“If I told you I’ve stolen from well over 100 stores, restaurants, from friends, parents, boyfriends, your first reaction would likely be to tell me that I am a criminal and awful person. That I’m a danger to society and should be locked away. And I can’t blame you for that. Stealing is most certainly not okay and I don’t condone it in any way. But I’d also be lying if I told you that I stole because I wanted to take things.
The first time I stole something, I was in eighth grade. I’ll admit that this time it was out of ‘necessity’, whatever that may mean. It was that time of the month. I was menstruating and my parents didn’t have any money to give me for pads or tampons. In fact, for many months, I remember having to roll up layers of toilet paper from my bathroom in place of a pad, changing it every few hours, five days a week. Whenever I told my mother that I needed feminine products she’d reply, ‘And? Take a bath.’
When we didn’t have any toilet paper in our house and my period hit, I took a small, used hand towel from the kitchen and folded it into a rectangle four times and laid it down on my underwear. After a few hours, I flipped it over to the ‘clean’ side and let nature run its course. After using it, I remember disposing of it in a garbage bag just beside the kitchen sink, making sure to reach my hand into the bag and grab some garbage to throw on top and hide my bloody towel. I felt ashamed.
By day two of my period, there was still no toilet paper and no more towels. It was also summertime, so I no longer had the luxury of borrowing toilet paper from the school bathroom and stuffing it into my bookbag. This time around, my period was unusually heavy and I knew I needed to act fast. I could feel the blood gushing from me. So, I went right into my mother’s wallet and took 10 dollars out to buy some tampons.
When I walked into the corner store down the block from our apartment complex, I was struck with a sudden wave of guilt. I felt shame for having stolen from my mother. I knew it was wrong and, believe me, my conscience was having a field day. So, I opted for a new plan.
I walked back home and grabbed a plastic bag from the kitchen. Luckily, I was able to find one that had the store logo on it. When I got back to the store, I found the proper aisle, went up to the box of tampons, looked around nervously until I felt no one was watching, and quickly shoved it into my purse. I paced around the store a bit after that, pretending to be interested in whatever items I was looking at until I felt I could safely walk out. My chest was pounding. My mouth was dry. My cheeks felt hot. But, more importantly, I wouldn’t be bleeding onto my underwear anymore.
When I got home, I managed to slip the $10 back into my mother’s purse without her noticing. As soon as I headed to the bathroom, she waltzed in and asked, ‘Oh, you’re still here?’ I nodded yes and told her I had been back from sleeping over at my friend Jessica’s house for two days, to which she replied an uninterested, ‘Oh.’ She was always disappearing, drinking, and could never keep track of my whereabouts.
‘What have you got there?,’ she asked. Before I could even answer, she rushed over to me and said, ‘Did you get me cigarettes?’ When she saw the little box, her disinterested demeanor quickly changed. Her brows furrowed in anger. I’ll never forget her telling me, ‘What are you a slut now? Sticking things up there and you’re barely 13. Give me those!’ She yanked the bag out of my hand. For the next few days, I couldn’t see any of my friends, not only because I was ‘grounded’ (though my punishments never lasted long because my mother would forget after a day or two and she’d go missing again with my dad) but because I had to constantly bathe myself to keep from soiling my clothes. The water was often ice cold. Having a period to begin with felt embarrassing and strange enough, so there was no way I could ask a friend for help.
The distress I felt from stealing that day was enough for me to not to steal for a while. But, sure enough, when things never got any better at home, I found myself back at the store with the same feelings of paranoia. The same guilt and constant looking over my shoulder. The same walking out of the store, bag in hand, and no receipt. The transition between smuggling things I needed and things I wanted happened quickly. It was no longer just feminine products, chips to fill an empty stomach, Tylenol for the severe migraines I felt from the constant screaming at home. Suddenly, it was a lip gloss or a nail polish. Things that, as a girl, I never had the luxury of having.
And so began my long history of kleptomania. Stealing became a regular thing for me. In no time at all, I was taking things from friends and family. I even remember once taking my friend’s brother’s Game Boy while at her house and selling it for $40 at school. I got such a thrill from it all. Nothing else in my life compared to the pure feeling of freedom and control it gave me. Whenever I walked through those doors unscathed, I felt on top of the world. My body literally felt lighter, but also so full of adrenaline. As much as I hated the stealing part, the paranoia, the fear, my success always cancelled out those negative feelings.
As I got older, I began bragging about my new ‘finds’ to my friends. I was never proud of what I did, but I guess part of me didn’t have much to show off, so I took pleasure in being able to vocalize some new material item I managed to sneak. I was smart about it though, never bringing up my habits to those I had taken from. Not before long, my friends were constantly encouraging my habit, even asking me to take things for them in bulk. At clothing stores, I’d hide a shirt within another shirt, for example, and tell the person guarding over the dressing room that I only had one item. I’d get the ‘1’ tag to put on the door handle and shove the other one into my purse, making sure to rip off all the tags.
I felt so happy and accomplished when I could acquire something on their behalf. I was never given attention at home for any of my achievements, so their praise meant everything to me. I was always a straight A student. Each time I’d show my mom my report card, she’d just shoo me away or say something like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we get it. Stop bragging. It’s unattractive.’ But still, I craved her attention. I needed it… but it never came. Stealing made me feel like I had finally done something right in my life. Something worthy of celebration.
