The subtitle of the “The Fix — How Addiction Is Taking Over Your World” — sounds like lively hyperbole until you crack the cover of this fleet-footed, frighteningly up-to-date tome on all manner of compulsive habits. But British journalist Damian Thompson backs it up.
He speaks in a voice that’s deceptively casual, disclosing his own demons — from alcohol to zopiclone — throughout the book. After reading the first 50 pages, you may feel that his take on addiction is superficial and a bit self-centered. But by the end, after you’ve been pulled through a whirlwind of anecdotes, interviews and studies, he has built an argument with real force and substance.
Addiction, as Thompson lays it out, is motivated by two forces: the strong force exerted upon us by the feeling of pleasure (the brain’s opioid system) and the even stronger force exerted by desire (the dopamine system). In the wild, under conditions of scarcity, these cravings and mental rewards kept homo sapiens alive in a hostile, mostly barren environment. But under conditions of plenty — or obscene excess — these same brain mechanisms leave us open to being overwhelmed by sugary foods, pornography, drugs, massively multi-player online role-playing games and, well, you name it. Whatever your weakness, there’s a business that knows how to exploit it with calculated insight into the quirks, rituals and features that define addiction.
By this way of thinking, all of us are swimming in an ocean of deliberately engineered temptations, from the morning muffin at Starbucks to the gardening simulator we play on the Web at work to our nightly prescription for sleeplessness. For most of us, it’s not heroin, but that’s not the point: Wanting can lead to liking can lead to more wanting can lead to compulsion, which can be anywhere from trivial to lethal.
While the broad-brushportrayal of modern life as a teeming morass of temptation and compulsion is the book’s strongest (and most disturbing) feature, Thompson also scores some important points against the concept of addiction as disease. Although it’s taken as gospel by many, he claims that the disease model reduces the role of personal choice inherent in the addictive cycle and ignores the large number of people who wrestle with addictive substances and move on of their own volition to kick the habit.
Thompson’s argument isn’t likely to be popular, but it’s a far more nuanced look at the mechanics of addiction than we lay readers are usually offered, and that alone is a tasty intellectual morsel. One could develop a habit of reading material this engaging.
Norton edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table and is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”