Personal story time!
Not everyone who is suffering from long-term malnutrition turns to stealing, but I think it is a lot more prevalent than most people assume it is. It makes sense why a brain that believes resources are scarce would feel the need to take without giving anything away.
In this podcast, I talk about my personal experience with kleptomania.
Transcript below – thank you Marie!
Hello, welcome to this weeks podcast. This week I’m going to follow up to the podcast that I did last week that was on anorexia and hoarding. On my blog I have recently done a scarcity mindset series. Scarcity mindset is what happens when your brain believes that food is scarce and then as that goes on, your brain starts to think that other resources might be scarce as well. I believe that this scarcity mindset is that what is underneath for many of us, these other behaviours that emerge after we’ve had anorexia for a while, after we’ve been in malnutrition for a while.
Last week I talked about hoarding and I’ve talked about money a lot in the past so I’m not going to do a podcast specifically on that again this year. I might do one later, but today I’m going to talk about something I haven’t talked about in a podcast before, I’ve written about it in my blog and I’ve also written about it in my latest book, Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover as a symptom of malnutrition and that is stealing.
Now, I want to make it very clear that the urge to steal, kleptomania, what ever you want to call it just the same way as I call other scarcity mindset behaviours like hoarding and having weird stuff around money, just because some people with anorexia develop these tendencies doesn’t mean that every person with anorexia develops these tendencies. That’s really important because you can’t assume anything actually about a person with anorexia and you certainly can’t assume that just because they have anorexia that they also have a tendency to steal. So that’s really important, just because I had it, doesn’t mean that the majority have it. I just know that there are a percentage of people that develop this urge to steal as their scarcity mindset starts as their energy deficit continues to progress. I know that it’s more than most people would like to admit to but I also know that the majority of people with anorexia do not develop this.
So for me, I know that almost 20 years, probably 15 years ago I was at my sickest, I know that had I gone to a therapist at that time and if I’d been honest, I probably would have been diagnosed with kleptomania or had been given that label anyway. I absolutely displayed all the symptoms of that. I had the compulsive desire to steal. When I was in the thick of my eating disorder, I didn’t know what the heck was going on and all I knew, I didn’t think I understood that my desire to steal had any think to do with me not being able to eat enough to look after my body for such a long time. I don’t know if I thought logically about it very much at all. I do know that I was so scared of it that I didn’t allow myself to think about it. That’s not to say that I repressed it or anything like that, I just didn’t want to explore it, I purposely just didn’t want to think about it. I certainly didn’t want to think about it because then I would have to admit that it was a big problem and if I admitted that it was a problem then I had to try and do something about it.
The truth was that I didn’t want to do anything about it because taking things without paying for them felt rewarding to me. That made me feel safe. And I’m going to try and explain why that was. This is a tough topic for me, I basically have to do admit that I used to be a pilferer but I’m just hoping that those of you listening to this will begin to understand why when our brains think that we are in desperate circumstances, they turn to desperate measures. Now I hope that for those of you listening to this that do the same thing, because I know there will be people listening to this who do the same thing, I’ve worked with 100s of people with anorexia and I know that I’m not the only one that did this by far. And I hope that anybody listening to this that does the same thing, that this means nothing about them as a person. It does not mean that you are a bad person or a thief, it means that your brain is in a state of desperation and that’s what needs to be addressed because since I have been nutritionally rehabilitated, when I stopped restricting food, when I began eating without restriction, so many things changed. My attitude to money changed, I stopped hoarding things, I began sleeping. All of these things changed and then I suddenly had no desire to take things. That’s the good news.
So lets go back and have a look at scarcity mindset. So think back to evolving humans, not right now but 1000s of years ago food and resource scarcity would have been one of the biggest threats to survival. Being able to hunt and gather food was really essential to the development as a species, particularly being able to cook food is apparently what led to the development of our higher evolved brains. So migration would have been the thing. With scarce resources you don’t just sit around and hope that things would have been better you would likely have to move sometimes. I think that this for many of us, that’s why this genetic response to move a lot and eat very little as migrating animals do, is what kicks in when our brain believes we are in an area of food scarcity.
And of course we give our brains, I’m talking about the reptile brain at the moment, I’m not talking about your logical thinking brain, I’m talking about the part of the brain that just reacts to data that’s it’s being given. That part of your brain is being given data that there’s not enough food to sustain your human needs. I think that if I was as old as that reptile part of the human brain and I’d had all these thousands of years of famine to put in to my battery of knowledge I would probably assume that that meant that was a famine as well. Because remember your reptile brain it’s old. And its pre literate. You can’t talk to it, it just reacts and that through the majority of human evolution wouldn’t have been a problem. If there wasn’t enough food coming into your mouth, it means there wasn’t enough food in the environment and then it stands to reason, why for those of us that for a long time our brains are being given the message that there is not enough food in the environment. Stands to reason that our brains would think that there was general resource scarcity as well.
As I explain in the hoarding podcast, that’s why some of us start hoarding food and it just feels good to hoard food. I couldn’t explain it at the time, it just made me feel safe and secure to know that I had a cupboard full of cardboard like cereal bars, things like my safe foods to eat. That made me feel safe. It also made me feel good and safe to save money rather than spend, it’s the rainy day syndrome. Everything was always saved for a rainy day.
