By Esther Mann

Dear Esther,

The most peculiar thing has been happening to me and I really don’t know what to make of it. It’s even possible that I could be imagining it and, because of that, I haven’t told this to anyone — not even my husband. But there is a strong part of me that knows deep down that I’m not imagining what I believe is happening. I just don’t know what to do about it.

I have a close friend by the name of Barbara. She moved in next door about a year ago and it was, as they say, “love at first sight.” Something about her personality, attitude, and overall style attracted me and vice-versa. I don’t make friends that easily because I really have to feel like I have a lot in common with that person to feel comfortable around her and to want to be her friend. For that reason, I only have a few good friends and only one I feel very close to besides Barbara.

So Barbara and I quickly became good buddies. At first it was a bit formal — having each other over for Shabbos meals or going out together as couples. As time went on, Barbara and I started hanging out at one another’s homes very casually. I might drop by her place in my robe on a Shabbos morning and we’d have coffee together and just hang out. Sometimes she’d drop by my place, unexpectedly, and we’d just feel so comfortable together talking about everything.

It got to the point that we were so comfortable together that I would sometimes leave her alone in my kitchen or den while I tended to my laundry or maybe got ready for the day.

About a month ago, I couldn’t find a little ceramic dish I use to put my rings in when I’m washing or doing dishes. It’s not an expensive item, but it’s something that I’ve had for a long time and always use, and it’s also unique; I just enjoy knowing it’s there. So when I took off my rings and was about to drop them into the dish, I was shocked to see that it wasn’t in its usual place. I looked around for it, asked my family members if any of them had seen it, and decided finally that maybe my cleaning woman, who comes once a week, accidentally broke it. She barely speaks English, is very sweet, and I didn’t want to accuse her of doing something that possibly she didn’t do and embarrass her. So I just let the incident go and figured I’d buy a new one.

The following week a similar thing happened. I had left a scarf on a chair in my den one day and forgot about putting it away. A few days later, I decided that I wanted to wear the scarf and remembered that I had left it out. When I went looking for it on the chair that I was pretty certain I had left it on, I couldn’t find it for the life of me. Again, I asked my family members if any of them had seen it anywhere, and no one had. It never turned up.

Finally, when I’m on the phone, I often take off my earrings because they get in the way and it’s more comfortable to speak on the phone without them. I had taken off a pair of real gold earrings, left them on one of my kitchen counters, and they have never been seen again.

I started thinking. Barbara had been in my home all three times that things went missing, so I started considering the possibility that maybe she took these items. But then I quickly thought to myself that it couldn’t be possible. After all, who takes stuff from someone else, especially someone they feel so close to? And besides, it’s not like she can’t afford any of these items that went missing. Thank G-d, her husband does very well, and she doesn’t seem to be lacking in anything.

I really don’t know where to go from here. If it’s true that Barbara has been stealing from me, even though I haven’t caught her on camera and can’t say 100 percent that I am certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, how do I maintain a friendship with a thief? Do I confront her? Do I drop her as a friend? Do I tell my husband? I’m so confused and upset about this whole thing. And the crazy fact is that I really cherish our friendship. I depend on her, I confide in her, and we just have so much fun together. My life would feel very empty at this point without her.

I hope you can help me figure out what to do.

Confused

Dear Confused,

It’s always a little difficult — and, frankly, a bit unfair to the writer and to me — to make a diagnosis based on a short letter with few details. It’s risky business and certainly can lead to a false diagnosis. However, having made that disclaimer, I would have to say that it sounds as though Barbara may possibly be a kleptomaniac. There, I’ve said it! Though I’m sure most of us have heard the term being used in a joking fashion, kleptomania is a real psychological disorder. It is the inability to refrain from the urge to steal items and is usually done for reasons other than personal use or financial gain.

Backtracking a bit, you mentioned that you haven’t actually caught Barbara on tape, helping herself to your personal items. So despite the fact that you haven’t been able to come up with any other feasible explanations for your missing items, you may want to set up a camera in your kitchen or den just to verify your beliefs. Mind you, these cameras can be expensive, and I’m sure that taking such a bold action might feel very uncomfortable for you, not to mention the fact that you are then making your suspicions public knowledge within your family. So it’s not so simple.

But let’s suppose for a while that you have further reason to believe that Barbara is a kleptomaniac, either because you have the footage to prove it, or because more items go missing. Where do you go from here? Do you confront her, which could very well blow up in your face, since there is probably no way to approach such a conversation in a manner that is gentle enough to be accepted happily? Do you speak to her husband, so that he tries to deal with it? My guess is that he knows and has not been successful in finding for her the necessary help that she requires. Do you drop her as a friend, since this new knowledge is something you’re unable to tolerate? That is strictly up to you, and that’s where you decision-making challenge lies.

No one should judge or criticize Barbara’s situation (assuming, in fact, that she is a kleptomaniac). There are many opinions on the origins of this disorder, but most clinicians would agree that it most likely falls under the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. This disorder is frequently underdiagnosed and, like other obsessive disorders, it’s often hard to treat.

The question is whether you can still enjoy all the other wonderful qualities that Barbara brings to the table, and the benefits of being her close friend, while being mindful of her problem. Obviously, you don’t want to be a watchdog all the time. That certainly doesn’t sound like the makings of a great relationship. But perhaps, if you don’t leave her alone while she’s in your home, creating a backdrop for the perfect crime, she won’t be tempted to help herself to something of yours that she no doubt doesn’t need anyway. Under those circumstances, can this friendship survive? Is there enough great stuff between the two of you to override her troubling compulsion?

There is no right or wrong answer. It’s really about what you decide to accept and overlook or not. No one is perfect, no friendship is perfect, and we are all overlooking something or other in order to gain the benefits of a satisfying friendship.

From what you’ve said, you’ve met few people during your lifetime whom you have had the ability to get as close to as you have been able to with Barbara. Obviously, the two of you have a lot in common and a special connection. I don’t think you need to feel compelled to toss away all that goodwill and satisfaction just because she has this one problem that she doesn’t seem to be able to control. But it’s not an open-and-shut case — it’s your call. See if you can live with this knowledge and the parameters it creates for your friendship. With acknowledgement and acceptance, you’re almost there.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295. 

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