In this blog post I am sharing a story from a person in recovery. These stories and admissions are so important. Many of use find ourselves compelled to act in certain ways when we have a restrictive eating disorder and it is crucial that we share stories so that we can understand that these sorts of behaviours are a product of a restrictive eating disorder and say nothing about us as a person.
Behaviours such as stealing support the biological approach to eating disorders as you are behaving as if resources are scarce. Many of us who steal when we are in energy deficit have a compulsion to do so despite having the financial means to buy things. It is to do with your brain stem area reacting to your energy deficit that makes you act as if resources are scarce even when your higher brain (thinking brain) knows that they are not. We can’t reason with the brain stem as it is pre-literate. It reacts to data. And when that data is energy deficit and insufficient food coming in, your brain stem will begin to make you act as if food and other resources are scarce. I have written about scarcity mindset extensively in Rehabilitate, Rewire, Recover, in other blog posts on this site, and spoken about it in podcasts should you want more information.
Whilst the letter below is anonymous, I want to say thank you to the person who wrote it and agreed to allow me to share it on this blog. Sharing these stories is so important. When we don’t talk about these things because we are afraid of repercussions or embarrassed, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to be understood, and to understand ourselves. Admitting to stealing when I was sick with anorexia was one of the very last things I came around to being able to talk about. I was so deeply ashamed. I feared the reactions and judgements I would get from others should I be open about it. I am so glad I found the courage to share, because I know from some of the emails I get on this topic that in doing so I enabled others to better understand that their own stealing behaviour was/is a consequence of malnutrition, and a brain that perceives resource scarcity. And not, I repeat, not, a character flaw. You will do things when you are in malnutrition that are far out of character. Not eating enough food strips us down to the core of what it is to be a mammal. It turns on survival-instinct behaviours and reactions that for many people are never experienced.
Experiencing these differences in my own self, and the person I became after years of malnutrition was a very humbling experience. Sometimes I think that humans are so used to living and operating only in our higher brains that we forget that under all the clothes and the books and the education, we are simply mammals. Watching my own brain change like that — watching my own hands steal — taught me a lot about how strong that mammal within me is. It also taught me compassion and understanding for the actions people take when their brain believes that their situation is desperate. In short; I am a lot less judgmental than I used to be. I have done things that appall me. I understand why I did those things. I have compassion for the version of me that did those things. I am thrilled that recovery brought back the version of me that doesn’t need to do those things.
No matter how strong you regard your morals, no matter how well you think you know yourself. You are only ever a bad harvest away from stealing food to survive.
I was just listening to your podcast about stealing – I feel so relieved to know this is actually an eating disorder symptom! I just wanted to share my experience with this as kind of like a “confession” because I’ve never told anyone the following things.
I started out stealing from my roommates in college. I couldn’t manage to eat during the day or buy any food for myself, so once everyone was asleep I would sneak into the kitchen and carefully take small amounts of a variety of things so no one would notice. However, I started feeling guilty about this – sadly not about the stealing, but about what I was eating. So, I started staying on campus literally all day to avoid eating. But then to my horror, I started eating out of the garbage. This was terrifying because besides the obvious embarrassment and disgust I felt, I discovered that there were huge amounts of food in the garbages on campus – food was everywhere, I couldn’t escape!! I found myself making nightly rounds from building to building literally bingeing out of the garbages, then continuing to walk from building to building, up and down stairs, etc. trying to burn off what I had eaten.
Around this time my stealing began to progress to the grocery store. Oftentimes there would be spilled nuts/candy/etc in the tray underneath the bulk bins, so I started taking these, justifying it because they would be thrown away otherwise. However, sometimes there hadn’t been anything spilled, so I started “accidentally” spilling things so I could “clean up” after myself. I would then browse the aisles eating whatever I had found/spilled, buy something stupid like a diet coke, leave, and return the next day (sometimes later that same day though).
