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Shopaholic Says Shoplifting Arrest Was Her Wake-Up Call

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(LANSING, Mich.) -- For most people, a trip to the mall is, well, just a trip to the mall. But for Ronnie Haring, it a place full of dangerous temptations because the 38-year-old mother of two is a shopaholic.

"It's less a feeling of wanting to go, and more a feeling of needing to go," Haring said.

The term "shopaholic" has become commonplace, but Haring is among the estimated six percent of Americans who struggle with compulsive shopping. The American Psychological Association says that compulsive spending is an impulse control disorder that, like gambling or drinking, can spin out of control as sufferers ride that roller coaster of endorphin-fueled highs and guilt-ridden lows.

"It just feels so good inside," Haring said. "You're kind of floating as you're going through it and then, essentially, you just fall...very hard. You get home and you're like, 'Why did I buy all this?' And then you feel guilty. And the way to make yourself feel better [is] more shopping. And the cycle continues."

But when Haring went shopping, she said she was never able to buy just one item. She would always have to buy in bulk. For example, she would feel the need to buy every scent of a particular kind of hand soap or the same shirt in several different colors.

"If they don't have the right color, I'll drive to another mall to find the right color," she said.

Haring revealed that she has maxed out all of her credit cards and her credit card debt totals more than $50,000. She also endures phone calls from debt collectors.

Her shopping was so out of control that Haring is filing for bankruptcy, her family lost its home near Lansing, Mich., and, unless she changes her ways, she could lose her husband of almost 20 years.

"We've had our moments where it's to the point where you want to throw in the towel and walk away," said Bill Haring.

But even with the threat of her marriage ending, Ronnie Haring said shopping continued to seem more important to her.

It wasn't always so bad. Haring said her compulsive shopping started slowly and grew over the decades. As a young girl, she remembered wanting the latest fashions. As a mom, she wanted nice things to furnish the house or the newest toys for her two kids, now ages 10 and 13.

"It was so slowly escalating that you didn't realize it until it was all over, until you get to the point where it's like, 'Wow,'" Haring said.

She began shopping in secret, leaving work early to go to the mall and then hiding new purchases from her husband.

"And he'd say, 'Is that something new?' and I'm like, 'No, I've had this for a while,' so it wasn't a lie. It just wasn't the truth," Haring said.

And when she maxed out her credit cards, Haring went into her husband's wallet and started using his. Then as her lies grew bigger, Ronnie Haring grew more brazen.

"She goes to the extreme of copying down the card numbers and hiding them," Bill Haring said. "She even went to the point of calling the bank and disguising her voice as me to transfer money to buy things."

When Haring finally went completely broke, she said, she still went to the mall but turned to shoplifting. Last month, Haring, a Midwestern soccer mom, was arrested and charged for shoplifting at a local mall in Lansing and thrown in jail.

Haring only spent 30 minutes in a jail cell before her mother bailed her out, and she is expected to plead guilty at her upcoming sentencing hearing, but she said that was the wake-up call she needed to get help.

After her release, Haring reached out to shopping addiction specialist Terry Shulman for counseling. He explained that she used shopping as a way to fill a void of "emptiness."

"With Ronnie, there's a core of self-esteem and insecurity that [says], 'I'm not good enough. Who am I?'" Shulman said.

Her intense urges to buy in bulk, Shulman said, stem from Haring's childhood when her parents got divorced, and as a result, Haring is afraid to let things go.

"There's a feeling of being abandoned or being rejected," Shulman said. "For Ronnie, having to, you know, just pick one was like taking it away from a family and for her... it was intolerable and unthinkable to separate them."

Haring's recovery from her compulsive shopping could require years of therapy, but her husband has helped her take the first steps with imposing strict rules on how and when his wife has access to money.

"We have one checkbook with just my name on it. If she wants to write a check, then I have to sign my name to the check," Bill Haring said. "It's a way to kind of regulate what bills are paid and when they're paid. Otherwise, if she needs to use a debit card for something, then I would like the receipt."

"You have to treat her like a child if she's not responsible," he added. "And if you don't keep your money and pay your bills, then you lose what you have."

Today, Ronnie Haring said, she doesn't know if she will ever be fully cured of her compulsive shopping, but she has made progress and realized she must get better or face severe consequences.

"Otherwise, I'm going to end up in jail or lose my family, and that is too high a price to pay," she said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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