Life Well Spent
Spending and stealing can have powerful addictive pulls, but there is hope for total recovery.
By Mary Sauer
For Susan B., getting out of debt wasn’t as simple as sitting down and creating a budget or cutting unnecessary expenses. Before she could make any changes that would stick, she needed to address her biggest problem: She was addicted to spending.
“If I wanted something, I bought it. It didn’t matter how I got it. The spending was only a way to get what I wanted,” she confessed “I literally feel like I will die if I don’t get it right now.”
Susan found Debtors Anonymous for the first time in 1999, and she paid off $22,000 in credit card debt by working the program. After she paid off that debt, she made the mistake of believing she had all the answers, so she left the program.
“I thought…I’ll be able to handle this,” she explained. Less than a decade later, Susan was in debt again and this time it was much worse. In 2009, when her son was enrolling in college, she was forced to reevaluate her finances. If she was going to be able to help her son with the expenses associated with his schooling, something had to change.
“I was now nearly $34,000 in debt. I can’t even tell you what it was spent on. It was nothing big. Really, it was pretty much self-centered spending.” She admits self-deception played a large role in how she ended up back in debt.
On the brink of a meltdown, Susan sought out the counsel of a close friend who was in recovery for an unrelated addiction. This conversation led her to begin participating in Debtors Anonymous again after almost a decade. This time, her approach was different. There were no meetings near her, so she was able to participate in Debtors Anonymous over the phone.
First, she had to let go of her credit cards, which provided a lot of security for her. “What if there’s an emergency?” she said. “That’s the big excuse to keep the credits cards. It’s like, I have a drink sitting right in front of me.”
When she was able to cut up her credit cards and begin vigorously working the program, things really began to change for her. The key to success for Susan, just like many participants in Debtors Anonymous, was committing in writing how she planned to spend every dollar of her income. And then, every day, she called her sponsor to give an honest account of what she spent. There are many in the program who are able to commit to a budget and work the principles of the program without having to go to the extreme of calling their sponsor every day, but Susan admits she needed that level of accountability in order to succeed.
“I am such a gutter-level drunk with money. I can’t be trusted to my own devices, and I need a lot of rigor to be able to manage [my addiction].”
One year after beginning to work the program, Susan became disabled. Even with her significantly decreased income, she continued working the program and managed to pay off $29,000 of her credit card debt.
Living with a disability required Susan to adjust her expectations for what her life would look like in recovery. Living within her means has been the only way she has been able to avoid incurring any unsecured debt since her illness required her to leave her job.
In order to maintain her sobriety, Susan uses the same rigorous approach she has used since day one of her recovery: every day, she calls her sponsor to discuss her spending plan for the day and review her spending from the day before. She uses phone meetings to stay connect with Debtors Anonymous.
“I feel I am blessed with a full, rich life in recovery despite my disability,” she says. Susan says that prayer and meditation, living with gratitude, and spending time with family are the cornerstones of living well. She fills her days by both participating in and volunteering with Debtors Anonymous. She writes regularly on her recovery focused blog, Getting Out from Going Under, which provides an outlet for her and a way for her to give back to the program.
“Due to my disability, I also found my creative voice. In my old life, I would only engage in creative endeavors if I thought I could make money from it,” she explains. “Now, I have discovered the joy in creating for its own sake.”
“For today, I am willing to live within my means and to feel the pain of saying no to myself when necessary,” Susan says. “I cannot advise anyone. What I can do is share my experience, strength and hope with others who suffer with this disease.”
This desire to share hope with other compulsive spenders led her to author the book, Getting Out from Going Under, a guide to recovery for compulsive debtors and spenders. The daily reader is filled with 366 tips and inspirational writings that Susan hopes will motivate recovering compulsive spenders to devote themselves to their recovery.
Susan believes it is imperative that recovering compulsive spenders master the art of the spending plan to achieve relief from the disease. In her book, she offers a lot of instructions on the nuts and bolts of spending plans.
