my addictions

2006 is the first year can I remember in which I haven't been addicted to anything. (Well, maybe I am still "addicted" to some things, in certain senses of the word, but nothing I regard as unhealthy.) It's a marvellously liberating feeling to rid yourself of compulsive behaviour, and I'd strongly recommend anyone who is addicted to anything to reconsider. So I've decided to call my own private AA meeting, if you will, where I relate the following inspirational tales of the addictions I've managed to overcome.

Caffeine (1980s - 2006)

Caffeine is my oldest and longest-lasting addiction. It began with Coca-cola. As a kid, I was an unabashed Coke fan. I thought Coke was the drink of the gods. Sometimes I'd gulp down a whole bottle in one go, like a parched traveller at an oasis. Other times I'd settle into the couch and have a quiet Coke moment, sipping it like manna, letting each mouthful linger as if it was the last Coke on Earth. I loved the Coca-cola brand, I loved Coca-cola advertising, I thought contour bottles were priceless artefacts. One of my favourite TV programmes was an awful fawning documentary about Coke, from which I got the idea that their "I'd like to teach the world to sing" ad campaign was some kind of epochal moment in world history. "Were you there?" I asked my parents. "Do you remember it happening?"

But as I acquired more brain cells, I grew to despise Coke. I hated the way its advertising exploited children. I found the ubiquity and crassness of its logo offensive. For a while I switched to Pepsi as the lesser of two evils, but soon I realised that my problem was not with Coke, but with cola. I was beginning to find its sugary chemical taste unbearable. Each sip tasted like a mouthful of sweetened AA batteries, and left an aftertaste like a cat had pissed there. But I just couldn't give the stuff up. I had become addicted to caffeine, and if a day passed with no cola, I'd start to get the familiar withdrawal symptoms: headaches, poor concentration, semi-stupor. I decided it was easier to stick with caffeine.

So I switched to the miserable "Diet" colas, which I drank for years, without enjoyment, as a kind of penance for my addiction. At least they were better for my teeth, if nothing else. But I increasingly hated the way Coke and Pepsi overcharged for their fizzy flavoured water (which costs almost nothing to make), and I resented the fact that they had me by the balls by supplying my daily dose of caffeine. Fortunately, once I started working in an office I realised that there was an alternative source of caffeine, available in near-limitless quantities, for which I wouldn't have to pay at all.

I had always considered coffee a completely unpalatable drink -- disgusting steaming bitter black stuff -- and indeed it is, especially in the British Empire. But in my old office in Brussels we had a nice coffee machine, which made nice smooth fresh-ground coffee, and I began forcing myself to drink it every morning, and soon I began to like it. Within weeks I had given the finger to the Coca-cola company and become something of a coffee snob. I sat on terraces sipping espressos. I sneered at anyone who put milk in their coffee, and I sneered at Starbucks. (Indeed, I still sneer at Starbucks, which serves a wide selection of indistinguishable frothy watered-down shit in an uncomfortable, hustled environment that is the opposite of everything a coffee house should be. I live in dread of the day they cross the English channel.)

In the coffee years more than ever I became dependent on caffeine. My first act every morning was to seek out the black stuff. I frequently drank hot black coffee on an empty stomach, which felt like pure acid as it burned a path straight through me. Some days I would over-indulge. Any time I took a break from work, any time I went near the kitchen, I'd have a coffee. I drank five cups some days and would end up caffeine-eyed, startled and dizzy. One day in February I drank so much coffee that I couldn't sleep the following night, and as I lay in bed unsleeping, I decided enough was enough. I would be slave to the coffee bean no longer! No more caffeine for me! So on the next day, instead of coffee, I took painkillers in the morning, and prepared to ride out the withdrawal symptoms.

It turned out to be alarmingly easy to give up caffeine. Even when I liked it, I always thought coffee tasted like shit, so losing coffee was no trouble. At coffee breaks, I just drank water. The withdrawal symptoms were gone after two days, and soon I felt totally caffeine-free. My sleeping patterns returned to normal, and I lost the feeling of morning gloom. The last of my addictions was gone!

Oxymetazoline Hydrochloride (1991-2001)

I was a tiresomely sickly child, with a neverending succession of nose, throat and bronchial problems that used to recur and recur. Once I had some kind of sinus infection for which a doctor precribed me a nasal spray called Dexa-Rhinaspray. This was a tiny aerosol can that shot a bolt of stuff up each nostril, which felt intense and stinging and absolutely AWESOME. Within seconds, it blasted a path through my bunged-up airways, letting me inhale huge gulps of refreshing air. I could breathe like I never could breathe before! I could run around! I could climb mountains! Each invigorating shot of Dexa-Rhinaspray would last for ten hours, after which my nose would block up again, at which point I simply took another shot. I liked it so much that I got a repeat prescription, and then another, and another, and so on indefinitely.

As the years went on, occasionally I thought it unusual that my nose was always blocked unless I took this stuff. I decided I had a chronic sinus problem and went to see doctors about it. They agreed and prescribed me other sprays -- enormous, plunger-type things that squirted a pint of steroids up my nose, which never did anything apart from give me acne. I always went back to Dexa-Rhinaspray, which at least worked, even though it was getting less and less effective. Increasingly I had to take it three or four times a day instead of two.

