In his trailer in the remote Shetland Islands — 12 hours by ferry from mainland Scotland — Steven Elphinstone stared at Bitcoin price charts for days and nights on end, looking for clues to the movement of the fleeting tail-shaped cryptocurrency being made on a ship. Viking dragon.
"You can have sleep deprivation, nutritional depletion, and then use substantive nutrition and a substance to cancel out the hallucinogenic aspect of sleep deprivation — at some point, your focus is so laser-like that you just can't help it." , he tells me.
Elphinstone, 49, is a former tunnel miner and claims to have bought and lost hundreds of bitcoins. He fueled his passion for graphics with Viking mythology, numerology and a cocktail of drugs: cannabis, LSD, mushrooms, amphetamines and ketamine. (With ketamine, "I really got transported into my charts," he says with a degree of glee).
He came to speak with Decrypt fresh out of his daily counseling session at Castle Craig , the world's first rehab clinic to treat cryptocurrency addiction. Therapeutic approaches to this all-new addiction are contested — but unquestioned is the growing interest in trading and cryptocurrencies, driven by lockdown isolation and the bull market.
Castle Craig's therapist Tony Marini says polls on admission to his crypto rehab program have increased about 10-fold since last year.
From gambling and drugs to bitcoin trading
Housed in an impressive 18th-century castle, the clinic is about 25 miles from Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, a country that hasmore drug deaths per capita than any other in Europe.
Marini, an elegant Scot of 56 years of Italian descent, is himself a recovering junkie. He became addicted to gambling, alcohol and cocaine as a teenager, and only changed his life about 16 years ago, but not before being plucked from the brink of death.
Marini believes the cryptocurrency trading is very similar to gambling and claims to be the first therapist to recognize the pattern: The journey to addiction goes through occasional negotiations and frequent wins — which fuel a craving for dopamine and lead to big fantasies. victories—even episodes of prolonged loss and a loss of prestige that results in isolation and withdrawal. Eventually, addiction can lead to illegal acts, disasters and sometimes even suicide.
“If you tell someone who trades in cryptocurrencies, 'so you are occasionally playing games of chance', they will say 'no, not me.' So take out the word game and say 'occasionally negotiating,'” he says, to make his point about the similarities between the two.
“Usually people start because they want to buy stuff from the dark web. And the only way to do that is with cryptocurrency.”
We sit in a windswept bank as he describes a former patient who was in the financial industry and started trading bitcoin in 2010. He picked up the craze and diversified into other cryptocurrencies. But he started to lose money and ended up embezzling over £1 million ($1.3 million) of his company's money.
“Usually people start because they want to buy stuff from the dark web. And the only way to do that is with cryptocurrency,” says Marini. "The biggest problem is this cross addiction [with cryptocurrency] starting — through drugs and alcohol."
Since 2017, Marini has treated 15 customers only for dependence on cryptocurrencies. He says that more people are often referred to Castle Craig for drug or alcohol addiction and then "their treatment often reveals other behavioral obsessions, most common among them being cryptocurrency addiction."
Eight or nine of the 50 clients currently at the clinic fall into this category. Typically, they have “a little money left” and are between 20 and 45 years old, he estimates as we walk through the expansive grounds of Castle Craig.
We passed llamas and a friendly pig. Branching out in all directions are tree-lined walkways with glorious panoramic views of the countryside and numerous outbuildings — the castle's former servants' quarters — where guests are housed. Finally, we arrive at the small pavilion dedicated to smokers, where some of them seem to be.
Marini nods and smiles at them. Nicotine and caffeine are pretty much the only drugs allowed for residents of Castle Craig — even their cell phone use is strictly limited to two hours a week.
“They're constantly on the phone, on the laptop, on the computer, whatever…watching the prices of these [cryptocurrencies] go up and down. And it's almost a crush when you take their phone and computer away from them; they get anxious, sweat into the palm of their hand and have panic attacks,” says Marini.
the journey of addiction
Castle Craig claims to be the only center to treat cryptocurrency addiction between 2017 and 2019. People come not just from Scotland and the rest of the UK, but from as far away as the US, Dubai, Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Treatment is not cheap. But the six-month Elphinstone rehabilitation was funded by the British National Health Service.
"I firmly believe that a 12-step program must absolutely exist for cryptocurrency addiction."
He is on his 58th day and is following a plan based on the 12-step program best known to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The plan is known as the Minnesota Model and is commonly used to treat many addictions.
"I firmly believe that a 12-step program absolutely must exist for cryptocurrency addiction," says Elphinstone, who jokingly refers to Castle Craig as "Crypto Castle."
But his therapists determine that, before addressing his obsessions with crypto, he must work through his drug and alcohol problems.
