A few weeks into her first City job, Lucy da Silva was invited for drinks after work with colleagues. She was 23 and an impressionable receptionist for a bank. They were wealthy, mostly male, traders.
After she’d drunk two glasses of wine, one offered her a line of cocaine — a drug that Lucy had ‘always been afraid of’. But, she says, ‘my inhibitions were lowered and I wanted to fit in’.
Within minutes of snorting it in the toilets of a London bar, she felt ‘indestructible’. She adds: ‘It felt as if I’d found the answer to life. I wondered why I’d never done this before.’
That single fateful step slowly turned into a weekend habit, then a midweek crutch, before becoming a full-scale addiction that cost £100 a day, drawn out of a credit card. ‘My life fell apart. My body was ravaged and cocaine turned me from being bubbly and outgoing to angry all the time,’ says Lucy, 37.
Antonia Hoyle looks into why so many women are dying after having taken cocaine, which has become far more readily available and for a fraction of the price it used to be sold for (stock image)
She was living the fast-paced, dangerous life currently being portrayed in BBC drama Industry, which follows young investment bankers through the extreme demands of their work — and leisure. The series, which started this week, shows characters using cocaine and other recreational drugs to cope with the pressure.
Lucy is now certain she is only alive because she finally went into rehab after eight years: ‘I would have died otherwise.’
She is one of the lucky ones. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that although more men are still dying from the drug, cocaine use killed 148 women last year — up from 19 in 2010. Cocaine deaths rose for the eighth year in a row.
Campaigners fear females are more at risk because addiction services are often male-dominated spaces that intimidate women, while mothers may be worried to seek help in case their children are taken away.
And even if the drugs themselves are not lethal, the lifestyle they bring can be. Cocaine dealer Aminul Islam was sentenced to ten years in jail last week for a brutal assault on solicitor Joanna Ogden. Joanna, the 32-year-old daughter of an Old Bailey judge, invited Islam into her home to deliver drugs — and was left with a fractured eye socket.
Luc da Silva (pictured) said that her addiction to cocaine was so bad that she was spending £100 a day on it and was living off of a credit card
So why does cocaine appeal to so many women in the first place — and why is its hold growing ever stronger?
A stimulant, cocaine can create an illusion of control and confidence that women in male-dominated industries find useful — at first. In their social lives, it facilitates a gender role reversal. Users say chatting up men and articulating desire becomes easier when high. Then there is the fact that, although cocaine can cause heart attacks and psychosis, most users can initially continue to function. Successful women juggling jobs, marriage and motherhood often keep consumption a secret.
And unlike alcohol, which is a depressant, cocaine offers an energy boost — until the paranoia and depression kick in.
‘Cocaine is normalised in industries such as media, fashion and banking. It gives women a false sense of power that they can be better at work, earn more and project an image of perfection,’ says Lucy, from Letchworth, Herts.
She retrained as a psychotherapist after her recovery in 2016 and now treats women who are as addicted as she was. ‘I have also seen women who use cocaine for weight control, like I did. I knew if I took it I wouldn’t want to eat.’
Married to Alex, 40, a life coach, with whom she has a daughter, Ruby, two, Lucy suffered from a binge- eating disorder throughout her teens. ‘I felt I needed to look better to be accepted,’ she says.
Her self-esteem issues, combined with her junior status at work, made the cocaine hard to turn down on that first Thursday night — the day many City workers go out.
The drug freed her from what she saw as a ‘female’ compulsion to please: ‘Cocaine gave me a sense of separation from a life of trying to be perfect. When I took it I didn’t care about anything. I thought I was a goddess.’
Colleagues introduced Lucy to dealers, who would meet her wherever and whenever she wanted with just one quick call. ‘The anticipation outweighed any sense of fear,’ she says.
At first, she continued to show up for work on time, dressed in pristine suits. But by her late 20s, when she’d worked her way up to executive assistant for a brokerage firm on £50,000 a year, cracks started to show: ‘I wasn’t sleeping. I was calling in sick, turning up late and disappearing for hours in the middle of the day because I couldn’t focus.’
By age 30, she was taking up to two grams a day — equivalent to dozens of lines of the drug, when just a few have the potential to kill a new user through heart attack or stroke — while drinking vodka and wine most nights.
‘After rent, all my money was going on cocaine,’ she says. ‘When my overdraft ran out, I was living on a credit card, which I’m still paying off.’
She adds: ‘I didn’t look well. The light behind my eyes went out. I was 8st and too skinny and I cried every day, which I thought was normal.’
She recalls one Monday morning in 2014 waking up in Manchester after a night out and telling her boss she had to work from home. ‘I said my dishwasher had blown up, but I was so out of it that on the train back I posted pictures on Facebook that revealed my location.’
After colleagues saw them, her boss told Lucy her behaviour was unacceptable. Yet she was so deeply in denial that when she finally saw her GP a few days later, she simply told him she felt depressed, without mentioning her drug use, and was signed off work sick. The decision backfired. ‘My validation came through work and my identity was gone,’ says Lucy. ‘I had a breakdown.’
Billie Dee Gianfrancesco (pictured) said she used to pick men up, while high, after work and have sex with them in hotels before going home to her husband
For ten days she sat in her flat taking cocaine and drinking, until, after passing out one night, she returned to her GP and told the horrifying truth. He referred her to the Priory — a rehab centre paid for by Lucy’s work health insurance.
By then, her situation was dire. ‘I had bruises all over my body from falling over high. I felt sick, had shakes and my whole body hurt.’
Discharged after 28 days, she attended addiction counselling and weekly meetings.
In 2016, she started a Master’s degree in Addiction Psychology at London’s South Bank University — the same year she met Alex.
‘I realised I wanted to help others,’ says Lucy, who resigned from her job the following year: ‘I didn’t drink or take drugs any more. I didn’t fit in.’
