A closer look at compulsive shoplifters 

Taking things, literally

Page 2 of 2

click to enlarge Terry Shulman. - JACOB LEWKOW
  • Jacob Lewkow
  • Terry Shulman.

It's a point Shulman returns to again and again. For people who abuse substances, when they come clean, that's a brave coming-forward and in general, people are ready to embrace and congratulate them.

But if somebody is a compulsive shoplifter and they come forward, many people are prone to sneer and accuse them of making excuses for their behavior. The difficulty in finding acceptance and redemption looms larger over something that seems as voluntary as compulsive shoplifting. The barriers to admitting "I have a problem" aren't just admitting to a chemical dependency: The moral and legal issues make it extremely hard for friends and relatives to see the emotional dynamic driving the compulsion.

"First of all," Shulman says, "a lot of people don't know to put it in the context of addiction or even a mental health issue. For me, I knew it was an aberrant behavior, but I was too embarrassed to tell anybody about it, including my own family. If I had been an alcoholic, it would have been less hard to share that."

Shulman tries to explain the compulsion by building on the broader understanding of chemical addiction, such as addiction to drugs, alcohol, nicotine, prescription drugs, caffeine, or even food.

"Behavioral addictions are a little trickier," Shulman says. "Most people can get on board with something like gambling addiction. Shopping addiction is another thing. Or hoarding. They may not understand it, but they know there are shopaholics and hoarders out there who are out of control. They understand that these people have chronic problems and they're not thinking clearly. Even if I just stick with the gambling, people often get it. It's called a behavioral or a process addiction, meaning it's not a chemical- or substance-related thing. We know there are a lot of things we can get addicted to that are behavioral: workaholism, TV, the internet, pornography, so you have to kind of open your mind a little more."

Thanks to the internet, the process of educating the general public about compulsive shoplifting has become a little easier, in part due to Shulman's own notoriety. But many people simply find they're unable to give credence to this problem.

"Thou shalt not steal," says Shulman. "We have that right in our Judeo-Christian ethics. And there's a lot of stealing and crookedness that goes on in the world. That doesn't make it right. But sometimes that does factor in when you look around and see what's going on. If you don't have some strong foundations and some good people around you, you can be very vulnerable to going over the line."

Perhaps there is some small element of chemical dependency at play: Many of Shulman's patients describe the rush of taking something illegally, the fight or flight tension or wondering if one will be discovered, and the dreamy afterglow of getting away with it — for now.

"None of it is about the stuff, ultimately," Shulman says. "It's about the feeling you get from getting the stuff. You're getting a feeling. The way I have heard it explained is, very few people like the taste of alcohol. They're getting drunk for the feeling."

Finally, we were able to find somebody other than Shulman to share how it feels.


With Shulman's help, we did hear from one person who offered to share her story. For the purpose of keeping her identity secret, we'll call her "Betty."

Betty lives in western Michigan, is in her 50s, and is originally from the South. Her upbringing sounds right out of a case study: Although mostly raised by her extended family, from time to time she was forced to live with her paranoid schizophrenic mother. The situation was so out of control that she ran away in her early adolescence several times.

"My mother was very, very mentally ill," Betty explains. "It was terrifying for my older sister and me. So my great aunt, my grandfather's sister, thank God, raised us off and on from the time we were babies. But it was very off and on because my mother would give us up but then get back on medication, and we'd go back with her, and she'd go off her medication. When we were with our mother we'd live in abandoned houses with no utilities." Her mother's antics included meditating "for six hours a day by throwing a tennis ball against the wall" or taking the girls on a long drive through the country "on one of the hottest days of the year ... with the windows up so she could meditate."

Betty calls those times "odd and terrifying," adding, "We grew up fast — we had to — and there was a lot of fear."

Betty insists that she was not a naughty or defiant girl, and the stealing was not about money, because, when she was with her great aunts, "we had more than plenty." But she began stealing at a young age, noticing "the high that came with it, because I felt a sense of control."

