Confessions of a Kleptomaniac
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Stealing was my first addiction. It took hold in my early childhood and outlasted my later drug use, like a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust.
One of my earliest memories—I was five or six—is of stealing chocolate from a cafe in London. It was a Trio bar, divided into a “trio” of chocolate, caramel and biscuit squares. They don't make them any more. I saw it in the fridge and my imagination worked at tearing off the foil packaging, shoving the first square into my mouth, feeling the chocolate melt over my tongue… But I didn’t have it, and that was intolerable, so I took it.
My father, the local evangelical pastor, put me to bed that night. The Trio was carefully hidden under my pillow, and Dad put his hand there and found it. I felt a shame that's been with me ever since. The next day, I was forced to return the chocolate to the cafe owner. As I mumbled my apology, I noticed the adults grinning at each other and sharing looks I didn’t understand. I was humiliated.
I carried on stealing. I stole Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle trading cards from my friend’s big sister. I stole a Garfieldbook from a classmate’s bag. I even went round the neighborhood in southern England, where I grew up, charging people a pound to enter a fake competition. Stealing is always seen as bad, but when you’re the son of a pastor, it's somehow worse. I always felt proud to see my father command the congregation's attention every Sunday, but I knew I could never meet the high moral expectations of my parents' faith. Maybe, as I look back on it, stealing was a way to take the power back, maybe it was a subversion of everything my parents stood for. That rush of power, followed by heightened senses and sickly-sweet paranoia, that feeling of "will I be caught?" intoxicated me.
I've often wondered how many other people start stealing compulsively at such a young age, so I asked a couple of experts in the field. Terrence Shulman is the founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, and the author of Something for Nothing, a book on compulsive shoplifting. He says that it's common for compulsive thieves to begin as young as age five. "Most people start off stealing a little bit in their earlier lives in reaction to emotional distress," he says. "Losses, trauma, betrayal, financial issues—and it becomes worse over time. But some also develop stealing behaviors later in life." He continues, "It is quite common that young children are over-disciplined or abused or shamed for various things...and it can leave a scar and cause them to rebel, often secretively, into law-breaking behaviors such as stealing."
The more I stole, the worse I felt; the worse I felt, the more I wanted drugs, and the more I needed to steal. It wasn’t long before I went for the big score. My dad’s change of career was proving lucrative. My parents started to build a three-story extension onto our suburban home. Builders were smashing down walls, working on scaffolding and laying bricks, and they needed to be paid. One typically desperate morning, I found an envelope with about 400 UK pounds in it in the top draw of my parents' dresser: a quarter of it went into my pocket. I couldn’t let myself think about what I was doing, and focused instead on the drugs it would buy.
I arrived back home late and found both parents waiting for me. “How could you?” yelled my dad. “Your brothers and sister would never do this. Why?” shouted my mum. “I don’t know,” I whispered to the ground. Then my father punched me on the jaw and I fell down. Later he apologized, and I replied, “It’s OK. I would have hit me too.”