Stress Eating: Why Do We Do It and How to Stop

I am an expert stress eater. I munch on something when I’m bored, when I watch TV, when I’m worried about work, and then I snack some morewhen I feel bad about having snacked too much. There’s a paradox that bothers me about my tendency to stress eat: I’m otherwise pretty health conscious. I try to work out every day, and I force myself to make healthy food choices. But I often eat even though I’m not actually hungry.

I can tell that some of you are probably already thinking: well, I don’t have a problem with my weight, so I don’t have an issue with stress eating. Maybe some of you aren’t even aware that you engage in stress eating at all; I wasn’t, until I started researching this article. Consider this: as many as half of Americans eat to manage stress. Simply being thin doesn’t mean that you don’t turn to food for emotional comfort; if you’ve ever reached for your favorite ice cream for solace after a bad day, well, stressed spelled backwards is desserts. I’ve been there, too.

What is Stress Eating, Anyway?

Stress eating — also called emotional eating, or mindless eating — is really common. The feeling of hunger is part psychological, part physiological. Physiological hunger is what you feel when your body needs food for fuel. Psychological hunger, also called hedonic hunger, is when we eat for pleasure.  It’s your body and mind’s way of pacifying, through food,whatever feelings are causing you distress. This often takes the form of “comfort food” high in sugar, carbs and fat.

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Fear 101 and Why Trump Won

Many Americans have spent the last couple of days in a state of shock — wondering how exactly it is that we find ourselves here, with a candidate that has defied the odds, the polls and a majority of the American public to become President-elect.

I wish I could say, in good conscience, that we couldn’t have seen this coming. I wish I could chalk this up to an anomaly, or a “rigged system.” But we truly haven’t given Donald Trump enough credit. Had we done so, we would have seen that his win is a result of a stunning constellation of factors, carefully choreographed by a man who capitalized on the American electorate’s biggest weakness: its fear.

Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions and one that — along with pain — plays the biggest role in self-preservation. When we’re children, fear keeps us from trusting strangers, from sleeping peacefully in the dark or from trying to pet a barking dog. As adults, our fears are quite different. A 2016 survey found that Americans’ top five fears are government corruption, a terrorist attack on the United States, not having enough money for the future, personally being a victim of terror and government restrictions on firearms.

Right out of the gate, Donald Trump addressed the fear of government corruption by distancing himself from the establishment candidate — “crooked Hillary” — and reminding us that he is a successful businessman, not a politician. In doing that, he not only placed himself decidedly against the other candidates, but also with the voting public. I’m one of you guys. Already, he addressed the fear that people have of the American government, their disenchantment with and resentment towards an elite that — they feel — doesn’t have their best interests in mind.

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This is why you feel like an impostor

It’s 4AM, and my Whatsapp springs to life in a flurry of sudden noise and activity. Texts from Kate*, my best friend since high school, populate the screen.

K: Why do I always feel like I’m five steps behind?

K: I just did a prototype of the same exact shirt that some guy is wearing on the Sartorialist’s Instagram.

K: I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing half of the time.

K: …like I’m a kid who just can’t keep it together.

K: My apartment is dirty, I have two internet subscriptions that I have to cancel but I haven’t gotten around to, and I’m running around trying to be professional when really, I don’t know what the hell is going on…

Here’s the thing about Kate: She’s spent the better part of the last decade living in Milan (thus the texts at an ungodly time), working for some of the biggest names in fashion. In the last month alone, she’s designed suits for Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender and George Clooney. It’s safe to say she’s a brilliant designer and she lives for her job. But texts like these have been coming worrisomely often.

And it’s not just Kate. In my last two years as the furtive ear behind Craigslist Confessional, one of the sentiments I hear most often, from millennials especially, is that they feel like their success is undeserved, accidental and likely mercurial. Unsurprisingly, there’s a name for that feeling: impostor phenomenon.

So what is impostor phenomenon? Why are so many of us suffering from it?

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When it comes to picking our partners, there are no coincidences

I grew up in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, while the Soviets and Afghans waged a brutal war next door. My childhood is filled with events that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect, they’re horrific. I remember going to the market and watching my mom fend off Afghani orphans who offered to carry her groceries for spare change. I remember the first time my friends brought over a box of bullets and asked to store them in our fridge.

