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A closer look at compulsive shoplifters

Taking things, literally

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In a Beverly Hills coffee shop, Terry Shulman is pouring his heart out about his life-changing battle with a dangerous compulsion.

The topic is very difficult to discuss. It haunted him in his youth, and set him on a course to establish a practice to help with those who suffer from it. Even his closest clients demand almost total secrecy, and building the trust just to discuss their problem can take weeks.

It's not alcoholism. It's not sex addiction. People don't come to him after losing their house to compulsive casino gambling or facing arrest for indecent exposure.

It's misunderstood, difficult to treat, under-researched by the experts, frowned on by the general public, and considered a crime in almost all jurisdictions.

It is compulsive shoplifting.

It's a compulsion that Shulman discovered as a child growing up in Detroit's University District in the 1960s. The child of a needy mother and alcoholic father who divorced when he was 10, Shulman started by stealing a single gumball. The compulsion later began to take hold, and turned into a problem that baffled him so completely, he finally went into therapy as an adult — at least until a psychologist told him he was addicted to shoplifting and refused to treat him anymore.

"It was both a horrible and beautiful realization," Shulman says. "All of a sudden it made sense. I thought, 'Oh, my God. I'm probably more like my dad than I thought.'"

His ongoing battle with compulsive shoplifting led him to write a book on the subject, Something for Nothing, and to found the Shulman Center, becoming a lawyer-therapist specializing in hoarding, compulsive shopping, and shoplifting addiction. Such clients need help not just navigating a personal compulsion but the justice system, and Shulman knows how to assist them with both.

As specialists in kleptomania go, the Franklin-based advisor-attorney is as high profile as they come, having been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, and Nightline. He's regularly sought out by potential clients, often people facing prosecution. Given the level of self-interest that could drive a criminal to seek a light sentence, doesn't Shulman have to do some screening?

"Very rarely," he says. "There's a self-screening process. By the time people are more interested in having a conversation, in following up, they're pretty motivated. They're suffering. People are so resistant to seeking help with this, by the time they make a phone call, they generally do want help."

In the early 1990s, unable to find a support group for Kleptomaniacs, he finally found a support group for alcohol addiction and came forward to the group as a compulsive shoplifter. "It got a few odd stares," he says, but the group was willing to work with him. The experience inspired Shulman to found his own weekly support group for shoplifting addiction, which celebrated 25 years last September.

Shulman's group uses some of the attitude and terminology of 12-step programs, describing every day as a new chance to tackle the problem. "One term that we're developing is 'addictive-compulsive shoplifting,' which I think is a better model," Shulman says, "because then you incorporate some of the literature we already have about addiction, and support groups, and one day at a time, and 'it's a "we" program,' and a whole lot of other things that people can relate to."

But Shulman picks and chooses from the concept. "Our group is a hybrid," he says. "We don't rigorously enforce the 12 steps. We don't have sponsors. We're really light on the higher power."

Shulman offers clients a two-month program, including 10 or 11 sessions, a book, and membership in an email support group 300 strong. "I'm not offended that they also are hoping that I'll write a good letter that will get them leniency," Shulman says. "There's nothing wrong with that. I went through therapy hoping for the same thing."

His typical clients might be the last people you'd expect. They're often middle aged and female. Many are middle-class. Shulman says that true kleptomania, which he says is a pretty rare condition, reportedly afflicts women four times as much as men. In his own experience, he sees compulsive shoplifting as disproportionately affecting people who've been marginalized, especially women and African Americans.

"People shoplift for different reasons," Shulman says. "As far as I can tell, there's not a lot of hard research, but I think 50 percent of the people shoplifting might be professional thieves, common thieves, or people addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling who are trying to support an underlying addiction, kids doing it on a dare, and people who are really impoverished who steal to put food on the table. I call about half of the people who steal 'head-scratcher cases,' because they're basically honest people, intelligent, caring, often very giving."

Shulman has become adept at identifying people who have the compulsion. People who steal things they won't use, even though they have the money to pay for them, might be one indicator. The clues may be in childhood, involving unfair upbringings, unresolved loss, or compulsive behaviors in parents or guardians. As Shulman writes in his book, "The simplistic notion that shoplifting and stealing are merely legal or moral issues is wrong." And he has developed a particular talent for explaining the compulsion to often shocked or outraged family members or spouses, detailing the misunderstandings people are prone to in our materialistic society.

