The phone on Jess Robinson's desk flashes incessantly when a line of ten stressed employees eagerly awaits his advice.
As an IT analyst in a 1,000 person company, Jess spends his work days running from one complex problem to another. And yet, he manages his workload perfectly, moving calmly from one crisis to another while still smiling.
She is impressively competent, but that does not just depend on her commitment and ability. Jess, 30, admits that she owes much of her imperturbable attitude to something quite unexpected: a harmless white pill. She swallows it before arriving at her London office, and lets her know about the day's problems.
The tablet that Jess takes is called modafinil, a medication licensed for patients with narcolepsy of sleeping disorder, but which is increasingly purchased online, without a prescription, to improve focus and concentration. Modafinil is the most popular of a new generation of & # 39; smart drugs & # 39; which is said to help brain function.
Studies show that one in 12 adults has taken smart medicines. Jess Robinson (pictured), 30, started taking modafinil two years to work as an IT analyst in a thousand-person company to help her keep up with the problems of each day.
Taken by students desperate to improve their test results, these prescription pills have now attracted the attention of an increasing number of high-flying professionals who hope to gain a competitive advantage and seemingly careless of the risks of taking a medication they do not need without supervision. medical .
You may never have heard of modafinil or other similar pills to increase the brain, but its use is now so widespread that a recent study found that one in 12 adults has taken smart drugs, and most experience in the workplace.
Many are middle-aged, afraid of diminishing memory or energy levels or simply trying to keep up with younger colleagues.
However, experts say that users are risking their health in search of a fast promotion and that they are opening a Pandora ethical box: if your colleague is using a medication to improve his performance, will he feel obliged to do so? same with Hold? And is it really fair for your colleagues to deceive themselves illicitly to get ahead?
Then, there is the question of what we mean by "more intelligent". Experts worry that the improvement of one type of thinking can wreak havoc in other areas. However, users say it is vital for them to take an advantage.
"In modafinil I feel alert, in a wave of productivity," says Jess, from London. I can work faster, for longer. My boss thinks that I am naturally high functioning. He has no idea that he is chemically assisted.
"I feel more motivated," he adds. "My shifts are up to 12 hours a day and my work is very pressured.Fashionfinil not only helps me concentrate, but also suppresses my appetite, so I do not need to stop to eat."
In this digital age, where employees are expected to work more and more hours and are permanently on call, it is obvious why Jess could succumb to temptation.
Modafinil has been shown to improve decision-making, problem solving and creativity, while recent research by experts at Harvard and Oxford universities has described it as the first "safe" smart drug, with no short-term side effects. .
The long-term impact of modafinil is still unknown, but Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones observes heart palpitations and elevates blood pressure among known side effects.
However, other research suggests that it could be a habit, since it is believed to stimulate the production of dopamine, the happy hormone in the brain.
So, can you describe the use of a medication to stay on top of the job as insurance? After all, the long-term impact of taking modafinil is, until now, unknown.
"Over the past decade, psychoactive medications like modafinil have become much more available because of the Internet," says Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
"But even though we know a lot about the benefits of modafinil for a medical condition, we know relatively little about the potential damage when it is misused."
He adds that known side effects include "high blood pressure, gastrointestinal upset, headaches, heart palpitations and worsening of existing mental health problems".
Then there are the dangers of ordering any drug online, not to mention the fact that despite all the fanfare surrounding modafinil, experts are still not sure exactly how it works.
I try to take it only twice a week, when I think the work will be particularly stressful. If I took it every day, I would have a collapse
"Online pharmacies and illegal sellers have opened routes for those seeking cognitive improvement," adds Dr. Bowden-Jones. "Despite not having health warnings, quality control or medical supervision, some people seem happy to take the risk of what they perceive as a short-term boost in brain function."
In fact, millions of professionals driven seem indifferent. Jess, a graduate in computer science, who admits that her habit twice a week has left her nervous and unable to sleep the days she takes her, is a good example.
A yoga devotee who would never dream of taking recreational drugs or drinking heavily, modafinil is his only vice. For her, it is not about fun but, as she says, about "personal improvement and control". It is, she insists, "an effective tool to improve my work performance".
She experimented with the drug to meet the deadlines at the university, but began to take it regularly only two years ago, two years after her current job at a well-known British company.
