a recurrent urge to steal, typically without regard for need or profit.
This is a hard post to have to write. It’s important as shame is a present enough feeling for a person in recovery from Anorexia as it is — thinking that you are a monster because you nicked a small bag of instant risotto from Tescos doesn’t have to pile on top. I write about Anorexia because I am using my own experience to illustrate this post, but I believe that Anorexia and Bulimia are different states/expressions of the same illness — that is restriction. Hence, stealing behaviour and Bulimia also correlate.
Important note #1: Not all people with Anorexia have the urge to steal. I would say it is a low percentage. But for some of us it is there.
Important note #2: This post is in no way excusing stealing if you have Anorexia.
One of my clients once said to me:
“Anorexia turns us into the contradiction of our authentic selves.”
I agree. When I was sick — chronically malnourished — I was tightly wound, irritable, aggressive, prone to not telling the truth about what I had eaten/exercise, and a low-level thief. When not in a state of chronic malnutrition I am none of these things. Studies have linked stealing behaviour and illness severity, and I tend to agree. I was hideously underweight and what felt like “no-way-out” sick at that time. I was utterly opposed to the notion that I had an eating disorder due to the stigma attached, and would walk out on anyone who attempted to tell me the truth. A total mess really.
I only ever stole inexpensive food items. Frankly I am sure I wasn’t very good at it but the sorts of things I was taking wasn’t worth anyone’s time. If people had noticed I was doing it I doubt they would have bothered saying anything. I would steal toilet roll from the University toilets. I would steal condiments from the canteen. Sometimes I would steal from grocery stores. But here is the really odd part — I would only steal the cheapest of things. For example, if I were going to steal an apple, I would take either the cheapest one available or, even better, one that had been marked down for quick sale. Basically I only stole things that I would have bought anyway.
(Note: while I personally was “underweight” as per your standard BMI chart, a person doesn’t have to be a low weight to be underweight, hence a person in an average or large body may be just as sick as I was.)
I would only have bought discounted fruit, therefore I only nicked discounted fruit. I would only have bought economy-brand biscuits so I only took economy-brand biscuits. I cannot really explain this. It certainly wasn’t out of regard for Tescos’ profits. I wasn’t taking the cheaper item because I was trying to minimize my affect on the store. It wasn’t because I didn’t feel worthy of eating the more expensive brands of apple either. It was stranger than that, more to do with a “I’m better than needing expensive things” attitude. For some people with Anorexia the opposite is true, and they only steal items that they would not allow themselves to buy. For me, it was a feeling of superiority about being able to survive without nice things. My martyrism came out even when I wasn’t paying for things.
It irks me when people assume that not wanting nice things means one doesn’t value oneself. Do you think that the starving saints starved themselves for God because they didn’t think that they were worthy? No, more likely they felt that they were above the basic human needs. Anorexia is a very supercilious illness.
Anyway, it call came to a nasty end when I was arrested once in November 1999 in Edinburgh for stealing a packet of risotto. The store called the police and they put me though the whole shebang: escorted to the police car; siren ride to the police station; sat in a cell for 6 hours; fingerprints and mugshots taken. All for an emaciated teenager who stole a bag of ready-made risotto that had been reduced from 5.99 to 1.99. I was a shaking, sobbing wreak. I hate to admit it but I was very scared. I think for those 6 hours I truly believed that my life was over and they would put me in jail. But they let me out at the end of the day and told me I would be called to appear in court. This then led to something like 8 weeks of being in suspense and waiting for the letter that would summon me. I was terrified that they would send it to my University address and one of my flatmates would open it. I stalked the postman to make sure this didn’t happen. I spent those weeks trying to work out how I would tell my parents I had to go to jail, assuming that my University would kick me out, and due to the high state of malnutrition I was in this led into suicidal thoughts and depression.
As you can imagine I restricted even more severely in that time due to the stress. I still remember the day I got a letter telling me charges were not being pressed. The letter said that the shop weren’t pressing charges as they thought I was unwell. That letter also said I should seek medical help. I don’t remember that it said why. Maybe it was due to my appearance. Maybe it was because I had stolen something as stupid as a 1.99 packet of risotto when there were a pile of tenners in my purse. I never stole because I didn’t have money. I was a work-a-holic. I always had money.