I’ve explained before that some of the scarcity mindset facets can be a tendency to want to accumulate things and hoard things, and another can be a tendency to feel very stressed and anxious at the thought of spending anything, at letting go of any money because money is a resource. So when you add those two things together it’s probably no surprise to you that many people who have long term anorexia, that taking things without paying for them starts to develop as a behaviour.
I remember exactly how this started for me. I was walking around a grocery store, I wasn’t buying anything, I often, daily, sometimes more than once a day I would go and I would just walk around grocery stores, that was mental hunger. Looking at food and never buying it. Sometimes I might buy some vegetables that were safe but the majority of the time I was just looking at food and I was satisfying that urge to try and find food without eating it. I was hungry and apples were one of my safe foods and I picked up an apple, I intended to buy it, a granny smith, I think I picked up 3 of them. As I was walking around the supermarket, sort of browsing the shelves, it occurred to me that if I ate that apple as I was walking around, it would be gone by the time I got to the register to pay for it. I did that. I ate it trying to make sure that nobody was watching, probably nobody would have cared, it’s just a skinny girl eating an apple in a supermarket. I ate that apple and I got this feeling like I’d won. Not that I’d won, more that I had come out on top that day more than I might had done if I’d bought the apple because that apple was probably worth 25 pence, this was 15-20 years ago, anyway whatever this apple was worth it wasn’t very much but I just remember this feeling of warm, cosy like, there was guilt for sure. But there was also this sense of yes! You’ve done something well, this reward feeling that my brain gave me.
So that developed and it got to the point where I was not really ever buying things like apples, I was just wandering around the supermarket and eating them. That progressed to me dropping things into my bag, as I was walking around a supermarket and walking out of the supermarket with them. Which is straight out stealing things and every time I did it my brain gave me that warm, safe feeling of reward. Yes, there was always guilt there but it was nothing compared to that warm safe, safe, safe, safe, is the main word I want to use there, it felt safe to do that. It felt like I was investing in my future or something, it felt nice and that so much stronger than the guilt was.
That progressed to just anything was consumables, things that I could hoard, they would be all things that if I could take them, I would take them. It wasn’t always that I was taking things that I needed. I never took really expensive things at all. It was food, it was stationary, loo rolls. I had loo roll kleptomania. I couldn’t go into a public toilet without coming out with as many loo rolls as I could pilfer. So things like that but sometimes I would take things just because the opportunity was there, not because I had any intention of eating that food at that point, or in the near future or unless Armageddon happen.
That’s the other thing that I can’t really explain, sometimes I would take things just because the opportunity was there, even if I didn’t even like that thing, or need that. It just made me feel like, I’ve got this, just in case I need it. That made me feel safe.
You can look at that behaviour and just class it as that stealing or you can really look in my brain at what’s going on behind that and understand that my brain is rewarding me for taking things without actually giving anything away for them. That is what a brain would if a brain believe that resources are scarce. If a brain believes that it’s everyone for themselves out there. Something big and bad is likely going to happen, something that means that resources are going to get even scarcer is likely going to happen. That is actually what a smart brain would do in that situation and it’s really difficult because I was not in Armageddon, I was not in a resource scarcity but my brain stem area didn’t believe that, my brain stem area thought I was because my actions were giving it data to think that it was.
This is were I imagine if Armageddon did happen and suddenly the world really is an everybody for themselves kind of place, I imagine that nobody is going to beat themselves up for stealing a loo roll or an apple. It’s just going to seem like this is what we have to do. I can do that, I just knew that I felt like I had to do those things afterwards I would feel guilty, you know the other thing was, I could afford stuff, I was a workaholic, I’ll talk about that in another podcast, that’s another scarcity mindset thing, to want to gain as much money as possible. I had plenty of that but as I’ve explained before it would make me extremely anxious to use my money. Even if was 25 pence whereas the feeling of obtaining something without actually giving anything away for it, at that time, my brain gave me a big reward for it.
So that was horrific for me to live through and a lot of the time it did feel a bit like an out of body experience, like I could see myself taking something and a part of my brain was like Nooooo that’s so bad! And another part of my brain was like Do it, do it, do it. It took me even years after starting writing my blog to be able to bring this up because I was just so avoidant of it because it’s just so shameful. But I don’t feel ashamed of myself any more because I understand why my brain did that and for the most part, I was stealing apples and bags of risotto which leads me on to another story.
The first time I was arrested was in Edinburgh and I was in Harvey Nichols, I think it was, pretty sure anyway a department store, I’m wandering around and I actually had my sister and her boyfriend at the time coming up to visit me in university and they were going to stay in Edinburgh I wanted to be able to offer them some food and none of my kind of weird safe foods that I had in my flat were really going to be something that one could offer to anybody else.
