Holiday pastime or a serious problem?

WEST SHORE While many Americans admittedly shop a lot, Dr. Zak says occasional impulse buys don't qualify them as a shopaholic.

Published November 24, 2006

Jack Zak already dreads Black Friday.

He would rather do anything than accompany his wife and sister-in-law on their annual shopping ritual. Starting at WestShore Plaza, they plan to shop their way through and move on to International Plaza, breaking for a leisurely lunch at the Bamboo Club Asian Bistro.

Zak, 60, will be doing anything else - even if it involves causing himself bodily injury.

"I'll go fishing, do chores," he said, "Or stick toothpicks in my eyeballs."

Not much of a shopper himself, Zak, a psychiatrist, counsels plenty of shopaholics.

Somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of U.S. citizens are compulsive buyers, he said. They often suffer for years before coming for help.

How will they deal with the temptations of holiday sales?

Probably no worse than usual, Zak guesses. "It may give them a temporary out to have a goal to find a gift for Aunt Suzie."

The occasional shoe splurge won't land you on Zak's couch. Real shopaholics find the problem taking over their lives.

One of Zak's patients has a walk-in-closet filled with more clothes than she could ever wear. Most with tags still on them.

Zak said another shops on TV, and "buys all sorts of jewelry and appliances and stuff that he does not need."


While research is still sketchy, men may have the disorder as often as women. They accumulate hoards of things, and often lie to cover purchases.

Today's compulsive buyers have more options - and more temptation. They shop from home by Internet, mail order or home shopping networks.

They feel shame and may give away or hide items. They may face bankruptcy or divorce.

"Most individuals acknowledge that it's not what they want to do," Zak said.

In psychiatry lingo, compulsive buying is an extreme of normal behavior, Zak said. It falls under "impulse control disorders not otherwise specified," along with Internet and cell phone compulsions.

It used to be called oniomania, from the Greek verb "to buy." In 1915, Emil Kraepelin, a German psychiatrist, first coined the term.

Today its classification as a disorder is controversial, Zak said. Some people believe its a scheme by psychiatrists to make more money.

The urge to shop only becomes a disorder when the compulsion to buy lands the person in trouble.

"That's one of the hallmarks of any disorders that we deal with in psychology," Zak said. "If a set of symptoms does not cause you problems or pain, then we don't consider it a disorder."

In his private life, Zak couldn't be less of a shopper, says his wife, Susan.

"He wears his socks until you can see his heels," she joked. "It saves the family quite a bit of money."

Basically, he only buys shoes and the occasional instrument, including the blue bass he bought recently on impulse.

On a recent trip to WestShore Plaza, he found his dream shoes: the exact style and brand he had just worn out. The "on sale" tag was pure bonus.

Shoes in hand, Zak strolled through the mall, passing time and people watching. Even he can't tell which ones the shopaholics are.

There's nothing inherently wrong with holiday shopping, he said.

"Some people decide it's an adventure."

But Zak prefers to seek his adventure by casting a line in Tampa Bay and waiting for a fish to nibble.

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 813 226-3321.


Fast facts

John "Jack" Zak

Age: 60

Gig: Director of clinical services for the department of psychiatry at the University of South Florida

Home: As in the movie What About Bob, Zak can't reveal his address for fear of patients showing up at his door, which is somewhere in Temple Terrace

Drives: A Vespa to work

Wife: Susan, and he jokes that they met in a mental hospital. That was Northside Mental Health Center, where they both worked

Kids: Alison, 18, and Kevin, 16, both attend King High School's International Baccalaureate program.

Hobbies: Fishing, skiing at Snowmass, Colo., and playing his guitars.

Splurges: Spent wedding money on a Yorkshire terrier. Now have a second, Eevee, and a griffon named Sprout, which cost $1,500 and was "worth every penny."