Addiction I: Pre-disposition

People talk about addiction a lot in our culture. Let me rephrase. People talk a lot of crap about addiction in our culture, to the extent that people have started treating ‘addiction’ and ‘very strong preference’ as synonymous in colloquial language. Hyperbole is all very well, but not when it kills people; and the systematic devaluation of the term ‘addict’ in society is doing exactly that.

I’m writing about this as a kind of prologue to an investigation of the politics and psychology of prohibition, both in general and with specific reference to some of the things which are prohibited in the Europe-influenced Western socio-economic hegemony.

As I was researching those topics I began to realise that there is considerable lack of clarity in the minds of Occidental people about what addiction is and how addicts work. Many people, for example, draw no distinction between alcoholism and being a drunk. In order to go on and discuss the political, psycho-social and international issues I want to talk about, without being side-tracked into endless, circular arguments about social damage statistics, I realised I’d need to first establish a baseline description of how I understand addiction.

Predisposition

I’m also inclined to tackle this because I have not one, not two, but three distinct personal experiences I’m prepared to talk about, of things which most people would call ‘addictions’: quite apart from an extensive experience of addiction in others (I run a pub and used to work in the Square Mile. Guess where I met the most addicts…)

The first has never affected my personal functionality, has never caused me to lose a job or a girlfriend or a house, has never (in fact) fucked up me or anyone else. The only reason this is true is that I knew I would be likely to get dependent on this substance if I ever let myself tip a certain balance: this foreknowledge has allowed me to (thus far!) stay safe. The addiction is alcoholism.

Every male in my matrilinear ancestry (back the last three generations, anyway) has or has had very serious alcoholism problems. Most of them have been drunkards for some or all of their adult lives. Most of them have been violent. Most of them have broken homes. On the other side, my grandfather steadfastly refused to drink throughout WWII [1] and the rest of his adult life because his father, his father’s brothers and his uncles had all been alcoholics. All of them. My father followed his lead, though not quite so absolutely.

Common sense, if nothing else, suggests that there is a genetic predisposition in my family, probably on both sides, towards alcoholism. By the time I came back to the West, I was aware of this. I had seen the damage done by my uncle, among others. I’d seen someone actually dying of acute, untreated liver-failure: most people in this country have not, and never will. I was an effective teetotaler ’til I matriculated at University. Then I got a job in a cocktail bar, and in order to mix well I had to know what the drinks tasted like.

This presented my 18-year old self with a bit of a problem. I really don’t like being bad at my job. I really did fear what would happen if I ever let myself drink and be drunk. So I started, carefully, to find out what drinks tasted like, and soon realised that I preferred drinking for taste to drinking for alcohol. It turns out I don’t like being drunk, and I believe that distaste for control loss is the only thing which saved me from full-on drunkard status at Uni. Ever since then I have kept a Vimes-like watch over my own shoulder in case I showed signs of starting to turn into my uncle. Thus far, it hasn’t happened.

* * *

This predisposition is not an addiction. It is simply a statement that I am very likely to acquire a chemical dependency on ethanol if I ever allow myself to consistently drink a lot for more than about 3 months, where ‘a lot’ is a moving target. But to many people, historically in America and increasingly over here, just knowing that I have to be careful with alcohol makes me An Alcoholic, with all of the drop-out, dangerous-to-know, probably-violent, certainly-a-thief connotations that are attached to the label ‘addict’.

I work in the pub trade in spite of the fact that I’m at serious risk of becoming a drunk. This is in part because I like beer, but it’s also in part because I can exercise the social and legal responsibilities of a British landlord with a good deal more care and attention than many of my competitors, because I don’t have a skewed vision of what alcoholism really is.

The wider point, though, is that while I have staved off dipsomania and can still enjoy a pint, what I’ve got is a chemical pre-disposition to dependency, not an addiction in the medical sense. But many people don’t know the difference, and many other people believe that alcoholism is not medical but spiritual, a sign of wickedness, or a sign of weakness. How are we supposed to help a person who has already fallen off the knife-edge I walk if society sees chemical dependency as morally equivalent to a life of violence and crime?

[1] An achievement, when your job is flying Mosquitoes and you box and play rugby for your service. Peer pressure plus massive traumatic stress… His rugby team nickname was Grapefruit, because every order for the team bus in the pub on the way home finished with a chorus of “and one grapefruit!”

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Addiction I: Pre-disposition

  1. eithin

    This is interesting to read, and I look forward to the rest.

    One niggle, though – why do you use “Occidental”? I’m sure there’s a reason for it which will be revealed later, but it does rather bring up the spectre of Orientalism.

    • johnqpublican

      There’s an easy answer and a less-easy answer to that. The easy one is that the dialectic of West vs East became the dominant rhetorical incarnation of the Cold War, and those divides are largely history now. Russia is as much a product of our civilisation as the United States.

      The more complex answer depends from a chain of categorical (by which I mean, the defining of analytical categories) reasoning which starts with meme theory. It’s still being worked up into a form I can discuss properly but when it’s ready you’ll see it here.

      The executive summary goes like this; the memetic encodings in what I call the Occidental civilisation owe as much to chance and geography as to organisation, ideology or religion. Our passage from Sumer to the present day, from the temple of Apollo to Apollo 11, has created a set of remarkably deep-seated similarities in the way that units (i.e. people) of that civilisation perceive the world. Point of view is the most powerful influence on what an individual or culture chooses to do.

      A completely different set of conceptual schema evolved within the Asian continent. The convergence of the heritage of the 7 Kingdoms with the heritage of vedic literature and the developments of Buddhist, Daoist and Zen philosophies has created a civilisation that thinks differently. That civilisation is most conveniently described by the word ‘Oriental’.

      Incidentally, my personal development is a synthesis of Oriental, Occidental and African traditions. I derived as much of my personal understanding of spirituality, ethics, philosophy and cosmology from Tai Qi and Daoism as I did from the Enlightenment or Christianity. I am as rooted in the soil of West Africa as I am in the soil of the Thames Valley. But I am still a product of only one of those civilisations. Everything I have learnt from Oriental lore is a thing I have learnt, whereas the underpinning assumptions of the Occident I had nurtured into me prior to the age of 6. I think like a European; one educated in multiple paradigms, but still a European.

      Joss Whedon presented (in Firefly) a vision of space settlement as a cultural accretion in equal parts Sino-Japanese and Euro-American. Statistically, this is the going to be the dominant mimetic gene-pool from which the next generation of human ideas will be conceived. Thus I tend to currently think in terms of a civilisation stream based on the ideas of the sons of Sumer as “Occidental”.

  2. Norman Savage

    I read with much interest your most recent posting. I’ve spent much of my life, in one way or another, “searching” for answers in regard to alcoholims and/or addiction. “Search” of course, is the operative word. James has used that word as a benchmark of drunks/junkies and that, of course, has weaved itself around some of our most highly regarded writers, artists and musicians of the ages.
    I’ve recently published a memoir about that “search”: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC touching on some of the more cutting edge information that we have regarding addictions of all sorts. Whether they be determined by genetics, predisposition, neurology, psychobiology and the like, most addicts come from the womb fully formed and depending on circumstances are waiting for, as the song goes, “If this ain’t love it will have to do until the real thing comes along.”
    I’ve been real interested in more Freud than Jung. More Lacan than Bowlby. More Kernberg and Houssan than Klein. More interested in “absence” and “desire,” than volition.
    Interesting for me to note what you do for a living. I, too, was a bartender for a long time here in NYC. Many an x-drinker worked behind the stick with me. It seemed they enjoyed a delicious tension. Something we can all understand.

    Norman Savage