When Rich and Gertrude Lyons first admitted they were powerless, television was the first thing to go. Then they weaned themselves from mail-order catalogs, electronic gadgets and sugar.
Today, the Chicago couple is still grappling with their "soft" addictions - ordinary behavior that, if overdone, can wreak havoc on your life. Unlike hard addictions, which are usually related to a chemical substance, you don't die from soft addictions.
"But you don't really live, either," said self-help guru Judith Wright, who labeled the phenomenon more than a decade ago.
People have always had ways to zone out, but experts such as Wright say soft or mild behavioral addictions are escalating, partly because there are so many new things to get addicted to, and so many people have the disposable income to do it.
But identifying and treating a soft addiction are difficult. Whether it's watching the NCAA tournament, checking e-mail, editing Wikipedia entries or walking into Starbucks, the addictive activities are seemingly harmless behaviors.
The problem is that when we take even healthy habits such as exercise too far - or engage in them for the wrong reasons - they sap our time, money and energy and prevent us from living the life we want, according to Wright, founder of the Wright Institute, a personal development and training center and author of The Soft Addiction Solution.
Rich Lyons, 41, for example, habitually zoned out in front of the television at night, staying up far later than he intended and waking up crabby the next day. That resulted in another soft addiction, he said, to a grumpy mood.
Meanwhile, his wife, Gertrude, also 41, developed a soft addiction to shopping for adorable but overpriced baby clothes that, ultimately, her children didn't want to wear. She also had a bad habit of paging through mail-order catalogs when she had better things to do.
"It wasn't an overspending issue as much as it was buying stuff you knew you didn't need," Gertrude said. "It was like buying something felt like it would make me feel better."
The affliction strikes men and women of all ages and races. A poll conducted for the Wright Institute found that 91 percent of us have a soft addiction that keeps us from feeling satisfied. "And the other 9 percent of people are in denial," Wright said.
Procrastination, watching too much television and overworking are the top three. But a new study shows college undergraduates might be addicted to tanning under UV lights. The Internet, meanwhile, is being blamed for a bunch of compulsive behaviors.
In one recent high-profile case, New Yorker James Pacenza, who was fired for visiting an adult chat room at work, is suing IBM for wrongful termination. Pacenza claims he has an addiction - a disorder that deserves treatment and sympathy rather than dismissal.
Technology can cause addictive behavior "partly because each potential response required for a cell phone message or an e-mail doesn't always seem so large, so why not mow some of them down now?" said Jeff Davidson, author of Breathing Space: Living and Working at a Comfortable Pace in a Sped-Up Society.
"The megalomaniac payoff of believing we can stay on top of it all can, intermittently, feel quite satisfying."
Although researchers still debate whether compulsive Internet use and video-game playing merit a medical diagnosis, treatment centers have opened around the world, including Korea, China and the Netherlands. The Priory Clinic in London is treating "texting addicts," one description of those who spend up to seven hours a day writing and receiving text messages on their cell phones.
One of eight Americans exhibited at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use, a Stanford University study showed. Symptoms include an inability to stop surfing, craving more time online, neglect of family and friends and feelings of depression and irritability when not at the computer. Physical signs can include carpal tunnel syndrome, sleep deprivation, backaches, eye strain and increased agitation.
"Job loss, financial loss and marital loss can all be associated with the disorder," said Kimberly Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, who has seen everything from young children who withdrew from life for online gaming to couples who divorced because of online affairs.
But others say long hours at the computer don't necessarily constitute an addiction. "It's more of a process of control and losing control," said psychologist Chris Stout, an executive director at the Timberline Knolls, a Chicago-based women's residential treatment center. "It's easy to confuse an addiction with a compulsive behavior. An addiction involves deception, denial and dishonesty. A compulsive behavior is more apparent, such as repetitive behaviors, and is a way to cope with anxiety."
Unlike a bad habit, a soft addiction also has an identifiable cost - in money, time, energy or intimacy, Wright says. Feeling numb, high, buzzed or in a trance when you're doing an activity could mean you have a problem.
"If you can't remember what you did, ate, saw or bought, that's a sign," she said. "But if you're doing the activity and feel more alive and vital, and you're learning, growing, clear, grounded and present, that's a passion. We shouldn't confuse the two."
The first step to beating a soft addiction requires making a commitment to higher quality of life, Wright said.
Then you have to recognize the deeper need or hunger under the soft addiction. "Make the distinction between what you want and what you hunger for," Wright said. "You might want a new designer dress, but you're really hungry to feel good about yourself."
Finally, use what Wright calls the "Math of More." Instead of depriving yourself, add things to your life to crowd out the behavior you want to change.
Rob Johnson, 45, of Oak Park, Ill., found he was too emotionally invested when he watched televised sporting events. But rather than cut sports out of his life altogether, he added more time with his wife and three sons and began coaching youth hockey teams, something he finds much more rewarding. Suddenly, he didn't have time to watch 15 hours of televised hockey a week.
"It took making a deeper inquiry into why I was watching so much," he said.
Rich Lyons, president of Lyons Consulting Group, realized that his trouble with electronic gadgets stemmed from his need to feel connected. But when he was lost in the world of technology, he didn't have any contact with his family.
The electronic connection, he realized, "is not nearly as nourishing as connecting with my wife and kids," he said. "If I can understand the underlying need, the computer won't do it. I need connection with human beings."
The bad news is that soft addictions never really go away. At one point, The Lyons family had ousted sugar, but it has crept back into their lives. Even 10-year-old Morgan Lyons is working with her parents to eliminate the addictive substance.
"You get rid of one and a new one creeps in," Gertrude Lyons said, sighing. "The best you can do is lessen them and put in systems to help cope."
Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune.