A Wedding, Two White Dresses, and Secret Spending

by Laura Turner

It started, like so many weddings do, with a white dress. Not the wedding dress, which would come later, but a little cotton sundress I found on a rainy San Francisco day. I was waiting for my fiancé to arrive from his nonprofit job so we could walk together to Williams Sonoma and start to register for kitchen utensils. I ducked into a high-end store to get out of the rain.

“Just browsing,” I told the sales guy when he asked what I was looking for. It was one of those places with five sweaters per rack; the kind of place you know is insanely expensive just by looking at it. I was an editorial assistant for a major publishing house, which is another way of saying I made very little money. It was the perfect place to window shop while Zack was en route, except that I found the white dress, and I tried it on, and I bought it. I paid for the dress with a debit card — Bank of America — with my name on it. It was a Wednesday afternoon.

The debit card was not attached to my personal bank account, the one that received a deposit of about $1,100 every two weeks. This one was connected to my wedding account. Our wedding account, of course, but since I was the one doing the bulk of the planning and since it was set up by my parents, I was the one with the debit card. The wedding account had $35,000, more money than I had ever had access to in my short professional life. I was 23 when we got engaged.

Anxiety is a funny thing. It creeps up on you when anything in your life changes, even when that change is a good thing, even when you are marrying a man you love dearly and have been dating for five years. Going through severe anxiety is like this: You are a train conductor and someone has hijacked your train, but you are pretty sure you cannot do anything about it. Someone who does not have your best interest in mind has taken the wheel, and they are taking you too fast in the wrong direction, and you are too estranged from yourself to do anything about it. Some people take drugs to ease their frantic minds. Some people meditate or pray to get a calm spirit. Some ignore it until they burst open at the seams. I went shopping.

The white dress cost $300. It wasn’t the first time I had purchased something to make myself feel better — I blew through my college graduation money in a couple weeks of shopping at upscale boutiques in Montecito; the kinds of places frequented by Oprah and Rob Lowe’s wife and my college best friend, whose mother regularly deposited money in her bank account. I bought tank tops, one pair of jeans, and a couple of blouses before I realized what was underneath my compulsive need to shop: I was terrified. Fresh out of college with no job on the horizon, broken up from my college boyfriend, sure that every other person I knew was in on some secret that I didn’t know. Slowly, I saw how my anxiety had been assuaged momentarily when I handed over my credit card; how I felt like I was doing something good for myself when I “invested in” $200 jeans. I started going to counseling. I read about shopping addictions, and was embarrassed, because it’s about the least cool addiction you can have, and then got even more embarrassed, because who ranks addictions according to which is coolest? I packed up my belongings, got rid of some clothes, got back together with the boyfriend, and drove north. I never learned the secret.

When we got engaged, my parents gave us a sizable amount of money. The idea was that we could use it however we wanted — get married at the courthouse and save the rest; have a blowout wedding and nothing left over. I had unchecked access to the account — in hindsight, I should have scheduled regular check-ins with my fiancé — and no debts to pay for months. Florists, caterers, coordinators — they didn’t expect payment until the weekend of the wedding. I could spend without immediate consequences.

You might wonder why on earth I did this. I wondered, too. If you do drugs or drink, your reward is an altered state of being. If you overeat, you’re full and have satiated an appetite. If you shop, you get, what? A sundress? That’s true, but the truth is that for me, there was, and still can be, a high when I hand my debit card over to the person behind the counter that, I would bet, rivals that of an alcoholic having a drink. Dopamine spikes, pleasure centers are activated, and for those few shining moments, I feel a sense of control. My anxiety — a condition I’ve dealt with for years and will until I die, I think — temporarily subsides, and my mindset improves. I’m sure that this dress, wrapped in its promise of newness, will be the thing to make me whole. If that sounds dramatic and insane, that’s because it is.

It gets worse. I was at lunch not long ago with my dad, and he asked me when I had been most anxious in my life. We were at a restaurant on a mountain overlooking Asheville, North Carolina, and I looked down at the city and my stomach knotted, four years after the fact. “When I called you a few days before our wedding,” I told him.

It was five days to the wedding and we were $9,000 short. Some of that was money we had agreed to spend together — tickets to Chicago for a shower; a security deposit on the house we were renting. But Zack hadn’t asked any questions about the budget and I hadn’t offered, and the checks were due in days, and I have never felt more panicked or more alone. I did what is probably the single worst thing I have ever done, borne out of anxiety and shame: I called my dad and told him I had been robbed. I lied, and covered that lie in other lies about a man who had taken an envelope of cash, and he left a meeting and came to find me in my car in a nearby parking lot, and it didn’t take long before the façade cracked. It was not me who broke it open.

Zack and I paid my parents back over the course of three years; $300 at a time. During the first years of our marriage, Zack kept tight reins over our shared bank account, while I was alternately eaten up by shame and determined to do better. I went to counseling again, for a longer period of time; I decided to buy only five pieces of clothing one year and was mostly successful. I lived in dread of my own weakness.

Anxiety and money are strange bedfellows. I am now, among other things, a freelance writer, a profession which isn’t exactly known for its staggering paychecks. My husband works in tech sales, a profession which is. We share our money, and I am doing so much better with my anxiety and with my spending, although when our anniversary approaches every year I feel a sting. I deserve to.

Last year I went through my closet to get rid of old and superfluous clothing. I threw a pile on our bed: T-shirts, skirts, old blouses from my cubicle days. I put the white dress in the pile, thinking of how symbolic it was; how much sin it carried in its threads. I still liked it, but it seemed like I should get rid of it; cast it out like a scapegoat into the wilderness of the Salvation Army. But, at the last minute, I couldn’t do it. It felt like something too significant to get rid of: a symbol, a reminder, a harbinger. So I kept it, and when the weather is warm, which is rare in San Francisco, I put it on and remember, and then I go about my day, and I forget.

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.

Photo: Ralph Daily

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