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Addicted To Stealing

More and more experts believe it's possible for people to become addicted to shoplifting - like they do to alcohol or drugs, reports The Early Show Correspondent Melinda Murphy.

Experts estimate 3 million people in this country are addicted to shoplifting. For them, shoplifting means more than simply stealing items. It also robs them of their lives. Nobody knows this better than Sandra, a grandmother from Michigan.

"I wasted most of my life - with an addiction that took over my life," she says.

Sandra, now 59, has been shoplifting for more than 40 years.

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Sandra first shoplifted when she was just barely a teen. It was her way to deal with a painful childhood. At 21, she married Tom, a happy time, yet Sandra stole on her honeymoon.

"I had a wonderful husband who loved me no matter what. How could I do this to him?"

"She'd always cry endlessly for no reason I could ever see," says Tom. "And I never knew what was going on."

Her shoplifting got worse.

"It was even filling up shopping bags. That's how bad it had gotten," she recalls.

Even after getting caught, even after getting arrested, Sandra couldn't stop.

"The driving force - the high. You know, one more high. Just one more high, then I'll quit. But the one more turns into more and more and more," she says.

Dr. Jon Grant, a psychiatrist who has treated hundreds for this addiction, says, "The craving is so strong, much like an alcohol craving or craving for heroin, that they really feel out of control, they feel almost like robots."

He says shoplifters tend to come from families where both parents are not expressive emotionally.

Terry Shulman, an attorney, author and recovering shoplifter, turned to therapy and realized he might be battling an addiction. So he started a support group twelve years ago.

"I was so out of control, I scared myself. I couldn't believe what I was doing," he says. "And I actually contemplated suicide."

Kleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous - or CASA for short - offers support for shoplifting addicts at weekly meetings in Michigan.

"Men, women, young, old, black, white, rich, poor, everybody. And everybody does it for their own unique reasons," says Terry.

Many members of the group left when The Early Show started filming the meeting - those who remained, didn't want their faces shown.

Scott, now on work release, is married, with children. He started shoplifting in high school.

"I violated my probation by shoplifting again. And they put me in jail," he says. "I've been arrested a number of times. And every time I got arrested and went in front of the court, I believed that was going to be it for me."

The inability to stop is a common theme.

"After people become addicted to shoplifting, they'll actually become agitated and anxious and won't sleep, because they've got these cravings or these urges to shoplift and when they can't do it, it affects them," says Dr. Grant.

He says it is taking a long time for people to recognize it as an addiction because people don't come forward and talk about it because of the shame and guilt associated with the behavior. Also, shoplifting is a crime and mental health professionals often don't want to get involved in criminal behavior.

In fact, there are only five support groups nationwide like CASA.

Sandra still struggles. Just days before a support group meeting, Sandra stole some tools. Her husband Tom still doesn't understand.

"I cannot fathom how you cannot know that when you're taking something and not paying for it, that you're stealing. I cannot understand it," he says.

The group helps some families gain perspective. One husband, after attending a meeting, said, "I wasn't too sure it was an addiction. But hearing all of the stories I heard today, I'm almost positive it is just an addiction."

Sandra's determined to beat this addiction. "I know it sounds hokey, but, you know, if I can not steal today, and... for the rest of my life... I'll be OK. I believe that in my heart," she says. "I know I'll conquer it."

Naltrexone, a drug available for treating alcohol and heroin addiction is being used for treating shoplifting addiction. It helps control the urge to abuse.

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