Confessions of a Kleptomaniac

By Dylan Lavene 10/09/12

I became a drug addict only years after I'd discovered my first true love: compulsive thieving. I've stolen from strangers, friends—and even my own grandmother.

Stealing can create a drug-like buzz. Photo via

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 remember thinking, "He’s bound to notice if I take it all," and taking it all, anyway.

I carried on stealing. I stole Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle trading cards from my friend’s big sister. I stole a Garfield book 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."

Dr. Jeff Gardere is a psychologist and the author of two books on parenting. "We do see very young children who begin to steal and it is a sign of some emotional disturbance, a lack of permanence in their lives or a psycho-symbolic way to fill the void in their lives," he tells me. "That void may come from a lack of love from parental figures, or from emotionally unhealthy environments." He also agrees with me that stealing "may be a way of taking back power from a strictly disciplined childhood...breaking out of the very strict upbringing and rigid rules by engaging in rule-breaking and sometimes chaotic behavior."

My shame and guilt grew. I found myself barely able to look at the things I stole, but I couldn’t stop. In the end, I just hid that side of me away—the side that stole and lied—until it felt like my personality had split: I was both my parents’ shiny-shoed boy and a hidden, Gollum-like creature. But the years 11-15 became a relatively stable and happy time for me. My family moved to a small town and my father left the church to pursue a business career. I got a paper round and a brand new bike, and the strict discipline relaxed. I had more freedom to be myself, and I stopped stealing—until, that is, I started on the drugs.

Of course, substance use causes stealing for practical reasons: "I've estimated that about 15-20% of people who chronically shoplift or steal are doing so primarily to support an underlying drug and/or alcohol habit," says Shulman. But does the relationship go deeper? The fact that I started stealing long before I took drugs suggests to me that it does. "Compulsive stealing may be associated with substance addictions in that they both are a self-medication for deeper emotional issues," says Gardere. "Scientifically, the unconditioned stimulus which is drugs brings an unconditioned response, which is being high. Eventually the conditioned stimulus becomes stealing, and the conditioned response becomes getting high. In essence, stealing has been paired with drugs for so long that stealing alone becomes the high." And Shulman confirms that "I have worked with many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who've reported to me that even after they've gotten clean and sober, they still have struggled with compulsive stealing."

By the age of 16, I was smoking half an ounce of high-grade cannabis every week. I sold it, rolled it and smoked it all day. In the mornings I'd open my eyes, confused and cotton-headed, roll off my bed, slide a Marilyn Manson CD into the player and open my draw to check I still had weed. One day, the draw was empty. Panic. My first thought was to steal the £20 I needed for an eighth. Weed was my cloaking device and going to school without it was unthinkable, so I slunk into my dad’s office. I opened his top drawer and felt rotten. I opened his wallet: Shit! Only £15. I remember thinking, "He’s bound to notice if I take it all," and taking it all, anyway. Then I crept into my brother’s room to make up the other £5 from his carefully hoarded coins. My guts felt like they'd turned to stone.

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 Dylan Lavene is the pen-name of a poet who lives in the UK. You can read more from him on his blog.