Joe Collier on the need for ‘oholisms’

Professor Joe CollierFrom the outside, most people appear to conduct themselves in a normal, essentially humdrum, manner. However, in many (possibly most) of us there are odd, and often secret, compulsive behavioural traits which, in extremes, can dominate a person’s life and occasionally be a wrecker. Classic examples of such behaviour are the compulsive alcohol drinker (as in the alcoholic), the compulsive food eater (as in bulimia), and the compulsive cigarette smoker (the chain smoker). Added to these are the physically less damaging but similarly well recognised compulsions that include the workaholic and the shopaholic (a subgroup of which is the ‘fashion victim’), the bookworm and the compulsive gambler.

But it seems to me that having an ‘oholism’ is widespread, indeed I imagine that there are as many ‘oholisms’ as there are people. Here, I am talking about a set of compulsions no less passionate but generally less permanent than the classic variety. Any bus or train journey reveals the ‘mobile- phonoholic’ who makes serial phone calls, says little but says it loud, and is seemingly oblivious of those around. Then there are the avid ‘textoholics’ who, with mobile phones tightly gripped and with glazed eyes focused on the screen, tap out messages with furious intensity, and then check expectantly for replies.  Similarly, one knows of ‘phone-to-checkoholics’ (parents who every day phone their children [some now middle- aged]  to check ‘if all’s well’); the joggoholics (religiously pounding the streets several times a week whatever the weather), the ‘weedoholics’ (daily scavenging the flower beds for those little green miscreants); the ‘mowoholics’ (mowing the lawn in the straightest of lines once a week without fail); the ‘emailoholics’ (emails to be checked almost hourly to be read through and replied to immediately – something I recognise well!) – and so on.

Just recently I think I have spotted three newer ‘oholics’. There are the ‘littercleanup oholics’, of which I have one in my family, who cannot pass a cigarette butt or a piece of paper on the pavement without stopping to flick it into the gutter with their cane or toe, or to pick it up for disposal later.

There is at least one ‘strimmoholic’ who happens to be have been a close neighbour. For him, every day was a strimmer day. The cycle would start in his own garden, and when that was ‘strimmed’ he would move on to his field. Then, and without permission, on to the field of someone else (often ours) where he would continue the business. Ferociously and with great concentration, he would cut everything in front of him as though pulled along by the strimmer itself. Regularly he would bring to a premature end the lives of precious plants or bushes. When reminded that he was cutting down the plants in another person’s property, he would smile nicely, explain his actions politely (‘making it all look neater’), then climb through the hedge, cross the road and start again on another  property – again uninvited.

My third is a ‘French-language-oholic’ – me. For at least a year now it has been difficult for me to stop learning French. If I miss a day I feel empty, bereft. To all intents and purposes I have become a language junkie needing a daily dose of French grammar or vocabulary, and depending on a twice-weekly visit to my dealer (le prof). What’s more, I stay up all hours of the night to get my fix.

Could it be that oholisms are a natural state of the human condition? That one way or another compulsive behaviours are a necessary part of our lives without which life might lose some of its pleasure or purpose? For the most part they are transient (remember the roller bladeoholics), probably age- and class-related (cf skateboardoholics and pigeon fancieroholics), often fashion-lead (hoola-hoopoholics), and sometimes secret (the modeltrainoholics – grown men with model railways set up in the attic and played with for hours). Although some oholisms are troublesome and even invasive, usually they are benign, and keep us going and out of harm’s way. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a world without them.

Joe Collier
is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London