DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #68: The Bad Things You Did

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Dear Sugar,

For many years, to varying degrees, I stole compulsively. For many of the years I stole, I was on a “cocktail” of psychotropic drugs for depression, anxiety, and insomnia. In retrospect, I think the drugs made me powerless to fight against the compulsion to take things.

An impulse would arise in my head—say to take this pair of jeans from my friend, that book from that friend, or the abandoned flower pots that sat on the porch of an empty house. I even once took money out of the wallet of my future mother-in-law. When the ideas arose to take whatever it was, I would try to talk myself out of it, but I couldn’t stop myself ultimately.

I don’t do it anymore. I’ve been off all the meds for about six years, and I’m able to control the impulse, which, in fact, I rarely have now. I can’t totally blame the meds because before I was taking them I also had the impulse to steal and did on occasion succumb to it. I blame myself. I think, because of my complicated psychology—my abusive childhood (my mother screaming at me from time immemorial that I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief)—I was not only trying to fulfill my mother’s prophecy, but maybe trying to get people to hate and reject me for taking from them, for being a liar and a thief.

I have also compulsively told whopping lies to people, over-the-top stories. They seemed to just come out.

I loathe myself for these acts. I don’t know how to wipe the slate clean. I am terrified that friends and loved ones who I deceived and stole from—whether by taking a material possession or by making up some story—will find out that I did. I am not that person anymore and I haven’t been for years. My greatest wish is to be able to forgive myself; to stop hating myself for these betrayals. I have tried to forgive myself for a long while, but I’m finding I’m no closer. I read a lot about this topic and I am back in therapy after years of being out of it, but I still hate myself for what I’ve done.

I know I will not take from anyone again in any way. Is that enough? Do I have to admit to those I stole from that I did? Or can I forgive myself without admitting to people how I wronged them? I know they would reject me if I were to admit what I’d done, even though I have not been a liar and a thief for a long, long time. I am so sorry for what I’ve done and would give anything not to have done what I have. Please help, Sugar. I’m tortured.

Signed,
Desperate

 

Dear Desperate,

Fifteen years ago I had a yard sale. I’d just moved to the city where I now live and I was literally down to my last twenty cents so I put nearly everything I owned out on the lawn—my thrift store dresses and books, my bracelets and knick-knacks, my dishes and shoes.

Customers came and went throughout the day, but my primary companions were a group of pre-adolescent neighborhood boys who flitted in and out looking at my things, inquiring about how much this and that cost, though they neither had the money to purchase nor an inclination to possess the boring non-boy items I had to sell. Late in the afternoon one of the boys told me that another of the boys had stolen something from me—an empty retro leather camera case that I’d once used as a purse. It was a small thing, a barely-worth-bothering-about item that would’ve sold for something like five bucks, but still I asked the accused boy if he’d taken it.

“No!” he yelled and stormed off.

The next day he returned wearing a big gray hoodie. He lurked near the table where I’d set my things to sell and, when he believed I wasn’t looking, he pulled the camera case from beneath his jacket and placed it where it had been sitting the day before.

“Your thing is back,” he said to me nonchalantly a while later, pointing to the camera case as if he’d played no part in its reappearance.

“Good,” I said. “Why did you steal it?” I asked, but again he denied that he had.

It was a sunny fall day. A few of the boys sat with me on the porch steps, telling me bits about their lives. The boy who’d stolen my camera case pulled up his sleeve and flexed his arm so he could show me his bicep. He insisted in a tone more belligerent than any of the others that the cluster of fake gold chains he wore around his neck were real.

“Why’d you steal my camera case?” I asked again after a while, but he again denied that he had, though he altered his story this time to explain that he’d only taken it temporarily because he was going to his house to get his money and then he’d opted not to purchase it after all.

We talked some more about other things and soon it was just the two of us. He told me about the father he rarely saw and his much older siblings; about what kind of hot car he was going to buy the instant he turned 16.

“Why’d you steal my camera case?” I asked once more and this time he didn’t deny it.

Instead, he looked down at the ground and said very quietly but very clearly, “Because I was lonely.”

There are only a few times anyone has been as self-aware and nakedly honest as that boy was with me in that moment. When he said what he said I almost fell off the steps. He took my empty retro leather camera case that I’d once used as a purse because he was lonely. That’s why.

I’ve thought about that boy so many times in these last fifteen years, perhaps because when he told me what he did about himself, he told me something about myself too. I used to steal things like you, Desperate. I had the inexplicable urge to take what didn’t belong to me. I simply couldn’t resist. I took a compact of blue eye shadow from my great aunt in Philadelphia, a pretty sweater from a school friend, bars of soap in fancy wrappers from near-stranger’s bathrooms, and a figurine of a white dog with his head askew, among other things.

By the time I met the lonely boy at my yard sale, I hadn’t stolen for years, but like you, the things I’d taken haunted me. I’d meant no harm, but I had the horrible feeling that I’d caused it. And worse still, the intermittent urge to steal hadn’t entirely left me, though I’d kept myself from acting on it since I was 18.

I didn’t know why I stole things and I still can’t properly say, though because I was lonely seems about the rightest thing I’d ever heard.

I think you were lonely, too, sweet pea. And lonely isn’t a crime. Maybe what happened in those years you were stealing and lying is you had a mother-sized hole to fill inside of you and so you stuffed a bunch of things into it that didn’t belong to you and said a lot of things that weren’t true because on some subconscious level you thought doing so would make the hole disappear. But it didn’t. You came to understand that. You found a way to begin to heal yourself.

You need to heal better. Forgiveness is the next step, as you so acutely know. I don’t think your path to wholeness is walking backward on the trail. The people you stole from don’t need you to fess up, darling. They need you to stop tormenting yourself over all those things you took that don’t matter very much anymore. I’m not sure why you haven’t been able to do that so far, but I imagine it has something to do with the story you’ve told yourself about yourself.

The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good?

I don’t like the thief part of my narrative either. I struggled mightily with whether or not I should write about it here—it’s the first time I’ve written about it, ever. I made Mr. Sugar repeatedly tell me that it was okay, and even though he assured me it was, I’m scared. I’ve written about all sorts of other “bad things” I’ve done—promiscuous sex, drugs—but this seems worse, because unlike those other things, telling you that I used to steal things doesn’t jibe with the person I want you to perceive me as being.

But it is the person I am. And I’ve forgiven myself for that.

Years after I stopped stealing things I was sitting alone by a river. As I sat looking at the water I found myself thinking about all the things I’d taken that didn’t belong to me and before I even knew what I was doing I began picking a blade of grass for each one and then dropping it into the water. I am forgiven, I thought as I let go of the blade that stood in for the blue eye shadow. I am forgiven, I thought for each of those fancy soaps. I am forgiven, for the dog figurine and the pretty sweater, and so on until I’d let all the bad things I’d done float right on down the river and I’d said I am forgiven so many times it felt like I really was.

That doesn’t mean I never grappled with it again. Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill. You have to say I am forgiven again and again until it becomes the story you believe about yourself. Every last one of us has the capacity to do that, you included, Desperate. I hope you will.

I don’t know what ever came of that lonely boy at my yard sale. I hope he’s made right whatever was wrong inside of him. That camera case he stole from me was still sitting on the table when I closed down my sale. “You want this?” I asked, holding it out to him.

He took it from me and smiled.

Yours,
Sugar

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