Addicts told Barbara Rhode they couldn't stop sticking needles into their veins, and the licensed psychotherapist told them to find out why.
Be still with the pain, she said. Write in a journal. Talk to someone. The healing comes faster that way.
Then each day, she went home to a struggle that few might have expected.
She realized last Christmas that she was addicted to shopping, which seemed hypocritical in her line of work and went against her environmental ideals.
She and her husband shared one car, bought secondhand rugs and used air-conditioning only at bedtime.
Rhode, 53, shopped at thrift and discount retail stores and even used recycled paper to wrap Christmas presents.
But last year, she put 78 of them under the tree.
Her husband's disturbed reaction to the pile of presents opened her eyes and showed her the sum of her addiction.
• • •
She denied it at first.
Though she had recently seen a movie, The Story of Stuff, about America's wasteful consumer habits, she never viewed herself as part of the problem.
But she took inventory. In her closet, price tags dangled from garments she had never worn. She bought clothes that didn't fit because they were good buys.
She felt like a good mom when she found her daughter a blouse on sale. She routinely stopped into Marshalls or Chico's every few days.
She never went into debt but occasionally dipped into a shared fund set aside for household expenses without telling her spouse.
She paused introspectively and realized shopping smoothed over the disagreements in her marriage. It picked her up when work brought sad tales of rape, abuse or drug use. Buying things made her forget about the patients she lost to breast cancer, lymphoma and suicide.
"I hadn't even realized this was a form of self-medicating," Rhode said.
She thinks shopping became an ally when, at 16, she noticed other girls frequenting boutiques while her family shopped at Sears. Her father drove public buses and her mother sometimes wore housedresses and hair curlers to the pizza parlor.
Rhode would glance at teen magazines and measure herself against the models. She didn't feel pretty. But buying things always seemed to help.
Then, as an adult, she turned to new clothes and shoes to divert people's eyes from graying roots or emerging wrinkles.
• • •
She told her husband she wouldn't buy anything for herself for a year, sounding like one of her clients making an unrealistic, premature vow to quit a habit.
Perhaps shopping answered her primitive urge to gather, he cautioned.
Be reasonable, he said.
But Rhode quit cold turkey. No last splurge. No counseling.
Now she buys only food and necessities.
She still feels pangs driving by big sale signs in store windows. She pouted over skipping seaside shops on vacation. She floated excuses to cheat, and her husband torpedoed them.
These days, she's become more aware of mindless consumption. She deals directly with her emotions. She took up Pilates and began enjoying long chats on a back porch.
She's learned to live with what she has.
"I think I like myself a little better this way," she said. "I think I let go of something that was a little bit more of my shallow traits, I hope, and I think I'm more comfortable in my own skin because of this."
She's carried the same purse for two months. She polished old sandals she kept on the back porch and put them back into use. She learned to wear clothes she had banished because they bore tiny stains. She decided it's okay to be less than perfect.
She's cleaned out her closet. Gone is the stuff she didn't need.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]