The cog­ni­tive-en­hanc­ing drugs be­ing used by healthy peo­ple to boost their per­for­mance.

VOGUE Australia - - Contents -

Afew weeks ago, an as­sis­tant at Vogue asked me how I worked. It’s a rea­son­able ques­tion, but one I’d never given much thought to be­fore. “Imag­ine a pack of cards,” I said, as she sat there, im­mac­u­lately groomed, pen poised above her Smyth­son note­book, ready to write down my ad­vice. “Now imag­ine I’ve thrown them in the air. I sim­ply close my eyes and hope to fuck they land in the right place. That’s how I work.” She looked alarmed.

My work­ing style has al­ways been chaotic. As a child I could never set­tle down to do home­work – my school re­ports were full of “could try harder”, due to my in­abil­ity to con­cen­trate – and as I grew up I couldn’t do any­thing that in­volved con­sis­tent fo­cus. For a brain that works like mine, be­com­ing a jour­nal­ist was just ask­ing for trou­ble.

I write from home, where, de­spite hav­ing a desk and a per­fectly nice kitchen ta­ble, I never quite know where I should write. I wan­der around the house. In­vari­ably, af­ter about 20 min­utes, I set­tle back on the bed where I started, build­ing my­self a wall of pil­lows, plac­ing one on my lap for the com­puter to rest on, spread­ing out a sea of note­books, re­search, tran­scrip­tions and an iPad (for Googling pur­poses) next to me … Any­thing to stop my­self from get­ting down to work. Then I’ll tinker around with the line spac­ing or the fonts on my lap­top, make a phone call or three, stare at a blank screen and get up to make an­other cof­fee.

I hate be­ing this way. I want to “get go­ing” – but it’s as if some in­her­ent lazi­ness stops me. I’ve of­ten won­dered if I have ADHD, like so many of my peers’ chil­dren, but I’m of a gen­er­a­tion that never got tested. While it’s well known that we now have a crop of young peo­ple on Ri­talin and Ad­der­all (cog­ni­tive en­hancers that help peo­ple be­come more high­func­tion­ing or fo­cused), re­cently sev­eral friends in their mid-50s have con­fided that they are us­ing so-called “smart drugs” (oth­er­wise known as nootrop­ics) to help them “get things done”. One, a his­to­rian, fin­ished writ­ing a book by taking Modafinil, a drug usu­ally pre­scribed to treat nar­colepsy. It el­e­vates dopamine lev­els in the brain, im­prov­ing wake­ful­ness and mood, and en­hanc­ing cog­ni­tion. Modafinil is also taken by an­other friend, an artist in her 40s, who says it helps with fo­cus, me­mory and men­tal stamina. Like Ri­talin and Ad­der­all, Modafinil is a pre­scrip­tion drug, but is eas­ily avail­able on the in­ter­net – where there is a risk, of course, that any drug pur­chased might be fake or de­graded. Even so, Modafinil has be­come the go-to drug for stu­dents and, in­creas­ingly, young pro­fes­sion­als look­ing to boost their per­for­mance. So, could smart drugs help me? Will I, like Bradley Cooper in Lim­it­less, a film about a high-func­tion­ing life on smart drugs, write a novel in four days or, maybe more re­al­is­ti­cally, stop get­ting side­tracked and fi­nally sort a new car­pet for my stairs? I crave fo­cus. I de­cide to try Modafinil (med­i­cal con­sen­sus seems to be that it is low-risk in terms of side ef­fects) for a week and keep a di­ary. A friend who takes it gives me seven pills, bought on­line from a rep­utable source. (It’s not il­le­gal to buy Modafinil in the UK or to take it with­out a pre­scrip­tion, but it is il­le­gal to sell it. In Aus­tralia it is avail­able by pre­scrip­tion only.)


The mus­cles in the back of my neck and shoul­ders grow tight and it’s as if there is a me­tal band around my skull. I feel so wired… Do I seem mad to my col­leagues, I won­der?

