Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery — Part 2

July 23, 2009

Shoplifting and homelessness

Janice steals when she’s hungry, angry, lonely or tired. It’s hard for her to walk into a store and avoid the temptation to steal. Usually, she takes things she needs along with other items for which she intends to pay, like when she stole a packet of screws with $200 worth of paid goods. Shopping with someone else helps her control the desire to shoplift. Not carrying a purse, not wearing a jacket with pockets helps, too.

This is the conclusion of “Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery.” The beginning of the story is here.

For Cathy, a mother on the West Coast who requested her real name not be revealed, her husband helps keep her from shoplifting. She’s been to therapy and tried Shoplifter’s Alternative, an educational division of NASP, but it’s her husband who checks with her throughout the day and matches her receipts against the items in her shopping bags. Whenever possible, he’ll also do the shopping, but part of recovering from the compulsion is being able to go to a store without walking taking anything. For her, that process has started with knowing under what conditions she’s most likely to steal. Getting cut off in traffic, or returning to a dirty house after spending all day cleaning it, could aggravate her, increasing the chance she’ll shoplift.

Cathy’s last arrest was in 2006, when she was caught trying to steal children’s DVDs. She received a suspended sentence for shoplifting, which included probation and paying a $400 fine.

“The moment when I went, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this on my own,’ was when I paid the fine and I thought to myself, ‘I have to go shoplift something to make me feel better.’”

She won’t go to Michael’s or Hallmarks—both stores have too many items she wants but doesn’t really need, and she has her husband buy smaller goods she desires but never wants to purchase, like breath mints and lip balm.

“I would steal the store brand because it’s cheaper and I feel less guilty,” she says.

When the Mervyn’s clothing chain was still open, she’d take clothes from the clearance rack not because she didn’t want the new styles, but because she felt nobody wanted on-sale garments anyway. “It was hurting people less by stealing from the clearance rack. That was how I justified it,” she said. Only after joining an online support group, Cathy says, did she realize her focus on the clearance rack was related to how she viewed herself as clearance merchandise.

Cindy shares the same low self-esteem but preferred to shoplift at upscale stores like Saks and Bloomingdales. The addiction started when she was in her early 20s, when she worked at a high-end Italian fashion company. Because of her job, she was often invited to events in the area and needed clothes that would impress. After trying on four or five outfits at Saks, she found one that made her feel special. She wasn’t planning to steal the outfit, but after seeing no one at the cash register, she put it in her purse and left the department store. Before long, she was shoplifting every week and says she went 22 years without paying for groceries.

It wasn’t the 17 arrests that convinced Cindy she needed help, nor was it the daily headaches and stiff neck she got from becoming tense after each shoplifting incident. In the mid 2000s, Cindy found the thrill had gone. She began withdrawing from her friends and stopped going out, for fear she might shoplift. One day after being released from jail from a shoplifting arrest, she went to her son’s soccer game and, as he played, she could see the pain on his face. On October 15, 2008 at 8 a.m., she sat at her computer with her morning tea and typed “help shoplifting” into an online search engine.

“God had opened up the gates,” she said.

Her recovery efforts began with a call to a phone-support group meeting of Shoplifter’s Anonymous. The group uses the same literature as Alcoholics Anonymous. Members have a list of people to call when they feel temptation. “I’m no longer alone,” she says about the group, “There are other people who understand me.”

She says it’s like Weight Watchers. If you have a relapse, you’ll have to take flak from others. CASA’s online support group has helped too, but she declined Shulman’s offer of one-on-one paid counseling over the phone. Fresh in her mind was the experience of paying five figures for treatment at Sierra Tucson, an Arizona facility that treats various addictions, mental health issues, and chronic pain.

When Cindy enters a grocery store now, she stays alert at all times; once her mind goes on autopilot, she might shoplift. So, as she shops, she tells herself: “I’m watching you. I’m watching you.”

Just going into a store gave her an anxiety attack soon after she started to get help.

“I was a real shopper. I didn’t know what to do. It was an unbelievable feeling,” she said.



  1. […] Zach’s Blog « Nick Loren: On Life, Music and Being Travolta’s Stunt Double Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery — Part 2 » Compulsive Shoplifting: The Thrill, Guilt and Recovery July 22, […]

  2. I need help!!! Please help

  3. If you need help with a compulsive shoplifting or kleptomania problem, you can contact two services mentioned in the article, there’s http://www.dailystrength.org/c/Kleptomania/support-group as well as http://theshulmancenter.com/. Hope that helps.

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