Wendy Woods (2019) Good Habits Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes Stick.

I read. That’s what I do. I’ve got books in the toilet. In the kitchen and hall. Down the side of my chair and in my van, stashed behind the passenger seat. I no longer keep a book in the glove compartment. I’m not therefore an addict.

Before deaths and Amens, there’s a line that goes something like this: lead us not into temptation and out of our boozers and strip clubs, or away from offers of half-priced drugs because it’s Black Friday on a Thursday.  

I inhale dopamine, because it’s free, but not for me. Habit habituates. The superhighway of our brains. Neurotransmitters are like Schroder’s cat. Chemicals and electrical impulses. They jump between neurons. Along the sensorimotor pathways. Knock around the pallidum. Shake hands with the midbrain and neofrontal cortex. And this is how you find yourself outside your front door shouting through the letterbox that you’ve lost your keys.

Wendy Wood quotes Mark Twain (more than once, which is a good habit to have) ‘Nothing needs reforming as other people’s habits.’

She tells the reader almost half of what we do is habitual. I’ve got friends that aren’t drug addicts or drunks, but they’ve crawled up inside their phones to die. Sometimes they pop their heads out. I warn them. That’s no good for you.

But it’s just like smoking was in the fifties and sixties. Around 80% of us smoked. Some of us smoked even more than that. They smoked 100%. They were the real addicts, like Laughing Boy on 80 fags a day.

What worked was making it harder for people to smoke. Wood calls that ‘friction’.  Increasing prices until it’s almost £12 a pack. Not allowing advertisements, which is a form of social cueing. It works at an unconscious level by suggesting it’s cool. Making it harder to get fags. Locking cigerettes up. Putting them behind bars. But people still smoke. Mainly poor people.

Wood has an answer for that. ‘Rat Pack’ I wrote in my notebook. I simplify some concepts so I don’t understand them. That’s when I know I’ve gotten them right. Rat Pack quite simply means some people in Drumchapel take drugs and booze because they there’s fuck all else for them. If they moved two miles and lived in Bearsden, they’d immediately live ten years longer, get better educated, get good jobs, pay their mortgages and live the life of a contented rat. You can’t do that with people from Drumchapel or they’d bust you. So they did it with rats in a maze. One end of the maze was marked Drumchapel and offered unlimited drugs. The other end was Bearsden. Equally unlimited drugs, but also the chance not to take drugs and go and do something else instead.

Wood argues almost 100% of those in rehab programmes do not take drink or drugs. But within two years the majority, around 60-80% are back on it. AA has a better strike rate, even though many of these programmes adopt the 12-step programme.

The medical model of addiction fails because it treats the addict in isolation. She or he is seen to have some kind of deficit that needs medicated.

Context is everything argues Wood. By context she means addiction isn’t innate. We’re all addicts that need to replace bad habits with good. Environment plays a large part in addiction. She shows this with a study of American soldiers, grunts, returning from Vietnam.

In the early 1970s there was a moral panic about these supposed addicts. Heroin was easy to get in Vietnam as were most opioids and other drugs. These returning veterans who had tested positive in urine tests were seen a danger to the American way of life. But less than 5% of these tested veterans became addicts in America. The majority quietly got on with their lives, got educated and married and brought up children that didn’t take drugs, because they were for mugs.

Friction is not fiction. When drugs were on tap as they were in Vietnam, the majority of eighteen year old men will take them.  Rat Pack. When they return home, drugs were no longer on tap.

Simple. Wood strays into dangerous territory. Neo-liberalism calls for no intervention in smoking, drinking or medicating for diseases like Covid.  Manning up. No nanny state. What it calls for is more prisons. More Rat Packs. And our old favourite, the black hole that money pours into as more and more an incarcerated.

Wood tells a story about this. We love stories. That’s what makes us human. I like her story. It goes something like this (I’ve modified it a bit). A doctor jumps into a river to save a man. He brings him ashore and gives him the kiss of live and saves him. But he’s no time to congratulate himself. A woman is floating face down in the same river. He swims out and resuscitates her on the bank. Another body floats towards him. He gets out and does the same things. Again and again. Upstream, supporters of the moron’s moron are pushing in men and women. If they sink they’re true believers with the right stuff. The doctor is warned he better let them sink or swim or he’ll be next. Rat Packers. Read on.         


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