Howard stole an angel food cake. Diane took lousy $1.99 flip-flops. Mary grabbed whatever little stuff she could while waiting in a Walmart checkout lane to pay for her groceries.
These Omahans took things they didn't need. Things they could otherwise pay for. Things that, in their essence, didn't matter.
What mattered to Howard, who looks like your grandpa, and Diane, who could be your chatty neighbor, and Mary, who has a perfect pink manicure, was getting away with it. Getting a rush akin to runner's high that later helped them feel full, somehow satisfied, and yet humiliated and hating themselves.
They confessed these things in a tiny hospital meeting room where they gather weekly to discuss their addiction.
Here, at Compulsive Shoplifting Anonymous, they could be anonymous, and they will remain so in this column, referred to by only their first names.
Douglas County started the group two years ago at the request of a chronic shoplifter named Patty. Attendance grew so much that the county recently opened a second location.
Attending support-group meetings is one of many things that compulsive shoplifters, who qualify for the county's small mental health diversion program, do to stay out of jail. They also have to report daily to a case manager and achieve the goals outlined in a treatment plan.
Of course, shoplifting is a crime. And these shoplifters say they know what they've done is wrong.
Among their 12 steps to recovery is making amends, which can sometimes mean repaying store owners.
But they and mental health experts distinguish compulsive shoplifting behavior from that of other criminals.
The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, the country's largest anti-shoplifting advocacy group, says chronic, habitual shoplifters — not professionals out for profit or to fund another addiction — account for 80 percent of store losses. These shoplifters are stealing daily as a way to cope with problems or stressors, said the Melville, N.Y.-based group's spokeswoman, Barbara Staib. They are, otherwise, generally honest people who would rush to return a $20 bill that fell out of your purse.
They are people like Patty.
Three years ago, this self-described west Omaha soccer mom spent a Thursday going from store to store, stealing everything from groceries to clothes.
As she “shopped,” she got sloppy. Her final spree ended at a mall clothing store, where she had stuffed clothes into her purse and under the clothes she was wearing. An observant clerk chased Patty around the store, then quickly closed the store gate.
The jig was up. Police came. Patty's one phone call went to her 16-year-old son.
“That's something no mother wants to do. That broke my heart,” Patty told me. “I couldn't believe I had let it go this far.”
Patty had justified the shoplifting with rules. Like no stealing from individuals or mom-and-pops. Big retailers, she figured, could absorb the loss. She took things she thought her husband of 30 years and three kids needed. Shoplifting, a counselor later told Patty, filled a void for her like alcohol, drugs and promiscuity do for others.
Patty had started shoplifting as a teenager, with a tube of lip gloss. She continued the habit through her marriage, although she quit for a 10-year spell, when her kids were young and she was so immersed in their activities that there simply was little time.
She returned to stealing, often when her husband was out of town for work. Patty said she drew “a kind of reassurance” from it.
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|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.|
“Then it's like it's never enough,” she said. “It's not about the things, it's about the acquiring.”
This was her logic: If her purse wasn't full, she wasn't done.
“It's absolutely crazy,” she said. “But at the time, you absolutely don't know how you can survive without shoplifting.”
Patty got caught the first time in 2004 and paid a $75 fine. The second conviction came in 2005, and she paid $50.
But the third time around meant a felony, and Patty was in shock. This otherwise upstanding citizen who voted, belonged to the PTA and went to church was headed downtown to the Douglas County Jail. Where she spent three nights.
Patty qualified for the mental health diversion program. She complained to Jeri Schaben, her “peer support specialist,” who knew what it was like to suffer from mental illness and addiction. Schaben, a recovering alcoholic with bipolar disorder, helped Patty launch this Omaha support group.
It offered what Patty and others yearned to hear: the communal been-there-done-that. Peers who understand why they shoplift.
They share tips on how not to shoplift: Don't shop alone, don't wear baggy clothes, and don't carry a big purse.
Certainly that support was on display on a recent Thursday night, when seven shoplifters and Schaben gathered at Bergan Mercy Medical Center.
They spent the hour sharing their stories.
Mary, with the pink fingernails, said she had been free of drug and alcohol abuse for five years. She feared that she had replaced those addictions with shoplifting.
“It started with little things like a pack of gum,” Mary told the group. “Then it got bigger. And I'm thinking, 'I'm planning it out.' It's like, what is wrong with me?”
She held up a wristlet wallet and said she now takes that into Walmart and leaves her purse in the car.
“I need to get help,” she said.
Help was here, said Diane. Help was here, said Howard.
“A lot of people just think you're a thief,” he said. “But it's a problem.”
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