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Happiness Sold Separately: My Lifelong Struggle with Consumerism

I was a marketer’s dream child. A yearning consumer practically from birth, I was just waiting

to be told what I needed to acquire in order to feel whole.

“But Mama!” I have vague memories of my pleas, but she’s told me the story, laughing. After seeing a commercial for a toy on which I pinned my tender hopes, I would run to her and wail, “It’s SOLD SEPARATELY!”

I was a toddler, too young to understand the words, but they sounded significant and were tacked on in whispered tones at the end of the vibrant and loud television commercials. They seemed to confer value on whatever plastic product (and accessories, sold separately) that were being hawked during cartoons.

By the time I was 5, my favorite place was the mall. Any mall. Sometimes we’d drive to Dallas from our small Texas town and hit a few malls in one day. Outside, the weather was always horrible and swarming with insects. But inside…oh, inside.

Today I avoid malls and haven’t been inside one in several years. But I can still summon that swell of mall-excitement that was, during my formative years, my primary distraction from soul-deep sadness.

Material Girl

There’s a recurring image that crosses my mind’s screen often. I’m not sure when or where it originated, but I’ve thought of it for so long that it feels like a memory — it has become canon for my life’s story.

In the image, I am a spirit. Not a ghost, but more like a tiny speck of divinity, barely (if at all) aware of its separateness from GOD writ large.

So there the tiny speck is, flitting through the universe sublimely, and its attention is caught — literally — by the sight of green velvet. The fabric was so intoxicatingly beautiful that the tiny speck was instantly trapped in the material world.

Soon the speck was born a human baby, and she is me.

I think that would explain my dual fascinations throughout my life — with the mystical, spiritual nature of the world, and with the beautiful, the sensuous, and the decidedly human-made world of art and artifice. I’ve spent much of my life’s energy torn between the two, struggling against my own instincts, trying to make sense of my existence.

Meet Me at the Mall

Within the glass doors of the mall was a world of cool, reliable sameness. The air smelt faintly of chlorine due to the multiple fountains that filled malls in the 1970s. People thew pennies in the fountains, I never understood why, but their pale blue floors rippled with a copperish sheen that drew me in, sure as a siren’s call.

I’d kneel on the concrete bench that wrapped around the fountain and drop pennies in, watching my face dissipate and reform in the water’s reflection. This, too, was part of the consumer experience for me. I was being allowed this splendor out of the goodness of the mall’s heart. And certainly the mall had a heart…I mean, why else would Santa Claus choose it as the backdrop for photos with him at Christmas?

Consumerism was so sacrosanct to me that I once asked as little child to say a prayer before dinner (not customary in my home). The prayer began “Santa Claus, Santa Claus, thank you for our toys…” and was interrupted by my parents’ laughter. How was I to know that THIS imaginary old bearded white fellow we celebrated at Christmas was not the proper one to pray to?

The mall became the center of life for me. My bookish side found comfort at B. Dalton, where I would lose myself for hours in wildly varying tomes (I learned at that particular bookstore about the mechanics of sex, how and why menstruation occurs, and of the existence of the Satanic Bible by Anton LeVay).

While the physical comfort offered by the mall is the first memory that presents itself, it’s not the dominant one: that’s the overwhelming desperation that ruled my life until quite recently.

By the time I was 11, the mall had become for me a proving ground upon which I could test my charm. Could I get boys and men to look at me approvingly? If not, could I acquire things that would make that happen? I had become impaled, so to speak, on the main prong of consumerism: desperation for the approval of others.

Tell Them You’re Desperate

My way of being was, for the first 40-odd years of my life, rather desperate. It all makes sense now — I was diagnosed as autistic at 48. Throughout my life, I knew I was odd. I was born with hyperhidrosis, a nervous condition that means my hands, feet, armpits, and face sweat almost constantly, so I was perpetually physically uncomfortable and desperate to hide my sweat from those around me. My interests (the British monarchy, and history in general) in no way intersected with those of other children (sports and stock shows and, frankly, racism and homophobia).

