Did you already know that bankers love cocaine? I’m assuming you did, because it’s become a well-trodden cliché: the idea of modern society’s great villains doing gargantuan lines off marble cisterns while gambling away our futures, comparing the wool quality of their suits, and being extremely terrible human beings.
However exaggerated these tropes may be, there’s no doubt there’s a slice of truth to the coke cliché. “Cocaine just numbs you and makes you do things at super speed,” said Phillipe*, a junior portfolio manager at a top tier European bank. “It’s like you start realizing all the stuff you need to do and it just starts getting done.”
I spent over a year working on the lowest rung of the banking structure, further from the prying eyes of the FCA but still at the table: the beloved call center. Far from the near-mythic and heavily powdered Canary Wharf super-villains, a surprising number of regular customer service schmucks like myself were using cocaine to get through the day.
Bear in mind, we weren’t exactly on cocaine wages. But perhaps it’s an aspirational thing: dress for the job you want and take the drugs you want to one day comfortably afford. One line manager in particular seemed to be a veteran. He was a short, bald man whose intensity was so pronounced it was hard to tell how much of it was cocaine-induced (although I’m guessing a good 30 percent). I’d also overhear the obligatory jingling of keys in cubicles and a fair bit of telltale sniffing, though some had a little more tact, using cards instead of keys and flushing toilets as they snorted.
As far as I could tell, most of my colleagues’ use was a response to the demanding nature of the industry. For me, it was boredom, hatred of the job, and an interest in chemical experimentation. To that end, I tried a few other substances between the hours of nine and five, and have detailed their effects below (SPOILER: doing drugs at work is a waste of drugs. Aside from the obvious health risks, cost, and the fact that office cubicles aren’t a great location for mind expansion, being caught doing something illegal at work is a very quick route to unemployment).
A packet of modafinil. Photo by Hannah Ewens
The student favorite. A relatively cheap drug than can be easily ordered online, it comes with a clear-headed stimulation and none of the nervous, wired side effects of amphetamine, or the shit-chatting qualities of cocaine. Many tout its mood-lifting effects, its ability to improve cognition, and (weirdly) the fact it supposedly makes your hearing better. It also has an incredibly dedicated fanbase, so if you’re into boring conversations with strangers, it has the added benefit of introducing you to the thousands of modafinerds on Reddit who’ll talk to you about doses and brand names and all the stuff you’d otherwise google.
Some claim modafinil has no side effects, but this is likely because there haven’t yet been any long-term studies conducted on it. Myself and others experienced a strange cold sensation. There was also some brief, mild nausea for me—which may have been because I forgot about the concept of eating every time I took it. However, it did give me a peculiarly strong desire to get stuck into work.
PRESCRIPTION AMPHETAMINE (RITALIN)
Ritalin is essentially kiddie coke. It’s somewhat safer, a little cheaper, and way more discrete, as you don’t have to lock yourself in a cubicle every half hour. Side effects may include headaches, shakiness, and an uncomfortable awareness of the speed of your heart. As for work, I found myself able to blast through calls with a feverish attention to detail. However, this intensity also extended to discussing Lynne’s* standing orders to her “ungrateful grandsons,” or researching the match statistics for lower league football clubs I’d never even heard of before that specific day.
Photo by Troy Farah
Microdosing—the practice of taking sub-perceptual doses of psychedelics—is not new in the workplace. Used by various scientists in the 1960s, acid has been a contributing factor to an array of significant human advances. Francis Crick credits his Noble Prize-winning work on the structure of DNA to his experience with the drug. It was used by Hollywood’s elite for therapy and a recent breakthrough using brain scans has revitalized its potential again. At a lower threshold, the drug provides a stimulating effect that’s less physically harmful than traditional amphetamines. In Silicon Valley it’s proven popular for improved insight and problem solving.
One day I decided to consume a slither of a tab (roughly 25 micrograms) before work in the hope it would give me this clarity of mind. By some miracle I wasn’t tethered to the phone for too long before I was called into a brainstorming meeting to discuss ways the call center could be improved. I found myself articulating some solid plans to increase efficiency and reduce call waiting times. The rest of the day was spent in a reasonably good mood; I was able to concentrate and perform to a high level.
That said, I can see how this could go horribly wrong. Albert Hoffman didn’t call his book LSD, My Problem Child for nothing. The response of psychedelics in different people is overwhelmingly variable. I was able to hold it together at this dose, but yearned to be outside in the sun or doing literally anything else than discussing how to increase efficiency in a call center.
Being the representative for a bank and all the shitty things they do can take its toll. Sedatives really smoothed out the irritation of being told to go fuck myself, and allowed me to perform tasks in a cool, collected way. However, its danger lies in its discretion: take it for more than five consecutive days and you could develop a dependency, and withdrawal from valium can give you an array of contradictory symptoms, like heightened anxiety and irritability. My experience working on it resulted in increasingly sleepy post-lunch slumps and missing my stop on the bus home a few times.
This was a fucking terrible idea. I’d taken a hash oil capsule around 45 minutes before I was due to stop for lunch so I could enjoy the high on my break. And I did. I went to the shops, stocked up on those sickly Thorntons caramel chews, and chowed down for the allotted 60 minutes before returning to work, smug, and scent-free. Then, as I stepped back into the climate-controlled environment, I realized how wildly, paranoia-inducingly high I was. As did two of my colleagues, one of whom pulled me aside and berated me for my appearance (it looked like someone had tattooed the whites of my eyes red). I was able to perform at my job, but I don’t ever want to put myself through that torturous level of anxiety ever again.
Concentration is improved and fatigue is fought. Talking is effortless and obnoxiously enthusiastic. However, I found it much harder to hold my temper with difficult customers. The re-dose time is way too frequent if you’re tied to your phone with strict time logs and persistent line managers. The signs are obvious. The price is high. The health risks are higher. It makes you take up smoking again. One day, I forgot I had a driving lesson straight after a cocaine-filled workday. I was impulsive, erratic, and just a fucking dangerous idiot on the roads. Then there’s the niggling, insatiable desire in the back of your mind that you could probably just do with a little bit more right now. And now. And now.
Again, taking drugs at work is a terrible waste of drugs, and a quick way to radically dent your life expectancy. Working to live is hard enough on our bodies; don’t let the weekend spill over.
*Names have been changed