Life on CrackBerry Hill

Discussing BlackBerry addiction can feel a little off the wall.

“You want to know my feelings about my BlackBerry?” asks Will Adams, press secretary to Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), not disguising his mocking tone.

But the more the 23-year-old aide spoke of the device that he slips into his pocket each morning, the clearer it was that BlackBerrys are an emotional subject.

Like many others, Adams’s girlfriend refers to the device as the “CrackBerry.” She has spoken with him about taking a “BlackBerry vacation.” So far he hasn’t done it, at least not by choice.

He took his first BlackBerry break over Christmas when it stopped working. He couldn’t replace it for two weeks and found himself growing more anxious by the day.

“I was quite distressed,” he says, recalling the many times he called into the office each day to have people check his e-mail. “You never want to be out of the loop.”

Adams used to keep his BlackBerry on 24 hours a day but became bothered by the 2, 3, and 4 a.m. buzzing. “So I turn it off now about midnight,” he says, but in the morning the cycle starts again.

BlackBerrys have produced a several apt pieces of jargon; in addition to CrackBerry, there are “handheld heroin,” “CrackBerryholics,” and simply “the Berry.”

This week, one of two Senate Judiciary Committee staffers giving a background press briefing used the moments when he was not talking to look down and type on his BlackBerry. The move was not considered rude, just a sign of the times.

Ken Spain, deputy chief of staff and spokesman for Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), says it’s not uncommon for him and a group of friends to be out at the Capitol Lounge socializing but also checking their BlackBerrys. “I would say it’s probably extremely rude,” he says, “but I try to be as polite as I can, whether it’s hiding it under the table or asking someone to excuse me while I answer an e-mail.”

Until Sept. 11, 2001, the BlackBerry was an exotic fruit. Only high-powered aides had them. But after the terrorist attacks, the hand-held gizmo became as ubiquitous as the cell phone. The House Administration Committee issued them to all lawmakers and chiefs of staffs as a safety precaution. Since then, the responsibility for maintenance, upgrade and expense has shifted to member offices and all levels of aides now carry them.

“They are fairly ubiquitous at this point,” remarks Jon Brandt, spokesman for Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), acting chairman of the House Administration Committee. “I’m going to be getting one next week.”

Jenn Hein, spokeswoman to Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), refers to hers as a “faux boyfriend.” Her real-life fianc� isn’t a big fan and also calls it the CrackBerry.

Hein says she never turns it off. “It literally never leaves my hip,” she says. “If it leaves my hip, it’s because it’s on my pillow.”

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, limits his BlackBerry use. He keeps it out of the bedroom and stores it in the kitchen overnight, mainly because his wife can’t stand the buzzing. “There are people definitely more crazy than me out there about it,” he says, “but if you asked my wife she’d tell you it was a pain in the butt.”

A symbol of status, fitting in and feeling important, the BlackBerry is something many aides say they can no longer imagine living without. But like all things that can cause a high or a buzz of emotion, the BlackBerry has addictive qualities. There is talk of rehabilitation programs — BlackBerry Anonymous — to address the addiction. A Google search produced several mentions of BlackBerry Anonymous groups.

A Democratic fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity admits that without his BlackBerry he feels as though a piece of himself is missing.

“I’m an addict,” he says. “I’m constantly fighting the urge to check it. It’s even to the point where my girlfriend has imposed BlackBerry rules on me. I’m not allowed to look at it while I’m driving. I’m not allowed to look at it during dinner.”

He has a hard time abiding by the rules and often sneaks peeks on his way to the men’s room. He says his use of the BlackBerry has led to “heated discussions” with his girlfriend.

“It essentially destroys any wall you have between your personal and professional life, which in Washington is never all that strong to begin with, but this just seals the deal,” he says. “Most people in this town are addicted to work, so it fits right in.”

The Berry is “always there and it’s always buzzing and it’s always reminding you that the world is out there calling for you. And that’s part of the allure. It could be something important, or it could be spam.”

He doesn’t wish he could get rid of his BlackBerry. “Not now,” he says. “Everyone I know has one. Everyone carries it with them all the time. It’s normal for Washington, but what’s normal for Washington isn’t normal for the rest of the country.”

Eric Burns, spokesman for Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), has gone without his BlackBerry for the past two weeks because he lost it. First he felt withdrawal and felt as though something was missing: “It’s almost like you feel kind of naked without it.”

Now he sees advantages: “When you’re jumping out of bed on a Saturday at 7 a.m. to check your BlackBerry, it really makes you realize that you need a life. It’s really nice to not have this electronic ball and chain.”

Some aides need a nudge toward self-awareness. “During a lunch late last year, another staffer told me I was on my BlackBerry too much, so this year I made the commitment not to bring it into constituent meetings, and I avoid using it around my family and friends,” said Dino Teppara, legislative director to Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).

These days, Tancredo’s aide, Adams, is pleased with his new and improved BlackBerry. “I’ve long forgotten my old love,” he says of the old one with malfunctioning buttons. “The new one, it’s pretty sweet. I keep it on vibrate at all times.”