I used to steal things.
It was wrong, certainly, and I felt a tremendous guilt over it at the time, but largely because I didn’t understand why it was only directed towards the people I cared about. I think people take things for a lot of different reasons, and while kleptomania is the clinical label we put on it when people do it compulsively, trying to paint every person who has this compulsion with the same brush ends up dismissing the very real dysfunctional thought processes which underly it.
I didn’t steal things very often, but it occurred enough times as a child that I was convinced that I was a ‘very bad person.’ I took a swan-shaped perfume bottle from my best friend (and forever added water to it, trying to get it to last for as long as possible). I took a tiny drummer boy pin from my grade two teacher’s desk at Christmas time. I occasionally took tiny mementos from my mother’s desk or jewellery drawer.
I didn’t do these things because I was angry or wanted to hurt them. I did it because I loved them. But I cannot deny that these acts must have hurt them, and would have hurt them even more to know that I was the one that did these things, because you (especially) don’t steal things from people you love.
I think to understand why I did these things, you need to look at the behaviour that accompanied the theft.
I was an anxious child (who grew into an anxious adult). I didn’t have any outlet for that anxiety, so it was up to me to develop my own self-calming techniques (calling them techniques suggests way more self-awareness than I had at the time — it’s taken me years to recognize these patterns for what they were). One of these strategies was (what I thought of as) treasure-hunting. If the opportunity presented itself, I would go through hidden spaces and look for little treasures: items that made me happy and calmed me through tactile stimulation. It started with my own things — it was always possible in my messy room of hoarded things to dig through my piles and find things that I had forgotten about. Finding those things anew and touching them, rubbing them between my fingers, putting them in my pocket or even touching them to my lips (or putting them in my mouth) would calm me.
But sometimes my own things weren’t enough. The older I got, the better my memory was and the more that I needed novelty, and I needed to branch out. I would sneak into my mother’s room and go through her drawers or her closets. On her upper shelves she had some collectible dolls — I would take them down carefully and look at them, touch them, but never remove them from their case. I wasn’t allowed to play with them and I although I did gently handle them, I never risked damaging them by taking them out of their boxes. For the most part, I’d just dig about and put things right back where I found them. It wasn’t until later, when my anxiety was no longer satiated by looking that I took things.
I didn’t take a lot. Usually just one thing would be enough. Somehow having something of my mother’s (and later my best friends or favourite teachers) was enough to bring me comfort when I was anxious. Those items held extra power because they belonged to the people that I loved. It helped when I was scared, and certainly helped when I was apart from them.
I didn’t steal from strangers. I didn’t steal from my brother or father — the idea of doing so never even crossed my mind.
I think I recognized after taking the perfume bottle from my best friend and the pin from my teacher that it was wrong to take anything that they would miss or that was too precious. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just had this need that I couldn’t suppress. I tried to only take things from my mother that seemed lost or forgotten to her already.
I don’t remember exactly when the habit passed — somehow I graduated from being a child to a teen and I wasn’t stealing any more (other than borrowing clothes from my mother, but that wasn’t something I hid).
I thought it was past me until all of a sudden in my late thirties, I found myself at my mother’s house one day while she was at work, going through drawers and cupboards. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the upswing of a manic phase (the one that ended up defining my bipolar disorder). I had been sleepless for weeks at this point. I had gone over to my mother’s house to pick something up and ended up pacing room to room, looking for nothing that I could verbalize.
I ended up finding some paintings that had been tucked away to the side of her dresser and just knew that I had to rescue them and they needed to be in my house. Suddenly the only thing that mattered to me was that these beautiful paintings were being ignored, unhung and forgotten.
A week or two later, when my mother came over and saw one of the paintings hanging at the top of my staircase, she was furious and (not surprisingly) hurt. She demanded them back and when I got upset and tried to point out that she hadn’t even noticed they were gone, she took them and left. I tried to plead with her and explain that I was trying to save them, but we were both hurt and angry and not really listening to each other. I cannot deny that what I did was an aggressive act (or that it seemed so to her), but my defensiveness was in part out of confusion that she thought I did it to hurt her, which in my delusional mind, I hadn’t.
It wasn’t until later, long after the incident (and after drug therapy had treated the manic episode) that I began to question why I had done it and how it related to a larger pattern of behaviours.
Any person who experiences anxiety (or any other mental illness) will tend to develop calming strategies, many of which are potentially self-destructive (like smoking, alcohol or drugs). Unfortunately, with something like kleptomania or drug abuse, the symptoms of anxiety can mask the underlying cause, which will inevitably go untreated. More clinicians are recognizing this fact, which is why there are more dual diagnosis treatment centres opening, thankfully.
For myself, I’ve tried to learn to identify which of my behaviours are related to my anxiety, and which are acceptable and helpful outlets for those feelings (this list is only mine, and the things that I call risky or bad are simply that for me):
- drugs (some, potentially)
- violating other people’s personal boundaries (going through their things)
- looking at the scale
- window shopping
- looking at bright, pretty things
The top list will confuse some people, I know, because it has lists and exercise on it. For me, the problem is that besides anxiety, I am prone to obsession and compulsion. If I keep things light and not too focused, I’m okay, but unfortunately that’s not how things tend to unfold. Things with numbers or lists or goals tend to push me into overdrive and I compete with myself. In the past that has resulted in compulsive exercise and anorexia.
Sometimes though, colour and design are enough mental stimulation to calm me. If I can walk through a HomeSense or Ikea, walk the aisles one at a time and pick up each little knick knack, turn it around in my hands and put it back, that’s enough to settle those feelings in the back of my brain. Without realizing it, I’ve had this habit since I was a child — first at the toy store and then at any store at the mall. kIt’s such a simple thing and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The challenge in the past has usually been that I haven’t been able to express why I needed to do it. This has led to whoever I’m with growing impatient with me and rushing me through the process, leaving me feeling unfulfilled and even more stressed out.
One of the constants of living with bipolar is the lack of psychological or psychotherapeutic counselling. With drug therapy as a catch-all for treatment, we as patients are forced to be explorers of our own psyche, trying to dissect each little action or behaviour and figure out how it relates to the whole. With each new realization I feel like I take a step closer to being a whole person, but I am also filled with growing regret over the time I’ve lost and the people I’ve hurt because there was no one to step forward and guide me through this process years ago.