I have been reading Damian Thompson’s The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world (Collins: £18.99) and finding it – well, rather addictive. This is partly because I have a (manageable) addiction to print as it is, but also because of his thought-provoking thesis. This is that “more and more of us are being pulled towards some form of addiction” – whether in its old forms, such as drink, gambling or drugs, or in its new forms, such as sugared foods, internet pornography or iPhones.
Damian defines addiction as “the progressive replacement of people by things” and he thinks people are more addicted than they were 40 years ago. It is easy to accept this: humans are naturally not very self-controlled, there is less religious authority or parental authority over young people, and new technology – the internet, iPhones etc – make it fatally easy to create an addiction and to feed it effortlessly. That’s the bad news.
The good news, according to the author, is that addiction is not a disease. He accepts that some people are more vulnerable than others and that, for instance, alcoholism can run in families, but “trying to draw the line between genetic predisposition and environmental conditioning is an impossible task”. He is honest about his own past history of alcoholism and pays tribute to the power of the therapeutic community in AA, which probably saved his life. However, he never accepted the central tenet of AA, stated at every meeting he attended: members have to admit they have no control over their drinking. They do. “Powerful desire doesn’t lobotomise us,” he argues; addiction is “a disorder of choice.”
That’s the good news and I was cheered to read it. If we describe addiction as a disease, as we would describe cancer, we become victims. The addiction has seemingly invaded us against our will and we are powerless in its grip. But Damian emphasises that, “however intense the craving that a drug addict experiences, the decision to take the drug involves uniquely human, rational functions”. He relates the story of two of his friends, both addicts like himself. One finally committed suicide after years of a self-destructive lifestyle while the other eventually broke his addiction entirely on his own. AA doesn’t allow that this can happen; thus it would argue that people who go it alone are obviously not alcoholics in the first place.
As it happens, I also know someone whom the textbooks would describe as a classic “addictive personality”, whose life was dominated by a long-term combination of drugs, drink, sex and heavy smoking. He became a Catholic and has subsequently turned his life around. He still struggles – but willpower, grace, the decision to avoid old haunts and triggers to his cravings, choosing a different group of friends and resolving on a more healthily structured daily round, has transformed his life.
There is also the matter of availability, which is not emphasised enough in the author’s view: when addictive substances are easily available (as with US soldiers in Vietnam) people succumb; when availability is removed (as when those same soldiers returned to the US), the addiction generally stops. Damian adds intriguingly that in earlier times alcoholism was seen as a sin, with temperance as its opposite virtue. Nowadays “addiction” has replaced the concept of “sin”. But unlike sin it has a tendency to absolve us of responsibility for our behaviour; it emasculates us.
Of course, people can make good choices rather than bad ones without religious faith. Nonetheless, my friend’s newfound belief in his unique dignity as a human being loved by God has made him see his old life – his destructive drives and appetites, his sins as we would call them – in a wholly new light and provided the spur to choose to change.
Damian’s last chapter is entitled “Deliver us from temptation” – a slightly ironic usage of an ancient prayer for help. It’s hard to get away from the “Higher Power”, as AA describes it. This is a book well worth reading – for addicts or otherwise.