DOWN ON THE PHARM
The cognitive-enhancing drugs being used by healthy people to boost their performance.
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.