Looking back now, I can see just how much I was hurting. I can see now that I wasn’t taking things to take them. I wasn’t taking them because I felt entitled or invincible. I didn’t think it was fun or funny. I didn’t WANT to take them. I felt I had to. It was an addiction. Like drugs or sex, it gave me a high that I was constantly chasing. I felt like the more I could fill my house with, the more stolen trophies I had, the more I could fill the void in my heart.
I’ve stolen expensive gadgets and kitchen appliances from department stores. I’ve stolen countless outfits, jewelry, shoes. Each time, I’d justify it in my head by telling myself that it was just ‘one little thing’ and that big corporations were rich enough to take the blow. Like I was some sort of Robin Hood taking from the rich and giving to me, the poor. If I stole something to give as a gift, I told myself I had no business being guilty because at least I wasn’t keeping it for myself. My mind always had an excuse.
Stealing has ruined a lot of my relationships. I’ve stolen money out of my past boyfriends’ wallets. Pearls, shoes, watches, and cash from their mothers and siblings. I was an expert at it. I’ve taken countless things from my own friends. I’ve stolen their credit cards, sheepishly telling them they must have simply lost it while we were out. Over time, all of my relationships became shallow and temporary. I had to get out the second they became suspicious of me. Something as slight as them asking to hang out would send me deep into a sea of paranoia. I could never swim afloat. All my brain could tell me was, ‘They know.’ So, I got out and never looked back. I deeply hated my life. I tried to stop stealing numerous times, but the addiction always won the battle. It wasn’t until the first time I really got caught in the act where I decided to truly change my life around for the better.
When I turned 27, I met the love of my life. For the first time, I was given genuine affection and attention. Best of all, I didn’t have to plead and beg for it. I wasn’t starved for it but showered in it. I was treated with the utmost respect and care. I never knew it was possible to feel that happy. We rarely ever fought and if we did, it was briefly and over something minuscule. If it wasn’t, it was an occasional fight that stemmed from me being insecure, listening too much to my self-talk, assuming he didn’t love me, and perceiving his actions to align with that belief.
He was the first person in my life that I truly could truly see in my future. And I wanted him there, forever. I promised myself that I’d never take anything from him and I kept that promise for a while. Until one day, a month after I discovered my mother had suddenly died of a heroin overdose, I cracked. I was feeling so low and depressed. As much as she neglected me, it still hurt to know that my mother was gone. I also knew that the possibility of ever attaining her love died along with her. It was a double funeral.
Without thinking of the consequences, my addiction spoke. I went into his wallet, stole his debit card, cleared out all of his savings, bought myself a plane ticket, and flew all the way across the country by myself. He had been slowly putting money on the side for a year to afford an expensive bracelet to give to his sister for Christmas. She’d been wanting it for years and the charms on it symbolized hope and strength. After her cancer diagnosis, it meant that much more for him to get it for her.
The second I got on that plane, I remember closing my eyes and just knowing that I could never speak to him again. That he would never forgive me. He knew of my habit and I had promised him I would never take a thing from him. He even joked a few times that the only thing I could take was his heart, which always made me smile. It was a small gesture, but it let me know that he accepted me the way I was. That I wasn’t so horrible after all.
When he found out what I’d done, I couldn’t handle his messages. He told me it was over and to never speak to him again. Before even trying to talk it out, I blocked him and did just that. I didn’t speak to him.
Today, it’s been 6 years since I’ve stolen. I’ve apologized to all who I could get into contact with (including my ex-boyfriend) and given them back their money and items. It’s been a long, ugly journey, but I am only now starting to truly realize the complexity of my addiction. That it runs deeper than just wanting to steal. That I felt I HAD to steal to cope with my wounds. Part of me is glad that I became a thief. Not because I’m proud of what I did or because I think it’s okay, but because I didn’t fall into other addictions like drugs or alcohol. These addictions could have easily taken my life the way they did with my mother. While I feel bad about all I’ve done, I don’t regret my journey. It’s a part of me and my mistakes have made me who I am today.
I write this story not to condone or brag about my behavior. I feel deep remorse for everyone and anyone I’ve hurt along my journey. But I hope this story helps you to understand that behavior we often quickly label as criminal and vile, punishable by law, does not always stem from an evil, but from a broken heart. I know many people might feel uncomfortable with sympathizing with someone like me, but I ask you to understand that I am not a bad person. I am filled with love, as most of us who’ve experienced neglect or abuse often are.
I am thankful every single day of my life that I was never caught stealing and had to serve time in jail. My life could have so easily gone down the drain. A prison sentence could have ensured myself and my children into the same cycle of poverty I was stuck in as a child.
I thought about many words to leave you with, but of all things I want to end with this. Please understand that people like me, at heart, are not evil. We just come from it. And we spend our entire lives running away from it, never realizing when we slowly start to become it. If you notice a friend or family member going down the wrong path in life, don’t ask them why they’re doing what they’re doing or scold them for it. Ask them how they got there in the first place.”
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