I remember those tense few months when my father stood trial for crimes he did not commit. I remember—more than once—walking down the street or being on a crowded bus and feeling a strange hand grope my private parts. I remember learning that my sister had been raped, and then that my best friend had been raped, too. I remember, but I want more than anything to forget.

Back then, violence was everywhere. Ghoulish predators hid in crowds, getting their hands on whatever they could. Religious repression seeped through our society’s safety net and made victims out of thousands of young girls. But nobody talked about it. Hush, my mother told me. Cover your head, that will stop them from looking at you, we told each other when something happened.

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From Last Week: I see my own kids four days a month, and I have no idea who they are anymore

When I think about my dad, I think about how different it was when I was growing up. Was providing for and raising a family simpler and easier back then, or was he just better at it than I am? I don’t know; maybe both.

When I walk into my school in the morning, the first thing that I notice is the smell of the freshly polished linoleum floors. For me, there’s a sense of power and pride that comes along with walking into an empty school in the early morning, before the kids crowd the halls. My tiny office is located in one of the back halls, next to a chemistry classroom. I’m pretty sure that it used to be a broom closet at one point, but I can’t complain. We’re perpetually underfunded and we teach a very tough student population.

I’ve seen a lot here. The most common narrative is babies having babies. When they come to my office with that deer in the headlights look of sheer immobilizing panic, I make sure to tell them that they have options. I help as much as I can—financially and otherwise—to get these kids on the right track. I come up with money that I don’t have, knowing that I will never be repaid. I spend time with them that I should be spending with my own family, and I want to tell them that having kids can be a blessing, but how can I?

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From Last Week: I was nearly date raped

The frat house basement smelled of vomit, mold, stale beer, and body odor. I immediately regretted going and would have walked back to the dorms had Ashley, my roommate, not dragged me to the back room. Ashley was nice and, incidentally, the only friend I’d managed to make my freshman year. She was my lifeline, and I felt that I needed to keep up our friendship.

She handed me a questionably colored drink called jungle juice and I sipped it slowly.  It was my first alcoholic drink, ever, and I made a mental note to pace myself, not to get drunk. And somehow, even though she was the last person I wanted to think about, my mother’s voice came floating into my head: you’re not here to drink and have fun. That’s not what I’m paying for. You’ve got to get your GPA up so that you can get a good job…

I grew up listening to the familiar refrain about so-and-so’s kid, the doctor, or so-and-so’s kid, the one who works for Goldman Sachs. It seemed preposterous, even then—before I’d decidedly failed them—that my parents would expect such things of me. Did they not know me at all? Weren’t they as tired of being disappointed as I was of disappointing them?

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I started throwing up so often, and so violently, that the scar on my hand had no time to heal

I have a blister on the knuckle of my right hand’s index finger. This blister is the traitor that threatens to expose me—and I’ve often wished that I’d been more careful about how I’d acquired it. But now that I look at it—I mean, really look at it—I’ve decided that it’s not really a blister, but more like a slight callous—a patch of skin that is a little rougher and less lined than the rest of my hand.

When I first started throwing up after meals, I was probably sixteen or so. That’s when I noticed that my weight was becoming unmanageable, and that I wasn’t as skinny, as popular, or as cool as the rest of the girls I hung out with at school. I wasn’t really pretty, or really witty, or really smart. And I couldn’t control any of that, although I planned to get my nose done as soon as I turned eighteen. But my weight I could control.

I started dieting the summer of my sixteenth birthday. I ran three miles every day on the treadmill at the local gym. One day, as we were going up the stairs to watch a movie in our living room, my dad—who had been trailing me—said something offhand about my calves. He said that he could tell I was working out.

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From Last Week: I was sixteen when he raped me.

I was sixteen when he raped me. I got pregnant, and my parents told me I had to marry him. My dad was an elder—a leader in our community of Jehovah’s Witnesses—and everything in my life seemed very black and white. I knew what was expected of me, and I knew I had to date and marry someone of the same faith.

I remember that conversation with my father. He told me I should not have put myself in that situation, and that I had to marry Kevin. Abortion was not an option. I was still a Witness at the time, and I believed that if I got an abortion I would go to hell, and there would be no way to redeem myself.

