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‘Spent’: Memoirs of a shopping addict

After her mother’s death, fashion editor and writer Avis Cardella embraced shopping as her drug of choice. The thrill of shopping became addictive, but the remorse she felt was crushing. Here is an excerpt from her new book, “Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict.”
/ Source: TODAY books

After her mother’s death, fashion editor and writer Avis Cardella embraced shopping as her drug of choice. She would buy anything she could to fill the void she felt inside. The thrill of shopping soon became addictive, but the remorse she would feel afterward was crushing. Still, she would spend hours shopping each and every day. As Cardella explains, “I was no longer consuming; I was just being consumed.”

Here is an excerpt from Cardella’s new book, “Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict”:

Barneys, Bergdorf’s, Bloomingdale’sI used shopping to avoid myself. I used shopping to define myself. And at some point, I realized that I was no longer consuming; I was just being consumed. When I stood in the lingerie department of Barneys, flanked by rows of candy-colored Cosabella thongs and Ripcosa tank tops, and couldn’t remember how I got there, I knew I was in trouble.

That was back at the turn of the millennium, when life couldn’t have been better, but when I knew that something was going terribly wrong. Why was I standing in Barneys in a stupor? Why was I buying twenty pairs of underwear?

“Can I help you?” said the salesperson.

“Yes, I want one in every color.”

And then the walk home, the strange feeling of not wanting what I now had: twenty Cosabella thongs wrapped in whisper-thin tissue paper at the bottom of a black Barneys shopping bag.

I returned to my apartment and threw the bag in the back of the closet, where other discarded purchases were already marooned.

But, by all appearances, life was good. I was living in Manhattan and had a career as a freelance writer. I was engaged to a wealthy European businessman, and we had two homes, two cars, and an abundance of friends. My closet was full of beautiful things to wear, and there were all kinds of places to wear them.

It was the late 1990s — the age of “irrational exuberance” — and everyone was irrational; everyone was exuberant; everyone was shopping. Why not me? What could be wrong with that? Shopping almost felt mandatory in Manhattan. Just outside my front door was a veritable candy land: Tiffany’s, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Manolo Blahnik, Bulgari, Takashimaya, Bonwit Teller, Prada, Linda Dresner, Emporio Armani, Tod’s, Nike, Burberry’s — and my three favorite department stores: Barneys, Bergdorf’s, and Bloomingdale’s.

Let me give the geography because junkies are always concerned with logistics: Bergdorf’s was the closest of my beloved retail fixes, about a six-minute walk from the luxury high-rise tower in which I lived. Barneys was next, about a ten-minute walk depending on the route I’d take. Bloomingdale’s could be reached in fifteen minutes at a good clip.

Of the three, Barneys on Madison Avenue was the one I liked best. Barneys was modern, fresh, and white walled. Stepping into Barneys always felt a bit like boarding a spaceship.

Sometimes I felt there was a distinct atmospheric change, a subtle barometric shift that seemed to occur in the small vestibule that led from the street to the store. Consequently, everything for sale at Barneys carried an aura of specialness, even otherworldliness. When I was strolling alone around Barneys, the world outside ceased to exist.

I could spend hours anchored in the shoe department. The salesman knew me by name. I knew his too. John had been selling me shoes for years. We first met when he was working at the downtown Barneys on 17th Street. It goes back that far, perhaps to the late '80s. He was always friendly and seemed to enjoy his job, but what he really wanted to do was bake cookies. I confided that I wanted to become a writer.

This is what happens when you spend a lot of time shopping: You get to know sales associates, and they get to know you. Sometimes you end up receiving handwritten notes in the mail, informing you of the arrival of a new collection or inviting you to a private sale. You get Christmas cards too.

Shopping to avoid myselfAt Bergdorf’s I never knew anybody on the selling floor by name. I liked to float through the store and not speak. I felt intimidated there and slightly out of my league. Pretending to be born and bred Bergdorf’s was something of a private fantasy for me. It must have been a New York thing.

I didn’t enjoy shopping at Bergdorf’s as much as at Barneys, but Bergdorf’s had an air of superiority. Even pushing my way through the heavy, gilded revolving door felt like an initiation rite. Getting my hair cut and colored on the light-filled top floor at the John Barrett Salon was the closest I ever came to feeling like the “real deal”: a Bergdorf blonde.

At Bloomingdale’s I could indulge my most secret self. I had a history at Bloomingdale’s because that is where I had shopped with my mother and where I could always return to dive into the folds of my past. As I came to realize, my shopping habit had deep roots. The memory of shopping with my mother is a touchstone.

I used shopping to avoid myself.

