that shopping addiction doesn’t really exist. According to Benson, there is only one reputable treatment center for it (the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery); the much-ballyhooed DSM-5 (the “Bible for insurance providers”) doesn’t acknowledge it; and it’s often overlooked because it’s a behavioral addiction rather than one involving a substance.
“People don’t think it’s a real, serious addiction,” she says. “But it’s a very serious problem.” A 2006 Stanford University study estimated that 5.8 percent of the adult U.S. population are compulsive buyers. Compulsive buyers are generally young, the findings said, and a greater proportion reported incomes of less than $50,000.
Shopping addiction can manifest itself in different ways. In Buzz Bissinger’s case, it involved splurges on high-end luxury goods (mostly Gucci) that he actually wore. But according to Terry Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, shopping addiction isn’t just a high-class problem. As the Stanford study suggests, “shopping addiction can affect people that are relatively impoverished,” he says, explaining that it often stems from “early childhood trauma, abuse, or neglect.”
“A few studies we have suggest that it’s an equal-opportunity mood-changer,” Benson says. “Meaning, it’s throughout the socioeconomic spectrum.”
And shopping addiction comes in several forms. There are the “return-a-holics,” people who buy things only to return them, people who keep things without ever wearing them, and those who buy things for other people.
Like any addiction, the motivations vary. Some people spend to boost their mood, others may buy things to seek revenge on a spouse, others do it, as Benson says, “to put forth an image of wealth and power.” Some people spend compulsively as a diversion from taking some big step in their lives, such as getting a divorce—or to exert control when other aspects of their lives are falling apart.
And, much like the orgasmic feeling Bissinger describes, some just do it for the high. “With any addiction, what [people] are really trying to do is get a feeling,” Shulman says. “A feeling of power, of aliveness—a numbing of pain. It’s about stuffing themselves to fill a void.” Shulman says that shopping addiction “might start out with being attracted to certain items, but it usually turns out the items are meaningless.”
Compulsive spending often goes hand-in-hand with other forms of addiction. “If you look at the other addictions that compulsive shoppers also have, there [sometimes] is compulsive sexual behavior; Internet addiction,” says Black, who has researched shopping addiction for more than 20 years. “They often have compulsive gambling problems too.” Bissinger admitted that his shopping addiction grew out of an exploration of his sexuality and S&M—“I did go into the sexual unknown and the clothing I began to wear routinely gave me the confidence to do it, to transcend the rigid definitions of sexuality and gender,” he said.
Most shopping addicts are female, though technology may be changing that. “Men tend to be called “collectors,” which gives it a high-brow cast,” says Benson. “But studies suggest men are buying more on the Internet than women—and even in such typically female categories such as health and beauty products.”