Original Publication: New York Woman – November, 1987
Betty Ford, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, Carrie Fischer, Kitty Dukakis, Patty Duke. From Valium to vomiting, so many celebrities have disclosed so much addiction that few would bat an eyelash today if Mother Teresa suddenly announced she’d checked into a Delhi detox center because she was hooked on Himalayan hash. But despite this glut of star freaking, has anyone yet dare confess publicly, “I’m a compulsive debtor. I must never go near plastic again. If you see me at Bergdorf’s, Barneys or Bendel’s, please call my facilitator.”
The answer is no, of course not. In reality though, consumer debt in the U.S. is staggeringly high and savings are shockingly low. Nevertheless, admitting that you are worse than broke is simply not done. “People can talk about drugs or alcohol a lot more easily,” says a thirty-two-year-old woman whose shopping sprees left her $10,000 in debt. “If you tell people you are out of control with your credit cards, that you have problems with money, that’s failure. It’s a real taboo. People think you can’t handle your life.”
People, of course, spend for endless emotional and illogical reasons: to keep up with the Boeskys, to be big shots, to alleviate insecurity, to buy love and fulfill fantasies. Last year a Washington pyschoanalyst, Douglas LaBier, published the results of a seven-year study of 250 “troubled winners” aged twenty-five to forty-seven in a book called Modern Madness: The Emotional Fallout of Success. In it he noted that people often use aimless consumption as an antidote for spiritual emptiness – a void resulting from the modern dilemma of feeling there’s nothing worth believing in but yourself and your own attainments.
Especially in success-crazed New York, where appearances do count and the cost of living is sky-high, there is great temptation to drift into indebtedness. “New York is very seductive – the clothes, the clubs, the beautiful people,” says a twenty-seven-year-old television program executive who once owed $9,000. “Most of us don’t have the money but we want to look as if we do, and it gets us into trouble. I had no concept of how much I was spending. I just kept going to the bank machine and pulling the cash out.
After all, when rent consumes half your paycheck, what could be easier than dining out every night on your credit card since you can’t afford food and $45 jars of Laszlo? If your lonely or depressed, it’s great to use Saturdays to shop until you drop. All your friends go to these fabulous places. No problem. Take out a personal loan for a trip to Tokyo, or better yet, finance your kid’s private tuition with funds fronted by Visa. Alas, the bills always come due, and many people find they are inordinately strapped. Pressure from debts not only distracts from daily work and robs sleep, it can also make home life utterly miserable. “I got so frantic I just went to the phone book and looked up ‘debt,’” says the television executive. “There it was – I first heard of Debtors Anonymous in the phone book.”
Debtors Anonymous, a ten-year-old national organization, is thriving in New York these days. It’s the haven for those with the money disease, the people who click off when the cash register kicks in – not only for the last of the big-time spenders but for tightwads terrified of letting money go (labeled “anorexic spenders”). In the materialistic Eighties, Debtors Anonymous has also begun to cater to women who fifteen years ago might have joined NOW, those with low self-esteem having a hard time making ends meet – who define themselves as “under earners.” They use DA to raise their consciousness so they can become more assertive and raise their paychecks. “I call them prosperity mongers,” scoffs one male group leader. “Where is it written that everyone should own a co-op?”
Whatever the category, members of Debtors Anyonymous all display some type of dysfunction with money, often stemming from their childhoods. Some had parents who were either compulsive spenders or would never dream of paying cash for anything. Many financial anorexics come from homes of ne’er-do-wells who lived beyond their means and scared the daylights out of their kids forever. Not surprisingly, many DA members are also “cross-addicted” and participate in Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous or Al-Anon.
The goal of Debtors Anonymous is to keep members solvent, free from unsecured debt. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, DA’s twelve-step program places a heavy emphasis on spiritual renewal through faith in God “as we understand Him” (Her?) as well as mutual self-help. The meetings begin and end with prayers. Seven days a week, meeting in spaces such as church basements and passing the hat for donations, members struggle to free themselves from the plague of “debting.”
A petite brunette is terrified that she is transferring her obsession with food (that has caused her to become bulimic) to money – in three weeks she has spent $3,000 and is wiped out. “Every night I lie in bed and obsess, ‘What can I buy tomorrow?’” Suddenly there is no man to bail her out. “There was always a wealthy guy around before.”
A beautiful blond “shares” she was so desperate that she married an immigrant for $1,000 so that he could stay in this country. In the ultimate I’ll-show-you, she nearly skipped her father’s funeral because her mother wouldn’t send her the money for airfare. “I knew my father would have.”
Interestingly, the people listening to her do not fit the popular notion of the down-and-out. In fact, some of these brave souls trying to buck the tide of “easy credit” at a mere 21 percent on charge cards may have six-figure incomes. New York even boasts the only chapter of Business Owners Debtors Anonymous, with, I’m told, a number of rich and famous members. But how much money one earns and how big a debt one carries is not the point: the perception of the problem is what matters. Many of the younger women, for example, spent years on the dole from their parents and then faltered when they tried to break the dependency. There are workaholics who work feverishly, spend feverishly, then start working again to dig themselves out. What most of them have in common is a constant gnawing panic that they are trapped and cannon “pass go,” because their drug of choice is spending.
