The Self Help Book Junkie, Part I

>> Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Hi. My name is Melissa, and I’m a Self Help Book junkie.

It’s been 10 months since my last book.


Thank you.

Most of you are not aware that I’m a Self Help Book junkie, nor do you know that I quit Self Help Books cold-turkey about a year ago.

(I’ll give you a second to soak that in.)

OK, so it’s not like I robbed a liquor store, spread my legs for some pusher, or woke up in a pool of my own vomit. My addiction hasn’t cost me my job nor bankrupted my family. Fortunately for our bank account, local libraries and used bookstores provided a steady (and cheap) supply of the latest titles, so I only forked over actual dollars for books I planned to read again or for those times when I needed a “quick fix”.

At this point you may be scratching your head and thinking, “And this is significant because...?”

I understand. None of this may seem significant if you are not a Self Help Book “drinker”. Just as it may be difficult for a non or occasional imbiber to understand why someone would crave or be unable to function without a drink, one may wonder how someone could become addicted to Self Help Books. Not to mention, what’s so bad about reading too many Self Help Books? Isn’t it a bit like eating too many vegetables? Or drinking too much water? I mean, how could it be that bad for you? Ultimately, improving oneself = good. Right?

Eh, not always. An addiction is an addiction, no matter what it is, and while each addiction has it’s own flavor, at their core lies the same demon -- the demon of addiction, itself.

Let me see if I can’t explain this better in a fake interview.


So you have an addiction. Personally, I think you’re exaggerating, so for the record, how do you define addiction?

A couple of Google searches tells me that I probably have a “psychological addiction” whereby I am dependent on a behavior (i.e. reading Self Help Books) despite harmful consequences to my mental well-being.

How are you dependent on Self Help Books?

For many years, I felt uncomfortable without some form of Self Help Book on my night stand or in my thoughts. It might take me a month or two to go through one book, but after I’d processed it on some level, it wouldn’t be long before I’d once again find myself seeking another book to sustain me.

Still, that doesn’t sound too bad. How is it actually harmful to you?

An addiction is the feeling that you can not manage without some thing. It’s the feeling of being suspended on a life raft. Without a Self Help Book, I felt as though I might fall apart, lose control of my emotions, or dive into a depression. I felt as though I might sink. So month after month, book after book, I returned seeking some sort of satisfying epiphany that would carry me through another couple of days.

Can you pinpoint the moment when enjoying a good book turns into an addiction?

Once again, I’ll use alcoholism to illustrate, since most people are at least familiar with that addiction. Many people can enjoy a few drinks, no problem. One or two drinks equals relaxation, yumminess, and good times. But for some, there is a point when The Drink becomes The Answer. At that point, there is no relaxation, yumminess or good times without the alcohol.

Therefore, when I start to think This Book is The Answer, I know I’m crossing the line into addiction. If I have any doubts, all I have to do is ask myself this question:

Can I put this book down? Can I walk away from it?

If I can not, then not only do I have to put the book down, I have to throw it away and run screaming, because the addiction has kicked in.

Can you give me an example?

Well, this happened to me the other day. I felt like I had some anger issues to work through, so I picked up one of the relatively few Self Help Books I have on my bookshelves called Working With Anger by Thubten Chodron (a very good book, by the way). My reasoning went: I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to yell at everyone all the time, so I need help.

So far so good. I opened the book and turned randomly to a page. It said (and I paraphrase because I don’t have it right in front of me):

“Don’t forget -- we are not always our anger.”

Wow. I’m not always my anger. You mean, I’m not always this overly stressed, ready-to-lash-out, sore-throat-from-screaming person? I actually have some good parts -- some nice parts? Boy, does that feel good to hear.

It poured smoothly down my throat and made me feel all warm and tingly inside. I took another sip:

"When our mind is well accustomed to find faults with others, we incorrectly assume they will do the same with us. Here we have two useless habits to counteract: the first is judging others, and the second is assuming others are judging us."

Yesss. So true. I judge other people. I do. It’s no wonder I expect them to judge me as well. This is good. More. I want more...

I found myself searching through the pages frantically, looking for more ways to feel better, more knowledgeable, and enlightened. It felt good. It felt optimistic. It felt like there was a better me, right there on the horizon if I could only stumble over this path of words.

