Functioning: at which point does a ‘casual’ habit become a problem?

Weekend wine binges, cocaine to keep the party going, ketamine to take the edge off, xanny to sleep... it’s all a bit of a mess, but it’s fine, you’ll still function.

31-year-old Stan* is tall and broad shouldered. Almost a head taller than most of the people around us, I notice, as he strides through Waterloo train station. His hair is neatly swept to one side, he looks like the kind of man who always has somewhere to be, although, as he will go on to tell me, he’s taking some time off work at the moment. He smells of Tom Ford aftershave and has on a close-fitting Aquascutum suit. “I don’t think I was an addict,” is the first thing he says as I set my dictaphone to ‘record’.

Now more than ever seems a good time to ask what makes an addict. Thanks to the dark web and to the Uber-style convenience of dealers who operate through WhatsApp, it’s increasingly easy to get fucked-up. And the drugs we’re using are changing too. According to the biggest study ever conducted into it, smart drugs are becoming commonplace study-aids. At the same time, Benzos like Valium and Xanax have flooded the UK drug market; last year 340,000 counterfeit bars of Xanax were seized at UK ports, while fake versions of the anti-anxiety med have been linked to more than 200 deaths since 2015.

And it’s not just the newer substances. Alcohol-related hospital admissions have gone up 17% in ten years, cocaine use (and related deaths) has spiked, while last month, the government announced the results of an inquiry after it was found that the number of people using crack rose by almost 10% in the space of just five years. As Dr Rachel Britton, lead clinical pharmacist with the charity Addaction told me, authorities suspect that there is a new type of user. “I think crack is increasingly being used by professionals,” she says. “We used to associate it with existing heroin users, but I think the market is moving due to the high purity cocaine that has been available on the streets for a while now.”

‘At which point does a ‘casual’ habit become a problem?’ is something I’ve asked myself on more than one occasion. I was in my mid-20s, working a 9-to-5 office job, living in London – a fledgling adult – when I realised that maybe the barometer had swung to ‘problem’ for me. Each month I was spending more on cocaine than I did on rent and bills combined. Drinking gin at 11am on a Sunday morning, I’d square-up my behaviour by assuring myself that in every other way I was ‘functioning’ – I had a job, I paid my rent, I had close friends and a nice life.

Michael Lynskey, professor of addiction sciences at King’s College London:

“Addiction isn’t like a broken leg, where you either have it or you don’t. Even within academic circles there are still debates going on about where the line is between heavy use of a drug and addiction to that drug. One part of addiction is classified on how much it impacts your life. So if you lose your job because you’re turning up drunk, then that would imply that you have an alcohol use disorder. Or if you find that you can’t hold down a relationship with your family, because you’re high all the time, that would imply a problem with drug misuse.

“You could argue then that if it’s not impacting your life like that, if you’re sitting in meetings or seeing friends as you always would, then maybe there's no problem. But that disregards the physiological impact that an addiction can have. How it’s affecting your health, irrespective of whether you can pay your mortgage, is also a part of the diagnosis. And ultimately, in 20 years’ time your liver or your heart won’t care whether you managed to get a promotion.

Stan's story...

Before moving out of London last year Stan worked in finance and lived in a flat overlooking the Thames. “It’s all a bit Patrick Bateman... although I wasn’t killing anyone,” he laughs. “Except maybe myself. Lots of [friends and colleagues] did coke, mainly just on the weekend, but I guess I craved it more often.”

He started taking it in his early twenties. “I was working in this world where people move huge amounts of money, and it’s on you, you know? It’s literally just you and you’re making these quick decisions and you might have just lost thousands or hundreds of thousands [of pounds]. Anyway, I made a few wrong moves, lost money and it’s not the kind of environment where you’re going to be hand-held through anything. I think the coke went from being something that I did to party and have a good time, to something that I did to forget.” Within a few years, he was taking the edge off Monday’s comedown with a line. “It’s like a shot of adrenaline – you’re suddenly sharp, and awake. You want to talk to people where a minute ago you just wanted to curl up and cry.” First thing in the morning and before big meetings he’d do a small bump to get himself going. “And then I’d be a bit sweaty and chatty,” he says. “I don’t know if colleagues noticed, but I guess if you’re in a meeting about sales figures, cracking jokes and chatting shit, it’s probably more obvious than you assume.”

