Darlene* has stolen many things in her life. She has taken shoes and bras and televisions and rabbits. But as a former librarian, there is one particular item that Darlene always found particularly enticing.
"Books are a really big thing with me," she says, "especially self-help and recovery books. I always took self-help books."
Safe at home, she would comb through these materials, searching out clues to her dysfunction and methods for overcoming what felt like an uncontrollable need to steal. Then she would try to put the recommendations into practice. She would wear tight clothing, carry a small purse, bring a friend to the store with her. Nothing worked. "Some part of me," she says, "didn't really know how to stop."
A Pill For Shoplifting
A new study in the journal Biological Psychiatry offers some hope to people with kleptomania, like Darlene, who have unsuccessfully struggled to control their impulses to steal. According to the study, the drug naltrexone — long used to treat alcohol dependence — can also reduce the craving to steal.
The research was conducted by Dr. Jon E. Grant, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota who for years has run a clinic for people with impulse control disorders, such as stealing, gambling, engaging in compulsive sex or setting fires.
These behavioral problems, says Grant, traditionally were seen as different from substance abuse disorders, like alcoholism or drug addiction, which involve actual addictive chemicals. But after years of work, Grant began to question that separation.
He noticed that the people with kleptomania described their problems in almost identical terms as alcoholics and drug addicts. So Grant decided to do an experiment.
"Based on the fact that this clinically presents like an addiction, our thought was — Why shouldn't we use a medication that was approved by the FDA for addiction, to see if it can help with shoplifting?"
In fact, most of the people with kleptomania in Grant's small double-blind study did respond to the pill. Before they got the medication, most of the study participants were spending about an hour a week stealing. But after getting the medication, two-thirds had stopped stealing entirely, and the rest had reduced their stealing substantially. The people on the placebo continued to steal at more or less the same rate.
Grant says the reason the drug works is because it takes the thrill out of stealing. Like drug addiction, Grant explains, kleptomania gives the practitioner an intense high or rush. But naltrexone is an opioid antagonist (science talk for buzz kill). Basically, naltrexone is the "no-fun" pill.
Darlene says she is on the pill and that it's really helping. Still, for good measure, when she goes into a store she says she carries what she calls her "clinging cross" in the palm of her hand.
"It's kind of made out of wood and it has a dove on it," she says. "I put it in my right hand, try to think of the death of Christ, and give up my feelings of stealing to Jesus."
With the help of naltrexone and Jesus, Darlene says, she is staying on the straight and narrow.
* Darlene has requested that NPR withhold her last name because she is admitting to criminal behavior.