So we went to the courthouse and got married. I stayed for two years, and I got pregnant again. I had my second child, and when she was six months old, I packed up my car in the middle of the night and I drove us all to a homeless women’s shelter. And that was the first time in over two years that I felt I could breathe.

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From Last Week: I think my wife knows I'm gay. I've told her a million times.

My wife and I have these conversations all the time. Usually, they’re formulaic—each fight is the same, covers similar bases, jumps through the same emotional loops, and has the same ending.

“I am who I am, I am who I am, I am who I am.” I’m not sure how many times I’ve yelled this—I’ve screamed it, I’ve whispered it, I’ve cried it. I feel exhausted and beaten, and yet what I say seems to make no difference to her.

She usually tells me I’m confused. “You’re confused,” she’ll say again. “You’re just confused; it’ll be fine. It will pass, honey.” She’ll try to placate me, try to bind my eyes shut, and try to tell herself that this will all go away.

I wince when she calls me honey. Can you believe that? My own wife, and her kindness hurts me, but that’s because I’ve stopped believing that it is kindness. I think she’s trying to manipulate me into staying. We always sit in this living room for hours upon hours and it never goes anywhere.

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From Last Week: I argue with God about my wife and why he took her beautiful mind away from her.

I met my wife Joyce when I was in my early thirties. We’ve been married for over fifty years, and I don’t think we’ve ever spent more than a few days apart. We have children and grandchildren, a comfortable home, and we lead what most people would consider to be a life of privilege.

Joyce was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of months ago. I first started noticing that something was off because she was becoming uncharacteristically short-tempered with me. She started forgetting where her things were, like her car keys, and she started misplacing things altogether. I remember once she had put the laundry detergent in the fridge. I spent hours trying to find it.

It wasn’t long after Joyce was formally diagnosed that the kids and I decided to move her to an assisted living facility. I am very torn about that decision, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t consider bringing her back home. But I can’t take care of both of us.

I visit her several times a week, and I think the people there treat her well. They take excellent care of her, but it’s not a good place for me to visit. I become very depressed. It’s not unusual to be greeted by a screaming or crying patient, for example.

There’s a gentleman in his sixties there who has to have his food cut into tiny bits and fed to him by an occupational therapist because he can’t even do that himself anymore. I feel like I’ve abandoned her in hell, and I fear that in a moment of lucidity, she will recognize this.

When I went to see her last, one of her aides asked her whether she recognized me. She said, “Yes, that’s the garbage man. He’s come to help me take care of the garbage.” Of course, I was not offended. But I was hurt. If I go to see her in the morning, she’s usually present, but in the afternoons, she starts sundowning—her symptoms get worse as the day wears on.

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From Last Week: I feel like I never had a childhood; I had so many people depending on me

I was ten years old when we moved to the States. My mom and dad came with me, and we left my brother and sister with my aunt back in Bolivia. The plan was that we would try to bring them here once we got things in order. Eight years passed in a heartbeat. We left my siblings behind when they were seven and eight, respectively.

The next time my mother saw them, they were teenagers. My aunt passed away from cancer and my mom had to go back to Bolivia. She’s there now, taking care of my siblings and my aunt’s children, too. I haven’t seen her in three years. This has torn our family apart, and the only solace I feel is in knowing that it’s for a greater good.

I played soccer in high school and I was very good. I had opportunities to play overseas, but I couldn’t because I’m not a citizen. We came here with a visa that we overstayed, so we’ve been illegal with no road to citizenship. There aren’t very many job opportunities for people like me, so my dad told me that I had to work construction with him. I started when I was 18, right after I graduated high school.

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From Last Week: I couldn't risk being thrown out on the street. I needed to take care of my family.

It was a Wednesday just like any other. I walked down the gray-carpeted floors of the office building, sneaking my head into offices and happily greeting the other employees. I liked most of them, but begrudgingly. I couldn’t help but feel inferior to them in my guard’s uniform. I had such high aspirations during high school, but I’d never quite made it to college. My parents couldn’t afford it, and higher education had never been expected of me — so I got by with odd jobs until I met my wife.

She was working as a checkout girl at the local grocery store. I spent months hiding furtively behind the baking aisle and sneaking looks at her. For a long time, I didn’t have the guts to ask her out. I spent way too much money buying nonperishables I didn’t need in order to see her.

