TV or not TV

Kicking the television habit, one day at a time

Photo Illustration by Don Button

April 24-30 is TV Turnoff Week, in which millions of people worldwide will forgo watching television. The event has been held annually since 1995. For information on local activities being held in conjunction with TV Turnoff Week, contact the Sacramento Public Library at (916) 264-2920.

My name is Bob, and I’m addicted to television. Thanks to my sponsor, the 12 steps and the grace of God, I haven’t watched TV for more than a year. Well, that’s not exactly true. I recently relapsed on some potent cable programming, momentarily forgetting one of television recovery’s most important mantras, “One episode of The Sopranos is too many; 1,000 is never enough.”

But we strive for progress, not perfection, and now I’m once again living life on life’s terms, one day at a time.

I believe I was born addicted to TV. I come from a normal middle-class family; our first television was a black-and-white model my parents bought at Sears. I watched my first program at the age of 3, an episode of an action-adventure series called Ripcord that featured Ted and Jim, a pair of smoke jumpers who parachuted into a new and dangerous situation every week. One day while emulating my new heroes, I jumped off a brick wall and broke my elbow. No one was more surprised than I was when my imaginary parachute failed to open.

Now I realize that the fall off the wall was a leap of faith, a belief in a world that didn’t exist, an attempt to escape feelings of intense alienation and low self-esteem I’d begun experiencing since the moment the night tore me from the womb. I plunged through the looking glass into a pool of soothing cathode rays that bathed the nooks and crannies of my troubled young mind, washing away the filth of the real world’s angst and anxiety, opening up new frontiers of freedom and possibility—or so I thought.

Not long after that, I got strung out on my first programming of choice, Saturday-morning cartoons. The shakes would begin the night before, so great was my anticipation of the next morning’s fix. At the crack of dawn, I’d creep into the living room, making sure to turn the volume down before switching the set on, lest my parents awake and discover my nascent habit. Looney Tunes, Spider-Man and my all-time favorite, Jonny Quest, provided a heady, animated rush that lasted nearly till noon. My parents, especially my father, quickly grew frustrated with their failed efforts to pry me away from the tube.

Already my life was becoming unmanageable, so naturally, I became a master manipulator. When my father banned me from TV, I took up his interest in the Baltimore Colts, knowing full well he’d be unable to resist the opportunity to bond on Sunday afternoons with his oldest son, yours truly. During Super Bowl III, in which the heavily favored Colts lost to Joe Namath’s New York Jets, I pretended to share my Baltimore-native father’s disappointment, even though I secretly worshipped Namath. Lying by then had become second nature to me.

After-school afternoons were a haze of syndicated reruns, countless episodes of Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Hogan’s Heroes and Bewitched. The fact that I’d seen all of these programs when they first aired made no difference. I’d watch anything to feed the beast. I’ve seen every episode of the original Star Trek series at least 43 times. One summer, I forced my little brother to stay up late three months straight to watch Hawaii Five-0 in order to validate a complex theory I’d developed based on which part of the program would show Steve McGarrett squealing the tires on his Mercury Marquis.

As I entered my teen years, my continuing inability to distinguish reality from TV became more perilous to myself and others. For me, television has always been a gateway drug. I saw my first joint smoked on an episode of Kojak; not long after that, I was rolling my own reefers. I became a menace to local motorists, totally destroying my father’s Datsun 510 station wagon trying to imitate Bo and Luke’s daredevil driving stunts on the The Dukes of Hazzard. And it goes without saying that I rubbed myself raw masturbating to that Farrah Fawcett poster.

Like an alcoholic switching from wine or beer to hard liquor, I replaced cartoons, sitcoms and cop shows with cable news programming and Hitler documentaries as I entered adulthood. My denial phase was beginning. I denigrated the viewing habits of others and congratulated myself on my own “sophisticated” tastes, seeing nothing odd at all about setting up a 24-seven command post in my living room (including a plastic funnel and a gallon jug to collect my own urine) during the first Gulf War. I didn’t know it then, but I was on my way to the bottom.

During the last years of my using, my disease progressed to the point where insanity ruled my life. I developed a craving for violence and mayhem ordinary news programs no longer could satisfy. The TV was always on, from the dislocated shoulders and hyper-extended knees of football season to NASCAR’s fatal flaming automobile wrecks. I became a zealous adherent to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, jonesing for Detective Stabler to punch out yet another vile pedophile. I watched three back-to-back marathons of 24, keeping careful track of the extended family members CTU special agent Jack Bauer tortured for 72 hours straight.

As my life spun completely out of control, things around me began disappearing. The wife and kids were the first to go, along with the dog. Work called and told me not to bother coming in anymore—not that it mattered, since I hadn’t been in for weeks. I lost my family, my job, my home and eventually my television, when three winos mugged me on the street and sold it to buy cheap liquor. I slept in the park at night and spent my days in the TV section at Circuit City, until one of the clerks ran me off because my smell was offending the customers.

Walking out of Circuit City that day, I had what I call a spiritual awakening. All the programs I watched for all those years flashed before my eyes. “I’m powerless over TV,” I mumbled. “God, please help me.” And just like that, as if God himself had reached down and flipped the switch off, the obsession to view was lifted.

I’d like to say life’s been trouble-free since then, but that would be a lie. It’s a simple program, but it’s not easy. Those who don’t practice rigorous honesty will fail. That’s why I admitted to slipping the other night and watching that episode of The Sopranos. Progress, not perfection. I’m living life on life’s terms one day at a time, and so far today, I haven’t watched any TV.

Um, except for the Weather Channel this morning.