When most people hear the word addiction, they often think of it as being limited to various substances and behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling. Engaging in these activities is supposed to make us feel good, at least for a time. So we can understand how one could fall victim to their appeal. But what about those who become fixated on stranger behaviors – to activities that seem downright repulsive to the vast majority of people? Where is the line drawn between odd obessive behavior and true addiction?
Anyone who has seen TLC’s, My Strange Addiction, will be familiar with such bizarre behavior. The show features people who exhibit odd, compulsive behaviors, from eating substances like drywall or couch cushions to snorting baby powder. Some of those featured on the show have developed strong emotional and sexual attractions to inanimate objects, such as a doll or even a car. Others are obsessed with becoming lookalikes of celebrities, or bringing a stuffed animal with them wherever they go. But how many of these behaviors should be classified as true addiction, as opposed to mental illness or just strange but harmless activities?
One writer who is a recovered addict to drugs and alcohol feels that the show “muddies the water between portraying bona fide addictions and behaviors that are instead extreme, marginal and perhaps simply strange." (1) Some experts point to the show’s subjects as suffering from obsessions rather than addictions. Others point to the subjects’ dependence on their habits as evidence that these behaviors do, in fact, constitute addictions. (2)
While some would argue over the specifics, addiction does have defining traits. An addiction is compulsive. It is not a simple habit that can easily be broken, nor is it a choice; it is a complex disease. (3) Addictions are severe enough such that they interfere with a persons’ ability to function normally, as well as having damaging effects on those around them. Addiction is also frequently paired with co-occurring mental disorders. While not always the case, many people suffering from drug or alcohol addiction also experience other forms of mental illness. Often, these illnesses – such as obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, or depression, can interact with and even worsen one’s addiction.
With this knowledge, what can we learn about addiction from My Strange Addiction? First, a healthy skepticism about how addiction is presented in media. It is unlikely that everyone on the show – even the majority of those featured – technically suffer from addictions. Even if they may not all technically be addicts, though, the subjects of My Strange Addiction can help one learn about addiction; some have much in common with true addicts. Individuals featured on the show exhibit different fixations and obsessions, often stemming from underlying mental health issues. These situations demonstrate addiction’s variance with the individual and its frequent relation to mental illness. Some behaviors on the show are harmless, but others are compulsions that have caused damage to the individual’s self-esteem, ability to function, and relationships with friends and loved ones – another key trait of addiction. Therefore, one should always keep an eye out for obsessive and dependent behaviors in friends and loved ones, textbook addictions or not. It could mean the difference between them getting the help they need versus leaving them to live in a self-destructive, dangerous cycle.