Shopaholic suffering: Christmas brings crisis for the women addicted to buying happiness

The Duchess of York was one; Imelda Marcos was another while Paula Hamilton, the model and former Volkswagen girl, transformed herself into one and says it saved her life. They are shopaholics, women addicted to the act of shopping who find in conspicuous consumption the satisfaction denied to them in their personal and professional lives.

During the Christmas period, such women - and the vast majority of an estimated 700,000 shopping addicts in Britain are female - are at their most vulnerable. They are caught up in the shopping frenzy which affects us all - but more so. "Christmas and the New Year sales for them is like a red rag to a bull," according to Dr Richard Elliott, an expert on the condition and co-author of a new report. "The self-imposed restraints they use to control their habit are threatened more than at any other time," he says.

The report sheds light on a condition which is widely recognised - its medical name is onomania - but treated as some- thing of a joke. It can be as destructive to individuals and their families as drugs or drink. Most of the purchases are clothes which are often never worn. The average debts of shopping addicts are between pounds 12,000 and pounds 15,000. One woman owed pounds 70,000 after remortgaging her house to fund her habit. The husband of another sued for divorce after she bought 160 pairs of shoes on his credit card.

The first in-depth study of British shopaholics, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and published in full today, says some women attempt to shop their way out of despair and dissatisfaction - albeit temporarily - as an alternative to drinking.

Dr Elliott and Professor Kevin Gournay say that the use of alcohol by men as a mood modifier is "socially acceptable behaviour until it becomes very extreme". However, the same is not true for women. "For wo- men, shopping may provide a socially acceptable alternative to alcohol for mood repair," they write.

Paula Hamilton would agree. She swapped one addiction for another. "I've gone from an alcoholic to a shopaholic," she admitted earlier this year.

In detailed interviews with more than 50 shopping addicts aged from 19 to 74, the researchers found that almost two-thirds shopped to excess because they were depressed - and the cause was usually an unsatisfactory relationship. One in 10 addicts said they shopped to spite their partners because they felt patronised and under- mined in their relationship. The Duchess of York's shopping sprees as she struggled through relationships with two rogue Texan males and an absent Duke, appears to back this finding. In one afternoon she is reported to have blown pounds 50,000 on 12 designer dresses, and pounds 3,000 in an hour on 20 pairs of boots and shoes at a New York boutique. At their peak, her debts were estimated at pounds 3m-5m.

Another tenth of the addicts surveyed said they shopped to give meaning to their lives. These are the "existentialist" shoppers, according to the study, disciples of the "I shop therefore I am" philosophy immortalised by the American artist Barbara Kruger in a seminal piece of work.

"The existential addicts are creating a sense of meaning in their lives through their consumer choices . . ." the report says. "This is not mere pursuit of pleasure, however, but is part of a conscious process of self- development where the individual is seeking to create and maintain an identity which is founded on skilful shopping behaviour."

It is claimed that Imelda Marcos, whose global shopping sprees and hoarded purchases were revealed after the downfall of her husband Ferdinand, President of the Philippines, in 1986, shopped aggres- sively to eradicate her humble origins and the rejection she suffered at the hands of wealthy relatives as a child. It is said that her home was a garage shared with the family car. Shopping to excess reaffirmed her status as First Lady.

In an accompanying postal survey by Dr Elliott and Profes-sor Gournay, fewer than half of 101 shopping addicts said they were happy with their relationship, compared with a 75 per cent satisfaction rating of 282 "normal" consumers. About 40 per cent of addicts had little or no interest in sex and 45 per cent said their sexual relations were unhappy. Comparable figures for normal consumers were 14 per cent and 20 per cent.

Dr Elliott said that the 50 shopping addicts in the main survey came from a range of backgrounds and income, and 45 had an income of their own from a salary, an allowance or savings.

Five were on income support or other benefit. Seven of them said they had been physically, sexually or emotionally abused as children. Nine had suffered a bereavement in the five years preceding the study; 24 were divorced or widowed; 13 had or were currently being treated for depression and four were taking the "feelgood" drug, Prozac.

The one common feature among the group was that they all recognised they were shopping addicts, according to Dr Elliott. "They all to a greater or lesser degree showed the same pattern of anticipation and excitement prior to and during the shopping experience, feelings of guilt and remorse afterwards and a desire to keep their behaviour and goods secret from others." More than 20 of the group said they had experienced worrying levels of debt.

Hooked on the shopping habit

Some of the things said by people who took part in the study included:

"The only way to stop being depressed is to go shopping - but then it only comes back later." Man, 51

"Shopping makes me forget who I am - I feel I can get away from the real me." Woman, 48

I don't think I like myself very much really - except when I am shopping! Then I am in my element." Woman, 30

"It's like time stands still when I'm shopping." Man, 42

"I don't really think about anything when I am shopping - it's just like escaping into my own peaceful and trouble-free world." Woman, 67

"I feel somehow set free - as if I can look at and buy all these things without it mattering." Woman, 33

"I'm aware of where I am - the surroundings and all the beautiful clothes - and nothing else seems to matter." Woman, 41