That nice, wholesome mother you met at the school gates could well be snorting cocaine in secret to ease the stress of parenthood. Polly Dunbar investigates why middle-class mums are fast becoming the biggest users of class-A drugs
Louisa* checked the monitor to make sure her toddler was asleep, then popped her head around the door of the living room, where her six-year-old was transfixed by Go Jetters. Satisfied nobody needed her in that moment, she raced to her en-suite bathroom, rolled up a £20 note and snorted a line of cocaine from the toilet lid.
She’d felt exhausted after a long half-term morning at soft play, but now her energy levels were rocketing. By the time her son had woken from his nap at 2pm, she’d cleaned the kitchen, put a wash on and started the prep for dinner.
‘That’s the only time I’ve ever taken coke during the daytime while looking after the kids and I’m not proud of doing it,’ says Louisa, a 42-year-old events manager who lives in a spacious house in a fashionable part of South London. ‘My husband would go ballistic if he knew. But I was desperate for something to get me through the day. I knew I had some left over from the weekend and I thought, where’s the harm?’
Shocking as it undoubtedly sounds, Louisa is not alone in combining childcare with cocaine. Middle-class use of the drug is at an all-time high in Britain and ‘spiralled out of control’ during the stress and isolation of the pandemic, according to a recent report. A colossal 873,000 16- to 59-year-olds reported using cocaine in 2019-2020, an increase of at least 290 per cent in the past decade – due, in large part, to the ease with which users can order it to be delivered to their door, just like a pizza.
The dark side of the boom is flourishing equally rapidly. Referrals for addiction treatment rose by 300 per cent last year – many of them ordinary, middle-class mothers like Louisa– while deaths from cocaine use are also soaring. Among women, they have increased by more than 800 per cent in the past ten years, from 16 deaths in 2010 to 158 in 2020. Long-term use carries the risk of fits, heart attacks and strokes, as well as mental-health problems such as paranoia, depression and anxiety.
Recently, home secretary Priti Patel urged police forces to ‘make an example’ of middle-class users of the drug by naming and shaming them. She intends to target ‘high-value individuals’ to change the perception that class-A drugs can be taken without consequence when, in reality, the impact ranges from gang violence and ‘county lines’ exploitation – where teenagers are forced to become dealers– on British streets to murder in Central and South America.
‘Middle-class women who have money are major users,’ says Charles Moseley, who runs addiction counselling service Stop Now. ‘We often don’t see middle-class people as being problem users, but most of the money fuelling the criminal activity comes from them.’
For many women, the juggle between work and family life is exhausting, and, he says, cocaine can play a trick by appearing to offer a solution. ‘If you take it once at a party, it makes you feel energetic, confident and clever. But over time, it often becomes more a feature of your life and the negatives start adding up – you’re unable to function the next day, or you’re lying to your partner, or shouting at your children. Gradually, it becomes a problem.’
Louisa’s cocaine use began in her 20s, when she and her friends would take a line or two at parties. When she met her husband Pete, a solicitor, the pair would sometimes take the drug together. ‘We’d have the occasional blow-out weekend, or we’d take drugs at a festival, but it wasn’t the norm,’ she says.
In their 30s, as they and their friends began to settle down and start families, Pete was no longer interested.
‘His job was very serious and he didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise it,’ says Louisa.
‘But my work in events has always been very sociable with lots of parties, and it was totally normal among my friends to take coke, even discreetly at work events. I’d take it to give me energy when I was tired, or if I needed a boost when I was meeting lots of people.’
After her first child was born in 2015, ‘My social life became about dinner parties rather than going out, and one of my new mum friends would always order coke,’ she says. ‘I started ordering it myself – I’d just WhatsApp the dealer she used and he’d bring it round to my house– and I’d take it with friends pretty much every weekend. Pete knew, but he didn’t mind because I was always able to function the next day.’
