“On the day 4 years ago,” my Instagram notification reads. I click on it and my screen opens up to a picture of a group of students smiling at a dessert parlour. Among them is me. I take a screenshot and send it on the group chat.
Me: Do you guys remember this?
Zachary: Omg I can’t believe that was 4 years ago
Joshua: Good times ah
Jason: That was a good day
Me: I can’t remember any of it…
In fact, I can barely remember the last five years, I realise. I open my camera roll and scroll back to the summer of 2016—the last summer that I can just about recall. I spend hours observing the memories of the last half a decade. I come across pictures of myself at birthdays, graduations, weddings, parties, and more, yet I can’t remember being at any of them. I realise then, that I can’t remember the best years of my life. In that moment, I knew something needed to change.
At this point it had been six years since I had been diagnosed with endometriosis, a chronic condition in which tissue similar to that found in the lining of your womb begins to grow elsewhere in your body, causing debilitating pain, heavy bleeding, bowel and bladder issues, among a number of other symptoms. In my case, the condition is advanced and has spread to the outside of my pelvis, meaning my organs are now beginning to stick together. While the disease can be controlled with contraception and painkillers, or through carefully executed surgery, there remains no cure.
About a year into my diagnosis, and just after my first surgery in June 2017, my endometriosis pain became so severe that it prevented me from living any semblance of a normal life. At this point, I was in the midst of my undergraduate degree but had pretty much spent the last year in bed. Every aspect of my life had been affected by my diagnosis, from my studies and career expectations to my friendships and relationships.
“Just take ibuprofen and paracetamol regularly,” every doctor I would see told me—as if putting a plaster over a bullet wound was enough to fix it. By the time I found a doctor who understood the severity of my pain and genuinely wanted to help me, my condition had worsened significantly. I constantly felt as if there were dozens of sharp, heated knives scraping and stabbing at my pelvis.
“I’m prescribing you some dihydrocodeine.” This was the first time since my diagnosis that a doctor had been willing to prescribe me a medication that was stronger than those you would find in the aisles of every supermarket. It felt like a mini victory—although I didn’t want to be in pain, it was nice to finally find a doctor who believed that my condition was severe.
Unfortunately, the dihydrocodeine barely alleviated the pain. So, he doubled the dosage. And then tripled it. When that didn’t work, he prescribed me tramadol. And again, he doubled the dosage, then tripled it. But even then, the pain kept worsening. So, he prescribed me morphine. And just like that, it was January 2022 and as I sat there scrolling through my camera roll and reminiscing over the past, I realised I had been taking opioids every day since June 2017. As a result, I missed out on the best years of my life.
Although I had heard of opioid addiction through the broader media and from the portrayal of characters on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, I had never really considered it in the context of the real world. After all, it’s not like I was taking these painkillers recreationally. I had taken them for the last five years because I was in agony, and I didn’t want to be. Unlike the TV characters I saw making frequent trips to rehab or sneaking through the cabinets in their friend’s bathroom to try and score some more drugs, I didn’t display any of the stereotypical attributes of an addict.
Despite the fact that my pain was still very much there, and in some ways worse than ever before, I knew that if I stopped taking opioids, I could at least regain some control over my life. I did not want to spend the next few decades in a zombie-like haze, just drifting my way through life without actually taking it in. I wanted to be present.
But no one could prepare me for what would happen next. Having lived in severe pain for a long time and enduring multiple surgeries, as well as other medical procedures, I guess you can say I’m a pretty strong person—or at least I would like to think I am. But as I sit here today, I can say with certainty that opioid withdrawal is one of the most physically and mentally torturing processes that I have been through.
I had assumed that because I wasn’t ‘addicted’ in the traditional sense, like those characters in the films and TV shows I had seen, I would simply be able to stop taking them and go on with my life. But science does not discriminate. I had no idea that your body can form an addiction to opioids after just taking them for five consecutive days. I wasn’t aware that over 2,000 people died in the UK in 2021 as a result of opioids. And I had never been warned about the fact that it would take me over ten months of slowly reducing my dosage before I would eventually be free of opioids.
As I write this, it’s been seven weeks since I completely stopped taking opioids. This victory is bittersweet. Although I can already feel myself regaining mental clarity and energy, I also feel anger for the time I lost. While I know that by prescribing me these painkillers, my doctors were just trying to help me, I also wish that they would have warned me of the possibility of addiction and the brutality of withdrawal. But they aren’t to blame—the issue is much larger than them, or me.
34-year-old Radha from Leicester, UK, was also prescribed opioids as strong as fentanyl to treat her endometriosis symptoms. But after years of consecutive use, Radha noticed that these painkillers were having a significant impact on her mental wellbeing: “As soon as I started getting those suicidal thoughts, it scared me because I sat there with a bottle of morphine, fentanyl patches, and sleeping pills on my bed. And I thought, ‘this is not good. This is scary’.”
