Drunk on Stealing

By Hannah Sward 06/21/17

Every time I wanted to steal I’d think of that lady putting a steak in her purse.

woman stealing make up and putting it in her back pocket
For many people, stealing is a compulsion that may be directly related to other addictions.

The first time I stole I was six. I stuffed a Milky Way down the leg of my corduroy bell-bottoms. It slid down my pants onto the pavement outside the store. My step mom made me bring it back to the cashier. At home, I wasn’t allowed candy but I liked it, I wanted it and I stole more. M&M’s, Malt Balls, Swedish Fish.

In second grade I stole Cotton Candy and Strawberry Bonnie Belle lip smackers. I would come to school in gold threaded sari’s that my dad brought me back from India and the kids would make fun of me. But for a day, maybe two, when I handed out the lip smackers to the girls on the playground they would like me.

At nine I was arrested on my way to a ballet class. Pink ballet tights and Smarties. The police took me to the station. My dad spanked me even though he didn’t want to. It was the right thing to do to get me to stop. That’s what my stepmom told him. But I didn’t stop. I kept on stealing.

I stole quarters from a blind old man who my stepmom used to visit. I stole my neighbor’s jeans when I was ten and wore them to school and told her they were mine. I stole black licorice, hair clips with rhinestone butterflies, underwear, more ballet tights and more chocolate bars.

At nineteen I was arrested in Miami. Clearasil at Woolworth’s. I spent the night in the downtown jail with cockroaches and prostitutes and one fancy lady in her forties who was also in for stealing just like me. I didn’t want to be her age and still stealing. I hated myself for it. I tried to stop but I couldn’t.

I moved to Los Angeles and ate unpaid for blueberry muffin tops at Pavilions in West Hollywood. I loved those muffin tops. I would help myself to them from the self-serve plastic bins next to the deli. I’d walk down the condiment aisle eating the delicious treat and if I got thirsty I’d open a $4.99 Odawala orange juice. I also liked the $11.99 yellowtail and salmon rolls. I’d eat that too walking down the aisles, adding soy sauce as I looked at what was on sale in the shampoo section. One day, hiding the empty sushi tray with leftover ginger and wasabi behind the Angel Soft toilet paper, a security guard came up to me.

“I’ve seen you before,“ she said, laying her heavy hand on my forearm.

I stared down at her purple fake fingernails with one sparkle on the index nail. I turned red. Faint.

“You pay for that sushi and you are forbidden to enter this store again.”

I didn’t know how to handle my emotions. Whenever I was lonely, fearful or anxious I’d go to the store and steal. For a month, maybe two, I didn’t steal after the Pavilion’s incident. Then I started going to Ralph’s. Instead of eating in the aisles I thought it was a good idea to eat in the bathroom. I’d sit on the toilet or lean up against the baby diaper changing station and eat icing off of cupcakes and stuff the bottoms in the garbage.

My addiction to shoplifting led me to using drugs and alcohol for the same reasons I stole. To escape myself. The self-hatred, entitlement, unmanageability was gripping. I’d drink expensive champagne in the bathrooms at Whole Foods. Cheap red wine out of the box in the bathrooms at CVS before therapy.

A week before Christmas, 2009, I made my usual stop at CVS before therapy. I snuck a miniature four pack of Gallo wine, the kind with the twist off top, into the bathroom. I drank two and hid the rest under paper towels in the trash next to the sink. I went into therapy planning to go back and drink the other two after the session.

I sat down in the windowless room at Maple Counseling Center. My therapist looked at me. I stared down at her pink flats and black stockings.

“We can’t continue to work together if you come in like this,” she said.

I knew I needed help. I didn’t want to lose her. I didn’t go back to that CVS bathroom after therapy. Instead I went straight home. I can’t remember if I finished the bottle of two buck Chuck I had in the fridge or not. But the next day I went to my first meeting. It was two blocks from my house upstairs in a Korean church. The meeting was called, ‘Limp In, Leap Out.’ I cried the whole time. People handed me cards with their numbers. I still have those cards in the top drawer of my vanity room. At first I never called any of those people but over time many have become friends.

In the beginning it was terrifying to try and get through the day without stealing, using or drinking. I shared. I shared all the time in meetings. The more I shared and the more I listened to other people's stories I realized I was not alone. And I felt comfortable sharing the worst things about myself, things I thought I’d never tell anyone. Like stuffing empty sushi trays behind toilet paper or spending entire days at Ross high, stealing clothes, walking out with underwear and pants under my skirt.

I remember the first time someone shared their stealing story with me after a meeting. All I knew about her was that she was an influential political figure in Los Angeles and that she liked to ride horses.

“Honey, you are not alone," she said. “I know that Pavilions you’ve shared about and I used to steal steaks and put them in my purse at that very location. They were just too expensive, over priced, that was my rationale, “ she said, laughing.

“Yesterday I stole pina colada gum at Bristol Farms on my lunch break,” I told her.

Very simply she said, “You can make amends for that by going back in there and paying for it.”

The next day I did. I bought the gum and then put it back in its place and left. I got immediate relief making that amends. It’s been seven and a half years since I’ve stolen. In the beginning, every time I wanted to steal I’d think of that lady putting a steak in her purse and me stealing pina colada gum and making amends for it.

Something has lifted. But it hasn’t been easy. I have to be rigorously honest with myself. Like when I go to Starbuck’s I can’t put extra Stevia packets in my purse. Sometimes I’ll put one or two but I know what that can lead to. I have to watch myself. When I want to escape myself and stuff stolen cupcakes into my mouth or drink or do meth I go to a meeting. I share exactly how I’m feeling and what I’ve done. Whether it’s pocketing extra Stevia with my nonfat latte or being at a party and the red wine smelling really good. When I share, by the end of the meeting I am ok. For that day. For today. One day at a time.

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