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Struggling with mental health, I began to shoplift

It’s embarrassing to admit, but it turns out the link is not that uncommon

(Washington Post Illustration/Pexels)

A year ago, I was running late to the hospital to visit my sister, who had just learned about her second recurrence of ovarian cancer. Julie had been admitted as part of the protocol for a clinical trial, which had many awful side effects.

One week, she had heart palpitations. The next brought so much abdominal pain that my little sister was in tears. In between, she had a flood of heavy mucous in her eyes, which she said made her “look like she was in a grade B horror film.”

On the morning in question, I hadn’t had time to pick up a newspaper or my cup of coffee before getting to the hospital. So after checking in — and getting an upsetting morning update — I took the central elevator down to the gift shop.

I picked up a newspaper and then went over to the self-service coffee bar and poured myself a cup. With both hands full, I headed to the cash register to pay. No one was there. I looked around the gift shop. I waited. No one. All of a sudden I felt rage: At my sister’s diagnosis. At the hospital’s inability to heal her. At a laundry list of grievances that I’d never fully expressed. And now at the gift shop. (All this anger despite how I’d been successfully treated at the same facility years ago.)

I didn’t see any security cameras, but in that moment I also didn’t care if I got caught. I walked out holding my unpaid possessions — 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 shoplifters in recent times. There was Bess Myerson, a former Miss America who in 1988 pleaded guilty to stealing $44 in jewelry, cosmetics, and some others items. In 2011, Lindsay Lohan was accused of stealing a $2,500 necklace and was forced to take court-mandated shoplifting classes and complete a community service program. And Winona Ryder, who stole $5,500 worth of designer goods from Saks Fifth Avenue.

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

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Nonetheless, I continued to shoplift from the gift shop for a second and a third day. My tally now totaled $16.50, which came nowhere near diminishing my rage.

Two weeks later, still deeply upset about the state of Julie’s health, I “forgot” about the $25 salad bowl I’d placed on the lower rack of my supermarket shopping cart. I went through self-checkout without paying for it — sure, I had plausible deniability, but what was going on with me? A blizzard seemed to have taken over my brain, and the usual filters that kept me within the lines of good behavior (and obeying the law) had disappeared.

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

I confided in a few close friends. I told my eldest niece, then 25, thinking that she might be experiencing some of the same frustrations. Turns out she was channeling her worries into a much healthier venture: writing about them. So why were my own usual coping tools failing me? (I even had a therapist.)

Increasingly worried about my behavior, I decided to talk with a close friend, an attorney, and I asked him what the penalty might be. The first thing he said was almost a dare: “It’s not a felony unless you steal more than $1,000 worth of stuff” — although he pointed out that because I’m White I had much less to worry about from law enforcement or courts than someone who is Black.

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

I did, and this is what he told me: “I think, at this moment, it’s pretty clear what you’re not wanting to feel. … And I’m sure that’s connected to a lot of things. Not just Julie.”

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

In Psychotherapy Networker, Terrence Daryl Shulman, the author and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, wrote: “Most people who resort to stealing are actually ‘crying for help.’ There’s something amiss, wrong, unresolved, absent.”

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

Check, check and check.

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

I wanted to understand my compulsion better and spoke with Adam Borland, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. He explained that “many individuals who shoplift experience a pleasurable rush of dopamine throughout the body, similar to other addictive behaviors, and seek to feel that pleasure again and again.” (He also noted that it’s 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 treatment options can include cognitive behavioral talk 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, sex and eating disorders — but rarely about shoplifting compulsions. Certainly, no therapist had ever asked me.

Six months after I took the salad bowl, my sister had another setback. This time I quickly told my therapist about my feelings of sadness, pain, loss and anger. I was more explicit with friends, too. “I’m filled with anxiety,” I told a few. I hoped that by more honestly confronting my deeper feelings I could disempower them.

Yet two weeks later, I pocketed three tubes of MCT oil, promoted as “brain fuel,” each with a price tag of $1.49. As with the salad bowl, I didn’t consciously plan it. My initial rationale was that because they were so small I knew they’d fall out of the shopping cart, so I had to put them in my pocket. As soon as I did, however, I knew I wouldn’t produce them when checking out. And I didn’t.

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This time I felt real shame for not being able to control myself. I thought about a friend who has a car “accident” every time she has a big emotional upset. I remembered friends who’d tried to stifle painful feelings in other self-destructive ways: drinking too much, overeating, gambling and sexual compulsion. My advice to them had always been: “Stop!” much like the TV therapist who shouts the same at his patients.

I feel a great deal more compassion for them now, understanding better why telling someone to “stop” isn’t the answer. Maybe the better question is, “What’s going on with you?”

I decided to call the hospital gift shop and the two stores to make restitution. Part of me was afraid they’d call 911 and have me arrested — or just shame me.

I started each phone call with this opening, “I have something embarrassing to admit,” and was, to my surprise, met each time with compassion. “Thanks for letting me know,” the manager of the gift shop told me, appreciating my “honesty.” (Yes, I found that ironic). No one had a way for me to repay my debt, so to make amends I made a donation to the hospital that covered all my stolen items and more.

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

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