In that moment, Radha too realised something needed to change. She mentioned what she did next: “I spoke to one of my endometriosis friends at the time and told her I’m getting really horrible thoughts right now. And I said, I’m so reliant on these drugs and I can’t function without them, because they’re the only things that will relieve me of my pain. And then my friend told me to give that box of medication to my mum so that she would be in charge of making sure I only took them when needed.”
Since then, Radha has made the decision to completely stop taking opioids and gain back her quality of life. But like me, she was concerned by the casual attitude that healthcare professionals have when it comes to prescribing those with chronic issues such strong opiates. “It was never taken into consideration that individuals like me are taking these very addictive opioids without any thought about the effect it has on them,” Radha continued.
“There was no psychological support. There was no check-up. There was no one saying, ‘Let’s have a review of your medication after a couple of weeks’. I remember just having them give me some more and increasing it and increasing it. I just kept thinking, how long? How long do I have to keep increasing this? It was quite a traumatic experience, to say the least.”
In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared that the US was in the midst of an opioid crisis, with over 1.5 million people admitting they had an opioid use disorder in 2019 alone. And it seems that the UK is following in its footsteps, with the rate of opioid prescriptions having increased by 34 per cent in England between 2008 and 2018.
But why is it that people like Radha and I, who took opioids for valid reasons, were never warned about the potential side effects? Ewan Maule, Director of Medicines and Pharmacy at the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Board (ICB), spoke to me about why those from vulnerable communities are more likely to be prescribed the medication in question. “We know that opioids are frequently prescribed to more deprived populations and even more so in the North than in London, for example,” the expert shared. “And the same is true for people reporting their experiences with chronic pain.”
“So, putting all that together what we know is that, if you live in a deprived area in the North, you are more likely to experience chronic pain—and therefore take opioids and become addicted to and potentially die from the medication than if you live in a similar area in the South, or in a less deprived area,” Maule explained.
Fortunately, Radha and I were able to overcome our dependence on opioids despite never having been warned that this would be a possibility by our general practitioners or doctors. But what about other members of the chronically ill community who may not have the support or knowledge to allow them to make that step? Will they continue to spend the rest of their lives suffering?
Thankfully, it appears the National Health Service (NHS) is adamant about tackling this issue before the UK enters an opioid epidemic like the US. Maule enlightened me about the Painkillers Don’t Exist campaign, which “aims to raise awareness of the dangerous effects of long-term high-dose pain medication and empower people living with pain to make informed decisions about their health.”
“Opioids can be very effective at managing short-term acute pain, and in cancer or end-of-life pain. But when taken for longer than three months, they are unlikely to be effective and more likely to cause addiction and dependence on top of the underlying chronic pain,” the expert said. “We are about to launch a new phase of the campaign that will hopefully ensure nobody ends up in the position you did—everyone should have the risks discussed with them before they take opioids for any length of time.”
Even now, there are brief moments in which I feel a strong desire to give in—moments where the pain is so severe that all I want is to take a few tablets of tramadol. But then I think about how far I’ve come. I think about those ten months it took me to wean off opioids. I think about those five years of hazy memories. I think about that notification that changed everything.
“It was a rush. I wouldn’t compare it to a drug but I knew it was something I should stop but couldn’t,” an ex-crypto trader who invested a “big chunk” of his savings told SCREENSHOT. “It was the fluctuation of the market, to be honest. I’d see it going up and put everything I had in it, only for it to go back down again,” he continued. Asking to remain anonymous for fear of judgement from family and peers, the 26-year-old from Northern England recounts how he would spend many sleepless nights watching the market—a behaviour which ultimately impacted his mental and physical health.
From the criminal underworld of the early 2010s to mainstream public recognition in the 2020s, cryptocurrency has arrived and is here to stay. And it’s for good reason. Like most things in life, crypto and the blockchain is a double-edged sword: despite its damage to the environment, the digital currency can offer new and democratic ways of trading—void of centralised banks and governments. And yet, despite its nuances, it also has one crucial flaw that often goes unnoticed: the fact that such a volatile market can actually lead to addiction, with potentially destructive consequences.
“It’s definitely the most I’ve ever invested into something,” John Richardson, who has invested thousands into the coin XRP (also known as Ripple), told me. Although he affirmed he is not a crypto addict himself, Richardson mentioned that he actively encourages other people to invest. “A couple of weeks ago, I would’ve been $2,500 up—but we’ve had a bit of a crash across all coins since then. It doesn’t worry me though, I can stick around and wait for another rise.”
Others aren’t so lucky. “I lost everything, I couldn’t separate my feelings from the market,” a YouTuber who goes by the username Mate888 admitted in a heartfelt and unedited vlog—disclosing his devastating addiction to crypto investing. “I know for a fact there are so many people in the same shoes as I am and they don’t realise it.”
