‘Last Friday at 10pm, I phoned my dealer and told him I wanted to pick up,’ 26-year-old video producer and studio assistant Roxie Taylor tells The Debrief. ‘We had the usual conversation – he asked me what “colour” I was after, how much I needed and where he could find me – and 15 minutes later, I got a text telling me that he was outside my house.’
Roxie walked out to meet him, got in his car and together they drove around the corner to a quiet, dark street to do the deal. ‘It's not that big of a deal,’ she says. ‘I’ve bought coke from this guy before.’
Except that this wasn’t a pick-up that was going to result in going home, opening some booze and racking up some lines. Roxie wasn’t picking up coke – she was buying the anti-anxiety drug Valium, and not because she wanted to get high.
‘I was so relieved I’d finally be able to sleep, I went straight into my bedroom, popped two pills and lay in the dark – finally feeling some calm,’ she says.
It might sound like a weird way to spend your Friday night, but Roxie is part of a growing number of women in their 20s who are turning to street dealers to buy prescription medication as a way of coping with their anxiety. At the moment, one in five women say they feel anxious most of the time – almost double the number five years ago.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the number of people who admit to taking at least one drug to treat anxiety has risen to one in five – with the number rising to one in four among women.
It makes sense that the number of women taking prescription medication to treat psychiatric disorders has risen in correlation with the number of people feeling anxious. But what’s worrying is the fact that a growing number of women like Roxie are bypassing medical advice and their GPs to buy benzodiazepines – the family that Valium and Xanax are a part of – according to drugs charity Addaction.
‘I was so relieved I’d finally be able to sleep, I went straight into my bedroom, popped two pills and lay in the dark – finally feeling some calm’
‘We’ve traditionally seen people misusing benzodiazepines that have been diverted from prescriptions or stolen from pharmacies,’ Alistair Bohm from Addaction tells The Debrief. ‘However, in the past five years, we’ve seen a massive increase in the amount of diazepam being purchased from online pharmacies based outside of the EU – which are then making their way onto the market in the UK.’
The latest investigations show that once the medication makes it onto the black market, they inevitably find their way into the hands of drug dealers and, in turn, the hands of the women who buy them.
‘I’ve definitely noticed an increase in the number of girls phoning me asking for xanys [Xanax] or Valium and nothing else,’ a drug dealer (let’s call him Paul*) tells The Debrief. ‘I used to carry a few trays of prescription drugs with me to hand out to customers I liked when they were buying coke. But in the last year, people seem to have caught wind of it and are phoning me to pick up prescription meds on their own.
‘I now make a lot of money off it – a couple of hundred pounds a week at least. I get them from a mate who I think orders them online from America. I assume my customers are taking them recreationally with booze or to help with a come down, but I’ve never asked.’
It’s a fair assumption for ‘Paul’ to make, because that seems to be the way that a lot of girls are introduced to prescription drugs. ‘I was first given Valium when I was still at uni by a friend who told me it would help me with my come-down doom,’ Roxie explains.
‘We’d stayed up until silly-o’clock the night before doing coke and I woke up the next afternoon feeling paranoid and panicked. When I told my friend what I was going through, she recommended that I pop some of the pills she’d been prescribed by her doctor to deal with her depression and anxiety. They worked.’
Olivia Rose, a 28-year-old photographer from London, had a similar experience. ‘I used Xanax or Valium mostly, at first, to come down off a big night out. I’d pick some up from my normal dealer at the same time as buying other drugs – I’d get 10 pills for £20 or £30. They definitely help to keep the hungover doom at bay.’
But for both Olivia and Roxie, what started as an accessory to a heavy night out soon became something they wanted to take in their own right. ‘I remember I was once going for an important meeting at work and I was incredibly nervous – so anxious I felt like I couldn’t cope. When I’m anxious and working too hard – like during Fashion Week – I don’t get any sleep, I visibly shake and I get ulcers at the side of my mouth.
‘My heart pounds in my chest from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep. It’s actually physical and I basically find it difficult to cope. Suddenly, I remembered that I had those blue pills in my bedroom, so I took some and they calmed me down. After an hour or so, the meeting suddenly seemed like less of a big deal.’