“I felt euphoric knowing I was going to come out of the store with all these great things,” says a thirty-two-year-old buyer for a chain of clothing outlets who was $10,000 in debt when she started going to DA. “I’d go home and try them on in front of the mirror, imagining wearing this somewhere great so I could sustain the euphoria for a couple of hours more. Then panic set in – how am I going to pay for all this? I started losing sleep.” This woman lived at home until she was twenty-nine, and whenever she desperately needed money her mother would bail her out. “My career was on the upswing,” she recalls. “I thought I was too busy to pay my bills. I’d get angry that creditors were hounding me. I’d think, ‘They can wait for their money.’”
Did Calvin and Ralph and Donna make her do it? Many women in Debtors Anonymous truly believe that clothes define their personalities. “A museum wanted my 1971 Issey Miyake,” confides a thirty-seven-year-old woman who was $17,000 in debt, mostly from clothes, when she attended her first meeting a year ago. “There’s a void inside of me,” she says. “I would never feel good about me, so I would clothe the void. If someone would say, ‘Listen, you don’t have the money,’ it meant nothing to me. With charge cards there was no connection that you had a bill coming and had to pay for it.” Today her debt is under $10,000.
At the other extreme is a fifty-six-year-old divorced graduate student whose money hang-up is underspending. Until a friend tricked her into going to a Debtors Anonymous meeting, she was unaware of how cheap she was. Because she couldn’t bear to part with money, she was driving an old rattletrap car (that cost $300 a month to maintain) rather than buy a new car she could afford, and refused to pay bills until the collection agency called. “I’m afraid to let money go, even if I know by bank account will fill back up again.” Many other anorexic spenders refuse to see doctors or get their shoes soled.
In fact, it was a very big deal indeed for a thirty-six-year-old actress/typist to bring her down-at-the-heel shoes to a cobbler, achieving this only after months of DA meetings. “The concept of ‘one good suit’ sent shivers through me,” she recalls. “What if I bought the wrong one good suit?” The crunch came when the actress’s mother died, leaving her $10,000. Should she buy her mother’s co-op at an insider’s price and assume the responsibility of a $60,000 mortgage? After agonizing for months, she joined DA and took out a loan, but not before acknowledging her true feelings. “I felt because I handed her a will to sign, I had killed her for her money.”
These dark emotions came out at the actress’s first “pressure meeting,” a practice unique to Debtors Anonymous and perhaps the most important tool in the program. After attending at least six meetings over a two-week period (the process is speeded up if a court appearance is imminent), new members are encouraged to ask two other members of DA, a man and a woman for a pressure group – a session to take pressure off the new member. The first step is to draw up an individual spending plan. DA recommends that members do not declare bankruptcy or use credit cards and believes all debts should be honored and paid in equal percentages. In the process, however, the debtor must not deprive himself, since deprivation often leads to bingeing.
“One of the first things my pressure group told me to do was to sit down in my apartment every morning and eat breakfast with an ironed linen napkin,” says a female member of Business Debtors Anonymous. “I thought it was ridiculous. I did it for seven days, and on the eighth I cried – for all the times I had eaten breakfast walking or standing on the street, for all the times I hadn’t had the money to eat. Doing that was more than a confidence builder, it was the beginning of believing that God will take care of me.”
By carefully recording every penny spent, attending meetings and using the phone for support, members begin the recovery process. New members usually notify creditors that no bills will be paid for ninety days. Compulsive debtors are often compulsive bill payers when they get some money. But DA feels people need time to cool down.
Even for those who follow the program religiously, however, the desire to spend is never far from the surface. “Lord and Taylor is not my [favorite] store,” says the clothing buyer. “But I was in there the other day and I wanted to consume the store. I could have called someone to help me, but I chose to walk out of there.” An important few steps.
What the program seems to do for those who stick with it is provide a tremendous sense of relief and inner serenity, succeeding where conventional therapy of efforts at self-discipline have failed. “What I was, was spiritually bankrupt,” says the buyer. “Now I have a lot of faith, a lot of home. A year ago I didn’t realize I wasn’t healthy. The only way I thought things were good was if I looked good on the outside – I didn’t realize I needed to take care of the inside.”
How different these dilemmas from just a decade or two ago when cheap chic was in its heyday, when social commitment mattered more than cash. Now there’s a crisis of values – women rent their wombs, designer dresses are $10,000 off the rack and nobody wants to pay dues. For the first time in our history the U.S. has become a debtor nation. By exchanging debting for deity, insolvency for inspiration, the acolytes of Debtors Anonymous think they are getting quite a bargain.
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.