Our first child came shortly after we got married, and the second on his heels. That’s when I got my security job for this large office building, in a place where the worst crime was leaving unwashed dishes in the sink.

I love my wife and kids and couldn’t escape the guilt I felt about not being able to provide for them. I spent the majority of my working life daydreaming about how to move up the corporate ladder, and kissing the asses of the privileged young punks who looked right past me. I resented them for their luck in life — for their cushy jobs and offices, and for their kids who had probably never heard the word “no.”

For the rest of the story, head on over to Quartz; I promise you it's worth it. 

Teaser: I was going to let it go on until it killed me

I was going to let it go on until it killed me. From the time I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, it’s all I thought about. Every single thing I did was for one purpose alone: getting a fix.

I started getting high and drinking with my mom’s third husband. He would ply me with booze and weed because it made me more submissive — easier to control when he molested me. I knew that what he was doing was wrong, but he threatened to hurt my younger sister whenever I resisted. So, in my mind, I was sacrificing myself for her sake. I’ll never forget the moment, years later, when she told me that she used to be jealous of all the time that “daddy” spent with me. She had no idea.

My real father was drunk when he died. He must have been in his early 20s, and I was barely three. My grandparents had substance abuse issues, too. My mom was clean, though. But addiction definitely ran in the family. They say that it’s a disease — like cancer. Well, this was a cancer that was growing inside me ever since I was born. I feel like I don’t remember a life in which alcohol and drugs weren’t everywhere.

To read the rest of this Confessional, please head on over to Quartz. I promise you, it’s worth it.

Thoughts from Readers like You!

This past week, I received many responses from Craigslist Confessional readers to my original introduction to CC up on Quartz. I wanted to share one of them with you, because it's hearing your thoughts and how CC has affected you that keeps me going day after day. 

Dear Helena,

I recently read your Quartz article about how you listened to the stories of Craigslist strangers and I wanted to thank you for what you're doing and for writing about your experience. Having grown up in NYC, I feel it is especially difficult for people here to find honest relationships with each other, simply because so many people carry their own agendas. To find someone we can trust with our stories and with ourselves is truly a treasure, and you have offered this to so many people. 

I also would like to thank you for telling the story of your relationship with your parents and as a first generation immigrant. My parents and I also came to the States as immigrants. Granted, my mother held a reputable job at the time and we were well cared for, but when the company changed management, we were thrown into financial hardship. Everything you said about filial responsibility resonated with me, and I do feel the need to give back to my parents when I have the means, but it is a gesture of gratitude I truly look forward to.

You wrote that you had always wanted to have a job where you helped people and that you had gotten side-tracked. Reading this reminded me of my own desire for the very same. I dislike my current job, but it allows me the freedom and the finances to pursue my own interests. Recently I am being reminded of where my heart is and I am planning the ways in which I can pursue my desires. Reading your words have helped encourage me further.

I cannot describe how happy I was to read your article. In part because I have long wanted to do the same -- lend my ear to strangers and their stories, and also because I am in a volatile time in my life where every word of encouragement pushes me forward immensely. Thank you for your courage, your efforts, and your words.

Best,

HF

Teaser: Luke, The Affair

She seemed different—subtly so, but different nonetheless. She came home one night smelling unlike herself. She acted casual about it all, but it was written all over her face. I don’t know the guy, but I have a totally morbid obsession with him.

She thinks that I found out because of a text that she forgot to erase, but I’d actually been following her for quite some time. I cut down on hours at my job, and I watched them when she got out of work. Part of me wanted to explode from within the confines of my truck and confront them, but another lesser part of me also liked seeing her happy again. 

The story of my abortion

The moon was a pale eggshell yellow, and it seemed to bubble in the distance, fading in and out of clarity. I took a deep breath of the cool summer air and watched the fireflies in the night sky. When I was a kid, I was positively obsessed with fireflies. I’d spend hours upon hours with a mason jar in hand, chasing them down. Once I’d managed to catch a few, I would sit in my father’s wicker chair and stare at them — their little bulbous behinds lighting up every so often as if in protest against their captor.

