L ena had been attending 12-step meetings together with Suri, a woman I’d been working with by phone on her Internet-cum-shopping addiction. Suri suggested that Lena call me.

As the owner of an upscale boutique on Long Island, Lena’s income, coupled with a generous alimony, meant she could work or not as she chose. She chose to work, increasing her hours at the boutique after both of her children had flown the nest. Shopping for her boutique gave her a thrill, a rush. When the thrill began to fade, she expanded into other shopping avenues to get her fix.

Between business and leisure, shopping had taken over her life. She missed important meetings, was losing touch with her children. She was always half involved in whatever she was doing, and half planning the next thing. She described feeling “breathless.”

Lena had been attending 12-step meetings for over a year and strongly identified with the other members, but her behavior hadn’t changed at all.

When we spoke, I explained that “going to meetings” is not the same as working the 12 steps, and that if she wanted recovery, she’d need some personal guidance in doing so.

“I’m not good at taking orders from other people, it won’t work,” she said.

“Then you’re wasting your time with the 12 steps,” I replied.

“But I so strongly identify with the others in the group!”

“Then I suppose you have a difficult decision to make. Think about it,” I said. “Call me if you think I can help.”

Two weeks later, Lena called back. She said she was prepared to work the steps, even if it meant “taking orders” from someone else.

I challenged her, asked her if she was sure she was ready. I told her there would be things she’d have to do that would seem impossible or all wrong. She insisted she was willing to do “whatever it took” to find relief from her obsessions.

I instructed Lena to make one last purchase: two notebooks and a good pen. The first notebook would be for technicalities of how to hand over management of her boutique as well as keep an eye on her business with minimal involvement. The second notebook was for writing assignments I’d be giving her throughout her journey through the 12 steps.

Lena insisted I knew nothing about running a fashion boutique. And, of course, she was correct. But it was Lena who’d said her day-to-day involvement in the boutique was by choice, not necessity.

“You asked me to help. If you think I’m crazy, that I don’t understand, that I’m not the right address, then by all means choose someone else!”

“I want help,” she cried, “but this… it’s impossible! I’ll do anything, except give up managing my boutique!”

“Lena,” I said softly, “every addict comes in with the one thing he or she is not willing to give up. A few minutes ago you said you’d do anything it takes. Now you’re putting conditions on it. Do you want to get your free will back or not?”

The silence was heavy between us. Finally, Lena said, “Yes. I want my free will back.”

That’s when our work began. Lena and I spoke every week. She was totally committed to the program: She attended meetings, found recovery friends to share with, and made good use of her notebook. Yet she kept relapsing. She had greatly reduced her many avenues for shopping, but she could not stay away from her boutique.

Besides putting her up on a horse, which I couldn’t do from 6,000 miles away, I used every tool in my arsenal. I consulted with several colleagues, searching for the missing link, and they assured me that I was providing Lena with good guidance, and the rest was up to her.

Lena despaired of getting clean. “Forget it,” she said. “I just can’t make a commitment never to shop again.”

“Never?” The word buzzed around in my head. “Lena, never is a long time. No one can promise never to do something again. When you have an urge to shop — to use — what do you do?”

“Share with a friend, try to let go of the feeling, give it over to her.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 564)