Christina Patterson: Sex, drugs, Twitter – and a very public lesson about addiction

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Huma Ubedin is beautiful and clever. She works for Hillary Clinton. She's married to a handsome politician. She's the kind of woman other women envy. Or would envy, if the handsome politician wasn't now world famous for his big, bulging crotch.

It's just over a month since a photo of an erect penis battling grey boxer shorts was posted on the Twitter account of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. When the news, if you can call an erect penis news, exploded on to the Twittersphere, and then the blogosphere, and then into what another prominent American politician calls the "lamestream" media, Weiner seemed a bit confused. He couldn't, he said, after what sounded like hours of close inspection with giant computer screens and tape measures, say "with certitude" whether the erect penis was his.

He didn't explain where the obstacles to clarity lay. He didn't say, for example, if he thought it might be someone else's penis in his boxer shorts. Or if he thought it looked jolly like his penis, but he didn't remember buying (or, more likely, his wife buying) grey boxers, since he normally went for lime green or pink. He didn't say that he was quite surprised to find photographs of erect penises on Twitter, since people usually posted photos of cup cakes or kittens. He just said what people always say when there's been a little bit of confusion about a penis. He said that he had hired a lawyer.

Well, that, it turned out, was a porkie pie, or perhaps a wiener, which is what some Americans call a hot dog. Weiner hadn't hired a lawyer. The penis, he eventually admitted, was his. So were the boxers. And so were the hands that posted the picture on Twitter, to a young student he'd never met. The story took the usual course. Denial. Reluctant confession. Refusal to resign. Resignation. And then, the vital coda to every modern cock-up. Remorse? Are you joking? Rehab.

This week, in what every American gossip blog seems to call "a desperate attempt to save his marriage", Weiner went into "intensive" rehab. Perhaps, if you're American, you know what this means. Perhaps there's "really quite relaxed" rehab, and "a bit less relaxed, but still not too scary" rehab, and "quite tricky, but don't worry we'll help you" rehab, and finally, "this is the real deal and it costs an arm and a leg (but not a penis)" rehab for politicians, golfers and film stars whose PRs tell them they must look as if they're very, very keen for a bright new start.

Perhaps, at "intensive" rehab, you wear fluffy bathrobes, and get fish pedicures, as John Prescott tweeted that he did this week. Perhaps you have to drink carrot juice and eat egg-white omelettes and sip herb tea. Perhaps you have to do salutations to the sun. But I presume, at least from watching Fight Club, which is as near as I've ever got to rehab, that you also have to sit around in groups and talk about your problem, which you're encouraged to call an "addiction". And learn, or often learn, that the road to recovery consists of 12 steps.

The first step, of the 12-step recovery programme pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous, and now used by anyone who says they're addicted to anything, is based on the principle that the person who says they have the addiction is "powerless". You wouldn't want anyone to fall at the first hurdle, or step, but it's really quite hard to see how they wouldn't. Anthony Weiner is, it's now clear, pretty good at lying, or at least he's had plenty of practice. But could he really sit, in his fluffy bathrobe, or his chinos, and say that the fingers that placed a smart phone inches away from his groin, and clicked the camera icon, and then posted the photo on Twitter, had nothing whatsoever to do with him?

And that the fingers that typed sexually explicit texts to five other women also had nothing to do with him? And the lips that told his wife, and the world, that he hadn't? Did he think he was Damien in The Omen? Does he want demons to be cast out? Or is he just another giant baby who's perfectly capable of doing difficult things when they further his career, but who chooses to call his more embarrassing hobbies a "disease"?

Is tweeting photographs of penises a disease? Is cheating on your wife? Or chatting up blondes? Or eating too much chocolate? Or drinking too much wine? If these are diseases, how do you catch them? And if these are diseases, how do you manage not to chat up the blonde, or drink the wine, or tweet the penis, when, for example, you're due to give a speech in Congress, or in court?

I have no doubt that many people who drink too much, and eat too much, and cheat too much, have been helped by sitting around in rooms with other people telling each other that they're powerless. They might also be helped by sitting around doing crochet or playing cards. It's always nice to be with people who see the world in the same way as you. Some people find that saying Hail Marys helps. Others prefer to say "Om" or recite the Koran. There are lots of different ways to solve a problem, or break a habit. People should be free to do whatever doesn't harm anyone else, and works.

But a habit is all it is. Sure, with alcohol, and nicotine, and narcotics, there are physical symptoms of withdrawal. Sure, with sex, and chocolate, and maybe Twitter, and maybe video games, and maybe for some sad souls a handbag, there's a little burst of dopamine that feels so nice you want to feel it again. But a habit is just a habit. A habit is something you choose to do a lot, and can also choose to stop.

The other day, a friend of mine, who's in the Paras, went into his six-year-old's class. The girls asked him about his uniform. The boys asked him about his guns. They all asked him about his training, but some of them looked confused. In the end, one of them stuck up his hand. "What," he said, "is discipline?" He, we, and Weiner may well ask.

Happiness is a nice, healthy orang-utan

I was quite surprised to discover the other day that the oatcakes I was eating were "orang-utan friendly". I had never assumed that they were particularly hostile to orang-utans, or anyone else. Maybe it's because the oatcakes were Paterson's, or maybe it's because I saw a very, very cute picture of some a few days later, but I've felt strangely drawn to orang-utans ever since.

So I was gripped by the news of a study this week. It was with orang-utans in zoos. While their poor cousins in the wild were having their homes felled for palm oil, or being stuck in tiny corners of the forest and separated from what Ed Miliband would call their "mums and dads", or even being hunted down and shot, these ones were taking part, as we no doubt soon all will, in happiness surveys.

The questionnaire, which they didn't have to fill in themselves, asked the orang-utans how much time they spent enjoying themselves. Those whose communication skills were a bit lacking were allowed to give telepathic answers by getting their keepers to stand in their "shoes". Seven years later, the very happy orang-utans were much healthier than the sad ones and had, apparently (though God knows how they worked it out) a life expectancy of an extra 11 years.

The results, according to the research team who conducted the study, could have big consequences for humans, too. I'm just glad that some orang-utans somewhere are happy. And I speak as someone who generally likes her animals chargrilled with chips on a plate.

What the girl at the Ryanair desk taught me

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the benefits of stress. I said, in effect, that giving myself a constant stream of mini-heart attacks was what kept me awake. On the day I wrote it, I forgot to renew my Oyster card and had to pay a fine. On the day the column came out, for the first time ever, I missed my flight.

On both occasions, I can't say that the queuing up to throw money at TfL or Ryanair, and the worrying about the loss of precious minutes before a deadline, or of the first day of my holiday, felt particularly beneficial. But what did help, at least a bit, was the people who fined me. The ticket inspector told me I could appeal (though I'm not sure that early-onset dementia is grounds for a refund) and the girl at the Ryanair desk helped me do the maths to work out that There Was No Alternative but to cough up the massive penalty and take it like a (shamefully disorganised) woman.

Neither job can be much fun. Nor can anything that involves taking money from people who are mightily pissed off. Now that's what I call stress. Pretty damn impressive to do it with a smile.



c.patterson@independent.co.uk



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