Since her second child was born in 2019, however, she admits her intake has increased. ‘I reduced my hours at work because of the kids, but I find looking after them exhausting and often miss my old life,’ she says. ‘During lockdown, friends in our bubble whose kids went to the same nursery would come over in the evenings and we started taking coke more frequently than previously, just out of boredom and stress. When lockdown eased I carried on; I guess it had become a habit.
‘Now I often take it on a Thursday evening as well as a Friday and Saturday. I don’t add up how much I spend, but it would probably run to hundreds of pounds a month. Pete hates me taking this much because I’m often grumpy and irritable and I get incredibly tired the day after I’ve taken it– coke makes it really hard to sleep. My heart sometimes races and I often feel anxious. I need to cut back, but my circle of friends all take at least the same amount and I know I’d have to see them a lot less.’
As Charles Moseley points out, women like Louisa are often cushioned to some extent from the destruction cocaine can wreak. ‘Middle-class women have wealth and support networks which allow them to keep functioning, so they have further to fall than those with less money.
‘But at some point, regular cocaine users do tip over the edge,’ he continues. ‘Over time they start to prioritise it above other things and their responsibilities begin to fall by the wayside. I have experience with clients who have lost jobs, had their relationships destroyed and even developed serious mental-health issues, including extreme paranoia, because of cocaine.’
Claire’s use of the drug was the catalyst for the disintegration of her marriage. The 46-year-old IT consultant from Surrey had never taken cocaine until her mid-30s, but when a mum friend persuaded her to try a line one night, she was immediately hooked on the feeling it gave her.
‘I felt euphoric and so much more confident than usual,’ she says. ‘I’m normally quite reserved in social settings, but I loved the sense that I was charming everyone I met.’
Within a few months, Claire had begun to take the drug regularly, buying it from friends initially but then ordering it to her home on a Friday night. ‘My daughter was six and asleep in bed the first time a dealer arrived on a moped to deliver it to me, and I remember feeling stressed and guilty about what I was doing,’ she says.
‘It felt horribly seedy, but I had two friends coming over and we wanted to let off steam after a long week at work. We sat in the living room taking it while my daughter slept upstairs and my husband John was out drinking with his colleagues. The next day, neither of them was any the wiser.’
One day, John discovered her secret when he found a bag of cocaine in a drawer. ‘He was shocked – he’s never taken class-A drugs and he couldn’t believe that I was doing it,’ she says. ‘We had a huge row and he told me to stop or he’d leave me. He even threatened to report me to social services for doing it when our daughter was at home.’
She didn’t touch the drug for months, but was offered it at a friend’s house one night and quickly slipped back into her former habit. ‘I never thought my use was any kind of addiction or problem, because I only took it at weekends and was always able to look after my daughter the day after, even though I did feel pretty terrible,’ she says.
‘But when John found out I’d started doing it again, our relationship fell apart. He said he didn’t trust me because I’d lied and he was worried about our daughter, which made me furious – I’ve never been an unfit mother.’
The couple are currently separated and their divorce will be finalised soon. Their daughter spends weekends with her father and Claire admits she uses the free time to take cocaine with her friends.
‘There’s a group of us who are all separated or divorced and since the end of lockdown, we’ve rediscovered going out,’ she says. ‘Obviously I miss my daughter when she’s at John’s, but I must admit I feel liberated since we split up and I can have fun without anyone nagging me. I eat well, go to the gym and hold down a very successful career.’
According to Charles Moseley, however, ‘At some point, most people whose use has become a problem will realise it’s time to stop. But getting away from a pattern of behaviour that you believe to be in some way beneficial is very hard.’
He helps the clients he works with to change their mindset. ‘It’s much simpler to quit if you realise that there are actually no benefits to cocaine use and many downsides,’ he says. ‘The reality is that whatever your social class or profession, it can destroy lives.’
It’s a hard truth Louisa is all too aware of. ‘I wouldn’t describe myself as a cokehead, although deep down I know I do probably take too much,’ she admits. ‘The idea of my life falling apart terrifies me, but at this stage, I don’t know how easy it would be to quit.’
For further information about Stop Now, visit stop-now.uk
*SOME NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED