Lori Broady could not live without her hair dryer. Since she was eight years old, she says, she couldn't fall asleep without it turned on next to her in bed.
"It's a comfort thing, it's a security thing, it's the noise, it's the air, it's all-encompassing," said Broady, now 31.
She attributes her addiction to a what she called a "chaotic" childhood. The dryer, she said, drowned out the noise and helped her sleep.
Although her parents did their best to hide blow dryers, she said growing up in a family of 10 made it easy to sneak around and find one. But burns were inevitable, as Broady learned after a recent incident that left her scarred.
The risk of physical harm was just one reason she says she decided she needed help. She has a young daughter, and eventually, her little girl grew accustomed to sleeping with a blow dryer as well.
"It was just not something I wanted for her. I didn't want her to, first of all, struggle with the same issues I was struggling with, and it wasn't fair of me to have her have to deal with that."
That's why Broady decided to participate in a new show on the TLC network called "My Strange Addiction." The 12-part series features people battling bizarre addictions, including a woman addicted to ventriloquism and one who can't stop eating toilet paper. On the show, these women and others get help for their addictions, which they say consume their lives and interfere with relationships and everyday functioning.
April Brucker, 22, is the woman addicted to ventriloquism. She's a professional ventriloquist who had trouble going anywhere without at least one of her eight puppets. She decided to go for help after her family and friends became concerned. She also got an ultimatum from an ex-fiance: the puppets or him. She chose the puppets.
"I feel really shy when I don't have my puppets. It's really hard. I was a really shy kid, and I'm especially shy around guys because I struggled with my weight."
Los Angeles psychotherapist Mike Dow, who also co-hosts TLC's "Freaky Eaters," says "My Strange Addiction" will show that addictions like eating toilet paper and sleeping with a blow dryer aren't as rare as people may think, and that viewers can relate to them.
"I think they have a quality to them that people can actually understand," said Dow.
In Broady's case, for example, many people could probably empathize with her need for safety and security while growing up in a family of 10.
"When you're going to bed, you need security and you need to know you're okay," he said.
Addictions Have 'Symbolic Value'
Experts disagree about whether the behaviors the show's participants exhibit are true addictions or cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"These are more obsessions rather than an addiction," said Dr. Peter Martin, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "These obsessions are things that in general alleviate anxiety, and it has a place in the person's psyche. That activity relaxes them. It's something that they do becaue they're worried that something terrible may happen."
"People with these rituals don't want to do them. They do them to avoid anxiety and that's not the same as doing something to get a high as addicts do," said Sony Khemlani-Patel, a psychologist at the Bio- Behavioral Institute in Great Neck, N.Y.
"These are addictions. These are things on which there's actually a dependence," said Dow. "[Broady] developed a dependence on sleeping with a hair dryer. If you took it away, there are negative symptoms."
Regardless of how they're defined, experts say these behaviors have a special, subconscious meaning to the people who exhibit them.
"They could be due to a past event," said Martin. "Each has its own symbolic value." After several repetitions of the behavior, he said, the body and brain associate the behavior with positive feelings.
Obsessions Difficult to Treat
Experts say that because obsessive behaviors can be debilitating, they need to be treated, but treatment is difficult.
Most often, therapists use behavioral modification. Patients must refrain from the behavior, which causes anxiety, but if treatment is successful, they learn to relax and the anxiety eases. Relapse is common, though.
"There's no cure. We consider it a chronic condition," said Khemlani. "It really depends on motivation levels, family support, other illneses, their personality, whether they understand theyir symptoms and how much they really believe their fear."
Mental health clinicians say as long as their portrayal isn't exploitative, a show like "My Strange Addiction" can be very beneficial.
"The positive thing is that people might recognize they have a problem," said Martin.
"In the 12-step community, they say you're as sick as your secrets," said Dow. "Not telling anybody can keep you sick."
Thanks to behavior therapy she received, Lori Broady, the self-professed blow dryer addict, says she's now dryer-free. She still says she has a dependence, but instead of a blow dryer, she uses a space heater, which is safer but meets her needs. She says she's thrilled with her progress.
"I wanted to be blow dryer-free by the time the show airs, and I've done that," said Broady.
Brucker has been successful as well. She said she doesn't spend as much time with her alter-ego puppet, May.
"People like April, and they like the puppets as part of April, but not necessarily the puppets with April all the time."
("My Strange Addiction" premieres Wednesday, December 29 at 9 p.m. on TLC.)