My father was my primary bully, and ironically the most popular teacher in our small town. He wanted me to be “like his kids” (his students) but I didn’t know how to do that. I suspected I could fake it by acquiring the objects and clothes his kids coveted, and my sweet mother was on board with this plan. Thus the frequent trips to the mall. Searching. Desperate for an acceptable identity pieced together of objects.

In retrospect, I picture myself then as a small pink animal, frightened and defenseless. I endeavored to build a shell, an armor for myself, from trinkets and dazzling fabric.

Unsurprisingly, my first job was at the local mall. Friends of my family owned an ice cream shop in the food court, so I was able to get a job there even though I was only 15.

Two decades and three college degrees later, I couldn’t get a job, no matter how hard I tried.

“Tell them you’re desperate, you’ll take anything,” my well-meaning mother advised.

And so I buried my self-esteem in the ground and took that as my anthem — for partners and friends, for jobs…I’m desperate. I’ll take anything.

And I did.

Constant Craving

In this state, my consumerism flourished. Its ideal environment, after all, is an atmosphere of self-hate and desperation, and that’s why the powers that be like to keep us there.

Once again, I was the poster woman for consumerism. I even underwent three expensive and fairly major surgeries to better conform with the dominant paradigm (a breast reduction and two thoracic sympathectomies in a failed effort to quell my sweating). The deeper my inner chasm of grief, the more desperation for stuff to fill it. It really is so predictable, isn’t it?

I think I could even see it when I was deep in it, but I couldn’t comprehend how to wake myself from the dream. When I’d try to rouse myself, the jolt I thought I needed would take the form of expensive classes, or memberships…I sickened and depleted myself with my “quest”. And that led to more self-hatred.

Still, I sought peace of mind, for that fleeting sense of spiritual wellness that I’d had on occasion. Along the way, I found (and still revere and follow) Ram Dass and paganism and several other ways of thought/being. I also became a Hare Krishna in my teens, drawn to the physical beauty of the temple, the delicious vegetarian food, and an appealing boy from a Hare Krishna family.

I’ve Got a Bridge to Sell You

In 2017, the strands of my life wove together in such a way that I started a brief foray into marketing as a career. I suppose it was fate. I have a certain way with words, and had spent my life being manipulated by marketing. I figured I might as well give it a try.

It went “well” for a while. I put “well” in scare quotes because it’s relative, isn’t it? I was writing copy that pleased the clients. Which meant I was being suitably manipulative with my beloved English language to con people I didn’t know into paying for things I had no beliefs about one way or another (at best).

And — again, so predictably! — the more money I made, the more I spent. And I became more and more resentful of the trap I found myself in.

There came a point when I knew that spending one-third of my life doing something that felt gross would have to end, even if I was good at it and made decent money.

But ultimately, I didn’t make the leap away from copywriting on my own. I took a moral stand at work that resulted in me being fired — it was one of many times in my life when I’ve watched in horror as the goddess of destruction burned bridges even as I walked across them, scorching my feet while forcing me onto the path meant for my soul, the very one I’d avoided out of fear.

In the aftermath of my firing, I was diagnosed as autistic. It’s been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. My diagnosis has given me a different viewpoint — but no, that’s not quite right — it’s given me permission to embrace my natural viewpoint, different as it may be from that of most others.

I love my life now in a way that I truly didn’t believe was possible for me in the past. When I dug it up, I discovered that the self-esteem I buried had alchemized into seeds; potent and ready to grow when I was ready to tend them.

How it’s Going

My life now is beyond happy — it’s magical. But in the eyes of the Western world, I’m probably not doing too well. I’m a single, 51-year-old autistic woman with no kids who is (technically) unemployed.

But I live my life now very much on my own terms, seeking to follow my own path and empower my magical self while helping others do the same. Though I don’t always succeed, I endeavor to never outsource my emotions, and to always follow my own unique soul-lit.

I’m a writer, a podcaster, a Reiki healer, and an all-around silly goose, just stuck somewhere between a spark of divine energy and a beautiful piece of green velvet.

There are worse places to be.

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