How I Broke Out of Mania and the Cycle of Compulsive Spending


I always seemed to have a funny relationship to money, and being a compulsive spender with bipolar disorder doesn’t make it any easier. From a very early age, I always thought if I had money, I had to spend it. My belief was quite simple, I should be able to spend money on me because, wasn’t I worth it? Compulsive spending seemed to be one of the things that could provide any small piece of relief from the way I was feeling — especially in a manic phase. Once I was earning my own money as an adult, my justification became simpler. I believed since I took care of everyone else in my life — and financially I did — whatever money was left over was mine to spend on me. And I would spend all of it.

Ever since I can remember, this is what would happen. I would get a thought — usually irrational — that would turn into a full-blown obsession. If I just bought that “thing,” whatever it was, I believed it would “fix” me. But usually, I couldn’t buy just one because to me, more equated to better. I would amass a collection of that “thing” in different colors and perhaps with different features. Once I had completed the collection, a curious phenomenon always set in. The euphoria of the buying binge would dissipate, and the deep hole in the center of my body would just ache in a complete disconnect from the flow of life. When the spree was over, I’d have to sell what I had collected because I couldn’t stand having it around. After all, buying that particular thing didn’t work. It didn’t fill the hole.

The spree almost always was followed by some prolonged period of depression. Eventually, the idea that some new thing could fill the hole would come along, and I’d be off on a new manic obsession. The mindset that would precede my buying sprees was quite subtle. I wouldn’t consider the financial consequence of the spree in light of the unrealistic reason that this particular “thing,” would fix me. The cycle was: obsess, spend, deflate, sell, repeat.

And my spending was marked by great secrecy. Those close to me never knew how much I spent. Deep down, I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, and I knew they wouldn’t approve. Over the years, the severity of the cycle of depression and mania grew, and I ultimately became suicidal and started self-injuring. I opened up to my therapist about this, and looking back, I realize this was the start of my recovery. He suggested depression is really anger turned inward, and I must be one really angry guy to want to hurt myself that way. Working with him, I committed myself to a psychiatric hospital. I stabilized while I was there, and I emerged with a new doctor, a new bipolar disorder diagnosis, and a whole new set of medications.

It wasn’t long after I got out that a new obsession took hold. My financial life was out of control, and that’s when someone suggested I go to a 12-step program for money issues. I went and began to relate to those who borrowed, to those who spent and to those who were “self-debting” by giving more than they had to give. I saw this was me, taking care of others at my own expense — in other words, self-debting. I had done this all my life. What I didn’t know is by not taking care of myself, I really couldn’t do a good job of taking care of others even though that’s what I convinced myself I was doing financially.

My final spending spree ruined me financially, and I found I was getting angrier by the minute. Why couldn’t I find that magic thing that would fix me? I wanted someone to say, “Go to the corner of Main and Elm. On the brick building, there is a red button. Push it and everything will be OK.” A man came up to me after a 12-step meeting where I was venting that the program didn’t work for me. I didn’t acknowledge I wasn’t really doing what was suggested to recover. He suggested that I try being willing to just to be willing to do the work to recover. I heard the message that day.Willingness to change my beliefs and behavior was all it took to get into healing. Most importantly, when I started feeling that obsession to spend, I reached out to people and talked about it. What an amazing tool to relieve the power of obsession. By telling someone else what was going on with me, it diminished its hold on me. I believe we’re only as sick as our secrets, and manic, compulsive spending was a big secret for me.

In that program I learned tools, tools to manage my financial life and the compulsion to spend. I track my income and expenses on virtually a daily basis and have clarity on my spending through a spending plan. I don’t keep credit cards handy, and I turn my online financial affairs over to someone I trust so I don’t have ready access to money when I’m obsessing. I talk with people before I make unusual purchases so I have a checks and balances system. I don’t keep secrets. It’s hard to fool those who know my condition the way I can fool myself. That’s why I talk it out.  These are all part of my larger wellness plan to manage my bipolar condition.

Sometimes I get angry that I have to do so much to be in recovery. It takes a lot of energy to fend off the obsession and behavior I honed over years of misguided practice. I just have to remember this work is much easier than being in the throes of a manic, compulsive spending spree. By staying open with my recovery team, I hope I don’t forget this.

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Thinkstock photo via Ryan McVay.

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