Tales from the Therapist's Couch

'My patient has been compulsively buying and hiding expensive clothing, hoarding it under the marital bed'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The young woman sitting across the room from me looks both ashamed and panicky. She has just finished telling me about a secret pattern of behaviour that she has kept hidden from the outside world for several months. On one level, her story is a story of theft. For several months she has been compulsively buying and hiding expensive items of clothing, siphoning off the money to pay for them from her husband's savings account. She never wears these items, but hoards them away under the marital bed. Occasionally, when feeling lonely, she roots out and fingers some material. She is terrified that when her husband checks his next statement, he will notice all the withdrawals. And she will have to confess.

The young woman sitting across the room from me looks both ashamed and panicky. She has just finished telling me about a secret pattern of behaviour that she has kept hidden from the outside world for several months. On one level, her story is a story of theft. For several months she has been compulsively buying and hiding expensive items of clothing, siphoning off the money to pay for them from her husband's savings account. She never wears these items, but hoards them away under the marital bed. Occasionally, when feeling lonely, she roots out and fingers some material. She is terrified that when her husband checks his next statement, he will notice all the withdrawals. And she will have to confess.

We have been working together for a good few months before this disclosure happens, and it is not her first story of theft. Early on in our sessions, she told me of an incident that happened when she was about six years old. With a similar compulsive drive, she had for many months been stealing marbles from a local toy shop. Very occasionally she would take one or two to school, but the bulk of the hoard remained hidden under her mattress. Like the current clothing stash, she would now and again get secret pleasure from fingering the glass beads.

When trying to understand what had triggered these marble thefts, I had asked her what had been happening in her life at this time. It turned out that her elder sister, whom she both envied and adored, had at this time been very poorly and in hospital for many months. Parental preoccupation with this ill sibling, both physically and emotionally, had obviously had a knock-on effect on my patient. It became possible to understand the stealing as a way of taking something back from the environment during this time of emotional neglect. Certainly, this early bout of stealing stopped at the same time as her sister's homecoming, which heralded the return of more consistent parental love.

But what of her more recent adult version of theft and hiding? Why this flashback to an earlier pattern of acting out? My patient's marriage had been the overt reason for her requesting therapy in the first place. She was deeply confused, because although she was very much in love with her husband, she didn't feel trusting of him any longer. Emotionally, and sexually, he just seemed to be elsewhere. She had told him this, and he had reassured her of his love, spoiled her with flowers, told her not to be silly. And so she had gone quiet. But a feeling of betrayal and estrangement remained.

At around this time, her hidden shopping sprees started. Then, after one particularly expensive binge, she made up her mind to talk to someone, to find out if she needed help. Together, we began to try and understand what had triggered her behaviour. On the face of it, she had no reason to feel suspicious of her husband's fidelity. She decided it was her, not him. She must be mad, bad or both.

Then one day she arrived for a session looking exhausted but somehow unburdened. She had discovered that her husband had been having an affair for almost a year. He had broken down and confessed after she by chance found a love letter in his pocket. She felt sad, terribly sad, but no longer mad, or bad. And she had absolutely no desire to go shopping.

Incidents of stealing are very common, both among adults and children. For children, the thefts are most often of money, food and sweets, both from within and outside of the home. Theorists such as Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby have repeatedly connected such childhood thefts with emotional deprivation. Children who, like my patient above, suddenly feel the loss of a loving environment are especially prone to stealing: acting out the pain of loss by greedily taking and often hoarding whatever brings them excitement and succour.

For adults, theft becomes a far more complicated issue as there are, it seems to me, many ways of stealing. Adults, like children, often take what isn't rightfully theirs when feeling insecure, neglected, unloved. Often, as with children, the theft is of food, clothing or money. Yet also in adult behaviour there are less obvious thefts used to ward off emptiness. The "stolen moments" of love affairs, for example, can be used as a way of warding off deep-seated feelings of neglect. The husband of my patient was, it turned out, very much using his affair to boost a damaged self-esteem. Plagiarism, mimicry and imitation, in their myriad of forms and degrees, are other, less visible, examples of theft: moments of secretly stealing something away from someone in order to ward off uncertainty and insecurity.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

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