19 AUGUST 2018


Dealers turning up in the dead of night, £50,000 in rehab fees and a son they barely recognized. When Sarah’s 15-year-old began taking the medication, she had no idea where it would end up.


Have you done a stocktake of your bathroom cabinet lately? If you are a middle-aged, middle-class mother with a nice private GP and a tendency to suffer from anxiety, in there, somewhere, there may be, along with the fluoxetine and the Nurofen Plus, a prescription for Xanax. Xanax, the trade name of alprazolam, belongs to a class of drugs called benzodiazepines and is commonly prescribed (though not by the NHS) to treat anxiety and panic attacks brought on by, say, a fear of flying or having to undergo an MRI. (It is also used to quell the nausea that often accompanies chemotherapy.) A pretty harmless, helpful drug in the grand scheme of things, or so I always thought — until last summer, when my 15-year-old son, Alex, who had been buying Xanax on the internet, developed such a serious addiction to it that he could have died.


Teenage Xanax addiction. Historically it has been America’s problem — according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Xanax and related “benzos” are the most commonly abused substances (after alcohol and marijuana) by those over the age of 14 in the USA — but it is fast becoming the UK’s problem, too. Indeed, this country is now the second biggest black market for the drug after the USA, accounting for 22% of worldwide sales on the dark web, according to researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute. In January, parliament held its first debate on Xanax abuse following the hospitalisation of eight teens in Sussex who had taken the drug. Earlier this year Police Scotland warned of a national epidemic — there were 99 reported deaths linked to Xanax in Scotland in 2017.


Xanax is 10 times as powerful as its fellow “benzo” Valium and, according to many sources, more addictive than heroin; sudden withdrawal can cause seizures and in some cases death. Though technically difficult to overdose on when taken on its own, if it’s cut with other drugs (as fake Xanax often is) or mixed with substances such as alcohol, it can be fatal. In hip-hop culture, the drug holds a particular allure. American stars such as Quavo and Lil Uzi Vert have rapped about it, while Lil Pump famously celebrated 1m Instagram followers with a giant Xanax-shaped cake. The fact that the rap artist Lil Peep, 21, died of an overdose of Xanax and fentanyl last November does not seem to have acted as much of a deterrent to a generation of kids, in the US and the UK, for whom immediate gratification and self-medicating their way out of anxiety has become the norm — not least because mental-health services for adolescents in the UK are so badly underfunded.


But back to our summer of hell. We will never be absolutely sure when Alex first started taking Xanax, but it was probably the beginning of that summer term. In May he had fallen in love for the first time, and we knew that the subsequent break-up had hit him hard. Was he ever a “problem” child? No, he was/is a delightful boy, and bright too, but, unlike his two older sisters, not cookie-cutter academic. School was to be endured rather than enjoyed, and he learnt early on to be adept at pulling sickies. A great friend of his died three years ago in a car accident, and looking back it was clear, even though we insisted he see a therapist, that he never properly processed the shock of it. He had also started hanging out with a new group of friends from the year above: a motley, international crew whose common denominator, it seemed, was sadness. Snapchatting themselves self-harming, as I later found out, was a thing.


It was a call from the school in July, though, three weeks shy of the end of term, to say Alex had been acting erratically and that he needed to be picked up immediately, that rang proper alarm bells. Yes, we knew he had smoked cannabis — I’d found some once when going through his pockets — but we wrongly assumed that was as far as it went. Certainly we had never seen him — or thought we had never seen him — high. The child we fetched that day, reeling around the room, practically ricocheting off the walls and weirdly aggressive, was not Alex. It was almost as though he had been body-snatched.


It got worse. Two days later, after being grounded for the weekend, he got onto the roof of our four-storey house and threatened to jump off. Four hours later, with the police and emergency services standing by, his older sister somehow managed to talk him down. Unbeknown to us, along with the cannabis and the alcohol (and the tramadol and the codeine and the Nytol, or indeed anything he or his friends could pilfer from their parents’ bathroom cabinets) he had been buying counterfeit Xanax on the internet and taking it first thing in the morning before he went to school.


As Alex later told us, he and his friends weren’t taking drugs the way we old people used to take drugs, to have fun at parties. They were taking them to make it through the day. Xanax, with its subtle ability to “take the edge off” was the perfect drug. It was also relatively cheap and easy to score — either on the net (no need for the dark web) or through a dealer. One “bar”, which is usually made in either India or China, contains 1mg-2mg, the counterfeit green ones, aka “Hulks”, have 3mg, and the pills cost between £1 and £2.50 each.