Needless to say I didn’t seek any help. This is a great shame as this was so early on in my illness that I would have saved me around 10 years of malnourishment and lost life. It did, however, stop me shoplifting. No more pinched apples and mark-down carrots for me. I haven’t eaten mushroom risotto since. I never really liked risotto anyway.
Kleptomania is a possible symptom of energy imbalance – so is compulsive spending
Anorexia is an energy flow issue. It doesn’t only affect the most obvious flow of energy (food). It also affects the relationship with money for many of us, and other things. As I have explained in the money posts on this site, I found it as hard to spend money as I did to eat food. Spending money was painful. But … I also wanted to gather and hoard food. I was a great food hoarder. Not being able to spend money and a strong drive to gather food is what lead to stealing food.
I may go as far as to say that it felt instinctual to steal. And that really bothers me. When in energy deficit, it felt rather instinctual to take things. I bet my friend Shan Guisinger would have something to say about that and how it fits into the Adapt to Flee Famine Perspective for Anorexia. Gathering, hoarding, taking from neighboring tribes? All may be evolved famine responses.
People who steal when they are in chronic energy deficit are not people who steal. If you asked me to steal a roll of loo roll right now I wouldn’t do it. Mostly because that’s just so dumb. Loo roll costs nothing, I’d just buy you a roll. I’d buy you 10. But when I was sick stealing felt instinctual. That is not to say I didn’t feel incredible shame about it. I did. But the urge to steal trumped the shame. Until I was caught, that is.
It took me a long time to get to grips with these truths. It has taken me years to get over the shame even though I know it was a symptom of Anorexia and says nothing about me as a person. For a long time I purposefully blocked the memories of my arrest and the stealing that led to it from my mind. I could not go there without losing it, and recovery is hard enough without a shitload of shame from getting nicked. Later, a couple years more nourished, I started testing the waters with these memories so to speak. Thinking about them, allowing them to percolate and checking my emotional reaction. Then, later, I started talking to people in recovery about it. By far and away the hardest admission for me. But I committed to being an open book and felt like a hypocrite for not being. Anorexia is not pretty. Let’s not pretend these darker, more sordid elements of the illness don’t exist. Ignorance doesn’t help anyone.
The energy imbalance can also cause the pendulum to swing the other way. I experienced inability to spend money, urges to steal, and urges to hoard. Other people experience compulsive spending. I’d better make that point too as I know many people reading this will be wondering about that. It all boils down to the same thing: energy imbalance.
I also need to make it clear, as I have written in many blog posts — being in energy deficit doesn’t equal being a low weight. You are in energy deficit if you eat less each day than you need to in order to cover your BMR plus the energy debt that years of not eating enough may have caused.
Don’t you dare psychoanalyse this!
I can just see Freud rubbing his hands with glee at this one. Oh, the potential for finding “underlying reasons” as to why a person would compulsively steal. The possibilities are endless!
Back in your box Freud! This isn’t half as juicy as you think. It’s as simple as energy imbalance and the remedy is nutritional rehabilitation and compassionate support.
No, you are not stealing to “fill an emotional gap” in your life because your parents didn’t love you enough. No, you are not binge spending because you are trying to make people love you more. No, you are not hoarding food you can’t eat because you are harboring a deep feeling of worthlessness.
It’s down to energy imbalance and while that is boring and unsensational, it gives one a very solid starting point to recovery and stopping behaviors. Eat.
How can we make sure people get help?
Obviously the store that I was arrested in conferred with the police department and dropped charges because I looked so sick. I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact I am female and white? Quite a bit I imagine.
So they decided I was sick. But they didn’t try and help me.
I’m not sure they could have helped me. I’m even less sure that in 1999 any Eating Disorder Therapist they’d sent me to would have done much more than infuriate me further. But looking back now, the recovered version of myself is disappointed that they didn’t try.
The policeman who took my fingerprints and mug shots was kind to me. He told me it would be okay. The rest were not so sympathetic. The officer who escorted me to the police station told me I was in a whole heap of trouble and went on about “people like me” the whole drive. The security guard who caught me was vile. I think she would have spat on me had she thought she could get away with it. I understand. Stealing anything, even a 1.99 packet of risotto is vile.
