In early August I accepted a freelance proofreading job at a rate that could generously be called less than desirable. The job comes with flexible hours, and I am expected to put in 35 to 40 of them in a given week. If you have never worked as a proofreader, this amounts to 35 to 40 hours a week of mind-numbing (though not mindless), slow-moving, eye-blurring work. Best-case-scenario? Hardly. But I finished graduate school in May, and have now spent three months among the ranks of those looking for full-time employment. Prospects are bleak; here I am, a writer and editor at a time when the demise of media and publishing is proclaimed on a daily basis. I quickly decided that working temporarily in a place where I might make connections related to my work interests outweighed concerns about eyestrain and brain drain. Besides, some income is better than none, and in this economy, who knows when the next opportunity would come along.

I was also a little concerned about my habit.

The past three months have not been easy. The job search of course has assumed top priority. But with Internet and e-mail, most legwork doesn’t take a lot of time. Certainly not 40 hours a week. This newfound time — added to the nights and weekends a typical person has free anyway — becomes a yawning chasm that grows exponentially with each passing day. This is not happy-go-lucky vacation time. That would require having a job, classes, or other obligation that you’re taking a break from, along with a set date when you will return to said job, school, obligation — thus creating pre-approved space in which to relax. No, this is stressful, hand-wringing, where-am-I-going-and-what’s-my-purpose time. And something must fill it. In my case, that something was reality television.

I’m no newbie when it comes to the genre. My first brush with it came courtesy of MTV’s Real World. These days, the premise-setting line rolls off the tongue of most Gen X and Y-ers: “eight strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped . . .” But when I was in high school, in the mid-1990s, the 30-minute mash-up of personalities and personal conflicts was still relatively fresh. Its sister show, Road Rules, arrived in 1995 (five people, one camper and a cross-country trip for prizes). I loved two contestants in particular, Mark and Kit; they modeled an ideal mix of cool-fun-funny that was catnip to my teenage self. And, taken together, the two shows promised a version of adulthood I could not wait to inhabit.

By the time I graduated from college, however, my interest had faded. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but life as a 20-something was turning out to be both more subtle and more complex than the stories playing out on screen. And watching cast members romp through their days in various states of emotional extremis only served to diminish my own experiences. In short, they made me feel like a cliché. That’s something no one wants to be when they grow up.

So I opted out and — cue montage, please — for most of the 2000s sensations like Big Brother, Survivor, the Apprentice, and the Bachelor made little impression on me. As for the reality shows that proliferated on cable, awareness came by osmosis: eavesdropping on conversations in bars, flipping through copies of In Touch and Us Weekly. At first, I never minded asking Kardashi-who? But over time worry crept in. Maybe I was taking myself too seriously and missing out on the fun of pop cultural debate.

The answer came late last year with the advent of Jersey Shore, another MTV concoction. I’d just started dating someone and didn’t know what he was referring to when he asked what I thought about The Situation. (A relationship talk already?) Consequently, I watched my first episode on his couch, balancing a slice of pizza on a paper towel and trying my best not to wince, crack wise or otherwise make a sound effect that would betray my revulsion. And yet. For those who haven’t seen it, Jersey Shore tweaks the fishbowl formula, scuttling roommate diversity in favor of a group that shares a self-proclaimed propensity for the guido lifestyle. Watching that December night, the cast members clearly had little in common with the reality stars of my youth. Yet The Situation and JWOWW presented an ideal of a different sort: they followed their bliss. Setting aside the fact that bliss, for me, involves more than afternoons in the tanning bed and nights at the dance club, there was a certain vicarious thrill in watching people give themselves over so freely to every whim and desire. By the time we’d watched two episodes together, I was hooked.

From there it’s been a quick slide, accelerated by my present state of unemployment. Reality programming can be found around the clock, but Bravo has proven my enabler of choice. The channel makes it absurdly easy to indulge the habit. Top Chef, Rachel Zoe, Millionaire Matchmaker, the Real Housewives of New York City or New Jersey or Orange County — something is always on. Bravo’s real genius (not to be confused with its Shear Genius) resides in marathon programming: six, eight, 10 hours of a single series. I’ll flip on the television — just to see what’s on — and next I know, I’m sunk deep in the couch with a knot in my back, inhaling my fifth consecutive episode of America’s Next Top Model with the mindless gusto of a chain-smoker working through a pack.

A word on my apartment: It’s a square-shaped studio, just large enough for each quadrant to claim an identity: kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom. The television occupies a prominent corner, making it visible from both the kitchen and bedroom areas. The sound is audible throughout the apartment. When you start leaving the bathroom door open to hear when Kathy Griffin’s show returns from the commercial break, this is a sign that you have entered dangerous territory.

Other signs include planning your week around watching an “all-new” episode and knowing when in the wee hours of the morning the rerun will air. Also, watch out for holding up cast members as role models. Not long ago I told a friend, in all seriousness, that I wished I had some of Bethenny’s assertiveness. That’s Bethenny Frankel of the Real Housewives of New York City and her spinoff, Bethenny Getting Married.

BGM’s debut in June brought on the peak of my obsession. (Note: Speaking in acronyms doesn’t bode well either.) As summer progressed I watched with increasing fervor, so that — walking home from dinner with my boyfriend on a recent Thursday — I uncharacteristically hurried us along to make it in time for the episode. In it, Bethenny went into early labor, and after awhile I could feel pains of a whole other sort emanating from his spot on the couch. This from the man who introduced me to Jersey Shore. But such is the paradox of the guilty pleasure: the pleasure lies in the private indulgence; make it public, where other people have a chance to raise eyebrows, and shame arrives in spades. After some consideration I handed him the remote, my reluctance tempered only by the knowledge that I could catch it later in the week, away from judgmental eyes.

The next morning brought an uneasy feeling. Wasn’t that kind of secretive, planning behavior a hallmark of addiction? What’s more, I’d lately found myself contemplating the arrival of the next Housewives installment with genuine fear. In my clearheaded moments, I knew I couldn’t afford to wander even farther into Bravo’s fantasyland. Nor did I trust myself to resist. The phone rang.

In describing the nitty-gritty of the freelance job, my contact asked if it sounded like something that would crush my soul. Absolutely not, I assured her, knowing it was far better for my eyes to glaze in pursuit of better grammar. If anything, saving my soul was the more likely outcome. And, of course, there’s always those late-night reruns.

Alexis Tonti is a former editor and writer for the Vineyard Gazette. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.