Had we known he had been taking it all along (for how long, who knows, but certainly most of that summer term), had we known about its dangers and the increasing abuse by teenagers, had we been able to access our son’s Snapchat or private Instagram account, we would never, ever have followed his therapist’s advice at the beginning of June, after seeing him just once, to get him a prescription to “tide him over” while she was away in Puglia for her summer holiday. As long as it is judiciously monitored, I remembered her telling us, Xanax is a wonderful way to take the edge off for kids like Alex. No wonder his eyes lit up that Sunday when we told him that was going to be the plan.


My husband decided to get the pills all at once so we wouldn’t have to keep going back and forth to the pharmacy. Though we hid them, we didn’t bother to count them. Nor did we notice the stash of euros we keep for holidays at the back of a drawer rapidly dwindling away. The prescription on the bottle was 0.25mg, three times a day — Alex, who had immediately cottoned on to each hiding place, was easily taking up to 10mg a day by the end. Crucially, he was drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis at the same time.


It was only at the end of July — when Alex disappeared for 24 hours, prompting me to search his room — that we realised he had actually been stealing the pills. That’s when we knew he’d been taking more than he should. Of course, when we confronted him, he point-blank denied it. How many had he been stealing? I’m ashamed to say we had no idea.


Although we managed to get hold of the therapist on holiday, there was not very much she could do from Puglia. His psychiatrist, meanwhile, the one he’d been assigned after being sent home from school in July, was also on holiday and impossible to get hold of. In desperation we called a family friend, a retired but selectively consulting adolescent psychiatrist. His advice was to let the inevitable overdose happen, have him sectioned and put into the system, but, he added, “It’s grim.” He suggested we get him to America where “they do these things so much better”, but how on earth would we engineer that?


By August we were zombies ourselves from the worry and lack of sleep. The “new” Alex slept until about 5pm every day and then was up until dawn, rampaging wild-eyed around the house, making food for himself, spilling it up the stairs, sometimes bursting into our room to plead for more Xanax. One night my sister came to stay and said she had heard a car pull up in the middle of the night and someone loudly knocking on the front door. It still didn’t occur to me that my 15-year-old, whose voice had just broken, might have a dealer.


Meanwhile, when we confronted him he’d fly into a rage and walk out of the house, slamming the door. Yes, in retrospect, I could have stopped him, but when we last imposed a curfew he had ended up on the roof. And aside from that, he was bigger than me. Though he was never violent, I was frightened of being in a position to test his strength, and every time I heard a key in the lock I’d be suffused with relief that he hadn’t overdosed or been mugged or, worse, run over. And then my heart would sink again when the rampaging around the house started up. One of many, many low points was getting up in the middle of the night so I could withdraw money from the ATM in order to pay his dealer. Could it get any worse? It did.


The “breakthrough” came one afternoon when we found him crumpled on the floor, admitting to his addiction and asking for help. Within 48 hours he and I were on a plane to the USA, him shivering and shaking, already in a state of withdrawal, me drip-feeding him Xanax, terrified that he might kick off or, worse, have a fit before we touched down. There was a point, just before takeoff, when I frantically texted the psychiatrist. I told her he’d already had 5mg, and asked if it would be OK to give him some temazepam so he might doze off. She texted me back immediately: had I got the decimal point wrong? There was no way he should be taking that much and giving him temazepam could be lethal. And then, because we were in the air, there was no more reception.


Leaving him at a lockdown clinic for adolescent addicts, where he had to detox before going into rehab, was indescribably painful. I’ll never forget that last supervised hug, the sound of the door being locked and bolted as they led him away. I ended up not seeing him or speaking to him for the next three months — the cost of this privilege was in the region of $70,000.


But would we have done it any differently? Absolutely not. Though urged by his American counsellors to keep him in residential treatment for another six to nine months, we decided to bring him home. This meant, for the first three months after he got back to the UK, hiring sober mentors who accompanied him to 12-step meetings and who kept guard over him any time he left the house. It meant putting a tracking app on his phone; it meant actually placing him under a kind of house arrest in case he was triggered by the outside world into reusing. Luckily he bought into it — most kids, we were told, don’t.


A year on, the tracking has stopped, and so have the 12-step meetings (it’s hard, when you are 15, to admit you are powerless) and, though he says he will never touch Xanax again, he still, I know, smokes pot with the kids at his new school. The difference now, the big difference, is that there is no lying or subterfuge any more, no walking on eggshells, no flutter of panic every time he leaves the house or disagrees with something we have said. As a family we all had therapy while he was away and now have a whole new way of speaking to each other (“I feel this way when you do this” and so on). If it all sounds a little bit woo-woo, we have to be — it’s our survival.


He is as oppositional, argumentative, untidy and scatterbrained as ever — how many Oyster cards is it possible to get through in a month? But he is alive and he is happy, and for that I will never stop mentally kissing the ground.


All names have been changed.