Like so many others I was born with an addictive personality. My long list of addictions include, but are not limited to, Imperial Mints, throat lozenges, food in general, B&H Infinite Lights, computer games, Egoli: Place of Gold. Admittedly, I am using the term ‘addiction’ rather loosely to refer to cases where one feels compelled to repeatedly engage in an activity to the detriment of one’s overall well-being. (What is the difference between an addiction and a bad habit?)

So far my most bizarre addiction has been to bran flakes. It started during the summer holidays, just after I finished high school and just before I was to go to University in order to pursue Higher Learning. My sisters, who have already spent a year at this noble institution, took it upon themselves to prepare me for the new chapter in my life (as good sisters do). So they took me to De Akker, that famous cockroach-infested pub in Stellenbosch, where I was to spend most of my free time over the next ten years. After a Tassies and Black Label-inspired performance my sisters realised that I could be a Big Hit at University. If only I would lose weight. (For some reason one has to be small to be a big.)

I have always wanted to be popular, so I decided to give it a go (I mean, imagine that, being a big hit!). They put me on The Shape Diet. You get to drink three delicious milkshakes instead of your three daily meals, plus all the bran you can eat. The Shape milkshake was a good start to the day, believe you me. Banana was my favourite. Then strawberry for lunch, and vanilla for dinner. Unfortunately, in addition I also ate some bread with Trim mayonnaise, lots of fruit (how can that be bad?), and various other secret scraps on the side. My sisters confiscated the Shape after one caught me eating Christmas cake with all the icing. There were some angry words (“The stuff’s expensive, you know”) and that was the end of it. That was the last diet I ever went on, for I realised I did not possess the virtue of moderation and was destined to be chubby.

But somehow I found myself eating more and more bran and going to University completely hooked on the stuff. Bran is the perfect food: zero calories, 100% fibre, and cheaper than chips (about R2,50 for 1,5 kg, that’s about a week’s supply if you're a heavy user). It is probably also the most innocuous substance one can possibly abuse. Some would say it is impossible to abuse bran, but I would point out to them the unpleasant digestive effects of bran overdose. Your grandmother was right when she said ‘everything in moderation’.

Mastering the art of consuming bran requires considerable skill. The spoonful of bran must enter the mouth without touching anything, and be carefully placed on the tongue, then tipped over to leave a tidy little heap on the tongue. Then the mouth is closed, leaving the bran to soak, slowly, and only then can it be chewed and swallowed. This is the only way to eat bran. Any other way leads to choking when bran flakes are accidentally inhaled into the lungs.

There was a permanent cup of bran on my green desk. There was also bran all over my desk, and on my half of the floor. It was all over my bed where I often slouched to study some ancient text. Bran can be messy because if you breathe out while transporting it to your eagerly awaiting mouth, it will fly everywhere. It seems that bran is a particularly helpful crutch when it comes to studying for tests and exams, or when you’ve missed lunch at the residence and were to cheap or lazy to buy something decent to eat.

Then, one Sunday, in the middle of the mid-year exams, I ran out of bran. This was a problem. Some might call it a disaster. I could not concentrate on my work. In those days everything was closed on Sundays. I was not hopeful, but I had to try, and so the long walk began from the ‘dames koshuise’ (lady’s residence) to every café in town. By some miracle I finally found a bag of bran at a café close to the station, a very long way from the residence. Then there was the walk back, and all the while I was looking out for a private spot, a public toilet, perhaps, or some dark alley. It was more than I could take. I ended up on a bench in the Botanical Gardens, tearing open that bag of bran and devouring it wildly, the delicate art of bran consumption all forgotten. At that moment I realised: I must never experiment with drugs.

For those of you who are concerned about my mental health, let me assure you that I have worked through my issues and am no longer the slave of bran. But the point I want to make is this: The problem with having an addictive personality is that one can get addicted to anything, so one must always watch your step. The advantage of having an addictive personality is that one can become addicted to anything, so it might as well be bran.


b said...

I agree that the difference between habit and addiction is artificial. One can get addicted to TV, sleeping, laziness, running, just about anything.

For example, I’m sure smoking is more an addiction to the ritual than to nicotine. This is why patches don’t really work.

I’m convinced the secret to a “successful” life is all about good habits. It may sound obvious or like an oversimplification, but it’s only obvious if you were implicitly taught this, and you’d be surprised how daunting a day is without the safety of good habits there to give it structure. This is where parents are crucial: they instill these good habits without us even realizing it. Or they don’t and we suffer the consequences for the rest of our lives. People who were lucky enough to have good parents will never appreciate how big a disadvantage it is to not have this natural tendency to evolve good habits.

My hypothetical children will only have one religion: respect the force of habit.

liezl said...

Certainly one of my main roles as parent is getting my kids into good habits (like eating breakfast, brushing their teeth, feeding their pets, using sunblock) and steering them away from forming bad habits (like nose-picking, nail-biting, excessive carrot-eating). This is a difficult job, the trick being to produce these good habits without resorting to excessive whining and general tyranny. But in doing so I don’t think I’m setting them up for life. One can easily (often intentionally, as an act of rebellion) unlearn a good habit. My goal is simply to get my kids into adulthood without already suffering the effects of bad habits (such as rotten teeth, sun-damaged skin, missing fingernails), and to teach them how each bad habit is connected with a bad effect. At this point they will be autonomous, and able to decide for themselves whether they want to continue with this.

