Narcotics Anonymous Way of Life

~ 2012 Form ~

Compulsive Spending

We use the term retail therapy to describe the rush we feel when we spend money recklessly. This is different from hurting a spouse or buying someone's affection and loyalty. While the term may seem humorous, we know all too well that money is a mood-changing substance for many of us. Our disease may use this humor in an effort to diminish the seriousness of the problem. It may be helpful to give some examples of this symptom as we have experienced it. An addict says, "I feel unloved so I think buying a present for myself would be nice." This is not a bad thing as long as it does not result in spending money that one needs for living expenses or providing for our dependents. If it crosses the line by hurting us or someone else, we need to learn to identify it as a symptom of our disease. It enhances our state while savaging our finances and our personal reputation.

Another sign of the illness might be getting more than one item of something whether necessary or not. An addict recalls, "I remember that when I found a comfortable pair of shoes, I would buy a pair of each color in the store." We may tell ourselves, "I worked hard this week and I deserve to have fun but I barely have rent money." The impulse to spend what we have to make us feel better is another example of this symptom. Some of us go to the opposite extreme and refuse to spend any money on ourselves because we feel unworthy.

Many other things may involve spending money and yet not be ‘retail therapy.’ When we buy a gift because someone may submit to our will out of indebtedness, it is not retail therapy. This act is a mere attempt to purchase favor rather than a kindness. We rationalize this kind of spending as love instead of control. Since the goods involved can easily seem to be gifts, we need to be honest with ourselves. Some gift giving is actually an attempt to purchase from others what we think we need. The opposite end of the spectrum is that some of us are cautious about accepting gifts is because we fear unspecified indebtedness. Sometimes the gift may call for far more than a simple ‘thank you.’

Overspending like all the symptoms of addiction is a form of entrapment. It is just like using drugs when we said, "I know better than to do what I'm doing, yet I go right ahead and do it anyway." We easily see that we're doing something against our will. Mimicking retail therapy, buying forms of special treatment may be just as wrong. Dishonesty, in any form, has a price. There usually is no rush or thrill that we associate with addiction.

One addict shared, "I grew up with my mother overspending for years and knew well the results on the family. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't become a ‘shop-a-holic.’ This promise has led me to the other extreme. I hate to shop at all. It is a task to go to the grocery store. Today, because I see this symptom in my life I can choose to behave differently.

"I want to live as normally as possible in the world today so I try practical solutions. Once a month, I buy myself something unnecessary like nail polish or a hat. Today, I can go to the drugstore, I don't have to ‘buy junk’ to distract myself from looking at the over-the-counter medications. Once a month, I just go shopping (the 99 cent stores are wonderful) and I buy as much as I can tote home for $20, and not have the guilt of spending too much. Today when I go to the grocery store, I avoid some problems by making a list and not impulse buying."

As with any symptom of addiction, the illusion of ‘personal power’ that money gives us is pervasive and convincing. Only the hollow, empty feeling of not enough warns us that we are in trouble. This disease forces us to do something against our true nature. We can not get what we want by buying material things in vain and futile effort to create a spiritual reality for ourselves. Happiness is spiritual fitness. We attempt of validate our disease when we make shiny toys and needless goods our goal. Our personal illusion that we can control of our world and lives makes these fantasies seem like possible realities. If we are not vigilant, we soon find that we live in the center of an expensive fantasy that removes us from the care of God. The progression of the disease results in denial of our spiritual needs. It tells us that 'plenty' will make it better but we find ourselves in a sickening plenty. It is no accident that we make the association between things and pleasure. If the flood of product advertisements has its desired effect and addiction is in the mixture, we are in trouble. For some of us, the nifty trigger of ‘buying happiness’ becomes the target of our obsession.

Giving to induce someone's compliance is a form of financial tyranny, manipulation and enslavement. The perpetrator is more enslaved than the person forced to act against their will - at least they can rebel! Addiction tells us that at least the victim has a chance of escape or can surrender their desire to eliminate the attraction. From childhood forward, it is instilled in us that we need and want the best and most. Ad campaigns will be sure to keep this illusion in place. This is an extremely difficult belief to alter. In recovery, we learn not to spend all of our money on payday. We learn to manage and control our shopping in time. As we have our spiritual needs satisfied in other ways, some of our obsessions just dry up and seemingly disappear.

As we become humble, we find that we don't want to continue using these ‘expensive substitutes’ in our feeble effort to find contentment. We may experiment with waiting until we have 'made the decision to buy' several times over several days before actually spending the money. This delay can be an area of exploration for us. We may find we still get what we want. Other times, we will find ourselves saying, "Heck, no! I don't really want that junk. I'll keep my money for something better!" Better is worth the wait.

Repeatedly our addiction tells us that we have control over how we feel therefore buying becomes an obsession with the ‘quick fix’, which we know will never last. The destructive guilt is right behind this compulsive behavior and steals what we were looking for in the first place. Things can not make us feel good or better about ourselves, any more than drugs did. We work on ourselves with the Steps to find the happiness we seek. We work the Steps and find ourselves. We find that the need to seek for things to make us happy disappears in the light of reality.