I sat in that same wicker chair and rested my hand on my belly. The dishes clattered in the distance and I felt a compulsion to yell in and ask if Mom needed help with cleaning up, but I wanted to be alone and so I stayed on the porch. We’d spent the day at the creek, taking photos, fishing, and enjoying the weather together. As always, my mother had brought the camera.

“Do something silly!” Mom had demanded, holding the Polaroid camera up to her eyes.

And in that moment, all I had thought to do was twirl my hair with one hand and stick my thumb in my mouth. As I looked at the Polaroid, I thought that I looked like a child myself — way younger than 18. 

Way younger than someone’s mom should look.

I kept my hand on my belly. There were two hearts in my body now, but I didn’t feel any different. I thought about how weird that thought was — that right at this very moment — I had two hearts.

I got high the next morning and walked to the clinic by myself. Everything in the waiting room was a sickly pink, and I looked around at the panicked faces, waiting for someone to call my name.

They took me into the doctor’s office first, and asked me a flurry of questions. I didn’t know the answers to half of them. I thought that the doctor sounded hostile and judgmental at times — but then reconsidered and thought that maybe I was just being sensitive. They covered the side effects and what to expect, and before I knew it I was being led into a new room.

Everything smelled different here, like a mix of Clorox bleach, rubbing alcohol, and a very faint hint of iron. It was the kind of smell that I’d always associated with hospitals, fear, and blood. And everything was white. As the doctor helped to guide my legs into the stirrups, I wondered if there would be a lot of blood, and for the first time I felt truly alone and paralyzed by fear.

The nurse stood by my side and flashed down a confident smile, placing her hand by the edge of the bed.

“Okay, are you ready?” I heard the doctor ask.

I nodded. And then, realizing he couldn’t see me, I mumbled a quick “yes.”

The first time I noticed the machine nearby was when it whirred into life — purring silently and reassuringly, as if telling me “I’m good at my job; don’t worry.” I looked at the two little jars connected to it, and braced as I felt a slight pinch. I grabbed the nurse’s hand and looked up at her.

“You’re okay…you’re okay…” the nurse whispered, giving my hand a quick squeeze.

I kept my eyes fixed on the jars and then suddenly — without warning — a bright crimson splashed against the pristine glass. I stared at the bright color, transfixed, until the nurse followed my stare, realizing for the first time that the machine had slid into view.

The worst had already happened

Trigger Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual assault. 

The bed sloshed up and down, our bodies creating a wave-like movement that made me slightly seasick. What bothered me at the moment — curiously — was not the situation or my stomach, but that the bed wasn’t filled up with water all the way. As my left temple violently grinded against the decking of the bed, I mentally concluded that the bed was probably 40% empty. Maybe it was deliberate; maybe he liked it that way.

I had met him at a bar. He always hung around like bad news and none of my friends knew him, but he was tall and handsome and extremely blonde. He was a “Robert Redford in his heyday type” as my friend Gina had so aptly put it. He came up to me that night, bought me drinks, and made me feel beautiful. So when he suggested that we go back to his place, I didn’t even think twice about it.

As soon as we got into his room, though, his demeanor changed. He became rougher and more dismissive of me, like he knew that I was his now and there was no need to court or play coy or pretend. I’d felt sad, but then he offered to put on some music and I stupidly thought, for a split second, that what I knew would happen, wouldn’t.

I watched him as he moved across the room with precision, grabbing the subwoofer and placing it at the foot of the bed. Then, he took two of the speakers and put them on either side of the headboard. He fiddled with the dials a little while, and finally pressed play. Something trippy started seeping out of the speakers — I’d never heard it before — and he adjusted the volume to 26 — close to max, but not loud enough that the neighbors would complain.

As I watched him set up his stereo, I had a feeling of foreboding at the pit of my stomach. We were completely alone and I knew that no matter what I tried at this point, he would still have his way. His organized — almost rhythmic — routine fed into my fears, and I sat at the edge of the bed, transfixed and unable to move.

When he was done, he pushed me down and away from him and I toppled over, stiff and almost lifeless. He switched off the music and made his way to the bathroom, turning on the shower. I lay on my side and looked at the alarm clock that was partially hidden behind one of the speakers. It was 2:57AM.