An area where I do hope I will have a more lasting influence is in forming their character, installing certain virtues (which are really special kinds of habits). A child might be naturally friendly but never naturally kind or naturally unselfish. You have to teach them to be kind, considerate, honest, compassionate, trustworthy, tolerant, and so forth, and you do this through a consistent reward- and penalty system coupled with positive instruction. (This is easier said than done, but luckily the education system helps parents out in this regard, or most of our children would certainly be doomed to vice.)

The mistake my parents made (and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) was to focus too much on inborn traits, like IQ, sporting ability, beauty, artistic ability. Their philosophy of childrearing seems to have been that it is their job as parents to help their children develop their potential, and they did this by sending us to school, having books, sports equipment and the like at home, and taking us to various lessons. This is all good, of course, but the test question is whether developing potential is their primary aim: Can the child have the lesson if they clearly do not have the innate potential to be successful in this activity? For the real fans of potential development, participating in an activity is not for fun, or for learning how to play nicely, or any such nonsence. The sole aim is to produce a winner (hence their disappointment when despite his innate potential, inherited from Yours Truly, the child is not a success). So, to summarise, in this view the goal of parenting is to allow the children to become who they already are, genetically speaking. And that is all there is to it.

This view is obviously mistaken, but interestingly and unfortunately it is becoming more and more prevalent among experts today. Studies have shown that the most significant indicator of a child’s success as an adult is who his parents are (their IQ, level of education, age at conception of first child, and so on), and NOT what they did, i.e. how they raised him. One kind of study that backs up this view compares the success achieved by adopted children to that of non-adopted children. Now, common sense tells us that parents’ childraising strategies cannot change a child’s IQ, and insofar as IQ is a good indicator of the level of success one will achieve in eduation and in one’s career, parents have little influence. I don’t need to be a genius to figure out that I’m not a genius because my biological parents are not geniuses (whatever their own views on this matter).

But does it follow that parents have little influence on how their children turn out? Of course not. The mistake these experts make is to measure success only in terms of academic and vocational achievement (perhaps because these things are easily measured), and to ignore success in other areas of life, like: Is your successful businessperson also well-adjusted, happy, ‘a nice guy’, a decent person? I mean, what is the most likely reason that someone lacks empathy, or is a cheat, or a sexist?

Pienk Zuit said...

Isn't "addictive personality" just an excuse for a lack of self control?

b said...

yes, pink zuit. like having no eyes is an excuse for blindness.

liezl said...

Pienk Zuit has a point. As I was writing my little masterpiece I was wondering whether I might be offending people who really suffer from real addictions. I suspect many of us (myself included) complain that we have an addictive personality when really, like the rest of humanity, we are simply prone to forming bad habits. As with depression, there must be some clinical definition of addiction that distinguishes it from plain old weakness of will. All it took for me to get over the bran 'addiction' was one packet of not-so-fresh bran - you know, with those little webs that you only discover after you've already consumed a cup of two. Whereas for someone addicted to nicotine or alcohol or what not it is a bit harder, not so?

liezl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jennifer said...


On your bran addiction: very funny, but yes, strictly speaking that was just a bad habit, not an addiction.

On parenting: You obviously turned out to be a decent person, so there must be some fallacy in your reasoning regarding your parents: Either they did manage to install in you certain virtues, OR one can become virtuous without your parents's guidance. So which is it?

liezl said...

jennifer: Yes, I am indeed extremely decent and so are my siblings, so it would be untrue to say that the parents had nothing to do with it, but I never said that. I complained about the emhasis they placed on achievement over character.

To answer your question I have to explain my theory about self-esteem, which is basically that there are two possible bases of self-esteem: achievement, and character. If your sense of self-worth is based on achievement you're in for a rough ride, because you cannot always win at everything. So, instead, one's self-esteem should be based in one's character - the fact that you are a decent person - and since character is relatively stable one should feel ok about oneself on most days.

My parents' parenting produced in me an achievement-based sense of self-esteem, and over the last 10 years I've tried to convert this into one based in character. I've been pretty successful. Admittedly, I still get a huge kick out of beating the other team at Cranium (and the reverse), but nowadays I only ever feel like crap when I've lost my temper with my children.

Pienk Zuit said...

b, I think your analogy is flawed. Having no eyes is not something you can do something about. Addiction is something you can do something about. It's like Hansie saying "The Devil made me do it".

b said...

the analogy wasn't meant to be perfect, few analogies are.

but it would be more like hansie saying "my brain made me do it". i'm not saying you can't do anything about it. you can, just like you can cure cancer or overcome social anxiety.

it doesn't really matter anyway: addictive personality or lack of self control. six of one, half a dozen of the other. nobody wants a lack of self-control. no one would choose that.

Jennifer said...

I wonder, maybe parenting doesn't have much to do with it after all. Some people just seem to find it harder to get into good habits than others, thus requiring a greater exercise of will-power. People who suffer from bi-polar disorder seem to struggle with this a lot.

jennifer said...

The August Insig which finally arrived in the mail today has a short article on internet addiction. For the whole story you have to visit the website, www.internetaddiction.co.za. You can go there to 'test your level of internet addiction', plus it has links to other internet sites on internet addiction.

Suzy said...

If you choose (or just happen to have - not sure how much choice one really has) the right addiction, like work or study, you can actually be admired for it, when in fact you have a lot in common with your typical drug-addict (the compulsion, the harmful effect on one's overall wellbeing, the estrangement from family and friends, etc.). But in the eyes of the world you're praised for being disciplined and hard-working, and you make a lot more money.

The difference between habit and addiction: I always thought it had to do with the fact that you can break a bad habit yourself, whereas for an addiction you need others' help. So, if you happen to be addicted to work, you're not likely to get the help you need.