Allan Massie

Give me excess of it

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The Fix

Damian Thompson

HarperCollins, pp. 226, £

There is a joke about a retired colonel whose aberrant behaviour had him referred to a psychoanalyst. He emerged from the session fuming. ‘Damn fool says I’m in love with my umbrella. Bloody nonsense.’ Long pause, then: ‘I’m fond of it of course.’ Quite so, and likewise while people may not actually fall in love with their iPhone, 18 out of 200 students surveyed at Stanford University admitted to ‘patting’ the little thing. They may be as uncomfortable without it as an alcoholic in need of a drink before opening time.

The Fix is a fascinating and at times alarming study of addiction. Damian Thompson writes with the authority of experience reinforced by wide-ranging research. He is a non-drinking alcoholic who has also been addicted to prescription drugs and, less damagingly, to buying more CDs of classical music than he can find time to listen to. Though he attended Alcoholics Anonymous and accepts that ‘the AA fellowship kept me away from alcohol, thanks to the remarkable power of peer-group moral support and especially the support of strangers, which has its own special potency’, he even then rejected the idea that his ‘alcoholism, or any other form of addiction, was a disease’.

I think he was right to do so, while accepting that many find the concept of disease of help in enabling them to stop drinking and regain equilibrium, even happiness. So I would say: ‘If it helps you to think it a disease, then think it a disease.’

If, however, addiction, whether to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, sex, online gaming, pornography, or even iPhones and cup-cakes, isn’t a disease, what is it? Thompson has investigated the neuroscience and can tell us much about the chemistry of the brain and which parts respond to stimulation and give us ‘a high’.

All this is no doubt accurate enough as a statement of what happens when you take certain substances or when you indulge in excitingly satisfying behaviour that doesn’t involve the ingestion of substances. What is doesn’t do is explain why some people  develop an addiction and others don’t. It doesn’t explain why if X downs a couple of small whiskies he may set off on a bender and disappear from the scene for a week, while Y can drink half a bottle and be at his desk ready for work the next morning. Nor does it explain why some days X can take these two whiskies with impunity and other days he can’t. As Thompson writes: ‘We don’t know enough about the reward mechanisms of the brain’ to predict who will succumb to an addiction. ‘If extreme addictive behaviours have a common biological cause, scientists have yet to discover it.’ Sometimes one may be tempted to think the old categorisation of addicts as ‘weak-willed’ is fair — if it wasn’t for the determination they display in feeding their addiction.

Availability breeds addiction, and addiction is first of all habit. Thompson has no doubt about this:

The burgeoning sophistication of consumer electronics has given birth to new obsessions and addictions that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. One way or another, everybody in the Western world has to confront the quickening of desire.

As for well-meaning proposals about the legalisation of drugs, forget it. There is now such a cornucopia easily available — by internet purchase, for instance — and the drug-chemists cook up new varieties so quickly, easily and profitably, that arguments about legalisation are out-of-date.

What is the consequence of what Thompson calls the invasion of our lives by addiction? One very evident result is the rejection of other people in favour of things. Feeding your habit is more important than feeding your family. Spending time with your computer is more rewarding than time with your children. This is frightening, and it is also seemingly common.

Yet one shouldn’t exaggerate, and Thompson, while not averse to making our flesh creep, has the good sense not to. Addicts do recover, and he offers several examples of people known to him who seemed to be hell-bent on self-destruction but changed course and returned to a healthy, useful and happy life. For many, addiction is a youthful phase which they grow out of — though Thompson remarks that one can’t tell what effect heavy drug use may be found to have in later life on the brain of even those who have put their addiction behind them

As to the cause, one may as well leave the last word to that most literary of drunks, or most alcoholic of novelists, Malcolm Lowry. He thought the chief cause of alcoholism was dissatisfaction with the world ‘as sold to you’. ‘If it wasn’t that,’ he added, ‘it would be greed. And, by God it is greed.’ Greed for experience, greed for the promised reward — which in the end will prove to be a cheat.