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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