"Like personal bankruptcy, debt-consolidation agencies are Band-Aid solutions to addiction," Ron says. "They call themselves counseling bureaus, but they don't really offer any. People immediately get new cards, and a year or two later, they're in more debt than ever."
The next time A.J. comes in, she's been promoted to the position of "breakdown writer" (someone who generates plots rather than dialogue) with a raise in salary -- a turn of fortune Ron sees as "potentially dangerous for someone trying to stabilize on a plan." A boost in salary can temporarily hide a spending disorder and thus actually feed it.
Indeed, backsliding is in evidence today. A.J. has celebrated the news in her usual fashion, and plops down in front of her several big bags of celebration. When she holds up a silver-tipped chocolate faux-fur coat from Benetton, I exclaim, "Oh, that's a deal!" and Ron glares at me. One of the spending-plan rules is never to buy on sale. "If it's on sale, you tell them you want to pay full price. You are through buying things to 'save' money," he says. (I know sales create a unique mind-set. My friend Amanda and I have a system we call Princess Math, based on the principle that a penny saved is a penny earned. We calculate our sale "earnings" and leverage them into more sale clothes!)
A.J. says that while she was shopping, she reassured herself that Ron would take away her privileges during the next session, which, of course, made her want to buy everything she wanted now (if you can't follow the plan in a given category, the category is eliminated for a few months).
But Ron declines to rescind her privileges. "In your case, it would only trigger a major binge," he says.
Behind the expenses people own up to are always the expenses they don't own up to. On her sixth session, A.J. reveals a small detail: She has to pay for her upcoming wedding. Weddings can drive any bride crazy, but for a compulsive spender, they're like New Year's Eve for an alcoholic. When Ron takes out his calculator and she gives the estimates, the 100-person event comes to $33,500 -- "at least" ($5,000 for rental of Landmark on the Park, an event space on Central Park West, $10,000 for the caterer, $4,000 for flowers, $5,000 for the band, $3,000 to $5,000 for the photographer, $1,000 for a Vera Wang sample-sale bridal dress, $1,000 for hair and makeup, $2,500 for liquor). Eleven thousand dollars has already been put down in deposits, which leaves $22,500 to pay and only three months in which to save it. Her parents will contribute, and she hopes her fiancé will, too.
"But he can't even live on what he earns," Ron snorts.
"But he could if he spent it more carefully," A.J. says.
"What makes you think he's going to change?"
A silence falls on the room. A further silence ensues when Ron presses the issue of what will happen when she doesn't have money in her account to pay on the wedding day. She says she asked her guests to give cash in lieu of presents. But, Ron points out, if every couple gives $150, the total would still come to only $7,500. "You want to come home from Venezuela to a slew of angry calls from vendors?"
The crossroads is suddenly clear. Would she rather be the Princess Bride of the hour, surrounded by illusions of riches, or take the first step toward forging a new, solvent family?
"You want your checks to bounce?" Ron juts his head forward, his dramatic, inflected voice fills the room. "Blecch!" he says. "Blecch!"
A.J. flinches. It's clear he's lost her, as she tears up. "I just want to be a beautiful bride," she says.
Yet the conversation haunts her. Once the financial details of her wedding have been brought to consciousness, they feel like an elephant trampling her dreams. "Every element of fun and joy has been turned into dollars and cents in my head," she says.
A few weeks later, A.J. is given notice at her job. Though she knows it's a fickle business, she's still crushed. "I feel so defrocked," she says. She has $1,500 in the bank and all the old debt. Shecancels her sessions with Ron and her plans to go into psychotherapy on the grounds that she can no longer afford them. She goes to the 50 percent discount rack at the drugstore to buy cheap shampoo. But she decides to go ahead with the $30,000 wedding. When the turnstile at the subway one day rejects her MetroCard, she has a flashback: Has Discover somehow found her again? Then she realizes the card is simply bent.
Her birthday fell in her final week of work. As an adopted child, she has always felt sensitive about it because she pictures her birth as an unhappy event. She decided to go with Tony to Da Silvano, the downtown Italian restaurant, and bought a $160 dress at "the crack house across the street," the department store Century 21. She told Tony -- whose company is going under -- that she would pay for dinner. But as soon as they sat down, she realized she wanted him to pay. Her stomach began to hurt. She doesn't remember the vintage of wine they ordered, only that it cost $89. When the tab came, she felt sick. It was $300: one quarter of her remaining assets. Could she discern a fine bottle of wine in a blind taste test?
"It wasn't blind," she says without irony. It had a familiar taste -- one that satisfied an old craving. It tasted expensive.
"She hasn't reached bottom," Ron comments philosophically. "When she's bottomed out, getting better -- not having a fancy wedding or buying a new outfit -- will be her top priority. But these kind of deep problems don't develop overnight, and they don't disappear in a matter of months! Some people get better before they get worse; some bump along the bottom for a long time."
He says he hopes he'll hear from A.J. again. "I think she'll get better. I certainly hope so. But," he adds, the customary certainty of his tone receding slightly, "the truth is, in any kind of addiction counseling, we never know who is going to get better -- if I were to say at the beginning of this process, I'd be wrong as often as I'd be right."