In 1971, oil was discovered in the North Sea off the coast of Shetland. In the 1970s, these camps were among the most productive in the UK and attracted thousands of temporary workers, along with Elphinstone's father. "I'm a baby in the oil industry," he says, and, alluding to a history of alcoholism in his family, "a kind of traumatic, generation-dependent person."
Elphinstone left Shetland for England and made good money working as a tunnel miner on large underground transport projects, which allowed him to invest. He started trading stocks and gold, diving into the dark web and bitcoin in 2015.
Between tunnel excavation contracts, he ended up taking charge of the company in Thailand. But after going through a personal trauma, he turned to methamphetamine and his entry into the world of addiction began in earnest.
Eventually, in late 2019, and at the start of the recent cryptocurrency outbreak, Elphinstone found himself unemployed and back in Shetland.
He became obsessed with adjusting patterns and often digresses from his narrative to pinpoint the numerical meaning of pricing dates and events. “I'm a shape analyst,” he says, as he rummages through a plastic bag that he says is always at his side and contains his staples: a newspaper, cigarettes and chocolate.
He has no bitcoin left, he assures you; in his drug-induced, erratic mental states, he scribbled the codes to access his cryptocurrency wallets on the walls of his trailer, without making the proper records. He was later evicted.
He claims that he also hid in Thailand a hard drive containing the credentials to access 20 bitcoin, but now the device is lost.
But he seems excited about the loss and still thinks he can figure it all out. He starts to imagine a future where he's clean, but earning a living as an analyst, through his bitcoin charts…
"Insanely insane!" interrupts Marini, who has quietly entered the room.
“He came because of drugs and alcohol and thought he would go back to cryptocurrencies when he got out of here,” the therapist later explains. "[But] we have to be very careful that cryptocurrency doesn't make people try again to escape their difficult emotions through drugs and alcohol."
What Marini finds most disturbing is that all the stories in the media are about people who made money: “We're not hearing about people who lost a lot of money. People are so embarrassed. They feel so guilty. They don't want to talk about it. They feel stupid.”
A recent survey of people who tried to stop betting showed that nearly 40% thought about suicide and 33% tried. According to Marini, three times more people commit suicide as a result of gambling than any other addiction.
So what should someone do if they think their cryptocurrency trade may be getting out of hand? Go to a place that treats your gambling addiction, says Marini. "The problem is that there is no funding available for people to go." Meanwhile, he added, "stakeholders make billions."
Exchanges also make good money out of it.
a second opinion
But not all therapists believe that gambling, cryptocurrencies, drugs and alcohol are so tightly intertwined.
“Although it is, in essence, a way of betting, it's not, either,” Thai addiction therapist Dylan Kerr told me in an email.
Kerr's clients range from troubled celebrities (he was the official advisor to British rock band The Libertines while they were on tour) to burned-out executives and cryptocurrency traders. Many of its customers live in Southeast Asia and the UK.
"One flaw I find currently is that many therapists are not familiar with the culture, they don't quite understand what it is."
“Some of my clients in the past have earned their revenue from cryptocurrencies, they are still investing in various software development and future developments in crypto, which of course can add a layer of complication to the subject,” he says.
“A flaw I find currently is that many therapists are not familiar with the culture, they don't really understand what it is,” he adds.
Cryptocurrency trading differs from gambling (and stock trading), he explains, through features that include its 24/7 availability, its volatility and the huge volume of social networking that it readily reinforces addicts' out-of-control tendencies.
After our conversation, Kerr put me in touch with Dan (not his real name), a client who lives in London, works in IT and lost all his savings when bitcoin crashed in 2018.
Dan attributes his misfortune to an addictive personality and investment rookie mistake: making big gains and assuming the market will grow forever.
“Social media fueled some of these bad decisions,” he says. “I think my thinking reversed and the new logic was more like 'I'm losing profits that could change my life by not betting all my chips on it,'” he explains via email.
He managed to keep things under control, but began to get involved in margin negotiations in 2019. To combat the boredom and anxiety of the lockdown era, he also drank more and smoked more marijuana. "I wasn't playing with as big numbers as before, but with smaller risky bets on leverage — in more repetitive or compulsive ways."
Then a family member advised him to seek help, and he found a private counselor who prescribed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Rather than labeling a person as an addict, as the 12-step program does, CBT aims to address overwhelming problems, breaking them down into smaller pieces and equipping addicts with strategies to address them.
Dan says he can relate to this as "it's a bit like a successful trading strategy." But he confesses that “[it's] really hard to stay out of the market when you look at the moves we've seen and the profits people are making. Some of the demonstrations of wealth you see on Twitter — wow.”
But with the paucity of statistics to indicate the scale of the problem, despair is less visible—unless, that is, you look for it amid tales of Viking longboats and unrecoverable losses at Castle Craig.
*Translated and edited by permission of Decrypt.co
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