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cartoon shows boxes delivered on a doorstep

It started so innocently back in March, having essential groceries delivered by Instacart. Today, a wooden spoon — with my name Dibs engraved on the handle in cursive — made its way from the land of China and was dropped on my doorstep by an exhausted yet handsome UPS driver, along with several other packages, a mix of foreign, domestic, and ridiculous.

Where did it all go wrong?

When the world shut down four months ago due to the COVID-19 global health crisis, I made an immediate, conscious decision: I would not go out in the world unless it was a necessity (such as a doctor’s visit) or an emergency.

As someone with rheumatoid arthritis and who takes medications that affect my immune system, I was worried that I was at high risk for coronavirus complications — and I didn’t want to take any chances. While the research so far on people with rheumatic conditions actually isn’t totally alarming, I’m still being very cautious and conservative.

What this meant was that I was at the mercy of kindhearted and brave delivery people to bring me goods and services. Since I couldn’t help on the front lines, I also felt a moral obligation to help out in some way, so I chose boosting the economy, by ordering as much stuff online as humanly possible. So I did. And now I can’t stop.

Pandemic Comfort Shopping Is a Thing

I’m not alone. Compulsive pandemic shopping is a real thing. According to a new survey by Credit Karma, 35 percent of Americans have made impulse purchases to deal with the stress of COVID-19, and Adobe Analytics reported that online sales are up a whopping 76 percent from a year ago.

I did my own unscientific poll and asked my friends on Facebook: “What’s the dumbest thing you’ve bought during the pandemic?” and got 216 comments, most of them hilarious, a few of them kind of sad. JK, I’m not judging the neon blue LED nightlight you put in your toilet, Aaron!

On a serious note, there is a reason why many of us are turning to shopping to cope with the biggest and scariest health crisis this country has seen in a generation. During a time when practically everything is canceled and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do, “online shopping provides something to look forward to,” says Katie Willard Virant, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis who specializes in treating patients with chronic illness.

I know, for me, I get a little thrill when the doorbell rings and I see a package sitting on the stoop. As pathetic as that sounds, it’s understandable, Willard Virant adds. “It brings us joy, and there’s a pleasure of looking forward to wearing your new article of clothing or doing the puzzle you purchased. We’re trying to replace the things that we used to look forward to with other things to look forward to.”

True enough, my friend Tess admitted she already bought new pants for Christmas. In July.

With the amount of baking I’m doing, will I even fit into pants I buy now at Christmas? I wouldn’t dare ask the new Magic 8-Ball I keep seeing in an Instagram ad (please leave me alone). I haven’t bought it yet but the struggle is real.

The 4 Phases of Coronavirus Comfort Shopping

I’ve noticed that my spending habits have gotten increasingly compulsive as the pandemic rages on and it’s harder and harder to have willpower. It’s been a slippery slope. 

Phase 1: It’s the Essentials

In the beginning, it was all about finding the sold-out stuff we needed to survive, like toilet paper, flour and yeast, and hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes. I didn’t feel bad spending money on these items because it was scary to think of a world in which I couldn’t wipe my bottom or make bread like a pioneer woman in a pretty bonnet.

Then when that calmed down, it was about the second level of essentials, like a new printer for working at home, clippers/scissors to cut my own hair, and a new squeegee mop and broom since our house cleaners couldn’t come for the foreseeable future.

Phase 2: It’s the Boredom

Endless days and the need to self-soothe led to the “Treat Yo’Self” era of the pandemic. I bought myself a used bike, coloring books, and a chef’s knife with my name engraved on it.

What’s with my need to put my name on everything all of a sudden — immortality? (I forgot to ask Katie Willard Virant, but I think I already answered the question.)

My friends also bought random stuff, like a neck hammock, a Stetson cowboy hat, a purple wig, monthly succulent subscription, an Alien Queen Tiki mug with matching egg shooters, and, my favorite impulse buy, a professional massage table. “I really have no idea why,” says Marci. “It was a late-night purchase.”

I also went through a phase where I ordered edible treats from all over the country — like deep-dish pizza from Chicago, fudge from Mackinac Island in Michigan, and original Sloppy Joes from a famous deli in New Jersey.

I did ask Willard Virant about that compulsion, and she said I was replacing the trips I had to cancel this year with food from places I’d like to go. I’ll buy that! Not literally, you know what I mean…

“You can’t travel, so you’re bringing it to you,” Willard Virant says, “which I think is lovely.”

