When my students and I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one line—spoken by the murderous creature to Victor Frankenstein—always gives me a cold chill:
“Slave … You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!”
Each year, I tell my class, “This is such an apt personification of addiction. What starts as a small habit, seemingly under our control, quickly morphs into a monster that takes complete control of our lives.”
I speak from very painful, very personal experience.
Decades ago, when my clutter collecting craze was in full swing, I exhibited many classic signs of addiction.
- Inability to Stop. I made up elaborate budgeting spreadsheets. I put cash in envelopes. But every single time I promised myself, “I’m done buying so much stuff!” I’d see something else and make an exception, “Just this once.”
- Withdrawal Symptoms. I cut up and canceled credit cards. Then, as my anxiety level would rise and I couldn’t calm myself by running out for a quick shopping spree, I’d open new accounts.
- Social Sacrifices. The more stuff took over our home, the less space there was for people. We quit inviting friends and family over because there was no room for them to stay. Or, eventually, even sit.
- Solitude. I never shopped with friends. Going on a buying binge had one purpose: to give me my fix, for which I wanted no witnesses.
- Secrecy. I hid my purchases from my husband, and he had no idea how many credit cards “we” had. He was clueless to the extent of my possession obsession.
- Supply Maintenance. I stockpiled food, toiletries, gifts for upcoming holidays. I started numerous businesses and ordered tons of inventory. Buying these things gave me a thrill. So did storing and counting it all.
- Increasingly High Doses. Just as a drug addict needs larger and larger amounts to experience the “high,” I needed to spend more and more, purchasing bigger and better things, to feel the buying buzz.
- Risky Behavior. I “stole from Peter to pay Paul” regularly, paying bills just in the nick of time to avoid being charged late fees, having utilities shut off, defaulting on loans.
- Financial Difficulties. Our checking account balance was typically so low, I had to call the bank each day to find out how much (if anything) was available for groceries. We ultimately ended up in bankruptcy court.
- Relational Difficulties. When my husband discovered how bad things had gotten, he felt completely betrayed. The bankruptcy process was deeply humiliating for him.
If some of these sound scarily familiar, here are four things I want anyone wrestling with possession obsession to know:
1 — It’s not your fault.
Slinging blame and wallowing in guilt serve no constructive purpose. Facing the facts and taking personal responsibility do. And the most responsible thing you can do is ask for help. Starting now.
2 — You’re not alone.
Shame depends on secrecy; addiction thrives in isolation. When you reach out to those who can help and support you, shame’s power breaks and addiction’s grip loosens. You need accountability, both for individual recovery and for financial recovery.
3 — It’s not too late.
The enemy of your soul says, “You’re beyond all hope!” It’s a lie.
In Romans 7:19-25, the apostle Paul chronicles this vivid description of addiction: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
And reminds you of the hope that is always available to you:
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
4 — Yes, you can.
You can address the core issues that trigger your spending sprees and clutter collections. For me, it came down to a combination of “buying to become” and “never enough” syndrome. Over time, I retrained my brain to disconnect my identity from my possessions, and to revel in gratitude for what I already have.
You can find healthy ways to settle the everyday ordinary problems that a possession obsession promises—but utterly fails—to solve. I’d turned pretty much any “negative” emotion into an excuse to spend: sadness, anger, loneliness, and boredom all lifted (albeit temporarily) with a bit of “retail therapy.”
It took time to develop new self-soothing strategies. Over several months, I built a list of my Favorite Free Ways to Feel Better Fast (which you can download at the end of this article!)
You can develop safe systems for making necessary purchases. I always take a list when heading to Safeway or Target. My husband and I pre-plan major purchases. Whenever something catches my eye, I have a pre-decided wait time (yes, even if it’s on sale.)
I write it on my wish list and set a calendar reminder for a week away. Nine times out of ten, when the alert pops up, I think to myself, “I was going to spend how much for that?!?”
If you feel trapped in possession obsession right now, please know that I understand.
And please hear the truth: Your stuff doesn’t have to morph into a monster that enslaves you.
You can do the brave work to break free. You can learn to master your spending and storing habits so that your stuff serves you, not the other way around.
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Cheri Gregory is the co-author, with Kathi Lipp, of The Cure for the Perfect Life and the upcoming Overwhelmed. Her goal is to equip women to relate and create with less drama, more delight. Connect with Cheri on Facebook and at www.CheriGregory.com.