Binging on Omar, Walter White, and Masters & Johnson

As a psychotherapist, I regularly see clients who binge eat, binge drink, binge ____:  choose a maladaptive behavior. These indulgences are often done in secret, under a mantle of shame and guilt.  They have an addictive component, in that they relieve (albeit temporarily) the anxiety and sadness that plague the binger.  There is a dissociative quality to the state they induce, an almost out of body experience.

However, “binge TV” is acceptable and can be done alone or with others.  Addictive?  Perhaps.  But there are no adverse side effects (aside from possible sleep deprivation or potential social isolation).  Maladaptive?  Maybe, if it prevents us from going to work, attending class, feeding our toddler.

In a social climate with little real connection among warm mammals (other than with our dogs, to whom we reveal our truest selves), what is the impulse behind binge TV watching?  Is it a way to indulge in forbidden binge behaviors, vicariously from the sideline?  Binge substance abuse:  “Breaking Bad”; binge sex:  “Masters of Sex”; binge condescension:  “Veep”.   Does it enable us to  immerse ourselves in a world, where the characters become our friends / enemies?  Hence, we emerge from five hours of “The Wire” disoriented, and looking for familiar Baltimore landmarks.

How do we reconcile the fact that our collective attention span has been diminished by information overload, and yet we can stay with uninterrupted episodes of “The Americans” “Lilyhammer”, or “Mad Men”, and not multi-task, or lose interest?  Do we prefer these heightened characters, in their consolidated worlds, to the flesh and blood humans we encounter daily (including those we profess to love; hence the thorny problem of young men in committed relationships opting for online pornography over real intimacy with their partner in the next room:  a cover story in the New York Times magazine several years ago).

Is it the minimal passive participation required that appeals to us, sans reciprocity, mutuality, or shared empathy?  Is it the basic escapism movies and television (and that anachronism, live theatre) have always offered; only now we have a smorgasbord of fare to choose from, depending on whether we want to laugh, cry, be terrified, feel smug, or simply catch up on pop culture.

Or is it yet another version of the email / text / phone call coming in on our dining companion’s cell phone, which he or she feels compelled to check–rather than remain engaged in what we experienced as a scintillating dialogue?  This feels less like a short attention span, and more like a pathological inability to “stay in the moment”.

“Love the one you’re with”.  The past is a source of depression; the future is a source of anxiety; the present has the potential to be a source of joy, stimulation, reconciliation, redemption, and, yes, pain.  But it’s real.