Things I’ve stolen over the years equate to several thousands of pounds. Sometimes, the value of items I’d steal in one single spree equated to hundreds. I’d go to my local high street, a list of items in my head, and hit department store after department store; the bigger and busier, the better. The day I realised, aged 28, that everything I was wearing was embezzled –a polo neck from Uniqlo, ripped jeans from AllSaints, M&S underwear, gold hoop earrings from Anthropologie, and Byredo perfume – I knew I needed help.
As an attractive, Caucasian, middle-class woman, I’m hardly the archetypical shoplifter. To my knowledge, I’ve never been suspected, which I’m certain is down to how I look, rather than my smooth sleight of hand. Raised in a middle-class home in Bristol, state-educated and with myriad opportunities handed on a plate, I was happy, loved and privileged. I occasionally stole items of little worth from shops or supermarkets when I was 11, but didn’t everyone? It was a phase I assumed I’d leave behind in adulthood. But at 25, my stealing vamped up to a full-blown addiction.
I was an editor in book publishing but felt creatively stunted and unfulfilled. I craved adventure and change – the office job was stable, but the sense of monotony I felt each day was clawing away at my insides. I took a career sabbatical, got a teaching qualification and left for Italy to teach English and forget my troubles – cliché, I know. It was the age-old antidote to the fact that I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, I felt untethered. I’d broken up with my boyfriend and I hadn’t spoken to my mother in about nine months, after she left my dad from another man, and effectively abandoned our family. I was troubled, suffering quietly from what I now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from the betrayal and gradual erosion of our family unit.
My sense of worth was next to none. Stealing made me feel in control when other parts of my life were unravelling. I lived in a small town in Campania and, far from fluent in the native language, I continued stealing from the local shops and pharmacies to fill the time. Even when I eventually made friends and had a whirlwind romance, I didn’t stop. I was deeply unhappy, but in complete denial.
At first, I mostly stole make-up, skincare products, jewellery and perfume, but then I moved onto clothes and mastered the art of buying one small thing to deter unwanted attention and filling my pockets with stolen goods on the way out. Some of the things I have stolen over the years are: make-up, a cushion cover, a watch, a silver ring; myriad pairs of underwear, jeans, several bottles of expensive perfume, a multitude of face serums and endless packets of false nails (in a desperate attempt to curb my nail-biting habit).
When my teaching job came to an end in Italy, I moved back to London and became a freelance writer. I lived from payslip to payslip, always on the hunt for work, and the lack of security only pushed me deeper into my habit. I stole on weekends, evenings, during lunch breaks, whenever I could. It was never about the money. I could afford all the essentials such as food and travel, and had enough to cover occasional meals out, theatre and gig tickets. This was no situation, it was always a want, not a need.
Moments before the crime, everything is still. I feel for labels, security tags, or whatever might sound a security alarm. My breath quickens and my eyes dart about the shop, looking for cameras. It’s important to act fast, so I find a secluded spot away from the gaze of security guards or shop assistants, occasionally flashing a smile to alleviate suspicion. Sometimes, I’ll slip into a changing room to break the labels off, the same way one plucks an unruly hair with great satisfaction. Once I’ve made my decision, I bury the item in my bag and feel a surge of anticipation. This endorphin hit follows me out of the shop and lingers like a happy shadow for an hour or two, but the highs only lasts so long. Once I’m home, the guilt rolls over me like a thick impenetrable fog and I tell myself: enough. Enough now.
I always feel dirty. The addiction is at odds with who I am as a person. Over the years I’ve volunteered for various charities, from refugees to homeless shelters; I consider myself an ethical consumer, support local businesses and am easily ground down by the world’s injustices. In short, I feel like a complete fraud. It's like I had two personalities, but the dishonest one was continuously stamping out the other.
Only three people close to me know my secret. When I told my current boyfriend, he was extremely concerned, but not wholly surprised given his knowledge of my history of anxiety and depression. He told me to always call him when the urge came, but, of course, I never did.
I finally sought professional help in the summer of 2019. I’d just left London and was renting in a rural town with my boyfriend. It should’ve been an exciting time, but the weight of the secret dragged me into a deep depression. I knew this time that my addiction was feeding the low moods, bouts of anger and self-hatred. My depression was a warning. If I didn’t overcome the addiction, I’d lose everything – my relationship, my freedom, my job, happiness and sense of self-worth. I knew that if the problem persisted, people in this tight-knit community of 8,000 would eventually find out.
The local GP showed little sympathy as I asked for help in floods of tears. Despite having discussed my mental health history at length, he told me that shoplifting was a crime and I could stop myself if I wanted to. He prescribed me a course of Sertraline, an antidepressant that's usually for people who suffer from with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and I convinced him to put me on a waiting list for a wellbeing service. Six months later, I eventually received virtual cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and alongside the course of antidepressants, the compulsions dwindled.
My therapist identified the stealing as one of my many obsessive behavioural traits, also including nail-biting and hair pulling. Stealing kept my anxiety – momentarily – at bay. It gave me a sense of routine, during a time that felt chaotic. But it fed off my existing obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and was indirect self-harm, a cry for help.
I've been close to telling my sisters, but I just can’t go through with it. I know it'd cause upset, hurt and maybe distrust. I'll be an auntie soon, and I just can't take that risk. I will always carry this shame and will never fully forgive myself, but I am an addict, and addicts can’t choose what it is they’re addicted to.
I am now 30 years old and 13 months clean. But in truth, this is partly a product of Covid-19. When the pandemic struck and turned our worlds upside down, our lives changed and so did our shopping habits. During the first national lockdown in March 2020, I had to follow the arrows that adorned the supermarket's vinyl floor like everyone else, and snake around the aisles with the eyes of whoever followed on the back of my head. The urge would come, but I managed to quench it.
To any outsider, I have my sh*t together. I’m a relatively successful copywriter with words in national newspapers and various literary magazines. I’m recently a homeowner with my boyfriend. I want to put this all behind me, but I know I can’t. I fear that when our world opens up again, and the high streets spring back to life, the urge will grow on me like a vicious parasite that can't be rid. And I will, once again, be at the mercy of my addiction.
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