Why Do People Steal in Early Recovery?

stealing in early recovery why do people steal

Substance abuse leads to a host of bad behaviors, including deception and petty theft. However, you may be surprised to learn that these misdeeds aren’t limited to active addiction. At PACE, we have observed that some young men first begin to shoplift in early recovery. Today, we’ll discuss this counterintuitive form of self-sabotage, the psychological principles behind it, and alternatives for those seeking to stop stealing.

Examples of Stealing in Early Recovery

While most associate theft with dire need, the reality is that many people in early recovery aren’t stealing because of poverty or economic disadvantage.

To illustrate this point, consider that commonly pilfered items include teeth whitening kits, laundry detergent, spices, energy drinks, over-the-counter medications, cell phone charging cables, sunglasses, clothing, and snack foods. Not essentials or valuables.

In fact, the following three points are true of most post-treatment shoplifting cases:

  • People steal products they do not need.
  • Stolen items often carry little or no value.
  • People in early recovery can usually afford the items they take.

Career criminals orchestrate high-value heists with accomplices. Those stealing after treatment operate differently; they shoplift alone and without prior planning. This spontaneous behavior then leads to strong feelings of guilt and shame. Why, then, do young men in recovery decide to take things that do not belong to them?

Psychological Reasons for Stealing

This pattern of behavior makes more sense when considered from a neurological perspective. The brain’s limbic system is responsible for rewarding survival-oriented actions like eating. Drinking heavily or taking drugs rewires this part of a person’s mind, along with another crucial structure: the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC handles higher-order thinking, judgement, and self-control.

When these two areas are compromised, the brain has one priority—getting a dopamine hit through any means necessary.

For most people in active addiction, this means using drugs or alcohol. But when these substances are off the table in early recovery, stealing becomes an appealing replacement. Newly sober men often turn to theft as a form of sensation-seeking. The rush of taking a risk can become an unhealthy source of stimulation after treatment.

Troublingly, when someone steals and evades legal consequences, “getting away with it” may make him feel invincible. It’s important for men who believe this to know that most major retailers build cases on shoplifters over time. While they may not be stopped by security officers on their first, second, or third visit, arrest is likely after crossing a certain threshold of theft.

Finding Healthy Stimulation in Recovery

Fortunately, young men in recovery have access to alternative forms of entertainment. Below are a few safe and legal activities for thrill-seekers who want to stay sober.

  • Exploring new cities, countries, and natural settings
  • Taking a trip with nothing pre-planned
  • Going bungee jumping, rock climbing, or ziplining
  • Riding a roller coaster
  • Playing a team sport
  • Making new friends
  • Watching horror films
  • Getting a motorcycle or jet ski
  • Surfing
  • Skydiving
  • Running a marathon
  • Climbing a mountain

If you’re concerned about a pattern of theft after treatment, help is available. PACE Recovery Center offers dual diagnosis care to men at all stages of recovery. Our residential and outpatient mental health programs provide structure and clinical insight to clients diagnosed with emotional issues and co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact our admissions team to learn about our California treatment center.

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