Silicon Valley is widely known as a hub of innovation. Those who are familiar with this small, southern division of the San Francisco Bay Area know that it has been the home of a significant number of start-up global technology companies. Included among them are Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google. Within the walls of these, and other, enormously profitable organizations, you’ll find some of the most brilliant minds at work. Groundbreaking inventions are a daily occurrence. Massive discoveries… the norm. Silicon Valley is a place where boundless ambition is not only valued and rewarded, it is embraced as a way of life.
Coping With The Pressure Of The Work Culture In Silicon Valley
It is clear that while many outsiders may view the Silicon Valley subculture through a similar lens, not all employees in Silicon Valley are the same – they approach their experiences differently. When New York Times published a scathing criticism of Amazon’s workplace in August 2015, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos quickly responded via company memo – “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.” Another Amazon employee, Nick Ciubotariu, took to LinkedIn to refute the assertions made in Times. He stated that “if Amazon was the type of place described in this article, I would publicly denounce Amazon, and leave.”
Although Bezos and Ciubotariu disagree, some refer to Silicon Valley’s work culture as a “pressure cooker.” A 2015 article published by Computer World stated that “People working in Silicon Valley may cry at their desks, may be expected to respond to emails in the middle of the night and be in the office when they’d rather be sick in bed.” The Valley has a reputation for expecting a newness, hotness, and energy that far exceeds that of the average American. Techies in the Valley are called upon to bring it – and to bring it quickly. They’re the reason for the newer versions of little (and big) devices that we take for granted, and that offer us the conveniences that make America what it is.
Admittedly, some Silicon Valley employees aspire toward being superhuman, exploring various levels of biohacking, described as “advanced techniques aimed at turbocharging your body for work.” The means through which many are finding their mojo? Caffeine and other stimulants. A 2014 article about mental illness and disability describes Silicon Valley’s dangerous cycle of working, partying, and drug addiction that threatens to unravel the region’s fabric of creativity and invention:
“Instead of resting after working hard, recovery is substituted with playing hard, ‘blowing off steam,’ and partying all night. This culture carries through to the internships, hackathons, crunch periods, and even the day-to-day work culture of tech startups and the gaming industry. As performance expectations rise, deadlines tighten, and 80-hour work weeks become the norm, stress and drug addiction rates in the Valley explode.”
Beyond the hoverboards and drones, there exists a growing epidemic of partying and illicit drug use spreading across Silicon Valley like a highly advanced, artificially intelligent wildfire gone rogue. Addiction is touching the untouchable, and bringing the movers and shakers to an abrupt halt. Examining the tiny region’s distinct subculture is like peeling back the layers from what, at first glance, looks like the real-life version of The Jetsons. This is the episode of “Where Are They Now” when we find out that George and Jane got divorced, Judy’s addicted to Adderall, and Elroy is hooked on crystal meth.
The Slippery Slope Of Addiction
The following are several of the most common drugs that business men and women are using and easily slipping into addiction from. Many times without even realizing it.
The first, most common stimulant used to increase focus is caffeine. Caffeine belongs to a family of drugs called methylxanthines, and is found in soft drinks, tea, coffee, and some pain relievers and cold/allergy medicines. By disrupting a neurotransmitter called adenosine, caffeine leaves users feeling alert and energetic. However, the body can quickly develop a tolerance, requiring larger amounts to have the same effects.
When caffeine no longer offers the edge that enables maximized productivity, some Silicon Valley tech workers are reaching for other brain-enhancing drugs such as nootropics. Nootropics have become a popular part of Silicon Valley’s biohacking surge. This particular stimulant comes in the form of a pill, and is said to “optimize [users’] bodies and basic functions, such as eating, for maximum productivity.” Although it has not been approved by the FDA, users see no harm. Most view nootropics as “nothing more than a replacement” for caffeine.
The use of Adderall as a performance enhancement drug has also become commonplace in the tech industry. Employees are taking on huge projects under rigid deadlines, which require that they remain awake for inhumane amounts of time. Adderall was developed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a structural abnormality in the brain that affects motivation, self-control, and focus. “Due to performance expectations so high they verge on parody, many people will mistakenly believe they have ADHD, describing their falling short of these expectations as symptomatic of a disorder instead of environmental stress,” says Cori Johnson of Model View Culture. She, and many others, are convinced that because of gross workaholism, Silicon Valley’s Adderall problem is growing.
The high-stress work demands have led to a dangerous progression of addiction to stronger substances.
Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)
One of the newest trends in Silicon Valley is microdosing LSD – taking the smallest possible dose, in order to experience its effects in a minimized way. Hallucinogens like LSD affect the brain in ways that its users claim enables them to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems. Psychedelic drugs stimulate serotonin receptors in the brain, impacting thought processes and mood by forming new ways of thought and communication. LSD causes the areas of the brain that usually function separately (such as mathematical cognition and emotional introspection) to suddenly overlap, blending thought processes that would otherwise remain compartmentalized.
This internal blending and overlap is like crossing wires within a device. Internally, it’s a mangled disruption of the body. To the user, however, it feels like a barrage of new ideas. Blockages and problems suddenly unfold, flooding the brain with sought-after solutions. For techies in search of the proverbial “aha” moment, drugs have provided the way, albeit temporarily, by disrupting the brain’s normal functioning and interrupting its patterns. Microdosing can seem like a safe way to get to the creativity without the chaos, but, as it turns out, it can be quite easy to take too much LSD and suffer from reduced levels of productivity and concentration.
