Speeding on the road to mother's ruin

Mother's little helpers were a feature of the 1960s, but now? Women wanting to lose weight after childbirth are mad for them. By Sophie Radice
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CAROLINE HAD been plump for a while. She had put a lot of weight on her small frame after her first baby and, a year or so after her second, few of her friends could remember her uncanny resemblance to Audrey Hepburn.

I hadn't seen her for a couple of months, but when she opened the door, she stood in pedal pushers and a small white T-shirt looking long-limbed and elegant once again. As we walked on the heath she talked vaguely about how she was eating healthily and taking a bit more exercise. But somehow it just didn't ring true. Caroline is just not the sort to deprive herself of anything and thinks that exercise is for boring, semi-religious types. When the truth came out it amazed me.

Caroline noticed that her nanny had lost masses of weight and asked her how. The newly svelte Australian girl came back from her room with a "wrap" of paper containing a white powder. Not cocaine but speed (amphetamine sulphate in this case). It shows how much Caroline wanted to get thin because rather than sack her on the spot, she asked if she could join this whizzy new weight loss programme straight away.

She and her nanny would snort some in the morning first thing, which would mean that they felt energetic and had no appetite for the whole day.

"In the evening I force myself to have a little something to eat and then we smoke some spliffs and come down," she explained. Seeing the horrified look on my face, Caroline became defensive. "Look, you drink lots of coffee don't you? Well, it's the same thing, really..." She only had good things to say about the drug, but later that afternoon she held my son upside down in the sandpit and didn't stop even when he started to cry. On the way home he told me that he never, ever wanted to see "that mad lady" again.

Fifties American housewives hoovering all night, Mods on "Dexys", long- haul air hostesses on Benzedrine and punks taking sulphate to pogo the night away - these are the stereotypes of amphetamine users, not wealthy, well-educated mothers of two with a weight problem. It seemed terribly old fashioned somehow, the thought of Caroline "going tweaky" (my American cousin's word for speed freaks) in north London just because she has gone a few sizes up the scale.

In the Fifties and early Sixties a lot of women relied on the legally prescribed amphetamines Benzedrine and Dezamphetamine to keep their weight down. They were extremely easy to get hold of because both were not only prescribed for obesity but a host of other symptoms such as seasickness and migraines. Students used it to help them get through exams and even Anthony Eden during the Suez crisis said that he was "living on Benzedrine".

Since the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1964, amphetamine-based drugs are prescribed mostly for narcolepsy and, paradoxically, to treat children with hyperactivity. Only in extreme cases of morbid obesity would a doctor consider a short treatment of slimming pills.

These days, women who want to lose weight through amphetamines usually have to do so through illegal means. One woman I know in her fifties works in publishing. She had a complete life change a couple of years ago when she and her husband split up. She got herself a much younger boyfriend and started on what she describes as a "second or third adolescence".

"I remembered speed from my Mod days," she says, "and also how quickly you could lose weight. My boyfriend got it from one of his friends and I started to use it at the weekends. I was thrilled when I lost two stone extremely easily. I felt sexier that I had done in years and for a while the elation of being thin carried me through the way I felt when I was not on speed.

"But then I began to suffer from chronic comedowns and got terribly depressed. I became really frightened about what I was doing when I started to get heart palpitations and I finally admitted all to my GP. He explained to me that amphetamines work on borrowed energy and that for a women of my age in particular, it was dangerous to be messing about with my metabolism like this. He also said that I would certainly put all the weight back on.

"Actually, he was wrong about that. I am still a whole lot thinner than when I started this `experiment'."

For another friend, aged 32, who now runs her own film production company, taking "speed" to lose weight had more serious consequences on her long- term health.

"I have a very close-knit bunch of female friends and every single one of us took speed at one time or another to lose weight. I took it at the beginning of a group holiday because I was fed up with feeling fat and had tried the conventional way so many times to no avail. I suppose I took it for about two weeks, and when I went back to work I had my first epileptic fit. Although I haven't had one for about a year now, I am sure that the combination of a lot of stress at work and using speed that brought it about."

Melanie McFadyean, author of Drugs Wise, feels that ill- effects of amphetamines are often brought about "not because of the drug itself, but because of the lifestyle that sometimes accompanies it; users don't eat properly and so debilitate themselves. Repeated and prolonged use of amphetamine can also provoke emotional disturbance."

It is well known that women will go to extraordinary lengths to keep their weight down, but speed is not actually the kind of drug to slip neatly and unnoticed into working or family life.

Most mothers should really think twice before taking something which could make them even more wound up and tense than usual around their families.