People like to take drugs. Whatever your stance on them – it's an undeniable fact of life. Legal or illegal, prescribed or self-medicated, we take them – caffeine to wake up in the morning, alcohol to loosen up, cigarettes, sleeping pills, weed, ecstasy, cocaine.
This article is not about which drugs should be legal or illegal. But most illegal ones carry an undeniable stigma, not to mention serious jail time in Malta. For this reason there is a level of mystery and misconception about them, a lack of openness and education that often has the opposite of the desired effect, and does little to stop their use. Instead it restricts the type of information and control that could minimise the harm that comes with the use of illegally sourced and unregulated drugs.
"Friends shared similar side-effects – reduction in cognitive function, memory loss, mood swings, even psychotic episodes and depression"
I’m a Maltese male in my late twenties. I’ve had a happy upbringing, tertiary education, I have a close group of friends, and I've been a moderate user of recreational drugs for around eight years. Mine was a journey full of excess, pleasure, self-discovery and ignorance which culminated in a prolonged episode of anxiety, medication and therapy.
Once I emerged from this personal fallout, I entered a period of introspection, and developed a deeper curiosity and understanding about myself; why I took drugs in the first place and how they were affecting my brain. Discussions with friends and acquaintances confirmed that my story is far from uncommon. Many of them have shared the same side-effects such as reduction in cognitive function, memory loss and mood swings while some even suffered psychotic episodes and depression.
I’m not anti-drugs per-se and it would be hypocritical for me to tell people not to take them. But I do want people to understand the effects of the drugs they are taking, what goes into them and how they affect the brain. Here is my story, best divided into four main stages.
Stage One: Stay in school, don’t do drugs.
As a young boy my mother had instilled in me a deep fear of drugs, with stories of people who overdosed (“One pill is all it takes!”...etc) and stories of friends whose families were devastated by a loved one’s drug dependency. I was too scared to try anything for myself and looked down on those who did, writing them off as weak and reckless.
As a teen I loved going out and socializing. Like all my friends I drank a lot – it helped us lose our inhibitions, be more confident and have more fun. I loved music, I loved having a wide circle of friends, and I became a regular in the local party scene. I soon started to notice that people I knew were taking drugs recreationally. They were people at university, people with steady jobs, clever and fun people that I looked up to - and they were having a good time.
At some point it hit me that maybe my parents and school teachers were wrong. Maybe they were just scared because they didn’t understand it all. So if drugs weren’t so bad after all, maybe they weren’t bad at all. I was already drinking to let loose so the idea of taking something that would make me more happy, more confident and more care-free truly appealed to the hedonist within me. I developed a ‘don’t knock it till you try it’ attitude towards drugs – always curious to try something new.
"There was an understanding between strangers – bonds were formed with people you barely knew"
Stage Two: The rush
MDMA was my drug of choice. Sold in crystal or powder form, it's endearingly referred to as Mandy; while more commonly available in pill-form, known as Ecstasy... and for good reason too. Nothing could compare to that feeling, that intense rush of love – for the music you’re hearing, for the person dancing next to you, for yourself.
It started out as something I did sporadically but soon, upon my sincerest recommendation, all my friends were doing it too – and regularly. We were already a close group of friends and our shared experience brought us closer together. It became apparent that drug-taking was an open secret in the local party scene. There was a certain understanding between strangers – bonds were formed with people you barely knew over it. All that mattered was that we were all rushing and it was beautiful.
Each year I would see more people doing it that I would never have expected to. Straight-laced nerds, it-girls, people whose careers would put them at direct odds with this type of behaviour. I found myself unknowingly part of a tribe, connected by our behaviour and our shared discovery of that higher state. We pitied those that frowned upon us because they were missing out. Connections made on nights out would spill over into real-life, doing away with the need for formal introductions and providing a shortcut to familiarity.
Stage Three: The come-down
A come down is basically a hangover from taking drugs. To understand how it actually works you need to know how drugs work. MDMA in its purest form is a psychoactive stimulant that causes your brain to release large amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin – this is basically the happy chemical in your brain that controls sleep, appetite and emotions among other things, and is the reason you get intense feelings of euphoria, feeling sociable, and bags of empathy while rushing.
The effect of MDMA lasts for around 3-8 hours and then your body naturally starts destroying the serotonin. Because so much is released, your body destroys more than it should, essentially leaving you with a depletion of serotonin. And that's a come-down – where it is very likely that you feel sad, hopeless and tired. It usually lasts between one and three days.
Come-downs are an expected part of the lifestyle, and the general thinking is that once you brave the come-down you’re back to normal and ready to go. What I didn't know was that your body needs at least one month to recover all the serotonin depleted after one session taking MDMA. And that’s if it's pure stuff.
I never really gave much thought to the quality of drugs that I was taking. Mandy and Ecstasy pills are generally known to be cut (mixed) with other substances – most often stimulants such as amphetamines and caffeine. And although recent tests on European pills have shown them to be quite pure and of high quality, there are also regular findings that reveal Mandy and Ecstasy mixed with new research chemicals that mimic the effects of pure MDMA but have potentially much more damaging affects on the the brain.
Abroad, nightlife promoters and clubs often issue warnings to their patrons to steer clear of certain batches of pills that have shown to contain particularly dangerous substances. It's basically the luck of the draw – you might get pure stuff, you might not. The only way I used to test it, was with my brain.
Mandy was fun to take in situations where I felt I wouldn’t be judged. Besides the effects mentioned above, one of the tell-tale signs that someone has taken Mandy is that they would chew uncontrollably, especially if it was dirty stuff. So Mandy wasn’t a drug you could take and interact normally with people who weren’t on the same level. For that there was coke.