Once I developed bulimia however, things got even worse. Now that I had figured out how to eat a ton of food and then “erase it,” the small amounts I was obtaining from my roommates, public garbages, and spilled bulk bin items wasn’t enough. I started slipping things into my purse at the grocery store, telling myself that it was ok because I wasn’t going to actually eat the food but instead was going to throw it back up (totally logical, yeah). I actually bought a bigger purse specifically for this purpose. I couldn’t binge/purge at my apartment because my roommate would find out, so I would hang out in empty corners, classrooms, etc. on campus eating my stolen binge food, then purge in the bathrooms. I figured out which departments left their teachers’ lounges unlocked, so I starting hiding in the bathroom until the janitors left and locked the building at midnight (otherwise they would tell me to leave because the building was closing). Then I would raid the teachers’ lounge in addition to bingeing on the food I had brought with me. I actually continued this routine for an entire year after graduating – I just wandered around campus pretending I was a student.
The grocery store stealing came to an end when I got caught…for the third time. The first time I was just given a warning; then I was fined and banned from the store; the third time I was charged for shoplifting and trespassing (yes, I was at the store I was banned from because the other grocery stores did not have bulk bins that I could “spill”). Thankfully I qualified for the diversion program and was able to sit through some classes in order to avoid having a criminal record. This experience scared me enough to stop shoplifting…well, at least putting things in my purse. A few months later I started eating while browsing the aisles again (at a different grocery store this time though). I’ve been doing this for so long now that I’m starting to think the store must know but just doesn’t care. I hope I can stop this behavior once I am recovered.
Well, thanks for listening to my insanity. Reminding myself of all the crap my ED has made me do helps motivate me to continue recovery. I don’t know if I’ll ever be brave enough to share these things more openly, but I’m sure glad you’ve shared your experience. I wish more people would talk about the “odd” and “shameful” symptoms of eating disorders because it is so important for people to not feel ashamed and alone!
Thank you so much to whoever wrote this…..please know you’re not alone. I hope you will overcome this horrible illness very soon so these behaviours disappear and you can get on with living and achieving all you are capable of 🙂 xxxx
Thank you for sharing! I can imagine this was not easy at all and I would like to use this space to take the same brave step you did. I do not ‘steal’ in the same fashion you described, but every time I go to my parents, I tend to sneakily take some money and I feel horrible and deeply ashamed each and every time despite the fact that they have explicitly agreed to provide financial support if it is used in a way that benefits my health (and considering my extreme difficulty to spend money, including on food, that makes sense, but still I very much feel like a thief).
Another thing I do and for which I am ashamed is that I dispose of my daily trash in the public bins on the streets in order to economise on bin bags. I suppose that’s also a form of ‘stealing’.
I’ve actually never ever told this to anyone so sharing it now feels quite scary… ?
I have had a laxative habit/addiction for about 28 years, and the amount I was using could get quite expensive, so I resorted to stealing them intermittently. I was never caught, but my conscience bothered me terribly, so I no longer do this. The last time I stole laxatives, I felt so guilty, that I ended up returning them to the store without anyone knowing what I had done. In the depths of and eating disorder, our brains are not rational, and we can justify any behavior, no matter how antisocial it is. We need to learn to have compassion for ourselves, because we wouldn’t engage in these behaviors if we were not in a disordered state. This is not an excuse, but rather a plea for us to realize that we are not bad people, and we wouldn’t normally behave this way if our brains worked correctly. All the more reason to pursue full recovery!
Hi Tabitha, I agree that this is an important topic. Sometimes though I feel a little alienated when you tell your story because it sounds like you were very financially secure and had no logical reason to take things without paying. Would you be willing to do a blog or podcast where you interview people about real financial stress in recovery. When you are already financially stressed, it makes the guilt of buying “unlimited” food extremely severe, because it really adds an extra unmanageable cost when you’re used to skimping on grocery costs. Those of us with less financial resources also can’t afford to take time off work just to focus on rest and recovery. I would love to hear from others in my situation. Note I am not criticizing you…it sounds like you worked hard to have what you did, not just born that way.