When I went to college, I visited a new doctor about my sinus problem, and told him about Dexa-Rhinaspray. He advised me to stop taking it, since it apparently contained some kind of antibiotic which bacteria would grow immune to. For my sinus problem he recommended I do more vacuum cleaning and avoid dust. Now, dust happened to be unavoidable in my student accomodation, but I took his advice about the spray. The trouble was, within a few days my sinuses became appallingly blocked and I became desperate for relief. I bought an over-the-counter spray called Vicks Sinex, which didn't give the intense aerosol blast of Dexa-Rhinaspray, but did give that comforting sting and instant nasal unblockage. And no prescription was required! For the next few years, I subsisted on Sinex. I took a bottle with me everywhere, which I could squirt in at suitable moments. In time, it too became less and less effective, each shot lasting only a few hours. Friends used to joke that I was addicted to it, and soon, far, far too late, I began to suspect they were right. But I couldn't give it up -- as soon as I stopped taking the spray, the congestion would become unbearable. I'd get intense headaches, I couldn't sleep, I'd become immobilised.

Doctors hadn't been much help, so I turned to the Web. What exactly was my nasal spray doing? I soon found out that the common active ingredient of Sinex and Dexa-Rhinaspray was "oxymetazoline hydrochloride", an adrenaline-like drug that was very effective against nasal congestion in the short term, but in the long term caused rebound congestion. Essentially, your nasal passages become dependent on it, and if you stop taking it, they block up even worse than before. Oxymetazoline "addiction" was a reasonably common ailment, so much so that one site was even marketing a product to help wean people off it. For an outrageous price.

I decided the only thing for me was to go cold turkey. A week before I moved to Belgium, I stopped taking Sinex. I spent the following week in bed with the sinuses from hell. I had unbearable headaches, I could barely sleep, and my nose was so blocked that it felt like I was being nasally raped by a pair of elephants. But slowly, as the week wore on, I found I could breathe through my nose. It took conscious effort at first, but soon afterwards I was breathing normally, and I've been breathing normally ever since. I'd never had a chronic sinus problem after all.

Sinex is frequently advertised, and it definitely works. It might even be tempting to buy this stuff if you have a bad cold. But my recommendation is: don't.

Civilization/Civilization II (1994-2004)

I got a copy of Civilization for Windows for Christmas in 1994, installed it on my computer in the morning, and didn't see much of my family for the rest of the day. Or for the next few days, when my lifestyle can be summarised as: woke up, played Civ, ate, played Civ some more, went to bed, played Civ in my sleep. The game just instantly ticked all my boxes. I'm fascinated by the way things develop over time, especially over vast timescales. I had always been a history geek, and especially a military history geek. (A shameful confession to make, but there you go.) And Civ, unlike Sim City 2000, had that strategic and competitive element that kept me playing. Not to mention a much better user manual, which I read obsessively over the Christmas holidays. Even after the holidays I played it all the time, whenever I could. It was oddly stimulating and relaxing at the same time. I played it more or less constantly all that summer, and for much of the following summer. In 1995 I probably spent two solid months of my life playing Civ, all told. In spite of that, it was a rather good year.

Then in 1997 I bought Civilization II. It was less accurate than Civ as a history simulator, and had a crappier manual, but in all other respects was a better game. In fact, it seemed to resolve all the annoying gameplay issues from the original, which made it the gaming equivalent of crack cocaine. And with the new extra-large Civ2 maps, games would last all day. They'd develop as the day went on, from that early period of expansion and war, the middle period of consolidation and trade, and that end period of final conquest. I couldn't drag myself away, because there was always some new task that I had to attend to. I couldn't leave until all my cities had trade routes, and then not until they all had factories, and then I had to see them all with superhighways, and so on.

I was fortunate in that I didn't have a computer in my room in college, and I never dared to play it in labs, so my intense bouts of Civ2 were limited to weekends at home. Even after college, I had a roommate and a social life, so Civ2 never really was a significant danger. But my addiction remained unresolved.

No, my real dark period of Civ2 didn't come until I moved to a place on my own with my own computer. Then the temptation to play it became simply too great. Civ2 was just something I did whenever I was near a computer. Often just sitting down, or listening to music, I would put on Civ2 to have something to do with my hands. By this stage the game had long stopped being a challenge; I could win at will, and this was when it became most dangerous of all. I had stopped engaging with the game on a semantic level; it became just the mindless and compulsive manipulation of symbols. I wasted so many weekends and evenings shifting Civ2 units around, building cities I can't remember, setting myself pointless "because they're there" challenges, like the enormous, boring high-score games where you fill an entire map and so much goes on that each move takes an hour.

I would periodically finish a game goggle-eyed at 3am, then delete Civ2 and resolve never to play it again, only to reinstall the next day. This demented delete/reinstall cycle continued until I purposefully left the disk one time in Ireland, where it gathers dust to this day. But then I had the misfortune of finding it on an "abandonware" site, and so the delete/reinstall cycle acquired an additional "download" stage.

But something strange was happening. I was increasingly finding Civ2 rather boring. Sometimes I wouldn't even finish a game. Sometimes I'd delete it, and weeks would pass before I'd download it again, and soon the weeks turned into months. I hardly played it at all in 2004. I went to download it again last year, only to find it had been removed from the site. (It isn't actually "abandonware" at all. I rationalised my downloading of it by considering that I had already paid for a licensed copy of the game.)

Since then, I've gone well over a year without playing any brand of Civ. While tidying up my hard disk the other day I realised that I still had a copy installed on my computer! And you know, the amazing thing is that I wasn't tempted to play it at all.

Well, only for an hour or two.

And anyway, I've deleted it now. Honestly.