But her newfound coping mechanism would only temporarily diminish the dread of living with her mother. Seeking to get away, she finally ran off with a much older man, was caught, and placed in a delinquent home. Eventually, an aunt who was a social worker endeavored to raise young Betty. Whatever her aunt's faults, she was relatively stable compared to Betty's mother.

Perhaps it was due to those feelings of shame, of resentment, of being out of control, that Betty found herself in relationships that tempted her to steal, whether it was stealing a restaurant ashtray on a dare for her aunt, or shoplifting necessities to keep her new husband from commenting on the household bills, something that filled her with dread.

"There were years I'd go without shoplifting and wouldn't even think of it," she says, "and then all of a sudden I'd have this strong impulse to do it and it was always at a time of stress or insecurity ... times that just didn't feel safe, and I wanted control of something."

When Betty's first marriage ended, she says "the shoplifting was very heavy, because I was on my own. It's like I wanted to feel some kind of power and security. But even when I was financially OK, to go and take items felt like a strange high. Sometimes I would leave the store, like Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, with just hundreds of dollars worth of items — and the rush that came from it. It sounds so sick, but given the amount of shame and disrespect I had for myself and the anger I had toward all the people who had cared for me, to steal just felt really good and natural. It felt validating. It felt liberating. It felt like I was in control."

Then, while visiting with her sister, she happened to see the episode of Oprah featuring Dr. Shulman. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.

"All of a sudden I'm glued to the TV like nothing can distract me," she says. "Here's a show about people shoplifting and why they do it and their background and the rush that comes from it. And how when they want to stop it's very difficult. And they're usually people with huge shame. And I'm going, 'Oh my gosh, this is me. They're talking about me!'" When Betty was able to get a moment of privacy, she began weeping uncontrollably. "Because finally I heard about myself and this mystery."

Unfortunately, Betty says, she didn't confront her shoplifting compulsion, and her problems multiplied. "I was continually in counseling because of my shame and wanting to kill myself, and it also came out in an eating disorder where I didn't eat or would eat compulsively. I'd try different therapists but with limited results because of how much I despised myself. The shame was overpowering.

"It took me being arrested and facing serious consequences before I really got to the end of it. And even that, unfortunately, the first couple times I was caught and how frightening it was and the shame that went with it, it would shake me at first and then I'd be right back at it. And I'd be like, 'This is really weird. What the heck?'"

These days, Betty is dealing with her problem with greater success. She's decided that she doesn't really like shopping, and has become what she calls "an Amazon girl." "Because of my past, why go there if I can avoid it?" she asks. She's been exploring neurofeedback, checks in on Shoplifters Anonymous conference calls, and goes to 12-step groups at least four times a week.

"I love them, I enjoy them, and lead some of them," she says. "I am extremely joyful, now that I'm not just able to help myself but to help others. It's overwhelming to think I will never shoplift again or overeat or starve myself. But I can tell you I'm not going to do it today. And that's how I do it."

It's been a lifelong fight with a powerful coping mechanism stemming from a harrowing childhood. She realizes what was behind it now. "My huge, huge monster was resentment," she says. "Resentment is very dangerous. To be like, 'That's not fair.' I think that's a huge trigger for shoplifters."

Of course, Betty's aim isn't to make excuses for herself. She is, after all, anonymous. What she hopes to do is help people get that something as apparently black-and-white as shoplifting is sometimes a sign of a much deeper dysfunction:

"I just want so badly for people to understand compulsion in general. Whether it's alcohol or eating disorders or stealing ... it all goes so much deeper than the action. Addictions come from deep within a person who's hurt. Addiction is their stronghold. I'm not saying it to make an excuse. But until that person can deeply heal and have respect for themselves, it's going to remain a problem."

More information about The Shulman Center is available by calling 248-358-8508 or visiting theshulmancenter.com.

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