cw: money, mental illness, addiction
It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?
Somewhere in the belongings I inherited after my abuela’s death last summer, there’s a photo I can see so clearly in my head. It’s of my mom the day before she gave birth to me; she’s sitting by a fountain at Coral Square Mall, two weeks past her due date and sipping on a lemonade with shopping bags around her feet. My dad took it as he anxiously followed her around the mall. She had called the doctor that morning, December 26th, to read him the riot act.
“You told me that this baby would be out weeks ago, early December even, with how big it was measuring.” She sat on a stool in the kitchen as she talked on the phone; the doctor called back during the holidays knowing my mom was the kind of patient who would have called his answering service nonstop until she heard back from him.
“You’re coming in tomorrow and we will induce if you haven’t started having contractions.” My dad could hear the doctor’s exhausted voice as he puttered around the kitchen. “Why don’t you try going for a walk?”
“A walk is the last thing I want to do right now but I do have some gifts to return at the mall so I’ll do that, thanks.”
She hung up and saw my dad’s horrified face at the thought that she was going to the mall the day after Christmas while well past her due date. Like the doctor, he knew better than to try and stop her so he went with her just to make sure she was ok. She returned baby clothes she didn’t like or had multiples of at The Children’s Place. She returned maternity pants she had never gotten around to wearing at Lord & Taylor’s. She exchanged a black cordless phone my grandparents had gotten my parents for Christmas for the white version at Burdines. Soon it seemed like this activity was working because she had to take breaks for contractions.
My dad hovered nervously like a hummingbird and carried the shopping bags. When he took that photo of her, she had just finished a contraction he was timing; only 8 minutes since the last one.
“Ok, time to go to the hospital,” he said, stretching out his hand to my mom.
“No, I’m fine.” She waved his hand away. “I have to pick up that print for the nursery from the framer.”
“That’s on the other end of the mall!” He was frustrated but my mom was already standing up. He picked up the shopping bags and followed her as she walked towards the framing store.
She made it and got the framed print (clowns, for some reason) just in time for her strongest contraction yet. My dad helped her sit on a chair the framer brought out from behind the front desk; taking the frame wrapped in brown paper and setting it aside, my dad held my mom’s hands as she went through the contraction. Meanwhile the framer called security to bring a wheelchair for this pregnant woman which appeared in just a few minutes. My dad and the framer helped my mom into the wheeelchair as she frantically looked around her.
“Don’t forget all my stuff!”
My dad got my mom to the hospital and after a long complicated delivery, I was born in the wee hours of December 28th, 1986. Not one shopping bag was lost.
I wasn’t just almost born in a mall, I grew up in one too. Neither of my parents ever worked in a mall but it was a huge part of our lives as it was for so many American families. In the suburban sprawl of South Florida, the mall was the town square, the center of things. We shopped there, we strolled there, we got treats at the food court—my dance studio even did performances there. It seems so strange, especially now when a pandemic has made in person shopping even rarer, but it was such a part of regular life to just go to the mall, even just to go with no real purpose in mind.
I remember how excited I would be to go to the mall with the women in my family. I would love to watch them pick clothes off the racks and have the salesperson “start a fitting room” so they could try them on. I liked when they would come out of the fitting room in something new, especially when it was just the right outfit. I was patient through this process but easily distracted; I’d always end up in the middle of a circular clothing rack, holding my arms out when someone shopping would turn it, letting the fabric sweep over my hands. I’d stay there until eventually my mom would realize I was gone and start calling my name.
My family wasn’t rich by any means and there were times when I was so aware of how much we had or didn’t have but the mall was a place we didn’t really talk about that. I don’t know whether my family’s love language had always been buying and giving things, but by the time they were solidly living in 80s and 90s America, it was the language living in the US had taught them best. Christmas mornings were abundant not just for me, the only kid, but for everyone. Opening gifts took us 2-3 hours of handing out and unwrapping; we once lost our dog in the sea of wrapping paper. This is how my family has always said I love you, even when it wasn’t the best idea, especially when feeling like they weren’t as good as their white neighbors.
Despite being generationally and personally different, my mom and my aunt both bought completely into the consumerism of the 80s and 90s. My mom was constantly trying to feel adequate, to feel accepted, by her adopted culture and so she was never content with what she had. My aunt was fully integrated into American culture but had never known the word “no” from her parents or sister who shielded her from their immigrant experience. Despite the one incident at Disney, or maybe because of it, my family rarely refused me anything I wanted. Everything was shrouded in secrecy in my family, especially with money; thinking back, I’m not sure how they afforded everything they bought. Because I didn’t really understand our financial situation and I never really faced anything disappointing in a material sense, I only learned to self soothe through material goods.
