Addiction: The key to all mythologies

From alcohol and cigarettes to Xboxes and iPads, modern life can be a minefield of addiction.

Are we addicted to our iPads?
Are we addicted to our iPads? Photograph: Getty Images

When people say they’re addicted to their iPads, they don’t mean addicted, addicted. In his recent book, The Fix (Collins, £18.99), Damian Thompson seeks to extend the meaning of the term, examining our loyalties to everything from iPads to Starbucks to 12-step groups.

While The Fix doesn’t actually upgrade our concept of addiction – there is no glossy new product – it does give the subject a symphonic treatment, with parts for experts and marketers, addicts and consumers. The findings of neuroscience supply the most plaintive high notes; its exotic vocabulary fails to account for our varied resistance to addiction, just as you’d expect it to fail to account for our varied capacity for love.

One contention of Thompson’s book is that prevailing norms can encourage the sense of being addicted. Had Nicotine Anonymous been formed in 1900, its members would have appeared paranoid. But in 2012 it seems obvious that smoking involves the addict’s cycle of anticipation, subversive thrill and shame. Overeaters are not merrily but morbidly obese these days, and a contemporary Marquis de Sade could have met Michael Douglas at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting.

The distinction between normal and abnormal behaviour is not only changeable through time but questionable in essence. As Charlie Citrine says in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift: “Once you had read Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, you knew everyday life was psychopathology.” Both Freud and Jung derived their descriptions of “normal” character from the observation of mental illness.

Take obsessive compulsive disorder. The belief of the person who crosses their fingers before a job interview, just like that of a person who relocks a door 60 times to feel calm, is that it’s possible to control the unknowable with magic. The difference is supplied by the range of application. Similarly, some of us have gone shoe-shopping when what we wanted was love – which required us to reason like addicts. On my way to psychotherapy college, I once chatted with a guy who slept rough. “This,” he explained, raising a can of nuclear brew, “is not a drink problem, it is a drink solution.” But to what? The motley bunch of issues that psychiatrists assemble as “addictive tendencies” are ready-made to greet addiction as a ready-made panacea. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution – and the addict’s behaviour continues to replicate the formula like spirals of manky DNA.

All addictions arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack – of heroin, vodka, or new shoes. An addict tries to get “clean”, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.

But heroin is physically addictive, while shoes, surely, are not. The distinction between substance addiction and “process”, or behavioural, addiction might be less tidy than the categories imply. In a process addiction – to sex, for example – a person may well be addicted to the biochemicals she shoots up in the privacy of her own body. The biochemical element in exercise addiction is accepted. Why not in serially unrequited love affairs?

Consumer addiction has required a deep-rooted aetiology. Technology and muffins are now “irresistible”, not only because they are designed to be derangingly cool or delicious but also because we are all more susceptible to the kind of thinking it once took an old-fashioned traumatic childhood to initiate.

The psychiatric term for narcissistic traits developed in adulthood is “ASN” – “Acquired Situational Narcissism”. We recognise it without the fancy definition: raging pop stars who asked for white roses but were damn well given pink, or the supermodel who whops a stern flight attendant in the eye. It’s unlikely that all of these people had abusive parents; more plausible that this is what celebrity can do to personality.

Should fame prove elusive, the delusion that everyone “hearts” you can now be fuelled by Facebook, blogging and Twitter. If only this were a mere 15-minute experience. Even if you don’t semi-religiously pimp up your profile, you can distort your psyche by other means. In the days when wrinkles formed and richly deserved fat could not be suctioned out in your lunch hour, people knew their mortal limitations by looking in the mirror.

Now we live in a time of purchasable miracles – Fat-free! Carb-blocking! Age-reversing! – that diminish our acceptance of ageing, illness and death. Even our workouts are subtly exalted. We are “training”, apparently – but for what? Jennifer Aniston probably had no idea she was endorsing the narcissistic defence of our times when the phrase “because I’m worth it” sprang from her honey-sweet lips.

Once, during the agonies of a slow download, a friend referred to the spinning-wheel Apple icon, which signifies a technical hitch, as “the wheel of death”. When an Xbox crashes, gamers refer to the warning ring around the on/off switch as the “red ring of death”. There’s an existential theme here: what if the download or the game never restarts? Strong-hearted Buddhist monks cruise an analogous mental purgatory every day before breakfast, and a stray pulse of enlightenment has led some western psychiatrists to think meditation may help treat our “pandemic” of mental “disorders”.

For those deprived of a neat diagnosis, meditation can make train delays, or a tardy side order, seem much less injurious to the heart. The Buddhist view of patience as a virtue might be stated like this: every mochaccino you do not send back in anger for a fairer share of foam will gentle your relationship with death.

Marketing has always dealt in wish-fulfillment but it now offers eerily deep reassurances. Of its iCloud, Apple says: “This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic and effortless.” This isn’t a response to need, it’s a drip-drip sedation of angst. How have consumers allowed Apple to feel both appointed and required to offer this? The answer may be familiar. Anyone who believes that anything “should” seem “automatic and effortless” will have a hard time living – and dying. But they will consistently purchase technology. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution.

Our relationship with technology firms may have an impact on evolution, because what we are encouraging is a survival of the weakest. Those of us who can tell the difference between an online relationship and a real one, those who are not interested in spending their days off finessing their software are, increasingly, seen as oddballs or kooks.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad depicts the future of affectionate interfacing: “He hadn’t seen or spoken to Lulu since their meeting three weeks ago; she was a person who lived in his pocket.” Alex and Lulu communicate via text, which they abbreviate as “T”. After relaying to Lulu his childish response at the sight of a rising skyscraper – “up gOs th bldg” – Alex remarks “how easily baby talk fitted itself into the crawl space of a T.”

Novelists have long held this broader, scarier view of addictive behaviour. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published in 1874, portrays a workaholic in the form of Casaubon, who neglects his marriage in order to squint in libraries. The toil of writing his “Key to All Mythologies” (an excellent shorthand for any addictive object) is more compelling – and less demanding – than the charms of his youthful wife.

Most novels are, in this expanded sense, about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties. The character either cheats himself to a bitter or bitter-sweet end, or reforms, according to the author’s sensibility.

Jane Austen’s heroine Emma lived in 19th-century England, where well-to-do women were conditioned to addictive thinking on the subject of love. Emma’s struggle to attain self-knowledge is marred by “a disposition to think a little too well of herself”, and demoralised by a society that marketed trinkets, bonnets and red-coats as the proper objects of female concern. Emma’s friends needed husbands then in the way some of us need mobile phones now: in order to feel that they existed.

In F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Jay Gatsby’s desire to win back his ex-girlfriend Daisy, a goal of religious significance to him, turns his criminal activities into acts of supplication. Attempting to prove his piety to Daisy he displays the wealth it has generated: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green . . .”

It is a gorgeous evocation of narcissism; Gatsby literally calls attention to his colourful surface. And Daisy sobs to see it, not because she understands Gatsby’s impoverishment but because she is overwhelmed to learn she is a goddess. Hollywood actors ought to scroll their fan sites with the same degree of amazement. Fitzgerald has Gatsby die off-stage, face down in a swimming pool, as would have befitted poor Narcissus himself.

It is very disappointing that, as Thompson points out, the reasons for addictive behaviour are so hard to quantify. But it’s not surprising. Their discovery requires a highly trained and peculiarly sensitive human mind. A live brain scan is too primitive an instrument.

Talitha Stevenson is a psychotherapist and writer