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Here’s something that’s happened more than I like to admit. I stop at a convenience store to grab a Red Bull, diet soda or quick snack I don’t need. I might linger to check out the bizarre new concoctions (I’m still waiting for gummy Mountain Dew to go on sale) or snicker at the excessively bejeweled iPhone cases.
I buy a drink and head back to my car, and I notice on the floor of the passenger side another unopened soda that I purchased at a gas station earlier the same day.
My compulsion for mindless convenience store purchases is so bad I once stopped at a store for a soda, only to realize when I reached for the door that I already had a still-cold Coke Zero in my hand.
There are, of course, far worse habits, but it’s a source of irritation to my family, and even myself, when I’m compelled to waste 5 to 10 minutes of everyone’s limited time shopping for something totally frivolous.
Experts talk of and , and the American Psychiatric Association has identified “Internet Gaming Disorder” as one of the supposed technology-related conditions warranting more clinical research. So I began to wonder: in a society obsessed with connection and convenience, might I be suffering from a more hidden modern addiction that drives me to the aisles of convenience stores when I have no good reason to visit them?
I called Carlton K. Erickson, author of “The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment” and director of the Addiction Science Research & Education Center at the University of Texas. I explained my habit and asked if I — indeed, if anyone — could possibly be addicted to convenience stores.
“Bottom line is I think it’s in your head,” he said. “We have a tendency in society and in the media to call everything an addiction…The word ‘addiction’ really doesn’t mean anything anymore because people use it so freely. I mean, I have chocolate chips after dinner every night and that’s just one of my rituals.”
The word “ritual” stuck with me. Convenience stores have been a way to ritually reward myself for decades, whether it was trips to the nearest suburban Denver 7-Eleven as a kid or “Slurpee runs” with my high school track team.
But unlike most, I haven’t grown out of stopping for trivial treats, even at age 37.
The more I thought about my conversation with Erickson, the clearer my “condition” became. It’s not the snacks or drinks themselves that make me buy them. I mean, I’ve got one of those home carbonating systems and plenty of soda mix at my house. I’m hooked on the experience: walking into the store; surveying the aisles for new items or deals; contemplating various combinations at the Icee/Slurpee/Freestyle machine.
I have a theory about this. I spent my 20s in tiny, isolated towns in Alaska and New Mexico where small convenience stores were the only stores of any kind.
When I lived in Galena, Alaska, with its 600 year-round residents on the banks of the Yukon River, any other kind of shopping required a 90-minute flight to Fairbanks. A few years later, my wife and I purchased our first home, cut off from civilization by the Sangre de Cristo range of northern New Mexico, where a supermarket visit required navigating at least one often-treacherous mountain road.
Most days in those tiny hamlets, I made at least a daily trip to the little stores nearby for a snack.
I took this occasional ritual from my youth and ramped it up to a daily habit because it was the only tangible connection I had to the suburban society in which I grew up. It was my way of keeping myself from getting completely lost in the middle of nowhere.
See, my upbringing was sheltered, and maybe even boring, so I went seeking adventure in my 20s, like so many young adults do, in a place that scarcely resembled the suburbs of my youth.
The problem was I jumped headfirst into my new rural lifestyle. I was literally living with childhood friends in a house in Denver one week and the next, sleeping in a double-wide trailer just below the Arctic Circle surrounded by thousands of square miles of frozen wilderness.