I pushed myself off of the waterbed, holding on to the corner of one of the bedside tables for balance. My whole body hurt. As I made my way down the stairs of his apartment, I started convulsing uncontrollably and threw up the entire contents of my stomach. And then do you know what I did? I cleaned it up. Because even after what had just happened, all I could think of was how awful it would be for him to walk down the stairs tomorrow — unscathed, unhurt, looking forward to his brand new day — and see my vomit there.

The fresh air sobered me up slightly and I walked slowly through the deserted streets to my own apartment. I thought about it a million times: the way he treated me at the bar, and then the way he treated me at the apartment. He had been two entirely different people, and I hadn’t seen it. That made me question my judgment, and it made me question everyone in my life — what if they all had the capacity to hurt me like this? And what if I didn’t know it? How could I have allowed this to happen?

At that moment, I passed a drunk and rowdy group of men leaving the bar and I felt instinctively afraid for my safety. But then I thought…what for? The worst had already happened.

I stole to feed my family

It was a Wednesday just like any other. I walked down the gray-carpeted floors of the office building, sneaking my head into offices and exclaiming happy greetings to the employees. I liked most of them, but begrudgingly. I couldn’t help but feel inferior to them in my guard’s uniform. I had such high aspirations during high school, but I’d never quite made it to college. My parents couldn’t afford it, and higher education had never been expected of me—so I swam by those years with odd jobs until I met my wife.

She was working as a checkout girl at the local grocery store. I spent months hiding furtively behind the baking isle and sneaking looks at her, but I never had the guts to ask her out. So I spent way too much money buying nonperishables I didn’t need in order to see her.

Our first child came shortly after we got married, and the second on his heels. That’s when I got my security job for this large office building, walking the bureaucratic beat in a place where the worst crime was leaving unwashed dishes in the sink.

I love my wife and kids, but I couldn’t escape the guilt I felt about not being able to provide for them. I spent the majority of my working life daydreaming about how to move up the corporate ladder, and kissing the asses of the privileged young punks who looked right past me. I resented them for their luck in life—for their cushy jobs and offices, and for their kids who had probably never heard the word “no.”

I’d been due for a promotion that I never got and for a raise that never materialized for two years now. My wife got her old job back, and we hired someone to watch our newborn. But the bills kept piling up, and between the two of us, we were still behind on rent by a few months. The landlord finally served us an eviction notice.

As I approached the empty office ahead, my heartbeat sped up and I felt irrationally afraid. It was almost five, and people would slowly start trickling out of the office. I had decided that I would do it then.

I mentally chided myself for being so nervous—I was the only one around here in charge of security. There were no cameras that I knew about. After close to five years, people knew and trusted me. I was well liked. Plus, this needed to be done. I couldn’t risk being thrown out on the street. I needed to take care of my family.

At 5:45 exactly, after I’d completed my last round and made sure that everyone was gone, I used my key card to swipe into the office. I looked at the stacks of old office machinery that lined the back wall, and thought to myself that there was no way anyone would notice one crummy broken printer was missing. So I grabbed it, put it in a recyclable grocery bag, and went home.

I always got home before my wife, so I used that hour of solitude to create a new eBay account. I didn’t want her worrying, so I was not planning on saying anything. I uploaded a few photos of the printer along with its specs and put it on auction.

I checked my account nervously throughout the night, and by the morning of the next day I was $60 richer. We got groceries with that money, and my wife never asked me where it came from. At work, I tried to gauge if anyone was looking at me differently or suspiciously, but everyone seemed blissfully unaware of what I’d done. I promised myself to never do it again, thanking my lucky stars for not having gotten caught.

But the money went quickly, and before I knew it, I found myself in a tight spot again. This time, I took an old laptop and made an extra $300. My transgressions always coincided with my financial obligations—I never got greedy; I never took more than I needed. But every time my son needed to see the dentist, or the rent came due, or the credit card company hassled me for payment, it occurred to me that I had a dangerous but surefire way to get everyone off of our backs.

When they finally caught on to me, they estimated that I’d stolen a few thousand dollars from the office. I never tried to deny it, but I asked—begged—for leniency. They all knew that I had a wife and kids that depended on me financially. But I ended up serving time and having to repay what I’d taken. I think I did more harm than good, but I still hope that their stepdad treats my kids well, and that he gives them the love I couldn’t afford.