I stole some stuff as well, the most bizarre thing was when my sister once brought the end of a toilet paper roll from university home. I just started stealing toilet paper from my university like everytime and hiding in my bag, or with my jacket. Other example was when I was working at a supermarket and I brought home like hundreds of samples of body lotion and soaps, It was free, but I felt ashamed of bringing all those home and they were a lot!
These topic has brought me a huge relief and hope. At my ”bottom” weight I used to walk for a whole day (which I was barerly able to do as I was at BMI 10) begging people for money. I went from one person to another and ask if they had any change. The whole thing end up when one women called the police saying that a starving girl is walking down the street. They took me in to the police station and called my parents. I was so embarassed, I said that it was my first time but I’ve been doing that for days. My father saw me for the first time in months. He was mortified. The same day I end up in a hospital due to my deadly low BMI. Now I am (little bit) better. However, I am still on highly dangerous mallnutrition and sometimes I just feel like a totally different person. Usually then it happens that I steal a small amounts of money from my parents. I honestly HATE myself for doing so, but like I said it is like another person doing. I also just CANNOT spent any money. It is impossible. I love to go to the shopping mall and fanatsise over some beautiful stuff. However, I am never able to treat myself with one. I really, really hate myself for those things, but this story gave me hope. If Anyone would like to contact me, please feel free to do so as I have really no one to talk to while I am getting through this hard time of recovery.
Thanks so much for sharing Maria- I would love to contact you. Please let me know how I can. Thanks so much.
Thank you for sharing these mortifying experiences. I remembre myself going round and round the food erea at the shopping mall and waitng for someone to leave a tray with “forbiden foods” so I can let myself eat it beacause it “was a shame” to let food waste. I felt embaressed and humiliated when people, especially cleaning ladies, would notice me sitting down and start eating leftovers. My gym was at this same mall and sometimes I would eat, go to the gym for 2 hours, go scavenging for food again, go to the gym etc. Some saturdays that was my whole daydays. I am so happy I no longer have the compulsion to spend my free days exercising, running around a windowless mall and eating like a caged hamster. I still have trouble spending money on food but it’s getting better 🙂
What a powerful letter. Thank you so much for sharing this. While I didn’t actually steal, I was very sneaky about the food I was eating. My boyfriend would constantly search for food that he had planned to make a meal with, wondering what could’ve possibly happened to a whole jar of alfredo sauce in one day… I just pretended like I had no clue and quickly changed the subject. I was constantly raiding the fridge and pantry when he was out of the house. It still amazes me the stupid, futile things I did to try and transform my body into something she could never be.
I’ve been stealing food to binge & purge for the past 27 years. Many times I have been caught, including today but the addiction to stealing food makes me continue because it is just as big as the cravings to binge & purge the food. It’s a short lived high. A sense of achievement and control followed by a very drawn out exhausted shameful regretful feeling of complete & utter numbness shamefulness guilt embarrassment and disgust. especially. The shop worker made me empty my bag in front of customers telling the actual shop owner ’this is why you should never give second chances’ before telling me to leave and never come back to the store again. Rightfully so because it is a coward act.
I am now paranoid the store owners will tell my partner who has a familiar face because he lives locally and shops at their store.
It all started back in boarding school. I was a shy girl with poor body image who felt completely out of place and ugly amongst the prettier girls who so desperately wanted to fit in. I was athletic with a tall slender physique. I thought I wasn’t getting the attention I craved so much because I was fat. From there I started obsessing how I looked what I wore & more significantly what I ate. A popular girl who got the attention I craved told me she ate something & threw it up so she wouldn’t get fat. Very soon afterwards I tried it & surprisingly it worked. Over a short amount of time i quickly developed an eating disorder which became my every thought feeling & focus. If I didn’t have food I started stealing other girls food. Small unnoticeable amounts. I wasn’t binging at the point. I would quite easily throw up a normal meal. I started believing g anything I ate would make me fat so the vicious cycle began. Fast forward to now where I eat high carb food to excess and consume enough liquid to mix with the food that come purge time I can throw it back up with a swallow back as if I’m goo g to burp but vomit instead. No fingers.
