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Am I a convenience store addict? Digging deep to understand an obsession

CNET's Eric Mack spends so much time in small stores, he wonders if he could be addicted. He contacts an expert to find out why he can't drive past a 7-Eleven without stopping.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Old habits are hard to break.

Johanna DeBiase

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 Facebook addiction and cell phone addiction, 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.

So many choices...not to be taken for granted.

Josh Miller/CNET

It was a lonely and depressing first month in the Great White North, and the only things that offered a taste of home were the familiar fluorescent lights and name brands of the humble Huhndorf's general store across the street from my trailer.

But for the last two years now, I've been living in Taos, New Mexico, a lively town with plenty of amenities. I no longer need to stop at those small shops to feel connected to civilization, because it surrounds me again like it did in the suburbs growing up. But I still do.

So what gives?

Perhaps I still indulge because I spend much of my day in front of a laptop by myself -- not isolated geographically like I was in Alaska, but isolated nonetheless.

Some mornings I'll write a CNET article that's read by tens of thousands of people in a few hours, get into great discussions with readers via comments and Twitter, and chat with colleagues on Slack. But all that happens from whatever solitary location my laptop and I happen to be in. There have been days when my words have interacted with more people before noon than live in my small city but the only words that have actually passed my lips have been directed at my dog.

Telecommuting comes with plenty of benefits, namely having my family just a room a way, but it's not exactly great for meeting co-workers for happy hour. This very modern, and common, isolation helps explain the rise of co-working spaces. But so far, I've been able to handle the relative solitude as long as I can break it up with some very brief human interaction and a dash of capitalism at the corner store.

I'm not the only one

This might all sound a little pathetic, but I was able to find some evidence of one way that I'm not so alone. A few years back someone added the phrase "convenience store addiction syndrome" or CSAS to Urban Dictionary, defining it as "a mental disorder causing one to go to convenience stores for non-necessity products."

Nectar of the gods?

Johanna DeBiase

Erickson emphasized the differences between an addiction to something like heroin or cocaine, which he refers to as a brain disease that can require treatment, and a longer list of compulsive behaviors, which is where we'd probably file the cell phone "addictions" and excessive shopping.

For a while, I even wondered if my convenience-store behavior could be a subset of a compulsive-shopping disorder.

Again, Erickson seems to think I'm a little too eager to label a component of my daily routine. He explains that unless convenience stores have become a destructive force in my life, it's probably not a compulsive disorder. And he's right. There are some days I don't make a single visit to a convenience store, and I continue to be a pretty functional husband, father and writer on those days.

"I'm starting to say 'capital-A addictions,'" Erickson said. "This is the big ones (like cocaine, heroin, alcohol or nicotine) versus the little addictions, 'small-A,' which are cell phone addictions, lingerie addiction, tanning booth addiction and so forth."

Even if my Circle K habit doesn't rise to the level of addiction or compulsive behavior, it does seem similar to the anxiety over being disconnected that leads to something like "nomophobia," the fear of being without one's mobile phone.

It gives me a level of empathy for so many teens, tweens and twentysomethings with their heads buried in their devices, Snapchatting the day away.

So what, right? What now? How to break a habit that's really just a waste of time and money?

It turns out heart palpitations help.

After I wrote the first draft of this essay, I had an episode of scary heart flutters that lasted over 24 hours. I visited urgent care, where the doctor encouraged me to cut back on caffeine and cut out energy drinks like Red Bull and my favorite, Xyience, which have been among my favorite convenience store purchases for powering through a long writing session.

Wake-up call

This turned out to be a gift in a way because now, each time I pass a Shell station, I have a new, negative association with convenience stores that does battle in my subconscious with all the positive associations from my youth and my time in tiny towns.

I can't tell you I've quit my habit altogether -- there's a really nice new store on the north side of town that I hit earlier today -- but I can say I've managed to cut back.

And I'm trying to develop a new habit now. Whenever I feel the urge to stop for a Sprite Zero or other noncaffeinated drink, I remind myself that 10 minutes spent visiting the convenience store is 10 minutes I could have spent on a bike with my daughter, building far more important face-to-face connections.