I saw this box of mushroom risotto and it was one of those poshly packaged in a nice brown cardboard but it was just mushroom risotto it was probably worth about £3 or £4. I took it, I slipped it into my bag and then on the way out of the store, you know how those department stores have the double glass doors, to keep the heat in, especially in Edinburgh. I was kind of met by a security person as I was exiting through the double glass doors and he asked me if he could look in my bag, the moment I saw him I knew, oh my god, it was just devastating, I know I started blubbing then, I was just so embarrassed, I was so horrified at myself and I think it was because the store had a real zero tolerance policy on that sort of thing, quite rightly. They wanted to make a big deal out of it, they wanted to discourage you from doing that sort of thing, or anybody else.
So they did make a big deal of it. The dragged me through the store in handcuffs and they had a couple of police cars, flashing lights out of the side, walked me out into the high street and I had to get in a police car and I was driven to the station and I was kept all day in the station. They did the whole fingerprints, mugshots, things like that. I just think I cried all day in a ball on the floor. Can you imagine all the thoughts that were going through my brain? What were my family going to think? Everybody is going to know, I thought my life was over. I thought that my university degree would get taken away from me, I thought it would go on my record and I wouldn’t be able to get a job again, I thought that that packet of mushroom risotto had ended my life as I knew it.
Then I was released at the end of the day and the police insisted on driving me to my front door, again I think it might be a thing to try and embarrass me as much as possible. So they drove me to my front door where my flatmates saw the flashing lights and I remember my flat mates coming out and asking me, what the heck has gone on? Where have you been? I just kind of said, there was an incident in the shopping centre and I was a witness to someone doing something so the police wanted to ask me question. I lied basically, I didn’t say what the actual thing was, I was far too ashamed.
Then I had to wait about 6 weeks in complete suspense because I had to wait to hear what the charges against me would be and if I had to go to court and things like that. You can probably imagine what sort of stress that allowed my eating disorder get even wilder, that wasn’t a very good time. That was actually one of the times that my exercise compulsion really ramped up in that time of waiting to hear if my life as I knew it was going to be over.
Then I got a note from the Attorney General saying that they were worried about my state of health that the store had decided not to press charges and I think they said something like, we highly recommend that you seek support of a councillor or something like that. All I remember feeling was a sense of relief. I was terrified and then I was so relieved I’m really glad that they did not ruin my life with that mushroom risotto, but I really wish that they would have forced me to go and seek professional help because that was all I got, there was no follow through or anything to make sure that I was actually doing that and I didn’t. Here’s the really crazy part, the whole time I was waiting for that verdict, for that letter, or the summons or whatever, the whole time that I was in that situation, I was still stealing things from stores. That’s how compulsive it was, that’s how non optional it felt and I was terrified.
I’m a relatively smart person, I knew that if I got caught again while that was in process, I was not going to get off. I knew that, I knew what was at stake and I still couldn’t stop doing it. The only time I stopped doing it was years and years later when I started to eat without restriction and like I said, that was also when I started sleeping and when I stopped hoarding and stopped being so tight about money.
Gradually all of those things but really one of the less gradual parts of that, like the money spending clung on for a long time, it took me a long time to get out of that. But it really was in that first month where I was eating without restriction that that went. Which is incredible really, the urge to steal one of the first things that went when I started eating a lot of food and I’m very thankful about that.
I think that for anybody listening to this. If you have this problem, you can go to all the therapy that you want to, you can talk about it to councillors, you can vow to change, the thing that is going to sort this problem out for you is getting nutritionally rehabilitated. To eating unrestricted amounts of food because once my brain was getting what it needed, once my body was getting what it needed and my brain was getting the feedback that we were out of this intense resource scarcity, it stopped giving me the urge to do that.
I think because in that 6 weeks when I was waiting for that verdict I ramped up the exercise I had so much stress I restricted even more, if anything actually my urge to steal got even more in that time and so I think it’s a really important reminder that regardless how superior we humans think we are, we are just mammals and when it comes down to it, when our brains are threatened with resource scarcity they will act and react accordingly. The mammal instinct to protect yourself are going to kick in and when they kick in they don’t ask you if that’s OK, they don’t ask you if it’s OK for me to feel like this and this behaviour to happen.
My brain didn’t ask me if it was OK to start stealing things, it just started to happen and it felt out of my control. While I do have to be accountable for my actions, I can so clearly see that this was due to malnutrition and I can even more clearly see it because ever since I’ve been out of malnutrition the desire to do that is just not there any more. It’s not even like I have to force myself not to, it’s just not there.
My brain has no interest in doing that and so that’s the really important message. If you are a person with anorexia, if you have a problem with restrictive eating disorder of any kind, bulimia or whatever it is, if your body is in energy deficit and you are doing things, odd behaviours that don’t seem like the authentic version of you and they sort feel like they are out of your control. They are going to be something that your brain has decided is an appropriate reaction to resource scarcity.
The way to get yourself back to you, back to the authentic version of you, is to get yourself out of the energy deficit. The way you get yourself out of energy deficit is you eat and you eat and you eat.
So that’s all for this weeks podcast, if you have any thoughts on this, if you have a perspective, if you have a story that you would like to share, live or not live, on the record or off the record, that’s kind of funny actually considering I’ve been talking about police! On the record or off the record, you can email me at email@example.com. Thanks for listening and until next time, cheers and cheerio.