“Cambridge forces you to adapt rather than deal with things”Louis Ashworth

It’s noon. Amber takes her fifth dihydrocodeine pill of the day. Sitting cross-legged on her swivel chair at a central Cambridge college she tells me she was, like most people, fervently against drug use when she was younger. Since she started secondary school, she’s used almost every drug you can think of – including opioids, cocaine and heroin. Now, she’s addicted to dihydrocodeine, an opiate used as a painkiller for ailments like back pain which she says gives her the feeling of being “in an energised cocoon”.

After being introduced to the drug by her friend at home last year, she has become addicted during her third year at Cambridge. Doctors normally prescribe up to three pills of dihydrocodeine per day. Amber takes up to 20.

She started smoking cannabis around the age of 14, taking ecstacy (MDMA) at 15, and acid (LSD) and ketamine at 16. When she was 19, she tried heroin, an opiate which she still uses occasionally when she runs out of dihydrocodeine. “For me, drugs have always been gateway drugs. I’m just a curious person.”

Amber doesn’t strike me as a typical heroin user, and when I ask her about it, she sighs. She “wouldn’t be able to function” if she used it frequently, and dihydrocodeine still allows her to get through lectures and do her work. She explains that many people take heroin in its powder form, which gives a less powerful kick than injection, and challenges the stereotype that it’s as simple as sticking in a needle on your first try. “People think it’s just about needles and shooting. No one’s gonna stumble into a needle at, like, Woodstock. You start heroin in general by snorting or smoking, which is obviously a danger since it isn’t as mad a start as people say.”

Is she ever tempted to shoot? “God no,” she balks. But she does admit she now needs increasingly more heroin than expected to get high each time. Does that scare her? “Yeah, definitely.”

When I mention I’m cautious of romanticising drug use, which kills almost 4,000 people in England and Wales every year, she bluntly responds: “Well, first of all, you can’t shit. Heroin junkies spend days with a rubber spoon.” Amber has never gotten that far, she is keen to insist, but getting through Cambridge has been a struggle. When she hasn’t been able to source dihydrocodeine, she has had to take other “really nasty” opioids to stop withdrawal symptoms so she can make it to lectures in the mornings and stay on top of her extracurricular commitments.

“If you wanna get fucked up, you have that freedom for the first time in your life”

Rhys, another Cambridge student, tried heroin for the first time when he was 18. He’s never “shot” it, either, and now strictly avoids it. “It’s not particularly interesting,” he says, reciting times he’s been incapacitated for hours in his College room.

He’s not a “coke boy”, either – he says it gives him chest pain and anxiety. It’s a “cheap thrill”, he says. “Surely an expensive one?” I correct him and he laughs. “Well yeah, a really expensive thrill.”

Are there any drugs he hasn’t taken? He smiles, pauses, and chuckles. “Crack.”

Drugs were common at his school where students were “rich and intelligent with little to do”, and says that while Cambridge provides lots to do, he became more adventurous with his increased liberty. “If you wanna get fucked up, you have that freedom for the first time in your life,” Rhys says, “but you can run away with those freedoms.”

Several academic studies have indicated that intelligent people are more likely to try recreational drugs. In Cambridge, very few students take hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, though, like at most universities, drugs like ecstasy and cannabis are relatively common.

Rhys sticks to psychedelics like acid and ketamine, which is known for its use as a horse anaesthetic. “In 2014, when the government moved ketamine from Class C to Class B, it made it harder to steal from veterinarians.”

He struggled with “habits” for ketamine and benzodiazepine (a psychoactive tranquilizer drug known as ‘benzos’) in the past, but has, he says, “dealt with them”. He still uses ketamine regularly, but is gradually taking less and less because his tolerance is getting so strong that it has made it very expensive to get high.

Psychedelics are known for altering users’ interpretation of the world, especially through producing auditory and visual hallucinations, unusual patterns of thought, and reportedly heightened states of consciousness. What makes him want to get high on them? “I prefer doing drugs which galvanise you rather than force you to be happy.” More stimulating psychoactives, like ecstacy and cocaine, can cause more energetic and, Rhys suggests, reckless behaviour. He believes that, while they should be decriminalised, those drugs can potentially do serious harm to others and shouldn’t be fully legalised.

“Cambridge forces you to adapt rather than deal with things”

He never uses the word addiction, though he takes drugs almost every day.  His degree has suffered, though he says drugs can sometimes help him understand deeper concepts in the books he reads. Perhaps surprisingly, he isn’t concerned about his use, but appears unsettlingly confident in his ability to control it responsibly. Ultimately, he says, he values the experiences and feelings that psychedelics help evoke. “When I’m introspective, I can assess myself. It allows me insights which I can then accumulate when I’m sober. I think about when I’ll be out of university and how I don’t want a soul-destroying job. I ask myself how I can be happy with being destitute. It can instill a sense of doom, too.”

Like Rhys, it’s unlikely Amber will give up drugs completely, and, perhaps typically of an addict, it doesn’t seem like she wants to. “It’s my way to get through Cambridge,” she says, adding glibly that while “some people go to the gym or do sport, I take drugs”.

She sometimes gets drugs delivered to college in unassuming parcels. “The porters deal with hundreds of parcels a day – they would never know. I could be ordering fabric for dressmaking.”

But she is desperate to kick her dihydrocodeine addiction. It costs her about £200 per month, although she insists it isn’t excessive. She equates it to how much a regular pub-goer would spend on alcohol. But she still hates it, and has been going back and forth trying to quit for months. Every day she wakes up craving a pill, feels guilty sitting in supervisions when she’s high, and stresses that she wants to be “a normal person”.


Mountain View

Cambridge flying high

Does she forget what it’s like to be sober? “Yeah, for sure. I associate being sober with a really jarring feeling.”

The stress of life in Cambridge can make things harder. “Cambridge forces you to adapt rather than deal with things,” Amber tells me. “I think to myself: I just need to make this work.”

The University Counselling Service has been one source of solace. “Talking to someone prevents spiralling into the weird dark hole that your room can be.” But, like many students, she complains of long waiting times.

Her addiction is isolating. “I feel far away from everything,” she says despondently. She has friends and family, but doesn’t talk to them about it. “I don’t want them to strap me down and throw my stuff away. It’s easier to exist from a distance.”

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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