In 2014, Patrick May and Heather Somerville of San Jose Mercury News wrote of Silicon Valley’s illicit drug addiction problem, stating that “…when the pills are no longer enough, people turn to heroin – first to smoke or snort, and then to inject, because they build a tolerance and need an ever-greater dose to get the same high.” These harder drugs are no longer cloaked with the stigma that once narrowed their user demographic to junkies on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Richer kids just get cleaner needles, and popping their pills in nicer apartments. The physical effects are the same.
May and Somerville spoke with “Eddy,” a recovering addict and longtime tech worker in Silicon Valley. Eddy, who used an alias to preserve anonymity when speaking of his participation in Narcotics Anonymous, said the following:
“What I’m seeing at meetings is a lot of people getting hooked, courtesy of their doctors… You see very few of the old-school addicts; most of these are college-educated folks who either started abusing pain meds after an injury, or because of the stress of these tech jobs they start doing cocaine to stay up and oxycodone to relax. Working 80-hour weeks and making crazy money extracts a horrible toll on you.”
As stress intensifies, so can the need for substances to maintain the extreme lifestyle. According to Steve Albrecht, a San Diego consultant teaching substance abuse awareness to employees in the Bay area, “These workers stay up for days and days, and many of them gradually get into meth and coke to keep going. Red Bull and coffee only gets them so far.”
Crystal Methamphetamine (Crystal Meth)
Crystal meth enables its users to push their bodies to limits they otherwise would be unable to endure. It feels like a quick rush of more energy, and a heightened sense of well-being and euphoria. Hunger is decreased, resulting in extreme weight loss. This is because higher levels of dopamine are generated the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter connected to motivation, pleasure, and motor function.
The thing about altering the brain’s normalcy is that it can quickly turn on you. What begins as a sense of clarity and certainty can, without notice, transition into a severe case of paranoia accompanied by feelings of extreme terror, panic, and psychosis. This is what’s called a “bad trip.” In addition to paranoia, addicts (because crystal meth is highly addictive) suffer from insomnia, confusion, and anxiety, which displays itself through volatile mood swings and violent behavior.
Meth addiction is also characterized by hallucinations, both visual and auditory, as well as delusions. A common delusion encountered by crystal meth addicts is the feeling of insects crawling on or under the skin. At its worst, meth can kill. The heightened blood pressure and increased heart rate has led to brain damage, heart attack, and stroke.
Although treatment can help people overcome addiction, the manipulation of dopamine in the brain can result in permanent psychosis or depression. Crystal meth abuse “resets” the function of dopamine, making it much more difficult for people to enjoy pleasure and reward, even if they are no longer using. The brain cells get so worn out from the artificial high during drug use that the person subsequently requires higher-than-normal amounts of dopamine to feel balanced. Chronic depression is most often the result.
The Perfect Storm Of Quick Success And Addiction
Initially, these drugs appear to be the Holy Grail of productivity. Who wouldn’t want to be smarter, quicker, and skinnier? But, like many quick fixes, there can be long-term side effects that leave users so incapacitated that they’re landing in rehabilitation facilities across the nation. Silicon Valley has, according to May and Somerville, brewed a potent cocktail that combines “newly minted wealth, intense competition between companies and among their workers, the deadline pressure of one product launch after another and a robust regional black-market drug pipeline.”
The scary truth is that despite scientific proof of possible peril, the use of certain drugs among innovators has become dangerously normalized. In the worst cases, the high is short-lived, and people return to the stresses of work dependent and desperate for more. In extreme examples, euphoria morphs into psychosis, weight loss becomes malnutrition, energy turns into erraticism. Some young techies who once found themselves toasting to a better future are becoming nauseous and sleep deprived patients in rehab facilities, staring in the mirror at their decayed teeth and lesion-laden skin. They’re confused, wondering what happened.
Tips To Emerge From Addiction
For those who have found themselves dangerously steeped in the world of drugs and addiction, there is hope. Here are some ways to begin the process of emerging into sobriety and health:
- Beware of your triggers. HALT is a commonly-used acronym – meaning Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired – that describes the triggers that most often lead to the urge to use. Do your best to find a healthy alternative to addressing the following:
- Hungry: A simple solution to hunger is to eat something. Often easier said than done. If you have a busy schedule, it may require some planning ahead. Having healthy meals and snacks accessible in the middle of a full day can ease at least one of the challenges that can lead to substance abuse.
- Angry: Beware of your emotions. Anger can be one of the most difficult ones with which to deal, so finding ways to relieve it is imperative when one commits to getting clean. Take a walk. Take several deep breaths. Practice meditation.
- Lonely: Interestingly, loneliness has nothing to do with whether or not you’re surrounded by people. John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, studies and treats loneliness in patients. His most simple bit of advice is to find a buddy, someone with whom you can build a friendship, and enjoy positive times together.
- Tired: Quality sleep is vital. It cannot be replaced by a tasty cappuccino or, at worst, a mind-altering substance. Losing sleep can do far more than enable you to get the job done. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep deprivation is linked to “an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.”
- Decide to make a change. Write down the reasons you want to change. Reading this will remind you of your commitment during times when you feel weak or discouraged. Tell someone you trust so that they can help to hold you accountable.
- Get support. Overcoming addiction is a challenging, sometimes excruciating journey. Most are unable to do it without help. Addiction treatment programs should be customized for you as an individual, so beware of anyone who tries to sell you on a one-size-fits-all recovery plan. The support you receive should be as unique and specific as you and your story.
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