She qualified as a psychotherapist in 2018. ‘Like me, none of the women I treat realised how quickly cocaine could grip them,’ she says.
Campaigners are worried that some women are dying from cocaine needlessly purely because they feel too intimidated to approach male-dominated addiction services (stock image)
Part of the problem is the drug is more affordable than ever, costing around £50 a gram compared with £150 in 1989. And whereas cocaine use was once largely limited to the capital, that is changing thanks to a rise in ‘county line’ gangs delivering drugs around the UK — as Lizzie Wise, from a quiet Derbyshire town and a heavy cocaine user until last spring, explains.
‘Drug use here is normalised — everyone either does it or has a friend who does it, and they’re people with good backgrounds and careers,’ explains Lizzie, 24, who was first offered the drug in 2016 by two managers at the IT company she’d recently joined as an admin assistant.
They were on a networking night out when the 30-something men pulled out the drug in front of Lizzie. ‘I wanted to make a good impression,’ she says. ‘I was shy. It made me feel more grown up.’
Within months, she was buying cocaine from a dealer and taking it four times a week. At first, she managed to hide her habit from her boyfriend of five years. ‘I’d do it when he was working late, and have a bath afterwards so it looked like I’d gone through my usual night-time routine,’ she says.
But the resulting anxiety and irritability meant she started missing work, while her boyfriend found empty bags of cocaine in the rubbish and begged her to stop: ‘I was snappy and picked arguments. He threatened to leave.’
Lizzie was on her final warning at work and getting through three grams a week last summer when she discovered she was pregnant — an accident that she says ultimately saved her.
Determined to get clean, she resigned so she’d no longer be around drugs. Her son was born last December: ‘At first, I felt irritable from withdrawal symptoms, but my pregnancy was enough to stop me using it again.’
Yet finance manager Lesley Weston, 30, from Bournemouth, controversially believes cocaine is safer than alcohol, which she gave up seven years ago after ending up in hospital with alcohol poisoning.
‘When I was drunk I’d cry and have blackouts,’ says Lesley. ‘With coke you feel in control. You don’t get memory loss. I find drunk people irritating now.’
She and her partner, an engineer, have a combined income of £100,000 a year and insist they can afford the £300 a month they spend on cocaine. ‘I work 50-hour weeks — this is a treat for myself.’
The psychology graduate says the first time she was offered the drug, on a night out three years ago, she rediscovered an energy she thought she’d long since lost. ‘I had been tired after work and planned to go home at 10pm. Instead I was out until 4am. It was like being back at university.’
She says some bars in Bournemouth turn a blind eye: ‘They almost encourage it. You’re not searched, and there are no toilet attendants.’
With bars and clubs closed during lockdown, you might expect cocaine consumption to have decreased. But it seems just as alcohol abuse has soared, so too has cocaine use. Police data released in June shows drug offences rose by 27 per cent in the early months of the pandemic.
‘My guy [dealer] says business has tripled, because people are stressed,’ says Charlotte Cooper, 40, a waitress from Norwich who has been taking cocaine for four years — her concession to coronavirus being to snort the drug through a disposable paper straw rather than a bank note.
Charlotte, who suspects she is perimenopausal and takes cocaine for the energy it gives her, says the drug is rife among her colleagues in hospitality. ‘It keeps you going. Almost everyone I know takes it.’
She apparently also feels sexier when taking cocaine. ‘You get a tingling and want to touch someone,’ she says.
But the drug skews sexual judgment and destroys relationships — as former cocaine user Billie Dee Gianfrancesco, 30, attests. ‘You feel like superman — it is quite empowering for a woman,’ says Billie, from London. ‘But the next day I’d feel like death. I hated myself.’
A PR director who started taking cocaine aged 22 and by 2018 was using a gram a day, she adds: ‘It got to the point where I couldn’t have sex unless I was on coke.’ She admits she even used to pick men up after work, while high, and have sex in hotels before heading home to her partner of eight years.
At first, her boyfriend, who works in publishing, was aware she was taking cocaine. But by her mid-20s, when it became more than a weekly occurrence, Billie started hiding her habit.
‘I’d keep my supply in the bedside drawer. I’d wait until he went to work and do a line in the morning. The secrecy ruined our relationship and we split in 2017.’
She shrank from a size 10 to a size 6. ‘When I realised how much it suppressed my appetite I became addicted to being tiny,’ says Billie.
She managed to keep her habit a secret from her mother, the TV presenter Trisha Goddard, and her sister, a mental health nurse.
It was only after Christmas Day with her family in 2017 that Billie admitted she had a problem: ‘I kept going to the toilet to have a hit, instead of focusing on family. The next day I felt awful.’
Soon afterwards she called a mental health crisis line while high: ‘I was hysterical.’ She was referred to an NHS recovery unit, where tests revealed a combination of cocaine and alcohol had created a toxic chemical called cocaethylene that meant her liver was failing. ‘The doctor said if I continued, I’d be dead in a few years. It was the wake-up call I needed.’
Her mother simply couldn’t believe any of it was true at first. ‘She saw me as successful. It took two months to get through to her that I’d kept it secret because I didn’t want her to be ashamed, and now she’s supportive.’
Clean for nearly three years, Billie still has urges for the drug. ‘They’re triggered by stress and a desire to escape my own head.’
And she warns that if the drug can tempt her, it can tempt any woman: ‘I was a high achiever with a great career, and I was destroying my life.’
For details about Lucy da Silva’s psychotherapy, visit Happyaslarrygroup.com
Lizzie, Lesley and Charlotte’s names have been changed.
For help with issues relating to drugs, call the Frank helpline on 0300 123 6600 or visit talktofrank.com; or visit www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/drug-addiction-getting-help