At its purest cocaine does give you a sense of euphoria in a more focused way, leaving you more in control than Mandy. Its main effect selling point though is that it boosts self-confidence. With coke you just feel better about yourself than you usually do. You also feel better than others. You’re suddenly sexier, smarter and funnier. In general coke has a tendency to turn people into massive pricks. It's the drug of choice at events that involve socialising such as day parties and weddings.
Cocaine in Malta is hit and miss at best. Most of the rush lies in the act of using it itself and not the actual drug. For me and my friends, coke was always a group thing – something we did together which gave us sense of mischievousness, either going into toilets together or cutting up lines before a party. Even then, the effectiveness of the drug is often hard to be sure of.
Once one of my friends once said that he might as well have burnt the €50 he had spent on coke he had taken – because the effect was pretty much negligible. So if it wasn’t coke, what were we actually sniffing up?
"Feelings of loneliness and hopelessness spill over into the next day, along with a sore throat, nose-bleeds and feelings of guilt and dirtiness"
Even the purest cocaine is made using kerosene, ammonia and sulphuric acid and that’s before it reaches the street where its cut with all sorts of things like baking soda, laxatives and anesthetic. Recently it was found that half the coke on the streets of Malta is actually bath salts – a really scary synthetic drug with dangerous effects.
The thing about coke is that there’s never enough. Right after the first bump or line, you’re thinking of the next one. The high lasts between fifteen and thirty minutes. There have been nights where I’ve experienced a crash the very same night, with feelings of loneliness and hopelessness taking over. This usually spills over into the next day, along with a sore throat, nose-bleeds and feelings of guilt and dirtiness.
The novelty of taking drugs soon started to wear off. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy taking them – it was just becoming a necessary ingredient in my nightlife. While I have had some of the best nights of my life on ecstasy, I started to worry that I had developed a skewed idea of 'fun' that was getting increasingly harder to attain without the addition of substances.
Even with the pills, those magical nights began to get scarcer and there were many times where I ended up alone, bobbing around in a dark club or with people I didn’t really care about, lounging on a dirty sofa in some random house, waiting for the high to wear off while people outside were setting off for their morning jog.
It all came to a head at the end of a summer when I had taken Ecstasy, Mandy or Coke almost every weekend for 3 months. At this point the neurotransmitters in my brain must have been seriously out of whack. I was preparing to move abroad to further my studies – a big step that I did not really feel ready for. I also had a short but really intense fling with a girl I had met at a party, who fittingly chose to end things with me a month later at another party while I was rushing on Ecstasy.
That night I was sent crashing into a deep dark hole of hopelessness and sadness and I remember waking up the next morning feeling that I would never be happy again. It was the catalyst for an emotional melt-down that would take around eight months to recover from. I suddenly wasn’t sure of anything; who I was and what I was meant to do in life. I suffered obsessive thoughts and anxiety, and wasn’t sleeping or eating properly for the first few weeks. Therapy was a life-saver and medication calmed me and provided me with respite when I felt that I couldn’t escape from my own brain.
Stage Four: Awareness
Over the last couple of years, my own experiences led me to do lots of research about the mind and the external and internal factors that can affect it. I’ve come to appreciate both its awesome potential and also its fragility.
I’ve had long discussions with friends whose long-term recreational use of Mandy and Coke, on top of smoking weed daily, led them to severe anxiety attacks, detachment and psychosis. One of my friends needed to go on antidepressants for almost a year which made her put on lots of weight – ironically leading to more depression. A few more friends who went on drug-fuelled bender at a festival, came home suffering nausea, ‘brain-zaps’ and night terrors which made them scared to actually fall asleep.
Ultimately, I haven't completely turned against the use of recreational drugs, but there are several important points that people in Malta need to be aware of, and need to discuss more openly, whether they're dabbling or not.
Young people are going to want to experiment. Straight-up telling them not to has not proven to be totally successful and so why not arm them with the information they need to minimise the harm? They deserve more credit - many use drugs without knowledge of how they work anyway, so if they were armed with the right information then they old hopefully exercise better care on their own accord.
People who are resolute about experimenting must do their own research as to what they will be taking and how it will affect their brain and their behaviour. They should know the risks involved with short term and long term use. If a person has a history of mental or emotional disorders in their family they should be aware that drug-use could trigger these.
This is one way to mitigate the risks of drug-use. Over the course of a night, the drugs will have diminishing effects and so taking large quantities in one night is likely to cause more damage rather than increase your buzz. Long-term, treat this as a special occasion - as soon as drugs become a necessary part of having fun, you need to slow down.
If you start experiencing brain-fog, mood swings, paranoia, anxiety, sadness, understand that your brain needs care and that it’s a long road back to recovery once you mess it up.
Be honest as to why you are doing this. Is it for fun? Is it an escape? Understand what you get from taking them and make sure you aren’t giving them too much room in your life. In some instances, you may be seeking a deeper fulfilment that you just won’t get with a quick fix. During your twenties it's normal to have stuff you’re figuring out, so it's actually the time you need your mind to be stable. Messing around with the chemicals in your brain puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to staying in control and handling situations.
There needs to be a culture of testing drugs in Malta, both by the authorities and on an individual level. This is an initiative already being endorsed by authorities in the UK and could help to avoid the consumption of dangerous substances while also discouraging suppliers from putting ‘dirty’ stuff on the streets. I've personally tried to buy test kits locally and couldn't. Making them available locally would already be a positive step.
In the end we often have to experience things first hand and make our own mistakes in life. My hope is that when it comes to recreational drugs, we can also learn from each others mistakes.
There’s lots of fun to be had but the stakes may be high, and different for everyone. A little knowledge and forethought could go a long way.