With the book in my hand, I turned to leave the room and I was about to put the book on my night stand for further reading when I stopped. This is the fucking addiction! Gah! I swallowed hard and asked myself the question:

Can I put this back on the shelf?

I could not. At that moment, everything I needed was contained in that book: a life without anger, a life of inner peace, a life of hope. No more fights with the girls, no more yelling at Michael, and no more honking at bicyclists on campus who don’t obey standard traffic laws. No More Anger.

That book had everything and I knew “it” would all go away if I kept reading. I knew that by the last page I would finally, without a doubt, after all this time, be happy. I could not put it down because there was too much at stake. I had too much to gain. I could not put it down. I could not.

But. I. DID.

That moment came courtesy of hitting rock bottom, of reading enough books to know that the books are not the moon -- they are the finger pointing at the moon.

Huh. I don’t know. All of that sounds good to me. The book had some good points to make -- points that you probably needed to hear. When a person is dying of thirst, what harm is a little water?

Because everything I just said was a lie. Well, more like a half-truth.

Feeling good and optimistic when I read a Self Help Book -- that’s just part of what I feel, but not the most important part. Deeper than that, below the false sense of power, is a deeper sense of insecurity -- The Insecurity. Up through the layers, The Insecurity steadily calls to me through a distant megaphone: You are not OK. You need to be fixed. This person with her anger, false vanity, impatience, selfishness, and lack of self-control is not acceptable. You = Bad. Bad Girl. Bad.

So naturally I turned to Self Help Books to counter the voice behind that negative fucking megaphone. And it worked for a while. But The Insecurity is very, very clever and it had a very powerful weapon -- fear.

I was afraid. As long as I kept reading, I could cling to the hope that I might somehow change and become a better, happier person. But if I tried to change and failed, then what? I would have to accept myself, as I am, and I could not do that. That was my worst fear -- that I would have to love and accept this thing that I was. This human, flawed thing.

The Insecurity smiled.

The Insecurity knew it had nothing to fear about Self Help Books. In fact, it could use them to reinforce and feed The Insecurity. Pretty soon, every Self Help Book became another voice behind the megaphone: You’re not good enough, yet. You’re not better, yet. You still need help. You still need fixing. Just a few more words should do it.

Just a few more words.

So I read and read. I fed off of one book after another. Seeking, searching, fixing, tweaking. No longer were Self Help Books therapeutic or medicinal -- they were harmful. They made me feel worse and worse with every word. No matter how beautiful the words were, I needed more and more in order to feel even a little bit “high”. Slowly, but surely they were losing their power to help me. The Insecurity had used my fear to turn a potentially valuable resource into a weapon against me.

Until one day, I hit rock bottom.

Coming soon: The Self Help Book Junkie, Part II.


Rima February 19, 2008 at 12:43 PM  

Melissa, I think there is a self-help book idea in this post; "Beating the Self-Help Book Addiction in Twelve Easy Steps." It's your ticket to literary fame and fortune, I'm telling you.

mimi of sexagenarian and the city,  February 19, 2008 at 2:44 PM  

i think the previous comment is right. this is hilarious. go for it! -- or at the very least, publish it in a newspaper.
xx mimi

Dating Trooper - Dating is Warfare February 19, 2008 at 4:13 PM  

I love the idea of a self-help book to kick the self-help book addiction. Kind of reminds me of Kramer's coffee table book about coffee tables.

Melissa, I'm surprised you never went through a "religious phase" - or did you? I imagine you'd be a prime target for conversion or something (especially when you were younger and maybe more naive)! Better stick to books or, better yet, chocolate.
In my opinion - you are amazing just as you are: smart, funny, inspirational, feisty, efficient and flawed - just like the rest of us.

Michele February 20, 2008 at 9:46 AM  

Hi, My name is Michele and I too am a self-help book junkie. Only, I'm in recovery. I can't tell you how much money I spent on buying one self-help book after another because none of them were solving my problems for me. They only told me what to do. Darn them. I finally gave up, sold all my self-help books on and don't think I've purchased or read one in years. I just decided to be flawed : )

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