I can’t quite bring my­self to take my first pill. It is 200 mil­ligrams, cir­cu­lar and white with a line down the mid­dle to snap it in half. It’s chalky and about the same size as a parac­eta­mol. The dosage seems strong – on­line the sug­gested dose is be­tween 70 mil­ligrams and 100 mil­ligrams. So I check with my his­to­rian friend, who tells me his GP pre­scribes it. He takes be­tween 50 mil­ligrams and 100 mil­ligrams a day for con­trolled amounts of time but never longer than a week. He would stop for week­ends, he said, then re­sume, but then af­ter a while it started to make him anx­ious and jumpy. I phone my GP. To my sur­prise, she doesn’t re­ally know much about the medicine but calls me back to tell me she’s not at all con­vinced my taking it is a great idea. If I in­sist, she says, take no more than half a pill. I do. About an hour later, my head is buzzing and I’m thirsty. I drink, but some­how the wa­ter doesn’t seem to quench my thirst. Thirty min­utes later I feel wired and fully bonkers. I reach the of­fice and can’t stop talk­ing (not that un­usual, I ad­mit) but find I’m try­ing to do about 10 things at once and that my jaw is slightly clenched. Con­trary to what I’ve heard about the ef­fects of this drug, I’m chaotic in­stead of fo­cused and calm. The morn­ing passes in a blur of ac­tiv­ity. I or­der a new phone (mine has been bro­ken for at least a month) from a lovely woman in a call cen­tre, who of­fers me op­tions that would test the pa­tience of a saint, but unusu­ally I stick at it and be­fore I know it, the task is com­plete. Next, I send an email I’ve been mean­ing to write for a decade, set­ting in mo­tion the mak­ing of my will. I jump from one job to an­other and even then, keep think­ing of other things I should be do­ing. My brain feels splin­tered.

Four hours af­ter taking the pill, I go for lunch at a lo­cal Ja­panese restau­rant, but don’t no­tice any sign of di­min­ished ap­petite. Just my luck, I think – lack of hunger is the one side ef­fect I wouldn’t mind ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

By 3pm I have a bad headache. I take a cou­ple of Nuro­fen and it passes quite eas­ily; I suf­fer from headaches and this one is eas­ier to get rid of than usual, but I won­der if it’s to do with the Modafinil. On­line, there is quite a lot about headaches and stiff jaws – both of which I am ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Tonight I’m go­ing to see Jude Law in Ob­ses­sion at the Bar­bican and at the best of times I find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to sit still. Be­fore the show, I have din­ner with my hus­band and although I rarely drink, I or­der a glass of red wine hop­ing it will de­crease my jit­ters. Thank­fully, it does. I find the play dull, yet I don’t fid­get and re­main fully fo­cused through­out the 100-minute per­for­mance – none of my usual snooz­ing. I am in bed by 11pm and sleep with­out any prob­lems.


I wake with a tight headache and take two painkillers and half a Modafinil. It clears but I re­main thirsty, de­spite drink­ing wa­ter con­tin­u­ously. Por­ridge for break­fast will help me feel grounded, I hope, but de­spite it, I’m jit­tery and strug­gle to con­tain the vague sense of ris­ing

hys­te­ria in my chest. It re­minds me of the diet pills I stole from my mother when I was a teenager. Af­ter a while they made both me and her de­mented, wired and an­gry. We would have ter­ri­ble fights fu­elled by the speed that we didn’t want the other to know we were taking.

At the of­fice, I desk-hop as nor­mal, chat­ting to peo­ple to spark ideas, yet my brain seems to have be­come one huge to-do list. I spend two hours buying sheets on­line, com­par­ing thread counts to the point that my brain is fry­ing – there are too many op­tions. I’m over-fo­cused, if there is such a thing, and hun­gry yet not hun­gry – am­biva­lent about eat­ing, which is un­usual for me as I love eat­ing. In the af­ter­noon, the mus­cles in the back of my neck and shoul­ders grow tight and it’s as if there is a me­tal band around my skull. I feel so wired … Do I seem mad to my col­leagues, I won­der? No more than usual, they say. I’m cer­tainly mildly grumpy and edgier than nor­mal, es­pe­cially when, later on that evening, we get home and my hus­band is try­ing to park the car. It’s al­ways a tricky mo­ment be­tween us, but tonight it’s es­pe­cially so. Once in­side, I get my lap­top out and work alone for a cou­ple of hours with­out look­ing up – this must be Modafinil at its best. It’s as if I can re­ally fo­cus, be­cause there is noth­ing else in the world to dis­tract me. Just the screen and me. Sounds don’t in­ter­rupt me, and I have no urge to check my phone or browse the in­ter­net. I’m in the zone.


My friend Re­becca ar­rives from New York at the crack of dawn. She is stay­ing with me and I tell her about my week of try­ing out Modafinil. As the most dis­tracted per­son I know, she is in­trigued, and we agree that we will split a pill and see what happens.

Half an hour later I am man­i­cally try­ing to do six things at once, make ba­con and eggs, talk about a project we are work­ing on and make her a cup of cof­fee. I spend 20 min­utes in an in­sane bat­tle with the espresso ma­chine, only for the clean­ing lady to find that I had thrown the fil­ter I was look­ing for into the com­post bin.

By 6pm, how­ever, Re­becca and I have done five hours of good con­cen­trated work to­gether. And I am able to think cre­atively, too. We have seen an art show, man­aged a pit stop at Céline and dropped into the Fu­moir bar at Clar­idge’s for a drink with friends. Re­becca says she feels very calm and fo­cused, whereas I’m sure I ap­pear as mad as a snake: I sense I am wide-eyed, star­ing at peo­ple. But I can’t deny how much I’m get­ting done.

