My Ex-Vice: Shopping
A habit that helped curate a life I wanted, but had no idea how to attain.
My Ex-Vice is a series that explores the things that can challenge us most – the bad habits, temptations, and dependencies – and how we understand them in order to overcome them.
Let me be perfectly clear: I will never stop shopping. I will never ignore a good bargain, will always be up for the mall, and will justify thrifting under almost any circumstance. Last night, despite being on a strict budget (because being a freelancer means waiting on paychecks until we’re all dead) and with a coupon in tow, I descended on a local thrift store and scored five tops for a little over $20. My ability to shop well is as much a skill as it is a coping mechanism. I can never, ever fully quit it.
And I don’t intend to. At least not this version of it. Years ago, my shopping looked a bit different. As a tween and a high schooler, I spent money as quickly as I made it, ringing my part-time fast food and retail jobs out for as much as I could, before moving on to something that paid just a little bit better (and afforded me another Roxy t-shirt). I assumed saving happened later or happened naturally; part of a slow transition to being responsible and adult and ordering salad at restaurants because you liked it. And I was far from this life stage as a teen. Evidently, I remained just as far from it in my twenties, when shopping became less something I did because I enjoyed it, and more because it granted me the illusion of control.
Which is what vices do best. Despite being taught by my Nana, my aunts, and my mom that expensive things don’t equate to something well-made or that simply roaming the mall can be an outing in and of itself, I began using the accumulation of things as a balm for my increasing unhappiness. While my friends went to university and college and moved on to full-time jobs, I found myself confronting the result of the bad choices (skipping too much school, failing twelfth grade, dropping out of college after finally getting in) that eventually led to me repeating twelfth grade again at an adult learning centre, before re-applying to university at 22. And nothing made me feel like a woman with intention and vision and the ability to achieve her dreams like new clothes, new shoes, and new whatever-I-could-find-that-looked-cute. Shopping proved to me that despite my history of messing up, I could find pieces that garnered compliments and masked how I was feeling inside. And, if I could find something egregiously on sale, I was even more of a success story: not only did I have an eye for clothes that looked great, I could outsmart the system by scoring them for less.
"Shopping proved to me that despite my history of messing up, I could find pieces that garnered compliments and masked how I was feeling inside"
Of course, the more unhappy I became (first in school, then when living in a tiny Toronto apartment and earning next-to-nothing as a writer while battling mental illness and addiction), the more the acquisition of new stuff began to mean. Shopping became intertwined with a form of magical thinking as I went on to spend money I didn’t have on scented candles (which I believed would help keep me balanced), clothes (which I thought would fool people I didn’t like into thinking I had my shit together), and homeware (which I had no room for, but thought would make my apartment feel like home, instead of what it actually was: somewhere I cried in all the time).
I used my Visa for most things and spent what was left of my line of credit on everything else. I was desperate for new items to usher in a new start, or a break from the failure of a person I felt tethered to. So desperate, that even after moving home to get help and closer to people who loved me, I didn’t stop. A new dress would usher in a new era. Another book (I wouldn’t read – I already had dozens that I had yet to make my way through) would occupy my time enough that I wouldn’t have to face the realities of a long road ahead. I shopped to escape, and to try and curate a life I wanted, but had no idea how to actually attain. It became my answer to problems, to arguments, and ironically, to late checks. It was what I fell back on when I needed something I knew would always be there. I could justify buying almost anything.
"I was desperate for new items to usher in a new start, or a break from the failure of a person I felt tethered to"
To be honest (as someone with an addictive personality who wants to be honest), I don’t have an aha moment to tell you about. I’ve learned my lesson, but only insofar that I was forced to. I stopped shopping so much in my late 20s and 30s largely because I didn’t have a choice: I had to pay down at least some of my debt (not all, because let’s be serious: I’m not exactly the poster child for fiscal responsibility), I had to learn to budget a little bit, thanks to rent, and I began to earn more as a freelancer. This gave me a little more room to shop when I wanted, but thanks to therapy, I’d come to learn that magical thinking was an indicator of a bigger problem, and a thinly veiled bandaid solution that would never truly solve me. A candle was never going to fix my mistakes. A new shirt would not mask the feeling that things were falling apart when life dealt me a difficult hand.
"I don’t have an aha moment to tell you about. I’ve learned my lesson, but only insofar that I was forced to"
But, that said, when I have reasons to shop or enough extra income to justify it, I will gladly still descend on the mall. I will pick up what I need and want, and feel great when they’re on sale, feeling the thrill of achievement. But that’s the thing: what I need has come to outweigh what I want. I’ll notice what a bargain a marked down sweatshirt may be, but then remember that I have umpteen waiting for me to wear back at home. I’ll fawn over a new spring collection of pastel sweatpants, but then remind myself that I have enough for now, and I’ve come to the mall to buy socks. I’ll stop before buying to ask if what I’m purchasing is something I genuinely like and want, or a means to reboot myself. I’ll even walk around the mall, window shopping, without buying anything at all, just happy to clock steps and check out what everybody’s wearing these days. I shop now because it’s something I have fun doing, but safe with the knowledge that it will not bring order to my life. It will not make me happy. It is not a support system, nor a way to find happiness.
But it’s certainly fun to thrift five tops for $20.
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