Shouting, slamming doors, an inability to sit still or focus on a conversation. It might sound like typical erratic teenage behaviour, but for Louise Moore these were tell-tale signs that all was not well with her daughter, Darcy.
It was the start of the school year and the formerly amiable and easygoing 17-year-old had suddenly become edgy and prone to uncharacteristic outbursts.
‘I think I’m like most parents,’ says Louise. ‘When your teenager gets bolshy, acts up and stops telling you what they’re up to, you start to worry: God, what if it’s drugs?
‘I’d sat through the drug talk at her school so I knew what to look for: red eyes, clothes that smelled, roll-ups or plastic bags in her bedroom. But there was nothing like that.’
Just to be sure, though, Louise, an estate agent who lives in Surrey, bought a drug test from Amazon. ‘I marched Darcy into the bathroom and told her she was going to have a urine test because I suspected she was smoking cannabis.’
Xanax – from the benzodiazepine family of drugs – is not available on the NHS due to concerns over its addictive qualities and side-effects. Stock image
Darcy broke down and confessed that she had indeed been taking drugs. Not cannabis, though — nor, much to her mother’s relief, cocaine. Instead, Darcy admitted she was suffering withdrawal symptoms from a tranquilliser called Xanax.
Her mother was mystified, at first. ‘I’d heard of Xanax: it was a medicine taken by women my age who suffered fear of flying or panic attacks,’ she says. ‘But why was my teenage daughter taking it?’
The small white pill from the benzodiazepine family of drugs — which also includes diazepam, better known as Valium — is not available on the NHS, possibly due to concerns over its addictive qualities, and is legally available in the UK only with a private prescription.
But as Louise discovered, teenagers like Darcy are buying it online for as little as 89p a pill.
Indeed, there has been a sharp rise in popularity of the potent anti-anxiety drug during the past year, with some experts warning that it has become one of the top five recreational drugs used by young people. The list also includes cannabis and alcohol. Meanwhile, other youngsters are buying it online to self-medicate for anxiety.
Darcy was one of several pupils at her private school who started using it before going to parties ‘because it made them feel relaxed and like nothing could faze them’.
There has been a sharp rise in popularity of Xanax during the past year, with some experts warning that it has become one of the top five recreational drugs used by young people. Stock
But she soon found she couldn’t control her speech while under the influence of the drug, and her movements became clumsy or ‘zombie-like’. As well as experiencing scary memory blanks, she sometimes felt nauseous.
Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, a psychiatrist with more than 20 years’ experience of treating addiction problems, says: ‘Xanax has tremendous appeal. It has developed a huge cultural footprint in the U.S. and now here.
‘It has a different reputation from other benzodiazepines because Xanax is being glamorised — for example, in music lyrics. The drug is also associated with icons like rapper Lil Peep, who died last year of an overdose after taking a cocktail of drugs including Xanax.’
To an adult, that might sound like a very good reason to avoid the drug. But impressionable teenagers may see things differently. Indeed, young users talk of Xanax having a sort of ‘decadent glamour’, giving even the most self-conscious youngster an air of rebelliousness while, crucially, its powerful effect helps them forget their inhibitions.
Then there are those misguidedly using it without a prescription to counteract the pressures of modern life. Private GP Carolyn Barshall is coming across more and more teens in her West London practice who are self-medicating with the drug.
They want to stop worrying about exams, about succeeding, about what comes after school or after uni. They want everything a bit numb. There’s so much pressure on teenagers today to get those A-stars, to be pretty, to be popular
‘They want to stop worrying about exams, about succeeding, about what comes after school or after uni,’ she says. ‘They want everything a bit numb. There’s so much pressure on teenagers today to get those A-stars, to be pretty, to be popular.’
But users tend to underestimate the drug’s effect. It sounds far less alarming than shooting up heroin or smoking crack cocaine, but Xanax is extremely dangerous when misused.
Like all benzodiazepines, it changes the way the brain works by suppressing the neurotransmitter GABA, a chemical in the brain which inhibits the activity of nerves.
‘Normally, our brains are in a state that’s a bit like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake — the GABA neuron is the brake,’ explains Dr Margaret Weis, associate professor at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Centre.
‘Xanax neutralises the effect of the brake, increasing the effect of the other foot on the accelerator.’
Users feel less anxiety as a result, but suppressing GABA also has an effect on motor control, vision and many other functions. In adolescents, the brain is still developing: we can only guess what impact a drug that affects the GABA neurotransmitter could have on a young person’s ability to see, move and articulate.
Worse, warns Dr Weis, after prolonged exposure to the drug, ‘abrupt withdrawal leads to a syndrome that may include anything from anxiety, panic attacks and tremors to hallucinations, seizures, psychosis and suicide.’
Going ‘cold turkey’ from Xanax can be a truly horrifying and damaging experience.
Like all benzodiazepines, Xanax changes the way the brain works by suppressing the neurotransmitter GABA, a chemical in the brain which inhibits the activity of nerves. Stock
Only last month a group of girls from Burntwood School in Wandsworth, South London, were rushed to hospital after taking Xanax during their lunch break. Earlier this year, eight children, aged 15 and 16, in Wiltshire received hospital treatment after taking it.
While Louise’s daughter Darcy escaped without such severe consequences, she was left deeply shaken by the profound effect the drug had on her.
Darcy admits that although she and her friends were using 1.5mg to 2mg of the pills a night at first, they soon increased the dose to 4mg because its effect was lessening. A standard initial dose prescribed for anxiety by doctors in the U.S., where Xanax is more common, would be just 0.25mg to 0.5mg. The usual maximum recommended dose is no more than 4mg.