There is so much more about my story to write but I’m exhausted.
I hate what I do & I deserve to be caught. I am not proud of it in any way. The desperation for stealing food is ridiculous.. I do think It is very much part of the disease. I don’t always steal binge food either. Like today. I stole lamb kebabs sun dried tomatoes olives & artichokes because I had to stock up and have them in my fridge. The overwhelming feeling of running out of food or having little food left post binge is a major drive in stealing food in the first place. If I steal food to binge I won’t run out of my own food. If I steal food to binge I’m not wasting my money. If I steal food to binge I can justify the binge more. If I steal food to binge its an achievement. It’s irrational I know & dangerous & crazy & I hate myself more for it.
In the past I’ve told a counsellor of my stealing food habits but made it out to be lesser of an issue than it is. It’s so hard to talk about it because it is not a logical or rational act. It’s law breaking. I’m definitely not proud of it. I don’t want to be that person who steals food and has an eating disorder. I want to be free of both
I’m not going to have a criminal record becuase of my Ed and stoopid stealing to save money, to have my safe foods….sigh….
This interests me a lot..I just read this: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9384949/
This… This is scary how well it describes the current nature of my ED… I could have written the letter up until the paragraph about bulimia, and I’m TERRIFIED of being able to write the rest. I thought it was just me. I seriously thought I was the only person who struggled with this, and the shame it induces, and I’m on the verge of tears reading that I’m not the only one. I’ve never been able to talk about this with anyone. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this.
I am crying as I write this. I’ve had an eating disorder since I was 12 years old and during my adolescence I started stealing. It started little by little, I stole food first, then money from my mother’s boss. (it’s important to mention that I grew up in her house with my mom but we weren’t too close) I didn’t stop until I was caught, and even then, I only regretted the fact that I got caught, not what I had done. My thoughts were “She has so much money, she won’t realize, she doesn’t need it”. I used the money to buy food but also to buy clothes and other things that I would not normally spend on, like makeup or perfumes. They didn’t fire my mother, nor did they report me to the police, but I did leave that house. Now that I’m in College and am doing well regarding my eating habits, I regret it so much, I thought that I was such a shit person, ¿Who steals from someone you consider a grandma?. I study a health career and thanks to a psychology class I found symptoms of people with eating disorders, besides what you normally know. It was to my surprise that theft was a symptom, for one year I found myself a little skeptical (It was negation on my part tho). But now that I’m reading this I know it’s real, I feel so relieved. I still don’t know how to forgive myself. I don’t know how to speak of this to those I’ve hurt; my mother like the saint she is, doesn’t mention the fact that I was a thief, but I think she does that out of love, not from understanding of the situation. I miss the link I had with my mother’s boss, and they have told me that they want me to visit them, and I want to, but I’m too much of a coward. I think I need more time, but I’m so grateful I googled the correlations of theft and eating disorders.
Thank you for sharing. I resonate with all your experiencing ( taking little bits from roomates, taking food from trash at school, eating from bulk bins, “accidently” opening nets of chocolate in the store and eating a few pieces that “fell out”, then returning. It is scary how completely the same our experiences have been. I have had anorexia and atypical anorexia for 10 years. I have had these habits for the past probably 4 years. I just got caught for the first time for eating chocolate that “fell out” of the netting and asked not to return to the store and I am absolutely mortified, embarrassed and I honestly can’t stop crying. I am just thinking what if I am at the mall with my friends or husband and they want to go in… what do I do? I am moving in a week to a different city so I just hope it.wont be an issue. It is just so so nice to hear that I am not crazy and that it is not my fault that I engage in these behaviors, so thank you so much for sharing. I am so so grateful for you.