"I think a common misperception is that shoplifters will take from anybody," Shulman says. "Like, 'Oh, you're a thief.' ... A lot of people will think, 'Are you crazy? Who are you? Do you have a split personality? Are you a sociopath? Are you living a double life? Are you a chronic liar?' Often when family or a loved one find out, they often feel like, 'I don't know you anymore.' Particularly if they find out this has been going on for a while."

But Shulman says that, with some exceptions, most compulsive shoplifters aren't only typical in most other respects, but "extremely honest."

"And this is the bizarre thing, and this was true of me, if you dropped your wallet, if you left a credit card, if a purse was left, I'd give it to you," he says. "Even people who are out of control with the shoplifting often draw lines on what they won't do. For instance, most people who shoplifted didn't steal from work in any way."

"A lot of times, people think it's just for cheap thrills. A lot of times people think shoplifters are greedy, they're dishonest, they just don't want to play by the rules, but I often think of it as a cry for help."

That's a phrase Shulman says he often uses with his clients. "I've found that shoplifting is a distress signal," he says. "It's a sign something's going on, and we've got to figure out what's going on. Then we can start talking about it and piecing things together."

Shulman says the dynamic makes treatment tricky. Allowing a patient to make disclosures in the absence of judgment is vital. A good percentage of Shulman's clients have just been through an emotional wringer. Not only have many been arrested and fingerprinted, they've had to deal with blowback from incredulous relatives, arguments with spouses, or shame in their community. It sounds like just about the worst time for a therapist to encourage sharing, and it's understandable many of Shulman's patients would be reluctant to elaborate on how far back their problem goes.

Shulman clarifies: "I'm not saying shoplifters shouldn't feel shame. There is such a thing as healthy shame. But most of the people who come to me have toxic shame. Meaning, 'I am the most horrible person in the world.' And I say, 'You know what? I've felt the same way. And what you're feeling is really common. On the one hand, I'm glad that you're feeling bad about what you did. However, let's just have a little conversation here. There are two concepts: guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling awful about what you've done. Shame is feeling awful about who you are. And we want to see if we can move it over to guilt a little bit.' It takes time, but if people get trapped in that toxic shame, it's just my judgment ... I worry about them."

It's early evening in spring when the group Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA) meets at a church in Southfield. The unusual spelling of kleptomania is Shulman's touch, to make the group sound homier.

The group meets every Wednesday, drawing a core of about a half-dozen regular attendees. Tonight's meeting draws more than a dozen people.

But tonight's group is smaller than otherwise for a notable reason: Three regular attendees have dropped out of the meeting because a journalist is attending. Promises were made that the reporter will not use real names and is only there to convey what goes on at a meeting. It quickly becomes obvious that the stigma of shoplifting is so great, the fear of being exposed so significant, that normally sharing participants will not attend. In fact, several leave shortly after learning what's up. What's more, not a single participant will agree to an interview afterward.

For the most part, the meeting is uneventful. The participants are mostly female, a mix of white and black, and even one hijab-clad woman. Many of the women have a prosperous look, with attractive clothing or carefully done hair. If you hadn't been told this was a CASA group, you might mistake it for a PTA meeting in a well-integrated middle-class neighborhood.

For those familiar with the 12-step process, it's fairly familiar stuff. The participants check in with their emotions, tell how they've fared fighting their compulsion, what tactics they've used to keep it at bay. Some of the talk is so frank and dispassionate, you can see where the wrong person would misunderstand the tone, taking it for a lack of remorse instead of an examination of one's actions.

That all changes when one new participant, fresh from the ordeal of being caught, has a story to share. Like many compulsive shoplifters, this person has made it through most of life without ever having been detected. This person is, in fact, on a track toward a career that will help many people who need assistance.

But recently, with a major professional examination looming, and under intense pressure to do well, the participant fell victim to a pattern Shulman recognizes: The compulsion to shoplift often spikes during personal crises. As the participant confesses, the shoplifting arrest now poses a double whammy, with legal and professional consequences that could destroy a career years in the making.

Our confessor is still obviously reeling from all this, trembling and weeping, telling the story in speech halted by sobs. The people seated in a circle nod in sympathy, likely remembering their lowest points in their struggle against the compulsion. Shulman's argument begins to make a kind of sense: These people aren't criminals; in fact, they seem almost like overachievers.

And yet, given the stigma associated with shoplifting in our materialistic society, how will these people ever get the help they need?

***

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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