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It’s not fame that Freddie Flint off is addicted to, it’s the rush

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

I have drugs on my mind. I’ve just read The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s bleak autobiography about doping in professional cycling. It contains more than enough about injections of the hormone EPO and bags of blood sitting in the fridge next to the milk, waiting to be transfused. But it makes surprisingly little mention of arguably the strongest, most addictive drug of them all: adrenalin.

We have just witnessed more proof of the dangerous draw of adrenalin. Last week, Andrew Flintoff, the former England cricketer, fought a professional boxer in Manchester. After finally escaping all the pain that comes with a career as a fast bowler, Flintoff volunteered to step into a professional boxing ring. Madness? Absolutely. Surprising? Less so. Flintoff has always struggled to maintain focus and self-discipline without the prospect of a serious adrenalin rush around the corner. He said his life was “drifting”. With cricket gone, he was searching for a new dealer.

Boxing offers the most guaranteed form of adrenalin: that which follows from being in real and immediate physical danger. The exchampion boxer Barry McGuigan, who helped train Flintoff for his fight, has described the unmatchable thrill of stepping into the ring. McGuigan is unusually well-adjusted but nothing in the rest of his life has come close to equalling it.

The new normal

It is much wider than boxing, or even sport. The distance between “normal” living and life fuelled by adrenalin is almost as great as the gap between sleep and wakefulness. After a real adrenalin rush, the rest of life resembles a somnolent haze. That is why depressives are often prone to adrenalin addiction. Indeed, Flintoff recently made a programme about depression that revealed his own struggles.

When I was a cricketer, I never thought of myself as being ruled by adrenalin. But I can now see that the veneer of self-control and rationality was quite thin. In my darkest moments, it was adrenalin that I relied upon. Once, just before the start of a crucial one-day game, I thought I wouldn’t be able to play at all. I felt swamped and exhausted by team politics and tensions. I was about to open the batting, and even after I’d put my helmet on – the final signal to switch into competitive mode – I felt only diffident emptiness. I went through my usual routine. I always tried to find a moment of peace before I batted, a mini-meditation. Not this time. I couldn’t escape feeling burdened and heavy, and my head sank against the wall behind me. It was one of the only times I walked out to bat expecting to fail.

I was rescued by a flash of confrontation early in my innings, followed by a surge of adrenalin. A chance remark by an opponent lit a fuse inside me. I suspect adrenalin can be fuelled by three different sources: first, the feeling of being on the stage; secondly, competitiveness or conflict; finally, the elation that comes with pushing your physical limits. Suddenly, all three were working together. Mental exhaustion gave way to alertness, heaviness was replaced by lightness, diffidence turned into sharp focus. If you’d told me when I’d been waiting to bat that I’d soon feel on top form, I would have replied that it wasn’t possible.

Even now, when I’m in the middle of a run of speeches in the space of a few days, I feel certain that I won’t be able to get “up” for the next one. But the surprising truth is that it is often much easier to get into performance mode when you are burned out than when you are fully refreshed and rested. The adrenalin, perhaps, remains nearer the surface when you’re tired: your mind, anticipating another emergency, is ready to respond with a shot of the drug that will get you through. In cricket, we used to use the phrase “worn in”, meaning just tired enough to play at your best. Paradoxically, I came to fear feeling 100 per cent healthy and rested. It was often accompanied by complacency out on the field.

The uncomfortable logic follows that you often perform at your best when you feel at your worst. And it is a cumulative phenomenon: deeper lows, higher highs. The point is that many people live almost their whole lives in that state of flux. They are literally addicts. Anyone who has visited an actor’s dressing room after a play will have been shocked to find not a star glowing with the elation of triumph, but a pale, ill-looking shadow of the person you’ve just admired on the stage. As the adrenalin drains away, you are watching a painful transition: from performer to civilian. The highs of alcohol may soon follow; but they will turn out to be an inadequate alternative. The only real solution is yet another performance. The same cycle of dependence applies in business, politics and the arts. The stage is universal –whether it is a boardroom, podium or concert hall.

Escape to victory

The adrenalin addiction can trip into potentially lethal self-delusion. That it has worked before does not mean it will keep on working indefinitely. Muhammad Ali overcame improbable odds to regain the heavyweight world title a record three times. They said he was mad to fight the younger, stronger George Foreman in 1974. But Ali suffered and triumphed. Why shouldn’t he repeat that pattern yet again against Trevor Berbick in 1981? It was an appalling spectacle: slowed in speech and step, punch-drunk and drowsy, he stood almost stationary as punches rained down on him. Why wasn’t he talked out of it beforehand? Because those gifted with unshakeable selfbelief don’t listen. That is what makes them great. And what makes them so vulnerable to terrible misjudgements.

Many have judged Flintoff’s motivation cynically, suggesting he is merely seeking for another dose of the limelight. Surely there are many easier ways – that do not involve risking being pummelled by professional fighters – for a celebrity to boost his public image?

No, the addiction is much more fundamental. It is not fame, it is adrenalin. I only hope he can find another, safer outlet. Sadly, only one result was more worrying than defeat last weekend and it happened: victory.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.