Stan was in Soho the first time he tried crack. “It was a Wednesday night, I was still in my work suit, completely hammered. I was going to meet my usual dealer when I started talking to this guy... I can’t really explain, it was just this random guy who’d been hanging around. He basically asked if I wanted to try crack and I said yeah and off I went to this flat.” He says he finds it hard to reconcile the experience with the idea he has of himself. “I was in a grimy flat and I was smoking crack, and you’d think it’d be like ‘alarm bells’ but it didn’t immediately feel like that. I felt very much in control of the situation. I felt like I could still go back to my normal life.

“In that flat in Soho, it was rough, not a nice place, but I smoked this stuff and it was like...whoosh, a buzz that I can’t even describe. It was like goodbye problems, goodbye grimey flat...I was on top of the world...” The feeling, though, brought with it a dose of fear. “I knew I was at a turning point, that if I didn’t stop, I’d fall down that rabbit hole very quickly. The next day, I went to work and told them I needed to take a few months off. I was shit scared, I even did some coke before that meeting. But I think they must have known something was up because they just signed it off. That was a year ago and I’ve since quit. I haven’t been to rehab or anything, but I have moved out of London and stopped taking all drugs. I would never have called myself an addict, but then, I wasn’t not one, either.”

Dr Rachel Britton, lead clinical pharmacist with the charity Addaction:

“People use drugs to cope. They might pour themselves a glass of wine after work which quickly becomes half a bottle, which quickly becomes two bottles and three. With cocaine, it gives you a real sense of confidence, of bravado. And there are obviously jobs where that kind of behaviour is necessary.

“I’ve met people who call themselves functioning addicts and they don’t necessarily see how their pattern of drinking or drug use is potentially problematic. But I think that’s denial and gradually things creep in which are likely to be a result of their addiction. They might have to take time off after a heavy weekend, or their sleep is affected so they can’t actually function so well in their everyday lives. We want to support people before something becomes an issue; we can give them alternative coping strategies.”

Robbie’s story….

47-year-old Robbie* is the head of a successful creative agency. He’s funny, engaging and clear-eyed.

“At school I was bullied and outcast. I was a good little Sikh boy in a turban and I didn’t fit in at all – not in south London, where I’m from. I was sort of unleashed on the world when I went away to uni, aged 18. I’m gay and before then, even though I knew I was gay, I still had this idea that I’d get married and have a family. To fulfil my parents wishes, I suppose. When I moved away, I became sexually active with other men and began discovering all these elements of my identity. I finally came out and I guess, all through that process alcohol was there to help me. It helped me deal with my self-esteem issues and helped me to create this whole other persona. From being shy and feeling awkward and repressed, I could become the life and soul of the party. It was a security blanket and in a way, amazing.

“Then my mum died. I was back in London by this point, working a shit job in shop in central London and living with my dad. And I was going a bit crazy in terms of how much I was going out. I think I was trying to self-medicate the guilt and grief I felt over mum’s death. So I’d end up off-my-head pissed, screaming the house down. A few times I even got physically violent with my dad.” Like Stan, he’s quick to point out that he would never call himself an addict or an alcoholic. “It was just that when I started drinking, I couldn’t stop. There were no limits. I loved the feeling of being mashed-up. But there was no mid-way. I didn’t just want one drink, I wanted to be completely obliterated.”

Dr Rachel Britton, lead clinical pharmacist with the charity Addaction:

“There are people who can take or leave a drug, and there are people who become very addicted, and very entrenched in that world. And generally the difference is their psychological past. The vast majority of people we see in an addiction service, will have a trauma in their past. People who’ve had fairly stable lives may well be able to use a drug without becoming dependent. But there will come a point, if they use consistently when it takes over.”

“You think to yourself that you’re managing all of that,” says Robbie. “I had rules about not going out at certain times, I tried not to drink mid-week for instance, because I knew how it’d end up. But it can quickly spiral.

“For me, it all got worse in Shoreditch, in the early 2000s. I had an office job by then, but I was also part of this hedonistic social scene. I’d go from the pub on a Friday night, to Jaguar Shoes and The Blue Note in Hoxton, and all these warehouse parties and then back to The Vic near Columbia Road which would open at 7am.