Jess (in the photo) says that taking modafinil has made her nervous and unable to sleep the days she takes her. She heard for the first time about the drug from a friend who orders them from the dark web
"It was my first" career "job, and I did not want my mind wandering," he says. "As our team receives salary increases based on the performance of the group, there was pressure to achieve for my colleagues." He had relied on coffee to continue, but it worked only to a certain degree.
Jess heard about modafinil from a friend who works in the technology industry and orders packages of 20 tablets for £ 35 through the dark web, a part of the Internet that allows users to remain anonymous.
She describes it as an unregulated version of eBay, and the drug is sold only by name without a description of what it does. Her providers never reveal her whereabouts, but she suspects that, of the five days it usually takes her supply to arrive, most are based in Europe instead of beyond.
The medication is dispatched without questions and arrives in a Jiffy bag containing a white plastic bag with white pills.
How many students use smart drugs?
In 2015, it was reported that a quarter of students used smart drugs to increase their academic performance
Although it is not illegal to buy these medications online for personal use, it is illegal to provide them without a prescription.
It seems extraordinary that Jess is willing to take tablets from whose origins she knows nothing. However, she says: "Friends bought them in the same places, I feel like I know what I get and, as a prescription, it's low risk."
But experts say he is not understanding the point. Studies show that falsification of medications is common online, which means you may not actually be taking modafinil.
"These pills may seem convincing, but they can contain very variable doses, harmful impurities or substitute chemicals to mimic the original drug but with greater risks," cautions Dr. Bowden-Jones.
"The use of counterfeit drugs bought online can send risks to nothing, you really do not know what you are buying."
Modafinil, prescribed in the UK under the Provigil brand name and licensed to treat narcolepsy in 2002, has been shown to affect the neurotransmitters GABA, glutamate and histamine, which send chemical messages through the brain. But, says Dr. Bowden-Jones, "it's not clear exactly how it works in these systems."
Jess (pictured) does not know who the suppliers of her modafinil are, but she says she feels the risks are low, since they are a prescription drug.
One theory is that it increases blood flow to the brain areas responsible for attention and learning; another that improves activity in areas that manage memory and problem resolution. Jess takes the drug just before going to work and notices the effects within an hour.
"The external effects are subtle," says Jess, who has lost half a stone since he started taking modafinil.
"You would never know that he had taken something from me."
Critics of smart drugs say that taking them gives users an unfair advantage, an allegation that Jess denies. "I'm not the only one who does it," she says. "If others want to do it too, there's nothing to stop them."
And there is another side to deal with. "Four hours after taking it, I start to feel irritable and nervous," he admits. "I worry and think too much about problems, it takes more time to solve simple questions.
On a day when she took modafinil, she can not sleep: "Sometimes I stay awake until 4.30 in the morning, I feel bad the next morning and I know that modafinil would offer an easy solution, but I do not want to feel like I have a problem, so I try to take it only twice a week, when I think the work will be particularly stressful, if I take it every day, I would collapse or end up in the hospital, I know it is not sustainable in the long term. "
You would never know that he had taken something from me
It has not even been proven that modafinil is effective for long periods. "Most of my patients experience better concentration when they take it as their sole," says Dr. Bowden-Jones. "But they often say that the benefit disappears if they use modafinil regularly."
Not that this discourages Gemma Williams, 34, who says she takes modafinil to excel in her work as a researcher at a technology company. "I was easily distracted and missed deadlines and promotions, my mind was always in a thousand different things, and when I had to fill out time sheets I could not account for my time," says Gemma. "The technology industry is constantly evolving, and I felt I had a low performance."
Her smartphone, with its attractive applications, further reduced her concentration, so after reading about modafinil online three years ago, Gemma visited her GP to discuss her concentration problems and request a prescription. "He said I was very scared and I refused," she says.
He made the decision to "self-medicate", investigating the numerous points where you can buy the drug online in one of the countless forums dedicated to the merits of various smart drugs, or "nootropics", as they are known.
Jess (pictured), who has lost half a stone since taking modafinil, says he notices the effects of the drug within an hour after taking them.
Gemma settled for a recommended website as a "tried and tested provider," openly promoting the drug as one that would improve "alertness and concentration."