“If someone tells you that 99 per cent of people in crypto trading fail and one per cent make it, and you think you’re going to be that one per cent, I don’t know what to tell you. It’ll take years of time, a lot of sacrifice, heartache, sleepless nights and stress—only to find out that you can’t do it. You have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth it,” he continued.
“Addiction is a multifaceted struggle—when someone has reached a point of addiction, their decision making is often impeded,” said Andrew Harvey, a psychotherapeutic counsellor who specialises in addiction. “Trading in cryptocurrency can share similar processes to other behavioural addictions, for example, gambling, which we know, for some, is highly addictive.”
“[Crypto investing] can provide feelings of positive reward, highs, escape, change, excitement and a ‘fix’ or distraction from difficult experiences or feelings. All of these things contribute to its addictive and compulsive nature. For some, like gambling addiction, the negative consequences can be far-reaching and devastating,” Harvey went on to say.
Put simply, an addiction to cryptocurrency undoubtedly shares parallels with traditional gambling disorders. This is a view backed by multiple peer-reviewed papers, including a recent study published in ScienceDirect which concluded that “forms of speculative trading,” including cryptocurrency, “share similarities with gambling.” Published by researchers from the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of Lethbridge, the paper showed that decisions when trading are “often based on limited information, short-term motives for gain, and highly volatile and uncertain outcomes.”
But what makes cryptocurrency addiction, in particular, so dangerous? Answering this question opens up an entirely new can of worms; a topic that deserves a book in itself. So, to keep things brief, here’s a summary of what makes such a volatile market so dangerous for our mental wellbeing—and why social media and a lack of regulation are only making matters worse.
As the cliché goes, history repeats itself. To put into context the state of the crypto market in 2022, let’s jump back 30 years. There are huge similarities between the dotcom boom of the late 1990s and today’s pump and dump schemes, penny stocks and, to put it bluntly, our society’s unhealthy dose of optimistic speculation. This doesn’t mean that crypto and blockchain technology is totally useless either. In fact, there’s a good chance crypto will change the face of Web3 as we know it. However, investing now is akin to investing in the companies during the dotcom boom before it burst.
Herein lies the problem with the crypto hype train at present: it’s an experimentative market where no one truly knows which coins will rise to the top and which are doomed to fail. “It’s just speculative analysis. The vast majority of people that get involved with crypto do so because they’re speculating on price fluctuations, hoping it’ll go up,” explained Matt Zarb-Cousin, co-founder of Gamban—a software company that blocks their users’ access to online gambling sites and apps.
And it seems many share his view; a new study conducted by Gamban concluded that more than half of Brits deem crypto trading as a form of gambling. Zarb-Cousin continued by arguing that the vast majority of coins are “essentially just Ponzi schemes: you get people who buy into particular coins and then you have this sort of ‘crypto evangelism’ where they become ‘de facto salesmen’ for the currency. They want other people to buy into them, making the coin go up in value. Eventually, these ‘salesmen’ will cash out for fiat currency. It’s a complete paradox really; [their actions are] the opposite of their sales pitch, [which says that] these cryptocurrencies are the future.”
“If that’s the case, you’d think the logical thing to do would be to buy into the cryptocurrency and wait until the benefits come into fruition. In reality, however, they’re just treated as speculative assets—no one can really adequately explain how they’re going to underpin the internet of the future,” the Gamban co-founder elucidated.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t make a lot of money though,” Zarb-Cousin continued, drawing upon the vast amount of self-proclaimed ‘bitcoin millionaires’ who are now legitimately living an early retirement. “If you bought Bitcoin ten years ago and cashed out now, you would likely be a millionaire.”
It’s true, Bitcoin’s rise in value over the last decade has been astronomical. If you invested around $13 into the coin back in 2012, you would be at a whopping $38,490 now. “The high risk, fluctuating cryptocurrency market appeals to the problem gambler,” Chris Burn, a gambling therapist at Castle Craig Hospital—a Scotland-based rehabilitation facility that has recently added treatment for cryptocurrency addiction—remarked.
“It provides excitement and an escape from reality. Bitcoin, for example, has been heavily traded and huge gains, as well as losses, were made. It’s a classic bubble situation,” he shared. But the ambition of riding the wave to get-rich-quick remains just a pipe-dream for many, Zarb-Cousin added. “The vast majority of people lose their money—particularly if they combine [their trading] with some exchanges that offer leverage trading.”
There is also societal pressure which acts as wind to the flame of addiction. Let’s face it, the vast majority of people, myself included, would love to be rich. As the cost of living crisis—a result of a decade-long Tory-led austerity fuelled by the war in Ukraine—bites, more people are willing to invest in fluctuating markets in desperate hopes of a cash-out. This, married with the pressure men already face through the patriarchy to value themselves based on material assets, plays an important role in why crypto addiction is so widespread among the demographic.