“Many of us are terrified of looking directly at our money and debt, so the idea of developing and maintaining a spending plan can make newcomers feel paralyzed and overwhelmed,” she says. “But overcoming that fear is crucial to the physical part of recovering from compulsive debting and spending”
Terrance Shulman was also inspired by his own struggles with addiction, which led him to devote his life to sharing the hope of recovery as a therapist specializing in compulsive shoplifting, spending and hoarding.
“The realm that I work in is the realm of stuff: whether people are buying stuff, whether they’re stealing stuff, whether they’re hoarding stuff,” he says. “It’s really not about the stuff, per say. It’s about the effect it gives them.”
Shulman’s addiction to shoplifting began when he was 18 years old and continued for nearly ten years. Meanwhile, he was living a secret life, hiding his shoplifting from everyone in his life. At 25, while he was in law school, it became clear to him that his shoplifting had become an addiction.
“I kind of hit the proverbial bottom in my own addiction. I had two arrests, and I finally admitted to myself that I had a problem. Thus, began the long road to recovery.”
Understanding his behavior was an addiction was the first step in taking his recovery seriously. Shulman began seeing a therapist regularly and was prescribed a medication to address his compulsive shoplifting behavior. He discovered there was no support group for shoplifting addictions in Metro Detroit, where he was living. Because of this, he founded his own support group called C.A.S.A, which stands for Kleptomaniac and Shoplifters Anonymous.
Early in his recovery, Shulman felt compelled to leave his career as an attorney behind. He re-enrolled in school and got his Master’s in Social Work in 1997. Right out of school, he spent seven years working at a chemical addiction clinic in Detroit.
“It was a good way to get my feet wet,” he explained, “But after about seven years, I really got burnt out. It was very stressful work and I had this desire to eventually be in my own practice.”
Inspired by his own recovery, it occurred to Shulman that he could start a private practiced devoted primarily to treatment of addictive stealing. During his time working with shoplifting addicts, he found a very interesting link with addictive shopping.
“In some cases, they would start out as a shopaholic, max out the credit cards, and then turn to shoplifting or employee theft as a way of getting what they wanted,” he explains. “And some of my clients, with shoplifting as their primary addiction, it became clear to me that they were at a heightened risk of going into stores, whipping out the plastic and transferring addictions from shoplifting to shopping.”
This connection, along with a general interest in understanding the factors leading individuals to overspending and shoplifting, led him to learn everything he could about compulsive overspending. He read books, attended conferences and took classes. What he found was there was not a lot of help available for these specific addictive behaviors, so he rebranded his practice to include treatment of spending addictions.
C.A.S.A., the support group he founded when he first began his recovery, has grown to include eight groups in Michigan and 15 groups around the United States. Today, Shulman continues to attend C.A.S.A. meetings regularly and participates in the group’s online emailed-based support group. Both are habits that have become an integral part of maintaining his sobriety.
In addition to attending C.A.S.A. meetings and seeing a therapist periodically, Shulman has committed to making daily choices that encourage his wellness and sobriety. He continues to take a prescribed medication, exercises regularly and talks honestly with close friends about his recovery.
The steps Shulman takes for himself are the same he encourages for others who are in recovery for compulsive spending or shoplifting. From the start, he encourages honest conversations with trustworthy friends and family, admitting to the problem and sharing practical ways they can support you in your recovery. Since there are not many Shopaholics meetings in the states, Shulman suggests compulsive spenders find a Debtors Anonymous group to attend regularly.
“Often people are going to want to try other stuff first, but usually they are going to need therapy,” says Shulman, who strongly believes that compulsive shoplifters should seek out someone who specializes in treating their specific addiction.
“Unfortunately, most [therapists] don’t really know how to work with this. They simplify it and say ‘Oh, everybody shops a little bit, just cut of your credit card,’” he explains. “Even though addictions are ultimately pretty similar, there are specialized addiction treatments.”
To learn more about Susan’s journey in recovery, and to find out how you can get a copy of Getting out from Going Under, visit her blog gettingoutfromgoingunder.wordpress.com. For more information about Terrance Shulman and the services offered at The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding visit TheShulmanCenter.com.