You're in a department store. Your palms are sweaty, your heart is pounding, and you feel as though every one of your senses has been turned up. You have to buy something. You must. You literally cannot stop yourself.

It's called "oniomania," the compulsive desire to shop, and Avis Cardella knows it well. For years, she maxed out credit cards and spent rent money on designer clothes worth hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. She hung on by the skin of her American Express card limit, sometimes subsisting on roasted chicken and Grape-Nuts but still dropping $350 on a pair of designer sunglasses. She'd find herself in Barneys with no clear recollection of how she'd gotten there. Her closet was full of clothes that still had the tags on them.

It took several events for Cardella to take a hard look at her life -- including a Christmas with her family with only $214 in her checking account. After a call to a credit counseling agency and nearly four years of steady payments, Cardella got rid of her debt. She stopped shopping, and she quit trying to define herself through her purchases.

Cardella chronicles her very personal journey in her new book, "Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict." Cardella talked to Lemondrop from her new home in Paris, where she lives with her husband -- in a residential neighborhood far from the retail district.

Lemondrop: What prompted you to write the book?
Avis Cardella: Initially I just started thinking about writing something about shopping, because I'd finally gotten to a place where I was enjoying shopping in a healthy way. And at first, my idea was, I want to write a book about the Zen of shopping. But as I started writing, I realized I needed to go deeper and I needed to write a story that addressed the root of the problem and that addressed my personal issues, why I became a shopping addict. And also to address the kind of complex social and economic cultural issues that surround that problem, which I think were all around me growing up.

You link a lot of your shopping addiction to the early death of your mother. Why do you feel that way?
I realize now, looking back, that that was the point during which I started to try to escape into shopping. That was when shopping first became, for me, something that I was doing without much thought, and doing in this very random way. I was using it as a way to avoid emotions. So I would say that that was really the first time that I was shopping in an unhealthy way. I was just going into shops in order not to feel other difficult things, in order to avoid the pain that I felt and the emotions that had to do with that loss. And I think it escalated from there.

People with emotional emptiness develop various addictions to fill it -- drinking, drugs, etc. Why do you think yours was shopping?
I really don't know. I've never been someone who's attracted to drinking or drugs in any way, I've never been attracted to that kind of escapism. Perhaps I gravitated toward shopping because it was kind of an escape route, a fantasy. Looking at magazines when I was very young, it was a fantasy life, it was a place I could get to. When people use drugs or alcohol it's a way to escape from reality, and in my mind, shopping was an escape from reality. It was a way to surround yourself with things that could transform you in some way.

Near the end of the book, you enrolled in a credit counseling program to help you pay off all of your debt. Have you paid everything off now?
Yes, I cleared up all that debt before I left New York. I didn't have enormous debt, but for me it was quite a lot, because I was working as a freelance writer and it was enough to be problematic for me. I did end up clearing up all that debt and I'm not a credit card user any longer. In fact, it's a quite different relationship that they have with credit cards here. In France, you use charge cards where you use a card and you pay it off every month.

Wow. So no traditional credit cards in Paris?
You don't get easy credit the way you do in the States. You can have debit cards, and generally you have a charge card, but you're expected to pay that off at the end of the month, and there's no system whereby you're building a credit rating based on paying $20 or the minimum amount every month and racking up enormous interest rates. Overall, it's a different relationship to spending. You just don't have people carrying enormous balances with huge interest rates on credit cards here. I had already worked all that stuff out before I moved here, but I find it interesting and healthier.

How did it feel when you made that last payment on your debt? Do you remember it?
There was a lot going on in my life at the time. I paid things off as I was moving to Europe. The bigger thing for me was knowing that my attitude toward shopping had changed. The bigger thing for me was that moment when I was cleaning out my closet and knowing that I had made progress to a different place, a different relationship to my grief and to those years of unhealthy shopping. That was more of a milestone for me.