After that initial discovery, it didn’t take long for the girls to dip into their bottom drawer supply of prescription medication every time they felt like their anxiety was getting out of control. Hannah*, a 27-year-old digital producer, was introduced to Xanax by a colleague after she complained her anxiety was keeping her awake and getting in the way of her work.
She now picks up Xanax (illegally) a couple of times a month from a sex shop in London. ‘Sometimes my anxiety and paranoia will spiral so badly that I can’t sleep and I worry that all my friends hate me and my boss wants to fire me.
‘Worrying about that keeps me awake at night, and only makes my anxiety worse – it’s a vicious cycle. The Xanax calms me down sufficiently that I can fall asleep, which basically breaks the cycle and gets me back on track. I only usually do it a couple of times a month, but I admit there have been times when I’ve binged for a week or two.’
‘Sometimes my anxiety and paranoia will spiral so badly that I can’t sleep and I worry that all my friends hate me and my boss wants to fire me’
Hannah believes that the problem has a lot to do with the stresses of life as a 20-something at the moment. ‘Most of my friends are highly anxious, I feel like, as women in our late 20s, there’s an insane amount of pressure on us to have everything sorted.
‘We’re expected to always pay our rent on time, if not be saving for a mortgage, know where we’re going in our careers and to be meeting guys we’re eventually going to settle down with. It’s a lot to live up to and lots of people I know really suffer with anxiety as a result. It all just gets a bit too much.’
But if the anxiety is as all-consuming as it seems to be for these women – why don’t they go to the doctor? Why do they prefer to pay for the Valium rather than getting it prescribed? ‘The crux of it is I feel like I know what I need to calm myself down best. And there’s a chance that the doctor isn’t going to give it to me,’ Olivia explains.
‘You can hardly roll into the doctor's and say “I need some Valium” because they’d assume you have a drug problem, which I don’t. Also, I’ve known my GP since I was a child, and I don’t want to complicate her feelings towards me by letting on that my anxiety has become too much. It just doesn’t seem like something you should bother your doctor about – there’s no visual symptom, is there? It’s not like there’s a hole in your leg?’
‘It just doesn’t seem like something you should bother your doctor about – there’s no visual symptom, is there?’
Hannah also admits that going to the doctor could potentially put her on a road to treatment that she’s not necessarily prepared to go down. ‘They might put me into therapy, which I don’t think I need and I don’t really have the time for. The truth is I feel like I know the root cause of my anxiety and if I was that bothered by it I could just avoid those situations. I kind of rationalise my anxiety and feel like I can figure it out myself. I never really worried about my usage becoming a problem because I only take tiny dosages at any given time.’
Despite what the girls maintain, Alistair from Addaction believes that self-medicating your anxiety could have very serious implications. ‘You can never be sure what you’re buying when you get these drugs from the street. There are reports of amateur homemade batches being sold, which may not necessarily be of the same purity as a commercial product like Valium – they may contain or in fact be amitriptyline (an anti-depressant) or phenazepam (a strong tranquiliser) instead. This is especially worrying because the drugs are much more likely to produce damaging overdose effects.’
Besides, Dr Sophie Wilkinson of Kings College warns that self-medicating isn’t the best way of dealing with anxiety – especially not with these kind of drugs. ‘Doctors rarely prescribe benzodiazepines, firstly because they are very addictive and take a very long time to come off, but they also don’t deal with the root cause of the problem,’ she warns.
‘Benzodiazepines might alleviate the effects of anxiety, but unless you deal with the cause of the problem your anxiety will just keep coming back. Cognitive behavioural therapy is by far the most effective way of dealing with the issue and your doctor is there to help.
‘Anyone with anxiety will naturally feel worried about going to the doctor, but let me assure you that you are not alone – I see at least two patients a day suffering with the symptoms of anxiety. The best thing you can do is work with your doctor to get to the route of the problem – not just mask the symptoms.’
*some names have been changed
Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.