On Addiction

The subject of addiction gets a markedly varied treatment throughout the yearly cycle. For the first few weeks of Christmas, it is written about quite seriously. Lots of people, newspaper columnists included, are at that time emerging from the festive alcohol-induced haze wondering whether the various embarrassing or compromising predicaments in which they found themselves might be symptomatic of a larger underlying problem. The topic then gets quite a fair and sensible hearing for a few weeks, vying for equal coverage with other stories like new years resolutions, dieting, and finding love in 2014.

In a particularly good year, you might get a few slightly more scholarly articles at this time, focusing on the science, medicine and psychology behind addiction; pieces that weigh the comparative benefits and efficacy of different treatment models for addiction, or written testimonials about someone’s personal struggle.

And then, after a few weeks have passed you get the nonsense articles, the pieces ostensibly about addiction but really an exercise in self-aggrandisement, treading rhetorical water, hitting word count targets and powering through a slow news day. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, gives us one of this variety. She gave up sugar for the new year, and you’re going to hear all about it:

If you’d asked me 24 days ago if I was addicted to anything, I would have laughed in your slightly-overfamiliarly-inquiring face. I don’t smoke, I barely drink. I have one coffee a day. My entire drug consumption comprises five puffs of whatever the kids are calling marijuana these days – the last three were consecutive, after which I went cross-eyed, puked up everything I’d eaten since 1984 and fell asleep for two days. So, no, I would have said, I am a slave to nothing and to nobody, bar my toddler and my mortgage provider. Bring on the dancing girls – I have this life thing licked. That, of course, was before I decided, on 1 January, to give up sugar.

Cue revelations of a first world problem of the highest, most profound order. Waxing lyrical about her love for chocolate, Mangan writes:

When my tongue is coated in that ambrosial mixture of sugar, milk powder and vegetable fat, when the glucose hits my bloodstream, when my stomach is filling with caramel, peanut pieces, shortbread, wafer or any of the multitudinous other vehicles the ceaseless ingenuity of man has created to deliver yet more deliciously the very emptiest of calories to my Stakhanovite digestive system – that’s when I relax.

Multitudinous? Stakhanovite? Really? Lady, you just like to have yourself large quantities of chocolate every day. Dress it up with all the pretentious phraseology you like, but it basically boils down to just that. It’s quite hard to spin the simple fact of liking chocolate into a full-length column about anything at all, let alone a serious topic like addiction, not to mention rather insulting to those who suffer from more serious and potentially devastating ‘real’ addictions.

There should be a public health warning on the label.
There should be a public health warning on the label.

Mangan casually mentions these “other” addictions, which she knows all about through the educational vessel of anecdotes:

It’s been both ridiculous and terrifying to see how closely my (not even complete, remember) sugar deprivation has mimicked what we will, for reasons of limited time and space, just have to agree to call here “real” addiction – to booze, fags, drugs et al. I’m craving the stuff all the time. I can literally feel – or feel I feel – a hollow inside me that only Cadbury can fill. I can’t concentrate. I’m foul-tempered. Oh, and I totally lied before about how much I usually eat. I can’t bring myself to tell you now, but it’s much, much more than one measly bar an evening.

Yes, of course when deprived of something that the body is used to – be it sugar and caffeine or alcohol and narcotics – some of these symptoms will be experienced. The only real difference between her need for chocolate and the need of an addict for their mind-altering substance are those small details hardly worth mentioning (and indeed not mentioned) such as broken homes, physical and mental abuse, poverty and debt, criminal records, social stigmatisation, and the inexorable toll of wasted year upon wasted year of human life.

For Mangan to say that the pangs of irritability and withdrawal she has been experiencing in any way “mirror” addictions of a more serious nature is akin to her claiming empathy with the homeless because she was once caught out in a rain shower without an umbrella.

The most urgent issue of our times.
The most urgent issue of our times.

But the main thing as far as The Guardian is concerned, I am sure, is that the required column inches were filled and the word count met. Lucy Mangan’s editor was pleased with a forgettable, cookie-cutter puff piece about someone finding it hard to cut down on the old baked goods after the excesses of Christmas, and gave blessing for its publication. And so now we can all have a little giggle about how Mangan’s sweet tooth makes her just like your funny neighbourhood junkie.

In future, however, it might be better if idle newspaper columnists facing the January blues, a slow news day and writers block tried to steer clear of their love of chocolate, or biscuits, or chocolatey biscuits, when grasping for ideas thirty minutes before the filing deadline.

I, for one, would be grateful.