Thursday, March 20, 2008


This started as a funny piece but now I'm not so sure. When it first came to me I was playing ping pong on our new wii. I don’t play the wii much, the kids love it but it seems to fall a bit low on my priority list. But there I was playing against the machine trying to hit 100 shots in a row in ping pong. I was working my way up. 43 then 50 then 65 then 73… trying for 100. I realized partway through that I did better if I didn’t focus on the game. I distracted myself with thoughts of this essay while I hit on autopilot and from there I jumped to 90… I took a break to say goodnight to the kids but I came right back to it. I was… obsessed. Trying to distract the thinking part of my brain and engage the pure reaction part, I tried over and over to get to 100. Sometime later I did it. It didn’t take too long, maybe another half hour, which is good because I’m fairly certain I wasn’t going anywhere until it was done. I was obsessed, compelled, compulsive about the experience. I’ve felt this before. I get there often at work, where it can be an asset, this ability to obsess.

But it isn’t always positive. My first memory of obsession was at the Minnesota State Fair. There was this game on the midway where you could win a huge stuffed pink panther. I was about 13 and I was attracted. Throw a dime at a series of glass plates raised on a platform, get the dime to stay on a plate and the huge pink panther was yours. I was too young to understand how the midway worked. Odds favor the house. Bigtime. I played and I played until the dimes were gone and I was good and frustrated. No stuffed animal and some impatient companions. “Come on Amy let’s go” That particular experience ended with a sour feeling of cheated dissatisfaction.

Last night a friend talked about her brother trying to quit his addictions. She related how as part of his rehab they discussed when the using had started and how. Apparently it had started young for most of the crowd. I thought about my experiences with obsession in my life. Positive work experiences for the most part, occasional silly obsessions like the wii ping pong, but only the one time where my obsession left me feeling hollow afterwards. It seems that obsessions contain a strong element of hope in them. While the obsession lasts, the obsessed one feels hope that a goal will be attained. I’ll get to 100 ping pong hits, I’ll get the data arranged in a way that’s illuminating, I’ll win the big stuffed pink panther.

What makes that different than addiction? Was I really addicted to the game instead of obsessed with it? But the word addicted seemed wrong so I started to think about Addition.

Addiction seems to have an element of satisfaction in it with each step. I’ve known a few alcoholics in my time and a few smokers too. In both cases there seems to be an immediate reward for engaging in the addition. The pull on the cigarette leads to a calmer outlook. Knock back a shot and the brain mellows. It feels good. It fills a need. It satisfies a craving.

Do my obsessions really feel good? I’m not sure that they do. Certainly throwing the dime and losing the game over and over didn’t feel good. It was the image of eventually winning, the hope of obtaining the giant pink panther that held my focus. The ping pong? Well it is fun to play but once I got the goal I stopped. I no longer felt the need to play so I guess it was only moderately fun and it wasn’t addicting.

But more than the satisfaction that comes from the action I think the difference is how it ends. Obsessions can end when the goal is reached, but addiction doesn’t really have a goal does it? An obsession, it seems, can end when the goal is reached and satisfaction is achieved. An addiction doesn’t seem to have an opportunity to end in satisfaction from what I’ve observed. So while both might be characterized by perseverant behavior they have wildly different endings.

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