Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery

July 22, 2009


To Jessica, her compulsion feels like a disease, one that came to the surface on a visit to Target one day in 2003.  She says she loves to shop but was supposed to stick to the shopping list and resented the way she thought her husband was trying to control her.  So Jessica, who also suffered from postpartum depression, veered from the list, stealing stationery and greeting cards, neither of which she needed. Yet as she walked out the front doors of the store, she felt a high. “I couldn’t believe I got it,” she said.  Had someone told her the day before it happened she would be shoplifting, she wouldn’t have believed them.

Since then, Jessica has stolen the Sex and the City complete series on DVD, stickers (“the kid in me wanted stickers”) and clothes for six-year-old Keith, who doesn’t know about his mother’s impulses.  “Pretty soon you think you’re a pro at it, you think you’re invincible,” she said.  She continued her thefts until December 8, 2005, when she got careless and was arrested at Target for stealing magazines including Vogue, Marie Claire and Ladies Home Journal. After a Target employee in the loss prevention department questioned her about the arrest, she allowed the company to search her house. “I’m very scared of authority figures,” she said, “I was trying to cooperate and be a good citizen.” At her house, Target found more than $200 of goods, most of it unwrapped.

That was the same year she lost her job as a coding specialist at a hospital and one month after she and her husband declared bankruptcy. She felt ashamed.

Today, for support, she uses an online group where she reads others’ stories. Jessica thinks it’s too soon for Keith to understand a serious condition for which there aren’t as many easily accessible resources as for alcoholics. When Keith is 10 or 12 she might tell him about her compulsive shoplifting.  That will give her enough time to make greater progress in controlling the problem.

“Mom was really sick and suffered from some mental illness,” she would say to Keith, “[and] wasn’t making good choices.”

Jessica considers her condition compulsive shoplifting and not kleptomania, which is a mental disorder involving uncontrollable stealing.  Taking things from a store where everything has a price is more likely to thrill compulsive shoplifters while stealing items from a friend’s house won’t appeal to them as much.

JoAnn’s story starts with a tootsie pop.  When she was four years old, she took one from a small convenience store.  By the time she was in third grade, she found herself sometimes stopping her bike at two 7-11 stores on the way to and from school.  She would pay for a soda but fill her backpack with Mars bars, Spree candy and sunflower seeds.

“I don’t remember being especially concerned that I would get caught by the store employees.  I should have feared for my life—my father would have killed me—but all I remember as I look back is how great the candy tasted.  How sweet the chocolate was. The tartness of those sweet tarts.  The saltines of the sunflower seeds … Mountain Dew out of a bottle.  Raspberry Icee that turned my lips red.”

It’s no family secret. Her kids know about the compulsive shoplifting because she doesn’t want them to think it’s acceptable behavior. The family goes to a therapist who helps them understand her problem. At one session, JoAnn’s 13-year-old daughter said she doesn’t want her mom to stop because the family eats expensive steaks instead of hot dogs. “We laugh about this,” JoAnn says, “but she was serious.”

free ride

JoAnn rarely leaves a store without stealing something with her, but when she does, she feels empty and uneasy. “I feel like the 10 minutes or however long I was in a store was a waste of time,” she says.

Few in-person support groups exist for compulsive shoplifters, but online groups like DailyStrength and CASA, from Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous, have been helpful for those unable to attend a live meeting.  CASA founder Terry Shulman, a recovering kleptomaniac, created the Yahoo-based listserv that now has about 170 members. Meetings are hosted in the Michigan area, but otherwise the interaction is online. Only about 20 of the listserv members are men, Shulman estimates, a 2-to-15 men-to-women ratio strikingly different from the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention’s research, which has found that men shoplift as often as women. NASP is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to prevent shoplifting through education, self-help resources and research.

JoAnn joined DailyStrength last year, looking to connect with others who are bipolar.  After admitting her stealing problem, she started posting in the kleptomaniacs section of the Web site, eventually coming into contact with a few people she now considers friends.  Regardless of where people seek help, Shulman, who founded CASA in 1992, knows well the common misconceptions about kleptomania and compulsive shoplifting.

“That people steal out of economic need or greed,” Shulman recites. “That people don’t feel remorse.  That people just want to make excuses.  That people can stop anytime they want.  That people who steal from one place will steal from anyplace or anyone.  That people who steal [are] inherently dishonest or untrustworthy.  That all they need is more severe punishment or consequences to make them stop.”

Compulsive shoplifters come from all kinds of familial and financial backgrounds. Often, sufferers share low self-esteem and guilt, things that aren’t always addressed when they are caught. When shoplifters are arrested, part of their sentence might be to enter a court-ordered program from NASP.  The organization’s communications director, Barbara Staib, says the loss of sales from shoplifting raises prices and lowers state tax revenues.  The association has found that 27 percent of shoplifters caught for the first time say it’s already become a habit or addiction.

That was certainly true for six-year-old Janice, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, when a shop clerk thought he caught her stealing but let her go—the stolen goods were in her bag. She’s still dealing with compulsive shoplifting more than 40 years later.  While riding her bike to school in the Netherlands where she grew up, Janice would develop a pretense for stopping at one of the three grocery stores in her neighborhood.  From her experience shopping with her mom, she would pick the stores in which the clerks couldn’t see the aisles from their positions behind a cash register.  Two to three times a week, she’d cycle among the different businesses, stealing food.  When the shop clerk caught six-year-old Janice shoplifting, she convinced him she hadn’t taken anything and that he could check her bag. The man decided to trust her—he didn’t check her bag and let her go.

Years later, Janice still finds it remarkable how much people want to believe her. She eventually moved to a state in the U.S. Midwest. On a trip to Walmart one day, she nearly got caught shoplifting. After she put everything she bought in her bag along with a stolen alarm clock, Janice walked to the sliding exit doors but stopped after an alarm sounded. A friendly store employee approached and led her to a checkout stand. Janice needed to get rid of the alarm clock in her bag before it was found. There wasn’t much time.

Janice did need a new alarm clock but the one she liked in the store was too expensive.  She hadn’t gone to Walmart planning to steal that clock, but couldn’t control the urge after seeing its price.  She didn’t want to be arrested, ruining her clean record—a blank police history being uncommon for a compulsive shoplifter.

As the employee led her to the scanner where they could check the items in her bag against the ones listed on the receipt, Janice slipped the clock onto a product display. Once it was confirmed that Janice had paid for everything in her bag, she was on her way home, feeling, as she later described, “shitty and victorious.” She thought herself too damn good at shoplifting to get caught, though the crime also went against everything she believes.

That was close, she thought, that was way too close.

Read the conclusion of this story by clicking right here.


One comment

  1. […] in the Journey Zach’s Blog « Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery — Part 2 July 23, […]

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