Ah, obsessions . . . Lord yes, I’ve had a few! In the third grade I became obsessed with the discovery that I could print in large caps and small caps, and abandoned any other form of writing for a while. To this day I am obsessed with the subtlest of “typographic niceties,” above and beyond the demands of my profession, and I wonder why; can such an obsession actually be inborn? When I was thirteen, I met a girl — only briefly — with whom I was obsessed on and off for the next seven years. When I was twenty, I wrote her a letter, telling myself I was “exorcising” the senseless infatuation; after she wrote back to tell me I was crazy, we started corresponding and finally got together and had a great old time (and some terrible old times). We are eternal friends, of course; I’m sure the obsession was rooted in a former lifetime, when we must have been so close that we were the same dog or something like that.

At different times, I was utterly obsessed with Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, and John Gardner, and read virtually everything each of them wrote. Not long ago I lost my senses over a gifted woman writer — not yet as well-known — and nervily started up a correspondence with her, which followed an intimate and tempestuous course until she grew wary of my obsessiveness (I told her I prefer the word “zealous,” but she was too smart to be mollified by semantics). Even today, I can be momentarily overtaken with admiration for some performing artist — I’m especially taken with Mimi Kuzyk of “Hill Street Blues” — and decide that the two of us really do have a special relationship that would bear wonderful fruit if only. . . .

I know what you’re thinking: this is the way John Hinckley felt about Jodie Foster, and he obviously missed. But Hinckley didn’t exhibit an obsession; his is a classic case of infantile paralysis, which is the most common mutation of a singular obsession. The chess master Bobby Fischer had exactly the same problem, and it finally forced him to retire from society with his peculiar gift clutched tightly in his fist. An obsession is a seed of desire — call it a crush, if you like — that should be encouraged and taken care of in its infancy so that it has every chance to mature. That means, of course, that it grows into something else: a relationship, a realization, a course of study, a full-blown passion, whatever lies nascent in its heart. Obsession can be distinguished from mere curiosity by its charge of passion, and therein lies its danger: if a singular young obsession grows too powerful it can kill off everything else trying to make a go of it in one’s garden of personality, and it is almost certainly doomed by its own gargantuan appetite for energy. The secret to a healthy obsessive personality is to have as many obsessions, both momentary and prolonged, as one can practically nurture; their natural competition will ensure the little deaths of the pointless ones, and the safe if not uneventful maturation of the significant ones. Whenever I start to worry about my tendency to obsess, I meditate on this wonderful musical incantation sung by Annie Lennox, the love of my life:

“Sweet dreams are made of this,
who am I to disagree . . . ?’’

Good dancing tune, too.

Patrick Miller
Berkeley, California

Her name’s Sheila. She’s eighteen, a bleached blonde, terribly thin, with big eyes and thick black eye shadow. She’s a canny dresser: Beatle boots, a tiger-skin blouse, tight gray jeans. She walks with a scowl, and chain-smokes. We work together at Metro News, as telephone solicitors.

What draws me to her? Her meanness, and her youth. Behind her bored look is a fear that she’ll be found out.

I’ve heard she has a three-year-old son.

I watch her out of the corner of my eye as she dials, and imagine us living together in a trailer full of cigarette smoke, listening to Madonna on the radio, her child crawling on the floor, me washing the dishes, in bliss.

I can think of this for hours.

Sparrow
Denver, Colorado

I am obsessed by everything. Life never leaves me alone. That’s what an obsession is, isn’t it? It’s something that just never leaves you alone. You can’t stop it, shake it, or get rid of it. It sticks to you like burrs in a dog’s ear or gum in your hair.

Obsessions are strange because they start out as something else. What does the larval stage of an obsession look like? Is it beautiful or ugly? Probably both. I wouldn’t be asking these questions if I weren’t obsessed with beauty and ugliness. Both fascinate me, draw me inexorably. I can spend immense amounts of time studying the beauty and ugliness in a face, a landscape, a corner of light and shadow, often marvelling at how one can change into the other in a millisecond.

