Mental health problems can lead to a compulsion to shoplift

A year ago, I was late to the hospital to visit my sister, who had just learned of her second recurrence of ovarian cancer. Julie was accepted as part of a clinical trial protocol that had many horrible side effects.

One week she had palpitations. The next one brought so much stomach ache that my little sister cried. Meanwhile, there was a flood of heavy mucus in her eyes, which she said made her “look like she was in a B-grade horror movie.”

On the morning in question, I didn’t have time to grab a newspaper or a cup of coffee before going to the hospital. So, after checking in—and receiving an upsetting morning briefing—I took the central elevator down to the gift shop.

I picked up a newspaper, went to the self-service coffee bar and poured myself a cup. With my hands full, I headed to the cash register to pay. There was no one. I checked out the gift shop. I was waiting. No one. Suddenly I felt rage: from my sister’s diagnosis. In the hospital’s inability to cure her. In a full list of grievances that I have never fully voiced. And now to the gift shop. (All this anger despite the successful treatment I had received at the same facility years ago.)

I didn’t see any security cameras, but at that point I didn’t care if I got caught either. I walked out with my unpaid belongings – a $3 newspaper and a $2.50 cup of coffee – in plain sight. I took the elevator back to my sister’s floor, handed her the paper, and drank my coffee. Yes, I know the word for this is “shoplifting”.

I also knew the names of some of the more famous thieves of recent times. There was Bess Myerson, a former Miss America who pleaded guilty in 1988 to stealing $44 in jewelry, cosmetics and some other items. In 2011, Lindsay Lohan was accused of stealing a $2,500 necklace and was forced to take court-ordered shoplifting classes and complete a community service program. And Winona Ryder, who stole $5,500 worth of designer goods from Saks Fifth Avenue.

Each of them was branded and shamed by the media. I did the same with my friends, never stopping to question why these high profile women (of means) would risk so much by shoplifting.

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However, I continued to steal from the gift shop on the second and third day. My total now stood at $16.50, which did little to dampen my rage.

Two weeks later, still deeply upset by Julie’s health condition, I “forgot” about the $25 salad bowl I had placed on the bottom shelf of my supermarket shopping cart. I went through self-control without paying for it – sure, I had plausible deniability, but what was happening to me? It was like a blizzard had taken over my brain and the usual filters that kept me within the bounds of good behavior (and law abiding) were gone.

In each case, I felt a release – a rush of ecstasy, followed by calmness and a kind of numbness. For a few minutes—moments I held on to—I didn’t feel the pain of what it would mean to lose my sister.

I confided in a few close friends. I told my oldest niece, then 25, thinking she might be experiencing some of the same frustrations. Turns out, she’s channeling her worries into a much healthier endeavor: writing about them. So why weren’t my own usual coping tools failing me? (I even had a therapist.)

Increasingly concerned about my behavior, I decided to speak to a close lawyer friend and asked him what the punishment might be. The first thing he said was almost defiant: “It’s not a crime unless you steal more than $1,000 worth of stuff” — though he pointed out that since I’m white, I had much less to worry about from law enforcement or the courts , than by someone else who is Black.

“What should I do?” I asked, looking for some free legal help. “I don’t think you need legal advice,” he said. “You should talk to your therapist.”

I did, and this is what he told me: “I think it’s pretty clear at this point what you don’t want to feel. … And I’m sure that has to do with a lot of things. Not just Julie.

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I took his advice to stop for a month to try to control my impulse. During this period I also did some research, discovering that I was far from alone. According to the National Shoplifting Prevention Association, 1 in 11 people in America, or nearly 25 million people, shoplift each year. Men and women do it equally, and 75 percent of us are adults. (It’s a myth that children and teenagers are the usual offenders.)

In Psychotherapy Networker, Terence Daryl Shulman, author and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Stealing, Spending, and Hoarding, writes, “Most people who resort to stealing are actually ‘crying for help.’ There is something wrong, wrong, unresolved, absent.

Shulman details the emotional reasons people shoplift, noting that the top three are anger (“to try to make life fair”), grief (“to fill the void of loss”), and depression (“to distract from sadness”).

But law enforcement, stores and even mental health professionals rarely think about the underlying reasons—mental health—that drive shoplifters. That would be making excuses, although for many of us there is a compulsive, if not addictive, element to our behavior. Believe me, I could afford the newspapers and the coffee.

I wanted to better understand my compulsion, and I spoke with Adam Borland, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. He explained that “many people who shoplift experience a pleasurable rush of dopamine throughout the body, similar to other addictive behaviors, and seek to experience that pleasure again and again.” (He also noted that it is different from those , who steal because of economic need, financial greed, or even because of a medical condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.)

Borland told me that treatment options can include cognitive behavioral therapy; psychotropic medications (such as Xanax, Ativan, Lexapro, and Celexa); support groups; and even 12-step programs. But how do mental health professionals even know when this is a problem for their patients? A typical mental health screening asks about alcohol, drugs, sexual and eating disorders — but rarely about compulsive shoplifting. Of course, no therapist asked me.

Six months after I got the salad bowl, my sister had a new problem. This time, I quickly told my therapist about my feelings of sadness, pain, loss, and anger. I was also more open with friends. “I am filled with anxiety,” I told several. I hoped that by being more honest with my deeper feelings, I could invalidate them.

Yet two weeks later, I picked up three tubes of MCT oil advertised as “brain fuel,” each priced at $1.49. As with the salad bowl, I didn’t consciously plan it. My original reasoning was that since they were so small, I knew they would fall out of the shopping cart, so I had to put them in my pocket. As soon as I did, though, I knew I wouldn’t be making them on my way out. I didn’t either.

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This time I felt real shame that I couldn’t control myself. I thought of a friend who gets into a car “accident” every time she has a major emotional upset. I remembered friends who tried to stifle painful feelings in other self-destructive ways: drinking too much, overeating, gambling, and sexual compulsion. My advice to them has always been, “Stop!” much like the TV therapist yelling the same at his patients.

Now I have a lot more compassion for them, I understand better why telling someone to stop is not the answer. Perhaps the better question is “What’s wrong with you?”

I decided to call the hospital gift shop at both stores to make restitution. Part of me was afraid they would call 911 and arrest me—or just embarrass me.

I started every phone call with this opening, “I have something embarrassing to confess,” and, to my surprise, I was met with compassion each time. “Thanks for letting me know,” the gift shop manager told me, appreciating my “honesty.” (Yes, I found that ironic). There was no way for me to repay my debt, so to make ends meet I made a donation to the hospital that covered all my stolen belongings and more.

I wish I had more compassion for myself, but even after making up for my thefts, I still feel mostly shame and embarrassment. Recently, after my sister’s cancer marker spiked again, I felt the same emotional blizzard and that familiar urge to erase my feelings. This time, I left my shopping cart on the market aisle and ran straight to the exit—empty-handed—and then followed my niece’s tonic and started writing about my worries.

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