Addiction and Obsession, Two Sides of the Same Coin

“As are tattoos. Almost always gotten on impulse, tattoos are vividly, chillingly permanent. The shopworn ‘Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure’ would seem to have been almost custom-designed for the case of tattoos. For a while, the new resident Tiny Ewell got first keenly interested and then weirdly obsessed with people’s tattoos, and he started going around to all the residents and outside people who hung around Ennet House to help keep straight, asking to check out their tattoos and wanting to hear about the circumstances surrounding each tattoo. These little spasms of obsession – like first with the exact definition of alcoholic, and then with Morris H.’s special tollhouse cookies until the pancreatitis-flare, then with the exact kinds of corners everybody made their bed up with – these were part of the way Tiny E. temporarily lost his mind when his enslaving Substance was taken away. This tattoo thing started out with Tiny’s white-collar amazement at just how many of the folks around Ennet House seemed to have tattoos. And the tattoos seemed like potent symbols of not only whatever they were pictures of but also of the chilling irrevocability of intoxicated impulses.” (Infinite Jest, 205)


This paragraph is located within the section about the “many exotic new facts” (200) that one could learn if they ever had the chance to visit Ennet House. It is referring to Tiny Ewell, the “elf sized U.S. male” resident of the halfway house whose substance of choice appears to have been alcohol, and picked up an obsession with other residents tattoos once his enslaving Substance (note the capital S) was removed from his life.

Obsession is defined as a compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea, feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety. Addiction is to become physiologically or psychologically dependent on a substance. Obsession is mental (needing to wear a specific item of clothing in order to play your best in a tennis match, or compulsively asking everybody around you about the background behind all of your tattoos), while addiction is physical (withdrawal symptoms when the substance hasn’t been used in a while, or a crushing need for the biological response associated with the action e.g. endorphins, adrenaline, etc.), but both are characterized with the need to complete a specific thought or action in order to receive a “reward”, or prevent the “punishment” of not thinking or acting. Nearly every character in Infinite Jest has either an addiction or an obsession, if not both.

Tiny Ewell first had an addiction. In the absence of Tiny’s Substance, he uses his obsessions of tattoos, of the definition of alcoholic, even of cookies and the ways residents make their beds, to continue using cyclical and destructive “addiction” thinking, causing him to spend all of his time thinking, analyzing and overanalyzing his obsessions, and thus ignoring that he has a problem, which is hampering any true improvements. He is protecting himself, with his enforced lack of awareness and obsessions, from the fallout that would result with him realizing that he does have a problem, and that he has earned all consequences resulting from his actions. His wife had changed the locks and filed a restraining order due to him. He ended up in the Ennet halfway house due to his own actions. He is no better than anyone else in Ennet house, despite his prestigious credit card, educated vocabulary or lack of tattoos.  This revelation, which Tiny is likely aware of, on some level, would break his sense of self, and he is terrified of that, so he falls into the only kind of destructive behavior he has access to, emphasizing Wallace’s point that addiction and obsession are mirror images, equally dangerous and destructive to the self, despite the lack of a Substance.

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3 Responses to Addiction and Obsession, Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. leficorn93 says:

    You make a thoughtful point, that addiction, regardless the substance, can be harmful. On page 76, when Katherine Gompart is talking about “Bob Hope,” she says, “I don’t know if you’ll believe me. I’m worried you’ll think I’m crazy. I have a thing with pot… Marijuana. Most people think of marijuana as just some minor substance… and if you say you’re in trouble with Hope–people will just laugh… But I love it SO MUCH. Sometimes it’s like the center of my life.” Even though pot doesn’t possess the addictive characteristics of “hardcore” drugs, the addiction is harmful in and of itself. Katherine’s point is similar to yours, when you say, “In the absence of Tiny’s Substance, he uses his obsessions of tattoos, of the definition of alcoholic, even of cookies and the ways residents make their beds, to continue using cyclical and destructive “addiction” thinking, causing him to spend all of his time thinking, analyzing and overanalyzing his obsessions.” These obsessions aren’t harmful in and of themselves, yet the obsessive mindset is self-destructive.

    The mere presence of an addiction is enough to penetrate one’s mind, until it has full control, and it is doing the steering instead of its human vessel. The substance/action/etc., that the addict is obsessed with/addicted to, does not have to possess physically addictive or harmful properties, for the addiction to be harmful to the person.

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  2. dreamlapse says:

    I think it would be cool to draw an analogy here to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Those with this disorder find themselves having a very difficult time not letting it take over their lives in destructive ways. Similar to an addict, they feel pain when they cannot act upon their desires to correct something in their environment that they feel like needs to be fixed. In this way, the disorder has characteristics of obsession and addiction both at the same time. OCD ends up destroying people’s personal and professional lives if they do not receive help because it can escalate to the point where one does not have any control over one’s actions. By being compelled to take a certain action, the results are similar to an addict’s compulsion to use a substance. Although not biologically destructive, OCD can be just as harmful as substances.

    In other cases of obsession, psychology has a commonly accepted stance that this behavior is brought out by a void that needs to be filled from another area of a person’s life. We are all familiar with the classic cat-lady stereotype of many characters on television or in books who are single into old age and become obsessed with owning cats while treating them like children. However, in many cases people with obsessions do not feel the need to stop being obsessed by something unless it is very extreme like OCD. Owning a lot of cats is typically seen as harmless, as are many other obsessions one could have. I think that although they are similar, addiction and obsession are separated by this distinction between how much harm is induced. Perhaps an obsession transitions into becoming an addiction on a spectrum once it starts significantly contributing to the destruction of someone’s health, mental or physical.

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  3. mdr50 says:

    I really like your assessment of Tiny Ewell’s behavior going from addiction to obsession. Your post points out the importance of realizing that a Subtance does not need to be involved in order to bring about damaging behavior and that one could basically do just as much harm to himself without it. I actually wrote in my blog post about the need for addicts to not just realize, but to confront the realities of their situation in order to make improvements. Your description of obsession prevents Ewell from doing either of those things, and I agree that it will lead to harming him just as if he were still using a Substance.

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