[29 December 2010]
Uriah Heep’s Ken Hensley once said, “It is hard to understand addiction unless you have experienced it.” It’s harder still to imagine the addictions featured on TLC’s new series, My Strange Addiction, an extension of the Discovery Health special of the same name. These addicts aren’t junkies or drunks, hoarders or sex addicts. They eat chalk or toilet paper, hit the tanning bed six times in a day, suck their thumbs or sleep with a blow dryer.
The behaviors are so illogical they’re actually surprising. The premiere episode features Lori and Keesha, two women who’ve engaged in their respective addictions since childhood. Both women are mothers who lead “normal” lives in all respects apart than their compulsive behaviors.
Lori has been sleeping with her blow dryer, turned on, for 24 years, and she has defined criteria for which type of dryer she will use. She uses over 3,000 hours of electricity a year, most of it from the dryer. Growing up in a house with nine siblings, Lori became accustomed to turning on the dryer to drown out noise and warm the bed. Years later, she still uses it, even though it was a contributing factor in her divorce. She has scars from where the dryer has burned her in her sleep, and the dryer has fallen out of bed and burned a hole through the carpet and matting underneath.
Keesha’s behavior also stems from childhood difficulties: as a girl, she began nibbling toilet paper in response to some family stress. She’s been doing it for 23 years now, keeping a roll of toilet paper in the car and squares of paper in her purse. Like Lori regarding her dryers, Keesha has favorite brands of paper. Throughout the day, she will tear off a small piece of paper and pop it into her mouth, because she loves how it “feels on my tongue.” Despite warnings from her family, Keesha doesn’t see the behavior as a threat to her health.
Viewers see both subjects’ initial visits with psychiatrists and their promises to try to change, followed by written updates on their progress. The two-part structure and lack of time make both stories feel rushed. We have all seen enough TV shows about junkies and alcoholics that it might make sense to cut corners on such over-familiar stories. But the point here is the “strangeness.” While My Strange Addiction provides details of the addictive behaviors, it does little to present their psychological make-ups, their contexts or their possible treatments. The resident psychological expert, Dr. John Zajecka, appears early in the episode to describe what he sees, but then he disappears. More input from him might help us understand what we’re watching, and not just ogle bizarre spectacles.
The premiere episode finally leaves viewers frustrated, not just at the lack of analysis, but also at the failure to provide closure. One can never be certain whether an addict is going to relapse, but more narrative follow-through—in the form of epilogues or more discussion by therapists or subjects—would help us comprehend whether Lori and Keesha are safely heading towards recovery. As it is, the episode leaves their storylines open-ended, and still a little “strange.”
If it’s difficult to classify My Strange Addiction—is it a sensational show? a medical help show?—it does have an odd appeal. I’ll be talking about it and I would watch again, drawn in the same way that one is engrossed with seeing some freakish event that might never be seen again. Nonetheless, the show’s flaws are daunting, and make My Strange Addiction more disappointing than fascinating.