One particularly painful moment came several years ago when her habit kept her from accepting an award. After working with patients at her hospital—young boys who'd been shot on the street—she had started a program to fight gangs with $10,000 of her own money. The police department wanted to recognize her for her efforts. "They were giving me a badge," Samson says, her eyes filling with tears, "but I couldn't enjoy receiving this honor because I was terrified some policeman would recognize me from my court case that was going on in another county. I wanted to spare myself any more embarrassment and shame than I already had."
Samson had known for a long time that she needed help. Two years after she started stealing, she'd gone in for counseling. "But there were no programs available for this problem at the time," she says, "and when I told therapists about it, they were more amused and interested in how I got away with it than in actually helping me stop. I tried Narcotics Anonymous because I could identify with the craving—but was laughed out of the room and basically told not to return." Samson found Shulman's group on the Internet at the beginning of this year. Everything he said about shoplifters—the depression, the sense of deprivation, the need to "even the score" with a world that had held back so much—spoke to her.
While most mainstream researchers still look at kleptomania as a psychological problem, there's mounting evidence to suggest that the disorder, like other addictive illnesses, involves some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain.
Brown University's Grant believes that behavioral therapy for kleptomania—which might include taking the patient to a store and talking her through her impulse to steal—is helpful, but in most cases doesn't work without medication to reduce the craving. "Although we still don't understand it well," he says, "we think the brain chemistry of addicts—whether they're addicted to alcohol, gambling, stealing, or anything else—is similar. Why we choose one addiction over the other isn't clear." Grant supplements his patients' behavioral therapy with Naltrexone, a drug that attaches to opiate-receptor sites in the brain and is used to treat heroin and alcohol abuse. "Naltrexone does not usually get rid of the urge entirely, but most patients say they no longer feel they're a slave to it," says Grant.
Samson, who takes antidepressants, has not yet considered Grant's approach. But through shopliftersanonymous.com, she has had regular phone-counseling sessions with Shulman and attends the online support group he moderates. For the first time in 15 years, Samson stopped stealing for more than a few days. In fact, since May 2, she has stolen nothing. Well, next to nothing.
"I am still hanging in, but it ain't always a cakewalk," she says, adding only half-jokingly, "Why couldn't I just be a closet alcoholic, like a normal person?"
There are days—many days—when she still feels shaky, as if she won't make it to evening unless she gets in her car and fills up that trunk. And strangely, her food bingeing, which disappeared when she began stealing, is starting to make a comeback.
Even Shulman has had an occasional slipup. Two years ago, blindsided by the stress of having just gotten married and furnishing a home, he pocketed a light-fixture part to fix a lamp. He confessed to his wife, which put a crimp in her trust of him for a while, and told his weekly group. "But relapse is always a possibility, even for those of us who live and breathe recovery every day," he says. "One is never cured."
To a greater or lesser degree, Samson may always struggle with the craving. But she can learn to overcome the stealing. "I think that if I can just make sense of it all," she says, "I'll have a little bit of free will."
Judith Newman is the author of You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother (Miramax).
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