For someone with a shopping addiction, Manhattan seems like the worst place to live. And I would imagine Paris is almost as hard. Did it ever occur to you that things might be better if you lived elsewhere?
That didn't occur to me, and I think it never comes down to just that. It's like telling someone who's a drinker, 'Just never go into a bar.' It's not as simple as that. If the root of the problem is always with you, no matter where you go, there's going to be some place I could chase after that.

I could not live in New York, but I could go online and become an online shopping addict. Living in New York certainly made it more difficult. What I realized at a certain point was that I had to deal with the root of my shopping problem. So now I can live in a place like Paris and I can go into shops and I can feel comfortable with myself, and with the way that I shop. If I'm always just trying to be someplace where there's no temptation, the problem will still be with me. For most people it's about filling a void, and if you don't get at really what that void is, you might be contending with it for a very long time.

In the book, you mention the difficulty of being a shopping addict at a time when people didn't really take it seriously.
I never spoke to anyone about it partly for that reason. Living in New York, and maybe this was the bigger problem, you just got this sense that everyone was shopping and it was perfectly normal. So for me, I felt abnormal. I knew I had a problem, but it was extremely difficult to talk about it. You saw that shopping was a way of life, it was entertainment, it was expected of you on some level. Mayor Giuliani after September 11 said, 'Go out and shop!' But I knew that for me, it was not normal. It was disturbing, the way I related to shopping. So I kind of felt that if I said anything, it would be laughed at. Retail therapy, ha ha ha. In the years since, it's come out of the closet-pun intended-in the sense that shopping addiction is starting to be treated as a more serious subject.

You talk a little bit about the rampant consumerism that is devouring people in our culture these days. Do you feel like we're turning a corner, or will it get worse before it gets better?
I think the economic crisis has caused everybody to rethink their relationship to shopping. Whether that's a long-term thing or not is yet to be seen. I'd like to be on the bandwagon for more mindful consumption as opposed to mindless consumption.

I'd like to be someone who's an advocate of really being conscious of what we are consuming, not just mindlessly gathering stuff around us that really doesn't fill the void, doesn't make us happy and doesn't succeed in providing us with anything. I think we're encumbered as a society by objects, and a lot of these objects quickly lose their meaning because they're objects that are just acquired for the sake of impressing or being accepted by others. There's a type of consuming that's more mindful, where you can start thinking of things you want for other reasons than that they're a status symbol or that other people have it.

What's your advice to other women who think they might have a problem with shopping?
If they do have unmanageable debt, I'd advise them to do something about that right away. That's something that can affect your immediate living conditions and your immediate lifestyle, but on a deeper level I think it's not just about dealing with those immediate things, it's about understanding, what is it that's driving your out-of-control shopping? What is it that keeps you going back for more? A lot of times it's self esteem issues, or it's something attached to your past. But my recommendation would be to do that hard work and look at what's really driving it. That's the only way to address it at the core and really make a change in the way you shop. It's a lot of hard work and it takes time but in the end, it's really worth it.

What's the most recent thing you bought?
I haven't bought something in a store for a while. I bought a dress online. It was a really good price, and it was really cute and it was something I thought long and hard about, and it was under $100. I really enjoy it. I just don't buy impulsively and randomly anymore.

Do you still hunt for designer labels?
The dress that I just bought is not a label, it's a summer dress made in Brazil. But it spoke to me in some way, and I have no idea who made it. There are times when I really appreciate beautifully made things, and if something is really well made and does have some craftsmanship, I think that's to be appreciated and respected. If you save up for something like that, I think that's very valid. I don't gravitate toward it the way I used to. There was a time when I was like, 'Oh, it's Prada.' I'm not like that anymore.

Are you happier now?
One of the biggest luxuries I have in my life right now is not being consumed by the desire to shop. It's something I never would've imagined, but something that feels so good, just to go into stores and feel in control.


Kate Ashford is a freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and health (and other things). Without online shopping, she wouldn't own anything. Her work has appeared in Money, Health, and Glamour. For more, check out HerTwoCents.com.