As covered above, social media undoubtedly plays a part in influencing the especially vulnerable into the crypto market. Anyone who has spent time on the investor side of social media would be inundated with ads from crypto traders, eager to influence others into their newest coin.
With the correct branding, social media allows any layman to present themselves as a ‘crypto pro’. Algorithms also play a huge role in helping these ‘de facto salesmen’ target an engaged community vulnerable to cryptocurrency addiction. “Social media apps like TikTok are really geared towards this,” Zarb-Cousin highlighted in an interview with Gary Stephenson, an economist and former interest rate trader.
“The algorithm works in a way that if you watch a piece of content all the way to the end, it will start showing you lots more on that topic. It can really take you down a rabbit hole. The amount of content you can watch in a short space of time lends itself to almost conditioning. It can be very persuasive, particularly if you have made money in the past [through crypto],” he continued.
Modern-day gambling faces unique and multifaceted challenges. Unlike in the 80s when individuals would have to physically place a bet or use a slot machine, smartphones have enabled us to gamble in an easy and frictionless way. “Our mission is to try and build friction [between the user and gambling behaviour] when technology has broken it down,” Zarb-Cousin told SCREENSHOT.
“People become emotionally and financially [invested] into a project they don’t often fully understand. They’re being shown these videos over and over again by influencers already invested in a particular coin. It’s mainly people who have bought into the scheme and want to encourage others to do so to increase their investment.”
And it’s not just rogue crypto influencers buying into this trend either. Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian and Floyd Mayweather Jr were named in a lawsuit alleging that they helped promote crypto firm EthereumMax, which was found to allegedly make “false and misleading” statements that left investors with heavy losses.
According to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Instagram post regarding EthereumMax, which was shared with Kardashian’s then 250 million followers, may have been the most widely seen financial promotion of all time.
Yet, despite their concerns and repeated warnings, the UK government could suffer “limitless” losses as a result of crypto. As of today, crypto assets remain widely unregulated in the country. In a recent review, the Treasury announced “the intentions to consult later this year on regulating a wider set of crypto asset activities, in view of their continued growth and uptake worldwide.”
And so, despite such announcements, the crypto market remains widely unregulated—able to advertise its services freely without the obstacles that traditional gambling or investing markets face. “It’s an unregulated form of gambling that masquerades itself as ‘investing’ which is extremely dangerous,” Zarb-Cousin told SCREENSHOT.
This issue of regulation, or lack thereof, is a far-reaching problem. Last year, crypto firms launched a record-breaking promotional push in London, targeting millions of commuters with 40,000 adverts on billboards, tube stations and double-decker buses (which seems to be a bit of a trend). Watford FC is now even sponsored by Stake.com—a firm branding itself as not just a depository but a “crypto casino.”
And it’s not just limited to the UK either: in Spain, for instance, gambling advertisements have been banned yet replaced with crypto exchanges. In the US, entire stadiums are being sponsored by crypto firms, with LA’s Staples Center renamed after a cryptocurrency firm. “This legitimatises the market further,” Zarb-Cousin noted, “it makes it feel like a safe investment.” Likewise, the rapidly growing reliance on advertisement and sponsorship revenue from crypto firms means influential companies and/or figures will be less likely to speak about the negative impact crypto addiction can have.
Although cryptocurrency trading addiction shares similarities with traditional gambling, the issue is nuanced and varied, thus requiring a completely unique approach. Crypto may seem to have surfaced out of nowhere but it’s undeniably here to stay with more people investing in the market each and every year. According to the New York Digital Investment Group (NYDIG), 46 million Americans—equating to roughly 22 per cent of the adult population—own a share of Bitcoin. By 2025, financial analysts say, the global blockchain market will grow by $39.17 billion.
Although not everyone who invests in the market will display addictive tendencies, this is, without a doubt, a far-reaching issue which needs urgent addressing. “There is a growing risk that cryptocurrency will fill the void from the crackdown on other gambling companies,” Zarb-Cousin concluded, warning of the danger of having crypto firms plastered on stadiums, over football team shirts, bus shelters and Instagram feeds.
But this is only one piece of the puzzle. Currently, the rapid growth of crypto tech has led the health service in a race to catch up. As of this current research, the NHS does not have any support specifically for cryptocurrency addiction. Services like Gamban, as well as countless addiction support groups popping up around the world, are helping to soften the blow—yet to adequately address this problem, a wider cultural shift needs to be made.
Yes, crypto and the blockchain have huge advantages for society. Yes, you can make a lot of money—providing you play your cards right. But the crypto market needs to be viewed just as you would a gamble, something to invest only what you can afford to lose and not as a stable way of making revenue. Until we change that—through restrictions on advertising, regulation and education—millions of people will feel the addictive grip of the market and thus suffer the consequences.