Anne Stanton 6/1/09
I was over at the Traverse City courthouse a couple of months ago, and noticed a blonde middle age woman walking with an awkward gait, relying on a cane. Her blond hair was swept away from her smooth forehead, upon which something was written in a red marker. I couldnt read the words and caught up with her to ask what they said.
Her name was Donna Hamblin, and she talked in a loud and friendly voice that didnt have much inflection. She wasnt surprised by my questionpeople often asked her the same thing.
She told me she had a problem with stealing. So she had decided to take a drastic measure and write, watch me on her forehead. That way when she walked into a store, the clerk would take notice of her, ask her what the words said, and then make sure she didnt steal anything.
Hamblin, 56, explained she has been diagnosed as a kleptomaniac, which is defined as the failure to resist the impulse to steal or hoard things. She said shes attracted to anything shiny, and she particularly is fond of stealing items for her grandkids.
She agreed to let me do a story. In fact, shed be grateful if I did a story because kleptomania isnt well understood. She said she wasnt evil. Shed never steal anyones purse or wallet or anything from a home. But she remembers, at the height of her stealing, shed go from one end of the mall to another, filling up bags with stuff. For about three years, she stole every single day.
Hamblins been to 86th court on four different occasions since 2000 for stealing, including this last time for shoplifting in March at Wal-Mart. She picked up some Easter candy, socks, a shirt, and underwear for her grandkids. She knew someone was watching her, but she just kept stealing.
She wants to stop.
Traverse City psychologist Greg Holmes said the diagnosis of kleptomania has had a controversial past.
Some believe it started as an excuse by wealthy suburban women to steal, and its not a legitimate disorder. Others in the mental health profession have categorized it as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, similar to ritually checking whether a door is locked or obsessive hand washing. Other professionals believe that kleptomania is similar to an addiction, much like alcohol or drugs.
Owing to the controversy, kleptomania has been in and out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of psychologists and psychiatrists. Its currently in the book.
Hamblin is a class klepto with an urge to steal when under stress. She doesnt need what she steals, and often surreptitiously puts the stolen stuff back on the store shelves. The disorder is often found with a person who suffers from other mental conditions, such as paranoia, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. Hamblin suffers from bipolar disorder, characterized by extreme swings from mania to depression.
The Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at the University of Minnesota treats kleptomania as an impulse control disorder, along with gambling, pyromania, sexual addictions, alcohol dependency, skin picking, hair pulling and body dysmorphic disorder (imagined ugliness).
Dr. Jon Grant, who works at the Impulse Control clinic, has been involved in two clinical studies that shows the drug naltrexone is helpful in treating kleptomania. The drugwhich is FDA approved to treat alcohol and opiate dependencyblocks endogenous opiates or the part of the brain that feels pleasure with certain addictive behaviors, wrote Gardiner Harris, in a University of Minnesota press release.
The double blind study showed the drug helped gets rid of that rush and desire people feel when they steal, Grant wrote.
The difference in their behavior was significant, and these people were really troubled by their behavior, he wrote.
How many people steal? In a recent survey of 43,000 adults, an astonishing 11 percent admitted to shoplifting in their lifetime, although it was unclear how many suffered from kleptomania, Harris wrote.
An estimated .6% of the population are kleptos, and its more common with women, according to the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders.
One might surmise that Winona Ryder suffers from the disorder. She stole $5,500 worth of clothes in 2002, and was caught taking make-up from CVC Pharmacy in 2006. She clearly doesnt lack for money.
After meeting Hamblin at the courthouse, I agreed to meet her a few weeks later for another court appearance (she was ultimately fined $470, according to court records). I waited in a sort of arena of people all waiting for their trials, and sat down beside a woman in her 30s. Her young attorney, beautiful and wearing an expensive suit, hovered nearby. She whisked off abruptly to a conference room, failing to say a word to her clearly nervous client.
She looked at me. Am I supposed to go with her?
I shrugged. I had no idea. Then I told her I was waiting for a woman who wanted to tell me her story of being a kleptomaniac.
The woman was shocked. Thats my problem! Im the mother of two young kids, I look perfectly normal, and no one knows I steal. But I got caught and I am so embarrassed. Ive done it since I was a teenager, and I cant seem to help it. You should let teenagers know about this and that they should never start, because its so hard to stop!
Hamblin was late for her court appointment. So late that by the time she arrived, Id left, and then I couldnt reach her by phone for a few weeks. I feared she might have passed away. But fortunately, she had just gone downstate for a long visit.
Finally, we agreed to get together at the Traverse City library. This time, Hamblin showed up promptly, but her forehead was clear. She explained that she only writes on it when she has to go shopping. We found a quiet conference room where she told me her life story in her distinctively loud voice.
Hamblin grew up in the Flint area, the daughter of a hard-working father who earned a good living as a tool and die maker, and a distant mother, who also worked in the shop.
Hamblin was the oldest of five, and remembers her mom taking she and her siblings along on stealing expeditions. Shed empty out money from candy bar machines or change-makers at the Laundromat. Shed have the children put on new clothes at a store over their old ones, and walk out the store. I didnt think anything of it, Hamblin said.
As she grew older and started attending Catholic church with her devout father, she learned stealing was wrong and memories faded of her moms stealing days. But her other troubles didnt. Her mother was pressuring her to leave the house, just as she herself had been pushed out from her own large family of 21 brothers and sisters. When Hamblin would bring home a new boy, her mother would encourage Hamblin to accept any and all gifts.
Hamblin succumbed to her pressure to marry, and left the house at the age of 17 before graduating. But she and her new husband were unemployed. A son was born a couple of years later, and she stole diapers and food, along with cigarettes and magazines for her husband.