I am obsessed with curiosity. What is really going on here? Just what is this? I am obsessed with the moon, with love, with the wind, with lost people, with light. Nothing that has ever happened to me in my life will leave me alone. I can’t — despite all good intentions — seem to let go of anything! Maybe everything won’t let go of me. In any case, I do move around and move on — I do all the letting-go things that people do — but I am jammed with pictures and fragments of a life in untidy profusion. I’m trying to put together the puzzle from these pieces without ever having seen the whole picture on the front of the box. Some of the pieces have sharp edges, and stick me until I bleed no matter where or when I pick them up. The bits won’t leave me alone, and every day there are more of them.

Yet — and this is the funny part — my biggest obsession is freedom. And this is a laugh because I know that the moment I am not obsessed by anything at all is the moment I will be free.

Renais Jeanne Hill
Seattle, Washington

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who obsessed in exactly the way I used to, though I’m sure there are many poor devils out there who do or have. For years, obsessing ruined my life because whenever I was either having fun or about to do something important my mind would grasp hold of something — it could be anything — and obsess about it in such a way that I could not focus on or derive joy from whatever I was doing. This was not a constant state, or else I would have gone nuts (I suspect it’s one way that many people do go nuts), and I did have plenty of joy in my life despite it. But it was an insidious, vicious and frequent syndrome. I would obsess about any little thing — from, “Did I remember to put the dust cover back on the record player?” to worrying about an unkind word that I might have said to a stranger last week — and this little thing would become so magnified in my mind, and would gain more and more charge from the energy I’d put into alternately feeding and resisting it, that it would utterly destroy my capacity to be in the moment. Even when I consciously knew that the subject of my obsession was of no great import (which was almost always) it didn’t help. Often my obsessions compromised my ability to function in the world, but not seriously. Most of the time they merely compromised (and greatly so) my quality of experience.

My obsessive years were from about age sixteen to twenty-five. About two years ago I told my therapist that I needed some way to discharge excess tension, because I was having trouble falling asleep at night, and I was constantly feeling the need to chew vigorously on something, like one of my sweater sleeves. She suggested a kind of breath work called OxyGenesis. (She didn’t tell me the name at first, or I might have left.) Briefly, it consisted of lying flat on my back on the floor and being led through various breaths, or breathing rhythm patterns. Sometimes I’d fall into an extremely deep sleep during these sessions and sometimes, wide awake, I would suddenly jolt up, as if shocked, for no particular reason. My therapist said that this was a “clearing out of old trauma in my system.”

After about ten of these sessions, which generally lasted about one and a half to two hours and sometimes more, not only did I stop needing to chew and start being able to fall asleep at night, I noticed also that my tendency to obsess had faded out. Cross my fingers; it’s never been back. At fifty dollars a session, the breath work totalled five hundred dollars, which was quite a chunk for me, but many times worth it. The losing of my obsessions has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Mark Polonsky
Berkeley, California

A few years ago, though I was too old to develop such an ambition, I wanted to collect polo shirts with all sorts of animals on them — alligators, foxes, swans. I even wanted an L.L. Bean shirt with nothing on it. I wanted one with a pony on it. I wanted one with somebody else’s initials on it. About this time, I got an unexpected windfall that enabled me to indulge this childish wish. I bought eight or ten polo shirts of all sorts.

Nobody I see every day pays any attention to fashion, so they went unappreciated, except by me. I found that I didn’t enjoy them as much as I’d thought I would, since no one else noticed.

Last summer, I visited wealthy friends in another state. The other mature women were wearing blouses and sweaters. Some of the teenagers wore polo shirts, like gauche me. When I returned home, I resolved to give all my shirts to the Salvation Army. But I couldn’t afford immediately to buy blouses or sweaters in the colors I needed, and eventually I resigned myself to wearing them again.

A lot of time when we get what we wanted then, it isn’t what we want now.

The fiasco of the alligator has cured me of a lot of the frantic wishing I used to do. Maybe I’m using shirts as a more concrete example of what happened at about that time.

For fifteen years, I’d dreamed of going back to college. With that windfall, I fulfilled this dream, too. I had to quit after six weeks for reasons that had nothing to do with dissatisfaction, but I really wasn’t happy in school. I’d thought being back on campus would be euphoria.

A Buddhist book I read once said that we can only want what we don’t have. That may seem simplistic, a truism, but it had a very real meaning for me.