An addict shared: "Learning the value of keeping my hunger, anger, loneliness, and fatigue under surveillance taught me that my feelings or perceptions rarely met reality or my needs. I learned that eating regularly and more wisely helped stave off what I thought were cravings for drugs but were really hunger pangs. Later, walking through the mall, I recognized that buying a new sweater would not provide nourishment for my growing spirit. This realization resulted in a new awareness that matched the strength of this symptom of my disease. Further, I realized that all these and all the other feelings generated by my disease as evidence of real problems are actually just empties (my term). It's my choice, once I expose my rationalizations, to see the empties as a function of imbalance (the goal being balance) or as opportunities - a feeling of health and striving to create a whole me.

"I have learned a lot about ‘I don't know’ and ‘I changed my mind’ in this arena. I learned to pause and make a decision based on real information, not impulse. And, if information changes, to return something for cash to redeposit to my spiritual account."

Most of us have listened to our disease whisper, "If I only had this or that, then I'd be okay. Relating this in meetings can arouse empathy in those who have experienced this symptom of addiction. It may have taken us quite some time to realize that the problem with this logic is that the store doesn't stock what we really need. Many of us have the memory of having a temper tantrum to get a new toy. We also recall that as soon as we got it, we started looking for the next toy and were unable to enjoy what we had. Today, the excitement and thrill of owning new toys is short-lived and un-fulfilling. At some point, we make the connection in our consciousness that we felt exactly the same way before we put the drugs down. This awareness allows us to begin to practice the principles of recovery on this symptom. Change your mind, change your life.

A member shared: "I rationalize to myself that I can afford to overspend and buy happiness. I also deserve to have some rewards for the hard work I have done in NA. Isn't personal gain OK? I have a hard time drawing the line. I tend to live in one extreme or the other. To what extent is my phone bill healthy? I do need others and want to be a part of NA as a whole. Where do I draw the line? What is healthy dependence and what is self-destructive behavior? I remember deluding myself into thinking that my life was manageable if I limited myself only to cheap and legal drugs, which I could afford. Because of Narcotics Anonymous, I know that I cannot buy happiness."

All of us have found ourselves in the awkward position of realizing that once the drugs are gone, our addiction breaks out in all other areas of our life. Although they have been present for some time, addictive behavior suddenly becomes visible. We know that one of the directions that our disease can take is telling us that if we spend money, we can change our moods. In early recovery, worldly concerns occupy much of our conscious mind and we can't seem to think of anything else. As recovery progresses, we will improve in this area as well.

We must continue to tell ourselves that no matter how much material or credit we get, it won't increase our feelings of well-being or self-worth. Living a spiritual life of recovery requires that we stop substituting symbols or labels for the real thing. Accumulating goods and wielding financial power may only make us feel more burdened and less able to respond to our spiritual impulses. Balance is our goal. Self-destructive feelings force us into illogical ways of thinking and doing that actually release our addiction that comes out in new symptoms. One of these apparently is in the concept that the compulsive wasting of money purchasing goods as a way of changing moods will make us feel better. Self-destructive means it will hurt someone. It may hurt us, those we love or innocent bystanders.

An addict shared: "What happens is, I tell myself I'll simply go to the mall and look around. I won't buy anything, so much for good intentions. Then my disease rationalizes as follows: this is something I need - besides I can afford it. I'll just be good to myself for once. At the same time that I know this, I feel like I need flashy things so that you'll like me. You will look at me and say, ‘Oh, wow, nice shoes; I gotta get to know that guy.’ The contradiction is that I have no space for superficiality in my life today. What is the antidote for retail therapy? Fellowshipping, practicing abstinence, and changing habits. Needless spending makes me feel so worthless and such a loser. I don't need or have to feel that way today.

"The bottom line is that I'm trying to stuff things into a void in my soul that I can't possibly fill with material things. The lie is that the new car, house, stereo, baseball card, or clothes, etc. will finally be the plug for that empty, spacious void."

The disease wants us to believe that we can more easily acquire the lives we want for ourselves by from the outside inward. Sometimes, it tells us that for us to feel better, we must look good. Even after we get clean and work the Steps, many of us struggle with this twisted concept. We may even go after material possessions and call them ‘rewards of the program’ while justifying our continuous state of disbelief. The power of the Twelve Steps changes who we are not simply the external circumstances of our lives. We must be clear about this because this mistake might kill us. The ‘change’ of recovery is internal and shines through our exteriors. If we want our lives to change, we have to change our lives. Some of us may have misinterpreted ‘leaving the past behind’ to mean that nothing we have is good enough for us anymore and that we must find a brand new us. Many times, we overspend believing that we deserve more than we can afford. At some point, we wonder, "Do my possessions define who I am? Or can I define the things around me through the growing force of my recovery?"


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Reprinted from the 
Narcotics Anonymous Way of Life, 
Traditions War: a pathway to peace,
The Spirit of NA 
or NA Twenty Plus

being edited on this site.

Copyright © December 1998
Victor Hugo Sewell, Jr.

NA Foundation Group
6685 Bobby John Road Atlanta, GA 30349 USA


All rights reserved. This draft may be copied by members of Narcotics Anonymous for the purpose of writing input for future drafts, enhancing the recovery of NA members and for the general welfare of the Narcotics Anonymous Fellowship as a whole. The use of an individual name is simply a registration requirement of the Library of Congress and not a departure from the spirit or letter of the Pledge, Preface or Introduction of this book. Any reproduction by individuals or organizations outside the Fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous is prohibited. Any reproduction of this document for personal or corporate monetary gain is prohibited.