When my mom was upset or stressed or anxious or depressed, she would take me to the mall. We would go into our favorite stores and pick everything we wanted to try on. My mom would buy everything that looked good on us, not just in the color we tried on but every color they sold it in. I would watch her sign a credit card receipt, take the shopping bags, and visibly relax, riding a little wave of dopamine with each purchase. Over time, this became my coping mechanism as well. I felt the hit when we would go to a toy store or a book store or Claire’s and I’d leave with something new. I’d take it home and be excited about it for a while. Eventually I’d set it aside and feel myself almost deflate a little; luckily by that point, my mom usually also felt this way and it was back to the mall. Nobody seemed to wonder why my mom, this woman with a family, a good job, a home, would spend and spend and spend but things seemed ok. After all, they looked ok.
My parents’ marriage ended with the saddest whimper imaginable: bankruptcy. My dad’s credit eventually bounced back as he tended to be frugal despite looking the other way for years at my mom’s spending; my mom’s never did. She cashed out her 401k to keep spending and my college fund to buy a mototcycle she rode once before selling at a loss. When money and credit ran out for significant purchases, she turned to alcohol. When she didn’t have enough money for that, she stole from me, my grandparents, her friends. She died without a cent to her name five years ago. Her closet was full of clothes she never even took the tags off of.
I never wanted my mom’s demons but I didn’t entirely understand what they really were until much later in my life. I avoided alcohol and drugs because I was terrified of that road. I didn’t think about spending money or shopping as a problem; it only really became one after my mom died. My husband and I were in a car crash about a month after her death, an accident that still seems like something I watched in a movie. Our car was totalled and my insurance company soon mailed me a check for what it was worth: approximately six grand. We planned to use some of it to go on vacation and I was going to use some on a new laptop. I bought the laptop and in a few weeks’ time, the money was gone—on what, I still really have no idea. Nothing memorable or important. It was the first time I really disappointed my husband and I felt horrible; I also had no idea why I was doing what I was doing.
I kept spending money in more and more compulsive ways. I got into collecting enamel pins and I spent hundreds, probably over a thousand dollars, on buying pins. I bought makeup and clothes I never wore, books I never read, meals I ate in a fugue state. I hid what I was doing from Ian, maintaining a precarious balance in my home. I had my own credit card with a low limit and I maxed it out and paid it off in a vicious cycle of needing to get what I wanted to feel something. Online shopping provided a double hit the mall hadn’t given me; one rush when I made the purchase, another when it arrived. I told Ian I had cancelled the card only to have kept it open.
Things escalated in late 2017 when Ian was diagnosed with cancer. This shattered me to the point where even after he survived surgery and the doctor told us he got clear margins and everything looked good, I was panicked every single day. Ian would leave to go to the office or to the grocery store or to a friend’s place and I’d start having intrusive thoughts that I couldn’t be this lucky, that Ian would get hit by a car or someone would push him in front of a subway train or he would just drop dead. I couldn’t stop thinking about my husband dying and losing him, I was paralyzed. The only thing I knew that would ease the panic was buying things and that’s what I did.
I secretly applied and was approved for a credit card with a $5000 limit and I began shopping: clothes, makeup, books, kitchen stuff, concert tickets, snacks, meals, bubble tea, ubers, random things. I was working from home while Ian was at the office and packages would arrive all day long. I’d open them, panicked about getting caught, about how to explain this all, and began hiding the things I bought along with taking out all of the packaging directly to the trash behind our building. Drawers were full of things I had no idea how to even begin to use and wear; it was too much. I was in hell. My panic attacks hadn’t even stopped. I was exhausted. I was so ashamed.
I don’t remember how Ian found out. Maybe there was a package that showed up while he was home. Maybe I broke down. Either way, it all came out and it was the hardest thing we’ve ever dealt with in our marriage. We didn’t even know where to start. I started going to a support group for people with shopping addictions. I opened up about this in therapy. I paid off the secret credit card in just a few months. I can’t say I’ve never made mistakes with spending again but it has been very different. I see it now for what it is: an addiction, an unhealthy coping mechanism, a way to release the chemicals in my brain: to feel better, to feel alive, to feel something at all. The right meds helped, therapy helped, learning how to not rely on material things helped.
I still struggle sometimes with the urge to shop, for that rush of serotonin, that hit of dopamine. I was worried living through a pandemic would push me back into it but I saw how much progress I’d made and it stopped me. Not because I don’t want things but because I can see now that you can’t cure yourself with what made you sick in the first place; consumption is an ouroboros without the alchemy of rebirth, a fantasy that “western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”1 We will all still die no matter how much we have; consumption will not save us.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? ↩