Jesslyn (not her real name), 56, started by stealing pens and stationery from the bookshop in her primary school. But it was only when she was 47 years old that she joined a therapy programme for atypical theft offenders. It turned her life around. But by then, she had been arrested at least 10 times and sent to jail four times, with the longest sentence lasting five years.
She said she saw two psychiatrists along the way but they mainly prescribed medication. "They only gave me medication which made me sleepy, so I refused to take them," said Jesslyn.
After her fourth prison stint in 2008, her psychiatrist pointed her to We Care Community Services, a voluntary welfare organisation, hoping counselling and support groups could help her. There, Jesslyn received counselling and behavioural therapy alone, and with her family members. "Suddenly, I understood what my sickness was all about, how to recognise my moods and how to cope with life," said Jesslyn, who is now an accountant.
She said the urge to steal was born out of necessity. Her parents often argued over finances and she was too scared to ask them for money to buy stationery. So she stole pens and pencils from the school bookshop. Later, she enjoyed the thrill of "beating the system" by stealing from supermarkets. She said she felt useful when she could please her parents by contributing household items.
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"I was so obsessed with stuffing items into an already filled plastic bag that I didn't realise how obvious my behaviour was to others," said Jesslyn, who also used to have an eating disorder and suffered from depression. "When I had a bad day, just going on a 'shopping' spree allowed me to get the stress out of my system."
In her late 20s, the urge to steal was so intense, she would feel it even when she was not in a shop. In lonely moments in bed at night, she would try to force herself to sleep. When those attempts failed, she would go to the nearest 24-hour supermarket two blocks away to steal.
Jesslyn hopes that people with similar compulsions will find a support group to help themselves. She joins a support group for other addictions as there is not one dedicated to kleptomaniacs here to date. "Those friends listened without judging. We need people to walk alongside us for the longer term so that we don't slip during vulnerable times."