Like many users, Darcy and her friends tended to take Xanax while drinking alcohol. The latter drug, of course, reduces a drinker’s ability to make sensible choices — and it, too, affects the GABA neurotransmitter, meaning the two substances could interact in harmful ways.
One night Darcy and her friends decided to increase their dose to 5mg. She says: ‘The next morning I couldn’t remember a thing about the night before. Total blackout. So I got scared. I knew I had to stop the Xanax. It was getting out of control.’
The next morning I couldn’t remember a thing about the night before. Total blackout. So I got scared. I knew I had to stop the Xanax. It was getting out of control
It had taken only four months for Darcy’s use of Xanax to spiral into something dangerous.
And when she tried to stop, Darcy suffered flu-like symptoms of aching bones and headaches and felt on a permanent short fuse. ‘I was almost relieved when Mum said she’d test me for drugs,’ she says ‘I needed help.’
Philip Wyatt, 18, an arts student from London, is another teenager who admits using Xanax. He says it became part of a cocktail of ‘party drugs’ including the tranquilliser ketamine, with 4mg of Xanax taken at the end of an evening to help him relax and get to sleep.
‘It’s pretty typical to use Xanax in combination,’ he says. ‘If you are buying from a dealer, he’ll sell you one drug to make you high, then Xanax alongside to get you to slow down.’
To this day, Philip’s parents have no idea their son was abusing a prescription drug — it was a friend at art school who warned him the impact could be serious.
Philip, a quiet young man, points to the subversive glamour of Xanax: ‘It’s like you’re a rebel, you’re edgy. If you’re shy, self-conscious and worried about how people see you, Xanax is a miracle drug because it makes you forget all those inhibitions, quickly.’
After the warning from his classmate, Philip sought help from a drugs counsellor. He admits the therapy sessions worked only in part: although he was too frightened to continue with Xanax, Philip was soon drinking and smoking cannabis again.
Sophie Montgomery, pictured, said she is concerned because teenagers know all about the danger of street drugs but they seem to be ignorant of what Xanax and other ‘benzos’ do
It is difficult to gauge the precise volume of Xanax sales among young users because most of them buy it from the ‘Dark Web’ — encrypted websites that can be reached only through special browsers. Users create fake identities to browse vendors advertising their drugs, which are then sent by post, making the dealers hard to trace.
The Oxford Internet Institute found that the UK is the second-largest market after the U.S. for sales of Xanax from illegal Dark Web sites, accounting for 22 per cent of all such transactions globally.
Even more concerning is the rise during the past six months in illegal sales of Xanax over Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. Experts say this is a ‘game changer’.
‘The accessibility of Xanax online has normalised its use for some young people,’ says Dr Bowden-Jones, who has launched a website, the CNWL Addiction to Online Medicine Service, to try to help online users.
Not only that, but buying any pill or medicine online can be dangerous. ‘People don’t really know what they are getting,’ says Dr Bowden-Jones. ‘It might be real Xanax, it might have another chemical substituted for alprazolam — the drug in Xanax — or it might have no medicine at all.’
My own experience tells me that so much of drug-taking among the young is about searching for something that makes them feel better. I think parents’ responsibility is to show there are alternatives: exercise, better nutrition, hobbies
Counterfeit Xanax can leave gullible consumers suffering horrific side-effects, including accidental overdoses if the substitute drug is more potent than they were expecting. Yet its easy availability and low price make Xanax an appealing ‘cure’ for modern anxieties.
Sophie Montgomery, an integrative therapist practising in London, has witnessed at first hand the traumas of benzodiazepine withdrawal.
The daughter of Lord and Lady Birdwood, Sophie was a fixture on the party circuit in her teens and was named Deb of the Year in 1982. By her mid-30s she had developed a drink problem and spent time in rehab. There she came across two young women addicted to benzodiazepines.
She says: ‘We were in the same room in the rehab clinic. Being with them was excruciating: they must have been on very high doses because their withdrawal had them shaking, sweating, shallow breathing — like the worst kind of panic attack.
‘I tried to help, holding their hands and getting them to talk. It was clear they had never intended to have a “party high” but turned to benzos to keep their anxiety in check. They had thought of it as medicine.
‘This is what scares me for today’s Xanax users. Teenagers know all about the danger of street drugs, but they seem to be ignorant of what Xanax and other benzos do. Schools do a good job of telling them to beware of heroin and cocaine, but no one is warning them about Xanax.’
Karen Tyrell, a director of the drug and alcohol charity Addaction, agrees: ‘Our recovery workers have met a significant number of young people, especially in the past year, who are buying Xanax online, either on social media or through the Dark Web. They appear to have little or no knowledge of the risks.’
Worried parents, says Dr Bowden-Jones, should step in ‘before their children are likely to be exposed to drugs or people who use them’.
For most children, he says, the best time to broach the subject is at the age of 11 or 12.
‘Early conversations de-stigmatise this issue and make it more likely your child will ask you for help if they do develop a problem,’ he explains.
Instead of being embarrassed or scared to raise the issue, parents should recognise that they are ‘an under-used resource in preventing children from developing addictions,’ says Dr Bowden-Jones. ‘The parent can equip the child with the skills needed to navigate exposure to drugs, peer pressure to take them, stress and so on.’
Sophie Montgomery agrees: ‘My own experience tells me that so much of drug-taking among the young is about searching for something that makes them feel better. I think parents’ responsibility is to show there are alternatives: exercise, better nutrition, hobbies.’
Darcy Moore is one of the lucky ones: she was saved by her mother’s intervention and, with the help of her GP, has safely come off Xanax.
Thousands of other young Xanax users, however, still rely on Dr Google to make them feel better. And that, sadly, can lead to addiction and ruined lives.
Some names have been changed.
Concentrated Parenting: Seven Key Moments In The Lives Of Children, by Cristina Odone, is published by Amazon Kindle.