“In some respects it was really fun. But in others... I mean, I’d be drinking continuously for 48 hours. I’d black out on the train home and wake up in some random town, with my wallet gone. I’d constantly have bruises. Through all this, though, I was going to work and seeing my friends. On paper I was living this pretty glamorous life. I could polish off a bottle of whisky in a few hours. But my projects would be submitted on time, and I’d still have my friends round for lunch on a Sunday.

“By my thirties I was having to work hard to manage my hangovers. I’d was popping to the pub during fag breaks at work to do shots so that I didn’t feel so bad,” says Robbie. “A few times, waking up with a raging hangover, I found myself buying a bottle of wine and swigging it straight from the bottle as I walked into work on a Monday. It was then that I realised I needed to do something, to get off this endless cycle of benders and hangovers. I couldn’t keep ignoring my habit.” Robbie went to Alcoholics Anonymous. “I did AA for a little while. It was inspiring but I found that I didn’t need the whole programme, I found that I just started enjoying life more. The best thing about being sober was reclaiming my weekends. It’s been like getting a new life.”

Michael Lynskey, professor of addiction sciences at King’s College London:

“Environment is important when it comes to the idea of a ‘functioning’ addict. The peak time for alcohol and other drug use disorders is when people are in their early 20s. In fact, in some surveys, 20% of people in their early 20s might meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. Most of those people wouldn’t say they’re addicted to alcohol but by diagnostic standards, there is an issue. It’s a lifestage where there’s a certain acceptance that people will be wild and people exploit that.

“Equally, to ‘function’ with an addiction means that your environment allows you to continue on as normal with that addiction. Those in creative industries and people in positions of power where their behaviour isn’t as closely monitored as those lower down, may find that their misuse can spiral.”

My story...

Parties, parties, parties heavy weekends, calling dealers four, five times, sleeping less and less until I wasn’t sleeping at all for two or three days. Throughout my twenties I was constantly surrounded by people. I would fall asleep in the middle of my own after party and wake up to a completely trashed house. And I would find it all so funny until I was faced with real life; with work and with colleagues who’d spent their weekends doing wholesome things.

I sometimes wonder what I could have done with all the time that I spent on a comedown. Sundays and weekday evenings, supine on the sofa, curtains drawn to the outside world. I could have learned Mandarin, I could have learned how to play the guitar. I could have volunteered with my local homeless shelter and visited all the obscure galleries I’ve had on my list since moving to London ten years ago. I could have spent more time with my mum. I could have helped humanity, played tennis, recycled my plastics, gone out for sushi, read War and Peace, fuck it, I could have written my own War and Peace. Instead, I watched and re-watched Showgirls and old episodes of Only Fools and Horses. They were variations on a theme: the plucky stripper Nomi Malone and the wheeler dealer Del Boy, chancers, optimists. I liked that narrative arc, it was a soothing one to fall asleep to.

I ate in bed: greasy chinese food, chilli cheddar slices, blocks of cheap chocolate. I ignored calls and messages and drank red wine until I fell asleep and then, on Monday, I woke up and put on a rumpled dress that I’d meant to wash that weekend and went to work and behaved, as much as possible, like a normal person, despite feeling very jittery, all of the time.

What I finally realised is that, when you are ‘functioning’ there is nothing as glamorous as ‘rock bottom.’ There are just hangovers and smeared, greasy sheets and friends you have to cancel on because you can’t face leaving the house. There is work you will do at half your capacity, but it’s enough, just, to stop you from getting into trouble. There are relationships that will fail because you cannot deal with the emotions, because you are too tired or too high. Added up, it’s all a bit of a mess, but it’s fine, you’ll still function.

As Dr Britton points out “people often find, when they get sober, that they’ve actually been functioning at a much lower capacity than they’re really capable of…” Stan is starting his own business, “I’m in London today to hopefully get some funding,” he tells me as we leave Waterloo. “But I won’t stay after my meeting, there’s too much temptation for me still.”

There was no one day when I decided that I wanted to do more than just function, but I did decide. And life has been subtly better easier to handle and more interesting. I sleep at the weekends and eat food I’ve cooked myself. I haven’t written War and Peace, but I guess there’s time.

*Names have been changed

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