Eventually, they both found jobs and Hamblin stopped stealing regularlyjust here and there when feeling stressed over her controlling husband. Her habit kicked in during her mid 30s, when she was newly divorced and earning $1,000 a week as a waitress. She could easily afford whatever she wanted, but Hamblin began stealing for her grandkids. She couldnt bear the thought of the babies having to go without.
I stole car seats, cribs, everything the grandkids needed.
Later, when they grew older, she stole clothes. She didnt want them showing up the first day of school wearing K-Mart clothes, while all the other kids wore higher-end labels. Every time shed see her grandkids, shed pull out a new gift. In a weird way, she wanted to give them the attention she never received from her emotionally cold mother.
Hamblin eventually moved north, where she found good paying jobs with gourmet restaurants in Antrim County. And she continued to steal. Shed drive to a Meijer or a Wal-Mart or a Prevos and go down the aisles, putting this or that item in her purse or under her purse or in a pocket.
The fact that she was a middle-aged woman seemed to make her invisible. No one noticed her or even suspected she was stealing. The thrill would end as soon as she walked out the door.
Along with her issues of bipolar disorder and kleptomania, Hamblin suffered spinal stenosis and neuropathy or loss of nerve feeling in her feet. She qualified for permanent disability and stopped working.
In the last three or four years, Hamblin grew afraid of her stealing habit. It came to the point, when I left a store without taking something, Id feel bad. Afraid to risk getting caught, shed stay in her Kalkaska apartment for up to two months, getting her food from the Schwan delivery man.
I knew this was really a problem, something that had made me a prisoner of my own home, she said. You shouldnt be thinking of breaking your fingers or cutting your fingers or thinking your fingers are evil.
At one point, she had fleeting thoughts of killing herself. She saw a therapist, who she said received a grant to counsel people with stealing disorders. She was supposed to see him one-on-one, but instead he held group therapy sessions, and the patients ranged from an embezzler to a woman who wrote bad checks. She was told she was too old to change.
She didnt believe him.
After getting caught again in March, she came up with the idea of writing various wordsklepto, watch me, or thiefon her forehead. At first, the words appeared backward because she was writing them in a mirror:
I wanted someone to write it for me, and they said were not going to do it. Someone at Community Mental Health said, youre downgrading yourself as a person. I dont feel like that. I do have mental issue problems. I dont understand if you have a problem, why should you have to isolate yourself. Id rather do this.
IS THERE HELP?
So how do you cure a thief?
Drugs can help some people, but Holmes said the final cure for any addiction or compulsion is to help people realize that the answer lies only with them.
For a long time, people didnt think they had power over their behavior. Remember the saying from the 70s, The devil made me do it. Some people believe their genes are responsible. Rarely do you hear people take accountability for their behaviors. I did it, and Im sorry I did it. Instead, weve evolved into a disordered society. We have all these disorders now.
Holmes said excuses are the norm. He had one client, an alcoholic, who told him he could resist drinking, except that he had to pass by a party store on his drive home from work.
Its as if this party store pulled him in with its magnetic power, he said.
Another woman said she wanted to try to stop smoking. So Holmes told her that when she was ready to stop trying and absolutely commit to quitting, to call him and make an appointment. And to be sure to wear red shoes to his office. She looked at him as if he were nuts, but a few weeks later, she called him and agreed to show up in the office wearing red shoes.
So she comes in, and I thanked her for wearing the red shoes. And then I asked her to stand there in the middle of the floor, click her heels three times and say, I want to stop smoking. I want to stop smoking. I want to stop smoking.
She laughed, Holmes laughed, and she never smoked again. But the point isjust like the scarecrow, lion, and tin man in the Wizard of Ozwhat you want is within your power, and has always been within your power.
That said, addictions have their deep-rooted triggers. Hamblin believes the roots of her stealing go back to her mother. If her home had been a warmer place, she believes she would have graduated from high school and then gone on to college. Had she not grown up with the belief that stealing was normal, she might not be stealing today.
Holmes said that once a person puts an end to his or her addiction, its easier to get to the root of the problem.
When youre engrossed with your addiction, its easier not to think about your true feelings. Loneliness, anger, sadness. When youre checking your stove 100 times, youre not thinking about other things, Holmes said. Were not in a culture where youre told to sit still and just be. We fill up our calendars, and are encouraged to buy things in order to feel better. Or we drink as a kind of self-induced anesthesia.
Holmes then makes another point, alluding to the American classic: Frankenstein.
That story begins with a scientist who creates a monster, and the monster gets out of control. He abandons the monster, which then tries to look for someone who will take him in and love him. The monster ends up under the floorboards of a house, and hears the children playing with each other and a family being very loving with each other, and he thinks this family can love him, too.
But the family is terrorized and runs away and rejects him, and thats when the monster goes on the rampage.
That issue of abandonment and lack of love feeds a number of disorders. And once someone regains that feeling of unconditional love, the issue can finally resolve itself, Holmes said.
Which is why in Grants clinical study, he found that drugs are helpful, but no cure. Therapy must be added to the mix. Holmes tells his patients that the first step to stopping an addiction is to first admit they enjoy it.
I tell people, internally you have a board of directors, and if 51% is saying, smoke that cigarette, youre going to smoke, until you make a vow that no matter what happens to you, no matter what happens in your life, you wont smoke or drink or steal, youre not going to change, Holmes said.
And perhaps Hamblins signage on her forehead is her own proclamation that shes done with stealing. Shes decided to reduce her stress by saying no to people, and now shes saying no to stealing. And she wants you to know it too.