We are home by 8.30pm and I ran­domly de­cide to clean the freezer. It’s most un­like me, as is my di­min­ished ap­petite. I eat just a grape­fruit for din­ner – thrilling.


To­day I have been mostly up­set and my ir­ri­ta­tion lev­els are off the chart. My hus­band made the mis­take of eat­ing an ap­ple while stand­ing close to me – ev­ery mouth­ful was an in­vi­ta­tion to mur­der him. I’m worn out and sad. I would be hor­ri­fied if my child felt like this while re­vis­ing. The world of Modafinil seems joy­less. Yes, I get things done. Yes, I faffed a lot less than usual when I sat down to write this di­ary, but in the process I feel over­whelmed and tear­ful.

I read in a news­pa­per that a UK stu­dent union has started to run work­shops to raise aware­ness about smart drugs be­cause they have be­come so preva­lent. What is stu­dent life like if your peers are taking ad­van­tage of med­i­ca­tions like these?

I phone Amy, the 17-year-old daugh­ter of a friend who is at a fash­ion­able UK board­ing school in the first year of her A lev­els. “Do you or your friends take Modafinil?” I ask. Duh! Silly ques­tion. She told me that she had been pre­scribed Ri­talin in the past and that when she then tried Modafinil she found it to be much stronger. “I would work for four hours straight. I’d look up and find my­self count­ing bricks on the wall in the same obsessive way I was work­ing,” she says. It’s now so com­pet­i­tive in schools, Amy says, that kids be­lieve any­thing less than an A grade is not good enough.

While Amy no longer takes it, Modafinil is still the drug of choice for many of her friends. They buy the drug on the in­ter­net and their par­ents have no idea they are taking it. Be­cause it doesn’t show up on school drug tests, nei­ther do the teach­ers or ex­am­in­ers. “One girl in my dorm re­lies on it to study,” she ex­plains. “I won’t see her all day. When I fi­nally do, she is gurn­ing and chain-smok­ing. But she does get her work done.”

By Fri­day night I have had enough. I don’t like the wired and over­e­mo­tional state I find my­self in and I tell a friend I’m done. She agrees it’s a good idea to stop. Monday I know there’s a mad­ness in it, but as I think about sit­ting down to work – and de­spite hav­ing said I was done with Modafinil – I rea­son that maybe a pill will help me write bet­ter. Also, if I’m be­ing hon­est, I don’t mind the idea of di­min­ished ap­petite. I take a half and then go to a yoga class. I have far more con­cen­tra­tion than usual. Re­ceiv­ing instructions and re­spond­ing to them us­ing 100 per cent of my fo­cus is hugely en­joy­able and re­ward­ing – it’s some­thing I never nor­mally do in yoga classes, where I usu­ally find my­self eas­ily dis­tracted. While I’m still thirsty and headachy (it has been the same ev­ery day), I have no prob­lem fo­cus­ing on my work and man­age some solid hours of writ­ing. Tues­day I don’t take a pill to­day and by lunchtime I’m ex­hausted. I leave work and fall asleep for most of the af­ter­noon. I feel like I’m com­ing off some kind of ben­der.

I talk to neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dr Tara Swart, who runs a con­sul­tancy that helps lead­ers to in­crease their com­pet­i­tive edge, about my nootropic ex­per­i­ment. “It’s not a great thing to do,” she chides me. “It’s too strong for you. You don’t need it – that is why you re­acted with headaches and a sen­sa­tion of stress.” She ex­plains that my headaches are a re­sult of the blood ves­sels in my brain di­lat­ing, and the con­stant thirst and pee­ing are be­cause my his­tamine re­cep­tors have been over­stim­u­lated (this can cause a dry mouth).

“What peo­ple need to re­alise,” she says, “is that Modafinil does not boost your brain power, it just in­creases wake­ful­ness. These tablets should not be given to chil­dren or adults to pro­mote high achieve­ment.” She adds that the idea of a drug like Modafinil be­ing non-ad­dic­tive is a grey area. “It can cre­ate psy­cho­log­i­cal de­pen­dency, which can be just as dan­ger­ous as the phys­i­cal kind,” she says.

But the gen­er­a­tion who grew up us­ing smart drugs are now in the work­place. How do they cope? Not well, says Swart. “The idea that some­one else might get a pro­mo­tion over you and that your ‘nor­mal self’ is not enough is rife among young pro­fes­sion­als.”

It’s a de­press­ing thought. Be­fore I take the dogs for a walk, I de­cide to throw away the re­main­ing pills in their sil­ver wrap­ping. I’d rather take my throw­ing-all-the-cards-in-the-air ap­proach to life than this grisly fo­cus-at-any-cost toil. As I go down the stairs, I trip on the hole in the stair car­pet. I re­ally must get around to do­ing some­thing about that.

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