It's 6am on a Wednesday and I’m manically stuffing my seventh bag of shopping into my classroom cupboard. Only a few more frantic trips to the boot of my car and my daily morning ritual will be complete. There’s at least £3,500 worth of late-night online purchases in this load alone.
I’m hiding the packages from my husband in the comprehensive secondary school I’m the headteacher at. It’s only a matter of time before this secret grows too big for any school hall to shelter.
Yes, I’m having a financial affair with a myriad of online lovers. Whether it’s a Zara trench coat (in all three colourways, just in case) or the latest Ganni boots, it’s hard to explain the visceral need I feel to own them. I’m never not thinking about my next purchase. I scroll shopping websites absentmindedly like other people scroll Instagram. Once I get an item in my mind, I will obsess over it until it’s mine. Just one more order can’t hurt, right?
Most people think they have a shopping addiction. A big Black Friday blow-out or an irresponsible payday purchase and everyone seems to chastise themselves for being ‘out of control’. But out of control is deleting emails and texts, as if from a lover, to hide them from your husband. Out of control is contriving situations where your family need to leave the house, so you can bring in stashed garments from under car seats without being detected.
I’m not just talking about a cheeky £200 order here and there. I’m simply not satisfied unless I’m splashing thousands at a time. It’s indiscriminate clicking and I can’t stop searching for the thrill of the thrift. At one point, I ordered £4,000 shoes and vintage Prada bags from Farfetch in five different colours. I reasoned with myself that I’d send some back, but of course, I didn’t.
So, how did I come to collect clothes like a greedy squirrel gathering nuts for winter? I guess, like most addictions, things started off small. I’ve always been adept at spending money, and even when I got my headteacher’s salary, it took a while for me to become financially ‘comfortable’, before having kids.
There’s something to be said for growing up poor and realising later in life that you’ll probably always have a career and a stable income. I remember walking through some market stalls as a child and asking my mum if I could have a hot chocolate. The sickly-sweet smell of it stays with me even now. My mum said that greedy girls didn’t get any Christmas presents and that I wasn’t to ask for anything I didn’t need. I guess that old fashioned mantra for materialism just taught me it felt horrible to starve my soul of the things I longed for. It’s sent me full circle to the point I’m only interested in spending my money on unnecessary luxury items.
Rewind to a few months ago and my idea of always being able to rely on my paycheck didn’t actually check out. A re-drafting of the leadership structure at my secondary school post-Covid meant that I was out the door, and according to the board, there was nothing I could do. That’s when I spiralled even further out of control. I always told myself that my money management issues would have to be, well, managed differently should I ever lose my job. But what was once a boredom-meets-procrastination impulse to gratify myself at the click of a button, soon became my relied-upon internet tonic during a tumultuous period of lies and deceit.
I didn’t tell my husband about losing my job. I continued to pretend to go to work every day for two months, ignoring the emails and notifications about overdue payments and unpaid Klarna debts. I felt physically sick, day in, day out, from the guilt.
The dread and fear reached its crescendo about three months ago and I could barely breathe any more with the anxiety of it all. I was staring at my children, knowing how much I’d disappoint them with what I’d done. I had to tell my husband.
The panic on his face, when I explained just how bad things had become, made me more stricken with fear than I’ve ever been. I felt uprooted. It was like walking down the stairs and missing a step, that intense moment before you know how you’re going to land, before you know whether you’re going to be alright.
He used words like ‘betrayal’ and ‘disloyalty’ so much I felt dizzy, and all in front of our three children. Watching my teenage son try to protect his younger siblings from the emotional chaos– by reading them stories in bed and sheltering them from the shouting – was the biggest dagger to my heart of all. I’m a 55-year-old woman and my 15-year-old boy is doing a better job of protecting our family than I’ve found myself capable of doing.
In total, we have nearly £60,000 worth of debt to pay off. My husband’s parents helped to bail us out of some of the interest, but coming from two low income backgrounds has meant that even in their 80s, neither of our families are able to clear my financial conscience entirely. After selling all our cars – except the one we planned to give our son for his 17th birthday – selling our family campervan and pawning some of my jewellery, we’re still nowhere near close to paying the debts off.
We’ve had to tell the kids that this year we’re all making each other Christmas presents, under the pretence of being kinder to the planet. They seem to believe that less than they believe in Father Christmas himself. The look on their faces when I told them that their Christmas lists were unrealistic was among the lowest points of the last six months; closely followed by the look on my husband’s face as he comforted them about that ferociously un-festive news.
Since going to therapy, the tides have somewhat turned on my insidious internet impulses, and – for the most part – I manage to sleep a little easier at night. I haven’t escaped the guilt and will likely never evade the debt for as long as I live. Yet still, despite learning more about how to ‘recognise my triggers’, ‘walk away from my laptop when emotional’ and ‘weigh up the pros and cons of each purchase’, I still itch for that delicious ‘complete checkout’ dopamine hit. My husband has said he’ll leave me if I do it again and I believe him. I just don’t trust that I won’t. Forever is a daunting time frame. Just one more order can’t hurt, right?
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