MS made me sensitive about my appearance. Buying things made me feel better — temporarily.
Although I did my best to unsubscribe from marketing emails, a steady stream appeared in my inbox this spring.
“Hey, Ashley! Ruffled Pencil Skirt Just Dropped in Price!”
“Discover a New You with the Styles You Love!”
“Refresh Your Summer Wardrobe with a Hot Deal!”
The good news is that I have a bulk delete tool that allows me to erase a whole screen of unwanted emails at one time. After quickly trashing these messages, I turned to a page in my journal. “I love my body,” I had written. “I am so fortunate to have it. It allows me to do so much.”
I’ve been writing about my body for so long that some of my entries are a little corny: “I can bathe my dog. I can hang up my laundry on the line. I can twirl around in a swing and feel the breeze on my legs.”
I also write about the intangible parts of me, qualities beyond the body: “I love my newfound spirituality. I love my curiosity for new words. I love the fact that I can make a new friend with a simple ‘Hello.’”
Reading — and recalling — these affirmations helped me resist the temptation to console myself about my multiple sclerosis (MS) by buying things I don’t need — and in some cases, don’t even want.
At age 31, my career in public relations had just taken off when my right leg suddenly began to drag. This strange symptom — one I would later learn was part of my diagnosis of MS — was followed by burning pains in my back, weakness in all of my limbs, and blindness in my left eye.
Because my worst symptoms went away after an infusion of a powerful steroid known as solumedrol (the only medication that worked for me at the time), I was diagnosed with a form of MS known as relapsing-remitting MS.
The on-again, off-again nature of my disease meant that, in between exacerbations, I could pretend there was nothing wrong with me. As a result, it took me more than a year to accept my condition.
While I loved my job, it required frequent contact with others, including meetings and on-camera interviews with the media. This made me even more sensitive about my appearance. While a new medication eventually helped prevent my disease from significantly worsening, some of my symptoms never went away, such as a wobbly gait, a lagging right leg, and fatigue.
It was paramount, back in those days, that I looked like everyone else. So during lunch breaks, I shopped, shopped, and shopped, sometimes spending as much as $500 each month. Surely the latest Ann Taylor suit or new shade of lip gloss would alleviate my distress, right?
No. Oh no.
These new acquisitions didn’t come close to addressing the real problem — my own insecurities.
According to Tim Kasser, PhD, in an article for the American Psychological Association, “Compulsive consumption is when a person feels unable to control the desire to consume, often because she or he is trying to fill some emptiness or overcome anxiety.”
By this definition, I absolutely qualified as a textbook example of a compulsive consumer. Fortunately, after talking with therapists and doing my own research on the topic, I learned to identify triggers that led to my compulsive shopping behavior.
These triggers included being embarrassed about a bad stumble in front of people, seeing a magazine cover with an image of a healthy and beautiful woman, and having to turn down a social invitation due to my fatigue. All of these incidents made me itch to feel better about myself right away, and they led to purchasing things I truly didn’t need.
“This behavior is like putting a bandage on a cut without cleaning it,” says Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW. “Over time, it may heal, but you also run the risk of infection. Instead, you need to take the time to nurture, heal, and cure your cut.”
“The same thing applies to compulsive spending and poor body image,” Suarez-Angelino explains. “Once you discover the connection between the two, you need to start addressing both so that you see an improvement in these areas.”
I eventually reined in my shopping impulses, but I will always have to be on guard for the triggers that cause me to go overboard. I’ve also developed a quick checklist of actions that continue to help me. These might be of use to you, too.
As soon as you recognize you’re about to enter a downward spiral of excessive shopping, step away for a minute. Breathe. Focus. Ask yourself exactly what is happening. Do you really need another blouse by Michael Kors? Maybe you do, and this is legitimate, but maybe you don’t.
In my case, I reached the point where I had so many blouses, I couldn’t wear them all. And I had important bills to pay. Most of the time, I used shopping as a bandage, to camouflage an insecurity.
Override the negative thoughts that may be leading to your shopping impulse with positive ones.
“In my experience, poor body image is rooted in negative feelings and past experiences that have ‘confirmed’ these beliefs,” says Suarez-Angelino. “I recommend that my clients work to re-write these narratives in a way that is warm and supportive. I suggest journaling your current narrative surrounding body image and then as you begin to rewrite your narrative, journal those thoughts as well.”
Keeping a journal is the best way I’ve found to imprint healing affirmations in my head. Make it a practice to write daily what you like about your body. At the same time, remember that you are so much more than your physical presence. Make a list of internal qualities that make you uniquely you, such as your creativity, kindness, or bravery.
Keeping a running list of all of these things in your head, on your phone, or on an index card in your purse will help you feel better before reaching for your credit card.
Limit your exposure to media messages and images that reinforce poor body image. As a former marketer, I should have been immune to words primed to generate an action. But I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else, whether it’s a magazine cover, email message, or commercial.
The great thing about a DVR is that I don’t have to wade through countless messages that interrupt my favorite TV shows. Now I just fast-forward through them.
When working in an office, I should have gone to lunch with my co-workers rather than skipping off to the mall alone. I may be retired from my office job, but now as a freelance writer, I still spend many hours in front of the computer.
This danger became compounded for me and so many other people during the pandemic, says Suarez-Angelino. “The limited socialization leads to feelings of isolation, thus perpetuating the cycle of loneliness and excessive spending for the sake of seeking comfort and safety.”
Now, I take regular breaks away from the computer, and I enjoy simple activities, such as eating lunch with my husband.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that there are so many other things than shopping that fulfill me: walking my dog, gathering roses to share with my neighbor, re-reading my favorite Jane Kenyon poems — the list goes on and on. These distractions not only deter my shopping, but they also enhance my life.
These days, I have a new favorite word: susurrus. It means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling,” and in my mind, it sounds just like the wind. Repeating the word instantly revives my soul, and reminds me of things, like nature, that can’t be bought but can be enjoyed for free.
Medically reviewed on June 29, 2022
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