The Hindus think that at a certain level of development, we need to have our dreams come true, like a child needs toys to play with. There is something very sad about a child who lacks toys, but it’s even sadder when he never matures.

When our dreams turn to ashes in our hands, not because they didn’t happen but because they did, perhaps we can learn the emptiness and futility behind wishing for childish things and transcend wanting them.

Mary Umberson
Roxton, Texas

“Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

Like Mark Twain, I’ve quit smoking too many times to make the bald-faced assertion that I’ve really kicked the habit. I find it safer and more reasonable to claim only that, “I am now not smoking.”

My first memories of cigarettes are probably not that unusual for someone from a family of smokers. I was sleeping in my parents’ room, and remember seeing the bright red glow, on and off, on and off, in the otherwise dark room as my father smoked himself to sleep.

What an incredible association! Freud would have loved it. My associations with adults and safety, with light in the darkness, all centered on the putrid stench of an ashtray full of Chesterfield butts in the post-war 1940s.

In the Fifties, my parents switched to Winstons, and my brother and I used to help ourselves on occasion, hide in the nearest apple tree, and chain smoke and eat green apples until we threw up all over ourselves.

That’s what you call the green apple cure, and for most pre-teens and teenagers, it works. It wasn’t until I experienced the utter boredom of the U.S. Army some fifteen years later that I started smoking again.

When the U.S. Surgeon General’s first big report came out on the perils of smoking, I did the smart thing. I gave up reading.

I remember quitting for a year in 1970 when I bought my first and only new car, an American Motors Hornet. That new car smell demanded a clean ashtray. I got “No Smoking” buttons and plastered the car with excerpts from the latest Health Prevention, and filled the ashtray with candy and gum.

Nine months later I chanced by a cigarette machine upon entering a restaurant and suddenly focused on a larger than life display of Marlboro “reds.” It was all over. Within a few days I was again a two-pack-a-day puffer.

In 1977 I got on a health jag and began running ten, then twenty and finally almost fifty miles a week. I bought running shoes every several weeks and stretched and sweat and lost weight and really felt great. That Fall, even as I trained for the twenty-six-mile marathon, I would stop after a twelve- to fourteen-mile Sunday run, glistening with perspiration, and have a cigarette or two, or three. I lost thirty-five pounds that year but held on to my addiction.

In 1981 I got the anti-smoking fever and quit for almost two months.

After a week: “Since I quit I have now not smoked 280 cigarettes.” After five weeks and getting self-righteous, “Since I kicked the habit I have now not smoked 1,400-and-some lethal cigarettes.”

Shortly after I reached the two-thousand mark in my boring and tiresome litany of temperance, my co-workers brought me a carton of Marlboros, tied with a red ribbon. “Come on, Ray. Light up or lighten up. One or the other. We want our friend back!” Well, friendship is important in life.

It is and always was my own ignorance that led me to begin smoking, to keep on smoking, and to start again after once quitting. No one else could be responsible. It’s like the AA meeting when the music comes to a crescendo, and then stops, and the guy stands up, barely breathing, and admits, “I am an alcoholic.” Only it’s me, pausing before admitting, “I am a Marlboro maniac.”

One of the drawbacks to quitting smoking is, at least for several weeks, the tendency to turn into a quick-tempered, smart-mouthed, and seething reactionary, noticeably lacking in all virtues, Christian and non-Christian, and utterly devoid of anything relating to a sense of humor.

This time it’s easier. Maybe it has something to do with hitting my forties. My food bill has tripled and my bicycle tires seem to need a lot more air, but I am generally feeling better and happier and less embarrassed than in the recent past when I seemed to be followed by a diminishing cloud of fetid, gray smoke, and breathing with the breath of a slightly dead dragon.

I am reminded of another Mark Twainism. He was seriously ill, as the story goes, and a local newspaper published a story that he had died during the night. Asked later to comment on his remarkable recovery, Twain said, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Personal accounts of how hard it is to quit smoking are like that — greatly exaggerated. Any hardened, seasoned, veteran smoker can awaken to a moment of lucid thought and quit the habit in an instant.

The real task, and the ultimate measure of one’s intentions, is simply not starting again.

Ray Harold
Chapel Hill, North Carolina