At the end of the 20th century, as the Y2K bug was threatening to sour the big party, as New York’s dot-com bubble was growing and Wall Street mavericks were riding roughshod through town, guns blazing, I was waking up from my big sleep, my stupor, my sidestepping grief.

Who was I?

I was a woman living in Manhattan. I was a creature with a cultivated appearance. Everything about me was carefully calibrated. Tips and cues were dictated by the pages of fashion magazines; I tried to follow them meticulously. My regimen included Pilates classes, yoga, and core fusion. The resulting body was taut and toned, rope muscled and fine. My skin also was polished and buffed like a brand-new automobile; it caught the light and glowed. This was the expensive appearance, the shopper’s appearance, because shopping was an essential part of the lifestyle. If you didn’t look the part, the sales associates wouldn’t take you seriously. It was the acceptable appearance, because on any given day, as the sun came slanting down New York’s grid of corridors, hundreds of women who looked just like me could be seen scampering to and fro clutching shopping bags.

Looking back, I realize that I must have joined that team as a sleepwalker. At the time, I had no recollection of how I got there. I only know that I awoke one day to find my closet filled with the right kinds of suits — Prada, Armani, Calvin Klein, Jil Sander — and the right kinds of shoes with heart-stabbing heels, the type that made my legs look just right, like magic. (It’s all about illusion.) And in my bathroom cabinet, there were the right kinds of creams: the Laszlo Night Serum, the Crème de la Mer, the regenerating fluid, the Clinique soap, the vitamin C rejuvenating gel, the whitening toothpaste, and the amino acids with strange-sounding names.

I awoke one day with the realization that the only way I could have acquired all these accoutrements of the cultivated appearance was by having shopped for them. Therefore, I must have been shopping for a very long time.

Purchasing impulsively, mindlesslySo that is how, one glorious, sunny Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in Barneys and couldn’t remember how I got there. Where I should have been was home finishing a story about the fashion photographer Michael Thompson. I had interviewed Thompson at a downtown studio where he was photographing Halle Berry for Revlon. It was my prize interview, hard-won from the clutches of another writer. But now the story was overdue, and I ... well, I was standing awestruck in the lingerie department.

I was staring at the Cosabella panties.

There must have been twenty colors or even more. There were so many delectable colors: Tang orange, bubble gum pink, grape, lemon, Astroturf green, lipstick red, fuchsia, lavender, blush, and café au lait. Some Ripcosa tank tops in white and black were dangling from a railing just above the panties, and I asked for three of those. “Two in black and one in white, please.”

Thongs and tanks — an army of undies surrounded me. There were also brassieres and bustiers, camisoles and cotton pajama tops, satin lounging robes and silk tap pants. And it was all there to be bought. I was there to buy. That’s where I was when I should have been at home working.

I watched as the salesperson carefully checked the label of each pair of panties, and I felt as if a helium balloon was being inflated inside my head. It took up the space where my brain was supposed to be. I could have floated to the ceiling and stayed there for an eternity, hovering above the lingerie department, because I felt a kind of high at the thought of purchasing all those panties.

But as I walked home that day, I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. I only knew that I was slipping. It was impossible to imagine how far the slide would be or how hard the landing. I definitely didn’t know where it would end. I only knew that I had started to experience something troubling and inexplicable.

What was this shopping itch that had begun to appear with regularity? It was like an alien being that tapped into my psyche and told me to stop everything I was doing in order to shop. Even though shopping was a routine part of my life, this itch felt different. It demanded to be scratched. When the itch would return, the only thing to relieve it was a purchase. I had begun to shop like someone on autopilot, purchasing impulsively, mindlessly. These shopping episodes were followed by regret and sadness — sometimes so profound that I couldn’t breathe, as if something heavy had settled on my chest and couldn’t be moved.

I had loved shopping since I was a young girl. What could be wrong with shopping? When I was in my teens, it hardly seemed possible that something as pleasurable, as innocuous — one of the most ordinary of pastimes — could wreak havoc with my life.

When I got home that day, I opened my closet door and was confronted with the contents. There were my beautiful suits, my columns of cashmere sweaters, stacks of T-shirts and summer dresses. Everything was in its place. But at the back of the closet, there was a growing pile of unopened shopping bags. One bag contained a $500 denim jacket; another had three pairs of yoga pants. I threw in the glossy black bag from Barneys and shut the door.

Shopping was my escape, my friend, my balm, my release, my pacifier, my pleasure, my secret, my pastime, my kill time, my fantasy, my reality, my recreation, my therapy, my drug, my stimulant, my lover, my memory, my link with the past, my trip to the future.

Was it also my addiction?

Excerpted with permission from “Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict” by Avis Cardella (Little, Brown and Company, 2010).