It seemed to be British, with a domain name co.uk, and bought a box of 30 pounds of 30 pills called generic modafinil & # 39; (the cheapest and unbranded version of the drug).
An "anxious" person who does not touch recreational drugs and barely drinks alcohol, Gemma admits that she was "terrified" that she got into trouble and "scared" of possible side effects.
But she says: I reminded myself that this was a prescription medication. Other people I know take cocaine to give them the energy to work the long hours that are expected in my industry. Everyone wants to be a star. We are expected to be available every hour and sometimes we work 12-hour days. At least this was pseudolegal.
Three days later, his medications arrived in a package that had a Spanish postmark. "They seemed totally legitimate and within an hour I felt that my brain worked better than it had for years," he says. "I was excited". He started taking modafinil once every fortnight, every time he had a great presentation or an important deadline was due.
My work output quadrupled every time I took it
"My work output quadrupled every time I took it," says Gemma, from London. "My boss was delighted, and as a result I was offered more challenging jobs, it has definitely helped my career."
She keeps her habit a secret from her friends, for fear of being responsible for introducing a substance to which they might react badly, and admits that her two-year-old boyfriend, a media administrator, "is not happy" that she uses modafinil.
"He thinks that buying drugs online sounds unreliable and says that if I put my mind to it, it could be just as productive without them." But I've tried and I'm not. "
After four hours, Gemma, like Jess, gets nervous when the drug disappears. "I talk constantly, and although no one has mentioned that I am acting strangely, I have told people that I have had too much coffee if I think I am strangely," she says.
The nervousness lasts only about half an hour, but other effects persist.
Charlotte Owen, 33, receives at least one box of 30 capsules per month. She says that drugs give her confidence and help her eliminate inhibitions subtly (file image)
"For a week I can not sleep well, which greatly undoes the benefit of taking it, and I fall into a cycle of swallowing sleeping pills to counteract the effects, sometimes my GP gives them to me, but if they refuse, arrangement with over-the-counter tablets. "
However, he insists, the benefits outweigh the symptoms of abstinence in his competitive work environment and fueled by adrenaline. "When the deadline approaches, all you care about is finishing your job," he says.
Although modafinil does not leave the telltale signs of other drugs (for example, users do not slander or stumble), it still alters mood.
Charlotte Owen, 33, says taking modafinil has helped ensure her party planning business is booming, despite the parallel demands of raising two children, aged 12 to 10.
"As a working mother, life is stressful and modafinil gives me the energy to deal with that," says Charlotte, 33, who is from Newcastle and is married to a gym instructor.
A teetotaler of clean food, she heard about modafinil through a friend four years ago.
"In my circle, the use is endemic," she says. "Most of my friends have stressful jobs and small children, and many of us are using modafinil to help our careers."
Charlotte gets at least one £ 30 box of 30 capsules purchased online each month. Although it says that they have the name Provigil written on the box, that does not guarantee that they are genuine.
"They had the effect I expected, so I'm sure they are," she says, adding that modafinil helps her present a facade of confidence. & # 39; If I am hosting an event after taking care of children all day, it is expected to be the life and soul of the party.
"The other night I had to get up and sing happy birthday to the hostess of a party I did, naturally, I'm reserved, and without taking modafinil I could not dream of doing that.
"It gives me confidence and helps me get rid of my inhibitions subtly, it's like being drunk, but without losing control.
"Since I started taking it, word of mouth recommendations about my business have spread and my company has grown."
The greatest success, of course, brought with it the temptation to take more modafinil, and over the course of a year, Charlotte would swallow one before starting work each day, and often drink more as the effects began to disappear.
Its increased consumption has caused occasional heart palpitations. It's scary, it seems my heart is going to burst in my chest. I have to take deep breaths and sit down until they disappear, "says Charlotte, who also suffers from paralyzing insomnia.
"Last week, I spent the night cleaning the floors because I could not disconnect," he says. "I felt lonely, anxious and depressed, and the only way I could feel happy was to take another pill the next morning."
Her husband has told her that the pills are "dangerous" and tries to convince her to stop taking them. "So I hide them in my makeup bag and pretend that I do not take as many as I do," he says.
"It seems crazy, given the inconveniences, but I am addicted to the feeling of confidence that they give me and, without a doubt, they make me better in my work".
Some names have been changed.