Image: Woman and shopping bags © Image Source, Getty Images

Carol, a costume designer in Portland, Ore., was addicted to shopping -- and buying. While living in Southern California, she racked up more than $20,000 in credit card debt before she realized she was spending so much simply because it made her feel good.

"I had a compulsion," says Carol, whose last name is being withheld because she participates in a group called Debtors Anonymous, which fiercely protects its members' identities. "There was something inside me -- this little attitude -- that said I could have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I call it the debtors' disease."

Carol is not alone. A study by Marsha Richins, a business professor at the University of Missouri, found that many people who overuse their credit cards and accumulate massive amounts of credit card debt are buying for emotional reasons. They hope that the things they are buying will make them happier, more popular or better equipped to succeed in life. (How long will it take you to pay off your cards? Check out MSN Money's calculator.)

Credit card debt surviving the recession

The Great Recession may have had many people pinching pennies, canceling ski vacations and squirreling money away in emergency funds. Still, despite high unemployment, shrinking retirement accounts and the collapse of the housing market, many of us are still buying stuff -- lots of stuff -- with our credit cards.

The nation's credit card debt tops $800 billion -- or about $9,000 per household with a credit card. And although the Federal Reserve Bank reports that the number of credit card accounts has declined since 2008, we're still putting more than $1.9 trillion a year on our cards.

What's driving all that credit card debt? Well, it could be a sign that the economy is improving and people are showing a willingness to spend again. That's how some economists see it.

It could also be that people are turning to their credit cards to make ends meet, and that would not bode well for them or the economy. According to the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions, about 40% of Americans say they are living beyond their means.

Shopping feeds emotional needs

Richins' research suggests that rampant credit card use could be a sign of psychological issues.

Richins says that some credit card overusers believe that their purchases can magically transform their lives. Unfortunately, any changes are often fleeting, and when they fade, the shoppers find themselves out on another spree -- much like a drug addict looking for another fix.

"For many of the people we studied who overuse their credit cards, making purchases was exciting. When they talk about buying things, their faces light up," Richins says. "These were people who expect magic to happen to them when they buy things."

In Carol's case, buying things with her credit card gave her a sense of self-worth. She says she felt "like an adult, like a real businessperson."