It started right after I first read Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” my junior year of high school. Angry at the oppressive adults around me and disillusioned by the American consumer culture at large, I felt like Hoffman had acknowledged everything I was feeling and had given me permission to passive-aggressively flip the bird at corporate society.
This feeling was only encouraged by the fact that all the copies of the book had, in fact, been stolen from my town’s Barnes & Noble when I went to look for it; clearly, there were others like me in my midst. I found that stealing things gave me a sense of personal freedom and power at a time when I felt I had none.
As strange as it sounds, I always strongly maintained the principle that I was only stealing from those who “deserved it.” I never ever took from friends or small businesses and have always overtipped service industry workers; I know from experience that the little guy is never the one pocketing profits. However, I felt like I was sticking it to the Man by refusing to pay the outrageous markups on things I know were made my underpaid workers in third-world countries.
At first I admittedly stole frivolous things I didn’t need – makeup, clothes, snacks, etc. In my early college years, I worked for a prominent lingerie chain that paid me pathetic wages and offered no incentives for requiring us to brainwash customers into opening credit lines with them. During that time, I lifted around $3,500 worth of merchandise from the store, which I would often return to other franchises in exchange for store credit that I would then use to shop their clothing line via catalogue and online. At that point, I was riding the rush of adrenaline most people describe when discussing shoplifting addictions. I giddily tallied up how much merch I could walk out of a store with, and my roomie and I would celebrate every time we pulled off a successful exchange heist.
Strangely, though, my addiction never escalated into needing to steal more over time, and by the time I graduated, I had settled into a routine of just taking a few extra things everywhere I went.
Not to sound cocky, but I was never afraid of being caught; I was so confident in my ability to avoid suspicion that, after the first couple years, I no longer felt nervous about my habit. I was always friendly to staff and would never leave a store I’d stolen from without paying for at least one thing, which may not have been a foolproof method, but it worked flawlessly for almost two decades. I was never caught. I was never even stopped and questioned. In fact, the act of shoplifting became second nature to me, so much that I felt nothing at all while I was doing it. I just went through life with the knowledge that I shopped with a discount everywhere I went.
Once that adolescent thrill of stealing died, I was still left with the feeling of entitlement that I deserved to take things from CEOs and corporations who were robbing society, and I maintained a habit of stealing roughly 35% of everything I shopped for. I didn’t go out of my way to steal anything I didn’t need, especially after I got married and had a baby. We didn’t have much money at all, so my heists became more focused on practical items like diapers and organic milk. I often used the self-service checkout and would only ring up ¾ of my groceries and, when the scale said I’d put too much in, the clerk I’d been chatting with happily fixed it on her end.
We never ate like royalty, but we always had enough quality fare on the table. My husband never knew I was supplementing so much of our income with a five-finger discount, but I made sure not to brag too much about how far I was able to stretch our budget.
After making shoplifting a part of my lifestyle for almost half my life, I’d long forgone any guilt that I may’ve had. My habit was driven solely on the mentality that I was really paying what we “should” be charged if corporations weren’t such money-hungry assholes.
I was raised in a Christian household and, although I don’t identify with that religion anymore, I’ve maintained a strong sense of spirituality, yet somehow my lifestyle as a petty thief never weighed on my guilt or seemed like something I needed to address. Ever. It was only after beginning yoga teacher training and learning about the yamas that I started realizing what this theft meant about me and what I was putting out into the world.
It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but I had honestly never stopped to consider that my actions weren’t actually cancelling out the greediness of corporate jerks but were, in fact, perpetuating the same awfulness I was supposedly railing against. I know, I know. It’s a very basic “Two wrongs don’t make a right” moral to the story, but in my anger to reclaim what was supposedly owed to me (like three grand in underwear, apparently) I’d forgotten to consider that I was just putting out more awfulness into the world.
So I decided to stop. The first time I went to a grocery store with the intention of paying for everything I needed, I walked the aisles in a shaky daze, mentally calculating the total price of everything in my cart for about an hour and trying not to hyperventilate until I left everything and ran out to my car in a panic. In a flurry of tears, I helped myself to a 30 minute meltdown as I realized I was more of a fucking mess than I’d convinced myself I was all these years.
And then, unlike any time I’ve ever tried to change any part of myself, something inside me flipped a switch. I wiped my face, looked at myself in my rearview mirror, and told my reflection to grow the fuck up. I went back inside, filled my cart with what I needed without sneaking any of it into my gigantic purse, and went through a checkout line with an actual person taking my money.
Day by day it has gotten easier to shop ethically. It took about a week of “Oh yeah; I gotta pay for this,” reminders to myself for the impulse to shove little things into my pockets to dissipate. The anxiety of having to pay full price still crops up as I watch a cashier ringing up my transaction, but not so much that it interferes with me while I’m actually going shopping. And, surprisingly, I’m not consuming any less than I was when I wasn’t paying for all of it; we eat the same amount of food and wear the same amount of new clothes, which shows me exactly how wasted my energy was at directing anger outward.
Now, instead of going out of my way to rip off giant corporations, I just don’t bother with them at all. The Shop Local movement gives me plenty of opportunity to put positivity out there instead of generating more awfulness. I’m lucky to get to take advantage of my thriving local market in this day and age.
I’m still struggling with my feelings about my whole era of theft because, for a long time, shoplifting was a huge part of how I operated on a daily basis. I felt like I was beating an oppressive system and maintaining a bit of autonomy, albeit in the laziest, most passive-aggressive sense possible. It gave me a sense of control in a world where people are perpetually in vulnerable states. Somehow during the 16 years I did it, I managed to keep it a secret from everyone except my BFF and therapist whom I deliberately told after I’d decided to quit.
I got away with it. Honestly, what worries me most is how little guilt I feel about it even now; what sort of sociopath can take so much from others without feeling bad about it in the aftermath? I suspect this is because I only stole from faceless corporations. I’m fully aware that the only reason I stopped was not because I felt bad for hurting others, but because I wanted to make myself a better person. On one hand, it’s definitely beneficial to others that I stopped, but on the other, what sort of narcissist only stops hurting others because she wants to feel better about herself?
But the truth is that I do feel more peaceful and less angry at the world since I’ve decided to stop stealing. Whether or not it is justifiable, theft is a form of violence toward another and, in my participating in it, I was delineating myself from society by creating a “me vs. them” paradigm that will never ever serve anyone or facilitate any sort of social change. And if I am not willing to make changes in my tiny, individual, single self, how in the hell do I expect any giant entity to be able to?
Ultimately, though, I’m giving myself the power to step out of a game that had me playing just as dirty as the people I despised. Sticking it to the Man feels really good sometimes, but not at the price of having to steep in my own hypocrisy.