I became a rebel. A miscreant. I was churlish and truculent, occasionally high as a kite, other times lonely, slow and miserable. The outlines of manic depression showed, but had the ruts been carved by three or four years of hopeless sugar addiction? Which was the chicken and which the egg? I already had manic depressive tendencies and therefore self-medicated on sugar? Or the highs and lows, rewards and punishments of sugar, did they trigger the neurons and prime the pumps of endocrines in a way that caused the first cyclings of what was then to become a bipolar disorder?
And why? My brother never had it. He liked sweets, sure, but to that extent? Never. Genetic, then? My father never ate puddings (doesn’t to this day); my mother prefers sour fruit to sweet. My sister doesn’t have a sweet tooth either. I was the only one with this craving, this wild, transgressive, sexual lust for sweets.
As I go over my feelings about this, I wonder if sweets didn’t shape me entirely: the savage, gnawing yearning, the greed for them blended with romantic and sexual feelings. Masturbation began, all that. Sweets opened up a pathway, they established one thing and one thing hugely. I must get pleasure. I must reward myself. That’s the beast to which sugar gave birth. These days we express the urge in the language of endocrines and neurotransmitters. We talk now of endorphins, of serotonin, noradrenalin, tryptophan and dopamine. Sweets began it. They carved through the brain and left their imprint. Pleasure, reward. Rush, crash. High low. Mania. Depression. The cycle has to be fed. Self-medication, we bipolar people call it.
The Leaf Arrives At fifteen I find a new substance to feed the ravenous beast within. Tobacco. “A cigarette is the perfect kind of perfect pleasure,” Wilde said. “It is exquisite and leaves one unsatisfied.” I thought at first that this was just Oscar talking all pretty and silly. But of course he got it right. A cigarette is the perfect instrument of addiction. Perfect. It has no function, no point, no quality other than to make itself needful to the smoker. It doesn’t taste pleasant, it doesn’t modify mood (except inasmuch as it quells the need for itself) it doesn’t offer texture, elation, hallucination, bouquet, nourishment, calorific value, anything. And ultimately, as Wilde pointed out, it never satisfies: it is always necessary to have another.
Imagine that one day someone hit himself lightly on the head with a parsnip. Instead of stopping (for this is a foolish thing to do) he carried on doing it. When he eventually did stop he went about his business but discovered, much to his surprise, that he had a sudden unconquerable urge to hit himself lightly on the head with a parsnip all over again. So he did. And the more he did it, the more he needed to do it. The act of doing it gave him a tiny surge of joy, a little rush of pleasure that had to be elicited, never mind what a twazzock he looked, parsnipping himself on the head all day.
Smoking is no less stupid than that. In fact it is a whole bicycle-shed more stupid, because it’s smelly, unsociable, carcinogenic etc etc etc. But the principle is the same: smoking has absolutely no point other than to stop the misery of not smoking. Smokers claim that it aids concentration, soothes the nerves and so on, but we know really that it only does those things because it’s tobacco addiction that messes with concentration and jangles the nerves in the first place. Tapping your head lightly with a parsnip would aid concentration too if not doing it made you all jumpy and desperate.
All this is obvious. But when there’s a beast inside you that wants, needs, insists upon feeding, a beast that knows how to press the little button in the brain that releases all those wonderful, surging delicious endorphins, when that beast is there, then new ways must be found to let him find and press the button. Sugar is okay, self-abuse is jolly of course, but can’t really be done in the street without exciting comment. Forward, tobacco.