“I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember.” The blonde woman opposite me looks away, embarrassed, fiddles with her hands and then looks up. The warm, chestnut brown eyes are striking. Not someone you’d think was a shoplifter.
“I suffer from kleptomania, because I can’t stop stealing. It’s as if something in my head is telling me to steal. A little voice that whispers, ‘Steal that lipstick.’”
Andrea* (35) has been stealing since she was 15 years old. It’s become so serious that she that she now steals something from a shop at least five days a week. The things she steals most include magazines, make-up, toothpaste, books and clothes.
“When I was 15, I made friends with a new girl in my class. She taught me how to steal. We were sometimes so reckless that we would pack a trolley full of stuff and walk out of the shop without paying.”
Andrea tells of the time she was caught stealing sweets. “I was very embarrassed, because I had the money to pay for them. Money is never an issue when I steal. I enjoy the excitement. My heart beats faster, and it feels as though I’m going to have an anxiety attack. It makes me feel unbelievably good when I make it outside the shop without being caught.”
Andrea has been caught a few times, but it doesn’t deter her. “Once I was caught in a chainstore by two security guards when I had jewellery hidden in my handbag. Luckily, I got away with it. The fact that I could end up in prison doesn’t deter me in the slightest. If I feel the urge to steal something, I get in my car and go do it. I don’t think of the consequences at all.”
Andrea has two children, aged 10 and seven. “They know I steal. Sometimes they’re with me when I go into a shop and walk out without paying for something. I tell them all the time that it’s wrong and they must never do it.
“My husband doesn’t know that I do it. I made my children swear that they would never tell him. Everything is black or white with him. There are no grey areas in his life. He would have no understanding or sympathy, and would possibly divorce me if he found out.”
She believes she’s improved her technique over the years, and this has lowered her chances of being caught. “I know I have to stop, but I don’t have the willpower. Just the thought of stealing makes me excited.”
Andrea says she steals more when she feels stressed. “When I’m very busy at work, I steal more regularly. Sometimes I slip out to a shopping mall during my tea or lunch breaks. The excitement when I get away with something, regardless of how small, eases my tension.”
She steals to silence to little voice inside her, says Andrea. “I throw most of the stuff away after I’ve stolen it. Sometimes I’ll use the perfume or make-up that I’ve stolen, but then I start feeling guilty and I throw it away. I feel fantastic when I steal – I feel successful and satisfied. I feel very guilty later…”
It’s very difficult for Andrea to pay for a product in a shop if she knows it’s possible to steal it. “I know it’s wrong, but I’ve become so comfortable with it that it doesn’t even make me nervous anymore. All I feel is the excitement and the adrenaline.
“Over the years I’ve stolen thousands of Rands worth of stuff – most of which just ends up in the bin. I know I need help, but I am scared of my husband’s and family’s reaction if they were to find out.”
What is it?
Kleptomania is a condition that affects a very small percentage of the population. Although it’s difficult to determine, experts believe approximately five to 10 percent of psychiatric patients suffer from kleptomania.
“The most important aspect of kleptomania is the recurrent failure to resist the impulse to steal - even though the items are not stolen for personal use or for their monetary value,” says Claire Newton, a psychologist from Glenwood.
According to Claire, the individual experiences a rise in subjective tension before the theft, and pleasure, gratification, or relief when committing the theft.
“A kleptomaniac doesn’t steal out of anger or vengeance. The goods typically have little value to the individual, who can afford to pay for them. Sometimes the individual will give away all the stolen items, or return them surreptitiously.”
Claire explains that a kleptomaniac won’t usually steal in a situation where there is a very good chance that they will be caught – such as when a policeman can see them – but they also don’t usually plan the theft, or take the threat of being arrested into account. A kleptomaniac steals without the cooperation of anyone else.
“People who suffer from kleptomania experience the desire to steal as something unacceptable to their ideal conception of themselves, and are aware that the act is wrong and senseless. Such a person frequently fears being arrested and often feels depressed or guilty about the thefts. “
According to Claire, kleptomania can cause legal, career, personal and family problems. “Kleptomania is associated with other disorders such as anxiety, eating disorders (specifically bulimia nervosa) and personality disorders.”
Although little systematic information is available on the course of kleptomania, experts have identified three typical courses:
- Sporadic - with short episodes and long periods of remission
- Episodic - with longer periods of theft and remission
- Chronic – long term, with some degree of fluctuation
Symptoms and Causes
Kleptomania was identified as a psychological deviation in the early 1800’s. Experts believe kleptomania usually starts in a person’s teens or early 20’s. At the time most people seek help, women are usually in their 30’s and men in their 50’s. Nonetheless, some kleptomaniacs only ask for help in their 70’s.
It is not known whether kleptomania has a genetic component, but some studies indicate that kleptomaniacs often have parents or close family with addiction problems or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research also shows that kleptomania can be linked to problems with the neuro-transmitter serotonin, which is found in the brain.
“Kleptomania must be distinguished from normal theft,” says Claire. “Normal theft (planned or impulsive) is intentional, and motivated by the usefulness or monetary value of the item(s) stolen. Some individuals (especially teenagers) steal out of rebellion, or because someone dared them to.”
She explains that kleptomania should also be distinguished from unintentional stealing that may occur as a result of dementia (forgetfulness and cognitive decline).
“Sometimes people try to imitate the symptoms of kleptomania to avoid criminal prosecution. Kleptomania is actually very rare, while shoplifting is relatively common.”
A patient seeking help for possible kleptomania symptoms is usually evaluated physically and psychologically. The physical examination can determine if there are physical causes that could cause the symptoms.
However, there isn’t a laboratory test to diagnose kleptomania, and any diagnosis is therefore based on the symptoms. Because kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder, questions will be asked about the patient’s impulses and how they make him or her feel.
To be diagnosed as a kleptomaniac, you must meet the criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (DSM). This manual is distributed by the American Psychiatric Association and is used to diagnose mental illness.
The criteria include:
- The inability to resist the urge to steal. Items stolen are not needed for personal use or their monetary value.
- Heightened tension is experienced prior to the theft
- Feelings of pleasure, relief and satisfaction are experienced after stealing
- The theft is not committed out of rage or violence, or while the patient is hallucinating or not in his or her right mind
- The theft is not linked to manic episodes of bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses such as anti-social personality disorder.
People with possible symptoms of kleptomania can contact their general practitioner, who can refer them to the right person. A support group for kleptomaniacs is also available on www.dailystrength.com
Claire: 031 261 7466 or www.clairenewton.co.za