I worry about people who have Anorexia but are in larger bodies. Would I have been let off if I hadn’t been emaciated and visibly sick? I doubt it. That’s a disturbing sort of thin privilege that those of us who have the body-type to get very low weight with Anorexia have. Not everyone with Anorexia is underweight. It was bad enough experience for me, but at least I got some sympathy in a distant we’re-not-charging-you sort of way because I was so thin. You cannot tell how sick a person is by looking at them. Sadly, appearance is still what gets people diagnosed with Anorexia. This means many people who are very unwell are overlooked.
Don’t assume every person with Anorexia has the urge to steal
Let’s make this very clear. Not everyone with Anorexia has the urge to steal. The last thing I intended with this post was to brand everyone with Anorexia a thief. Simply not true. I am just pointing out that there is a higher prevalence of people with kleptomania among people with Anorexia than the general population.
My intentions with this post are:
a) to help people who have the urge to steal understand that it is the illness and energy deficit that provokes this urge, and it says nothing about them as a person. Recovery via nutritional rehabilitation should take the compulsion away.
b) to raise awareness in others that stealing should be seen as a symptom of Anorexia. People with Anorexia who steal don’t need to be locked up or scared by the police. They need help and support eating more food.
The urge to steal food was still very great for a long while after that arrest. However, it was trumped by fear of getting caught. It didn’t go away until I was in long-term energy surplus. That aspect of me, like so many others reversed with adequate nutrition. The urge to steal and hoard feels so distant now but I know it was strong when I was ill.
I know I am not alone in this. I have included at the end of this post a couple of anonymous extracts that people who knew I was writing about this sent me. As you can see the guilt and shame is very present.
As with any illness, there are various symptoms and a person can have some and not others. Not all people with Anorexia have the urge to steal. Never accuse a person of stealing just because they have Anorexia. But be there and listen and support them should they disclose that they have this symptom. It doesn’t mean that they are a thief.
Below the line are some notes I received from others on this subject.
Hi! I’m writing to say my anorexia had two connections to kleptomania.
1) I had intense desires to take and eat small amounts of food I wasn’t allowed to, all through childhood like to take a tiny bit of peanutbutter etc. and this amplified in the periods of AN (especially the less acute periods) where I would eat my roommates food, small amounts, and mostly things I would NEVER allow myself (im sure this is quite common) like spoons of ice cream, nut butter, chips, chocolate etc. I would always make sure to arrange it as though I had not touched it or taken anything at all. I guess its like I didn’t buy it and it wasn’t mine so it was ok to have just a little.
2) I stole lots of clothing from nice stores and jewelry and occasional food from convenience stores. I think this was more about not wanting to spend money and about secrecy, and having a stash of small items I had taken from friends’ houses as well like small statue figures or even items of clothing. I thought of the food from roommates not as like “cheat foods” but more as “secret revenge” which I don’t know if I can explain any more than that
I have had periods during the ED where I have stolen money. From my parents, my ex-boyfriend and work colleagues. It was 2007, but I feel the guilt nearly every day. One work colleague caught me and I had to speak to my supervisor. I explained the situation to them. They didn´t tell it the police, but they said to that I had to go to a therapist. I visited a therapist, but I left the job, too, because I felt to guilty and ashamed. Always I stole the money for to buy food… It is so pitiful.I feel ashamed to write it to you.I think that I am a terrible person that I have done this. The stealing I have done in the past is a reason that the ED gives me not to eat, because I don´t have the permission to eat because of what I did.
Tabitha, I have taken so much that it feels like my chest will explode in shame when I think of it. Mostly always food. Most of the time food I don’t eat. I have cupboards full of food at home. I can’t eat it because I stole it. I’m sick
I have even stolen food from children. It would be funny but it’s not.
It disgusts me what I do but when I walk into a shop sometimes the urge to take something is so strong. I avoid shopping because of this sometimes. How is this my life? I know that I do this obvs but I think I get into some kind of weirdo denial about it too. Like I’m walking home from the shops with a bag of things I took but I tell myself I bought time. So fucked up. I’m going to stop. I have to.