Phase 3: It’s a Problem

It’s lovely — until it’s not. I can’t watch those hoarder shows on cable — they make me sneeze and have panic attacks — but I noticed I’m suddenly hoarding certain things I’m worried will disappear again. Right now I have five boxes of unsalted butter in my fridge, three bottles of real Clorox bathroom cleaner in the hall closet and a half-dozen hand soaps with names like Almond Bellini and Sun-Washed Blossom under my bathroom sink.

Again, I’m not alone. My friend Danielle bought five pounds of Dole Whip mix and 40 pounds of chicken breasts at one time, “so then I bought a food vacuum sealing system.”

I’m also stocking up on weird non-essentials, like gray T-shirts. I’ve convinced myself that if I’m going to be home 24/7, I need to be extremely comfortable at all times, so I’ve researched and sought out the softest cotton I can find on the planet. Plus, the shirts need to have pictures of cowboys or food — bagels, hot dogs, and chili so far, thanks for asking.

Since I have nowhere to go, comfy T-shirts and shorts are my fashion compulsion. For my friend Selena, it’s high heels “I’ll likely never wear,” for Julie, it’s fake eyelashes, and for Erin, it’s “six black dresses that are almost identical.”

Don’t even get me started on my new and growing face mask and bandana collection. (P.S. —  wear a damn mask!) “My routine at night is to just sit with my phone and order masks from all over,” admits my pal Alison, who at last count had 37. “JFC, I need help.”

Phase 4: It’s Time to Get Help

I admit I’m getting a little addicted to hearing the doorbell ring and that shot of adrenaline that comes from pressing the “Complete Order” button. I’ve bought so much stupid shit for myself I literally don’t need anything else. I’ve moved on to sending surprises to my brother, who is now a lucky recipient of a pack of Chicago White Sox masks, a framed picture of him and his lovely wife, and a puzzle.

Do I have a problem? Willard Virant says no. Since I can’t see my brother, this is my way of “connecting.” Sure, Jan. I mean Katie.

I think Willard Virant is right but, deep down, I know my new shopping compulsion is a little iffy, perhaps even fatalistic. Lately, right before I buy something, I’ve been known to say out loud, “Eh, who cares, we’re all gonna die anyways,” and I’m only half-joking. Nicole says she recently bought seven large bags of Totino’s frozen pizza rolls “to feed the kids with before the world ended, I guess.”

When I told Willard Virant that I have hopeless feelings about the future she said that she thinks my retail therapy could be a distraction, a way of “sort of not feeling the fear of that.”

Curbing My Compulsion

While most of what we’re all doing — comfort shopping during a crisis — is normal, it’s important to keep an eye on it. The Karma Credit survey found that nearly 20 percent of respondents admitted they’re spending more now than they were pre-pandemic. Make sure your shopping is not going to put you in debt or cause other self-destructive behaviors, Willard Virant adds. “When you start engaging in risky behaviors, then it’s time to really take a look at what’s going on. Pay attention to your inner compass.”

There may come a point where shopping online isn’t fun anymore and becomes anxiety- or boredom-producing. “That’s when you stop and say, ‘This has gone from a healthy distraction to something that’s depleting or not helping me,’” Willard Virant advises. “If it feels unhealthy, try not to push it away. Analyze it. Tap into those feelings when you’re trying to avoid hitting the ‘buy’ button.”

I don’t think I’m there yet but I’m going to be extra mindful. Or, as the Magic 8-Ball I refuse to buy might say, the outlook is still mostly fun with a slight chance of concern.

The Facebook post where we all listed our dumb purchases was a riot and it did make me feel happy and connected to people again. So there are some positive things to come of this new habit. My friend Christine said she’s bonded with her teenage son buying and taste-testing “jars and jars of pickles. Different cuts and flavors. We will always associate 2020 with pickles.” And when this is over one day, dear God, they will probably never eat another pickle again.

I’m not sure I’ll want to remember this surreal time. When this finally ends, I have visions of throwing all of my pandemic purchases — masks, puzzles, bike, shirts, personalized spoon, all of it — in a giant bonfire and forgetting this whole nightmare ever happened, like when Bobby Ewing came back to life in the shower on Dallas.

Until then, there’s a shirt with a giant hamburger on it on Homage.com with my name on it. Gotta go.

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Interview with Katie Willard Virant, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis

Evans K. As pandemic pushes on, online sales grow 76% in June. Digital Commerce 360. July 13, 2020. https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/article/coronavirus-impact-online-retail.

Ward P. Survey: 35% say stress from COVID-19 made them impulse-buy. Credit Karma. April 23, 2020. https://www.creditkarma.com/insights/i/coronavirus-stress-spending-survey.

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