Blame me for the rocks
And baby bones and broken lock
On the garden
(Sam Beam, Lilith’s Song)
In the 19th century, Thomas De Quincey wrote a memoir that some consider to be the first “addiction memoir,” although De Quincey never wrote of being addicted. He used one of the most common drugs of his day: laudanum. The ruby tincture—comprising the juice of the opium poppy (papaver somniferum) dissolved in alcohol—to which such flavors as nutmeg were added in order to mask the elixir’s bitterness, was common in the Victorian medicine chest. Laudanum was a panacea, used for ailments that ranged from menstrual cramps to bad coughs to diarrhea. Doses were measured out in drops that were added to water. Laudanum bottles bore labels that indicated that a tiny dose of two drops should be given to infants, while adults could safely take 30 drops, which equalled approximately fifteen milligrams of morphine. But laudanum also bore a red label that warned its users that it was poison if more than the recommended dose was taken. Too much laudanum depressed the respiratory system and could cause death.
In 1821, De Quincey wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but not for the purpose of talking about the ability of laudanum to control physical pain. He credited laudanum with easing the pains in his stomach and face that had first led to him trying it, but as Frances Wilson writes in her new biography, Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, he discovered that “the doors of perception could be cleansed by experiences other than poetry, that opium also offered ‘an absolute revelation of untrodden worlds, teeming with power and beauty, as yet unsuspected amongst men.”
De Quincey argued that it wasn’t the physical effects of opium that interested him. “[T]he opium-eater … feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramount; that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity; and over all is the great light of the majestic intellect.” Opium opened up the brain so that it could perceive the world in a more clear manner. It also expanded the ability of the brain. Wilson calls this a form of “synaesthesia, allowing him to see in the ‘elaborate harmony displayed before me, as in a piece of arras-work, the whole of my past life.”
While under the influence of opium, De Quincey achieved a doppelgänger effect, in which he could observe the person under the influence of laudanum while being that person, which is not unlike the experience of the memoirist who is able to make of the self a character subject to the writer’s imagination at the same time that the character controls the narrative. De Quincey wrote of himself under the effects of laudanum as if staring in a mirror, and he was insistent that the view was not distorted.
He wanted to emphasize, however, that being under the influence of laudanum was not the same as being intoxicated. He found something “vulgar” in drunkenness that was not there in the state of concentration he experienced. I found myself wondering if this wasn’t a reference to class. If drunkenness, a common affliction of working men and women in Victorian Britain, was vulgar, then the use of opium among the upper classes while common, was simply not remarked upon in the first half of the 19th century. Laudanum was a concentration aid to De Quincey, not something that led him to the sloppiness and slovenliness associated with the image of the drunkard.
The negative effects of laudanum, which he detailed in his memoir, all occurred in those times when he was trying to cut down on his usage. The physical signs of withdrawal that he mentions are sweating, terrible stomach pains, and “feelings such as I shall not attempt to describe without more space at my command.” He seems to be referring to the horrendous anxiety that accompanies withdrawal, including the skin crawl sensations that make one believe that there are spiders under one’s skin.
In dreams that revealed De Quincey as the colonial Englishman that he was, his opium-withdrawal nightmares drew him into a world that he considered to be the opposite of the clear-minded, expanded, rational thinking of opium. That was the world of the “oriental.” While DeQuincey credited Southern Asia as the birthplace of nations, he confessed that if he should be forced to “live in China and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad.”
What troubled him about Asia was its chaos and complexity, which he saw in conflict with the clarity that opium gave to him. (He dismisses the entire continent of Africa as “wild, barbarous, and capricious [in its] superstitions.) But he proclaimed himself so disturbed by Asia that he would “sooner live with lunatics, or brute animals.” He wanted his readers to understand this aversion to what he understood as the Orient so that they could understand why the dreams that came to him during opium withdrawal were so horrifying.
After detailing the levels of heat and light felt in the tropics, he admitted that, in his dreams, he conflated the heat of Egypt with China and then Indostan.
“I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatooes. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia; Vishnu hated me; Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris…” The dream continues with De Quincey locked in a tomb before kissed by “cancerous kisses” from a crocodile “amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”
De Quincey’s dislike of Asia thus became visceral; it was wedded to the physical sensations of withdrawal, and the horror of the nightmares he had when trying to cut down on his opium consumption.
DeQuincey’s disdain for Asia was especially pronounced when it came to China, which England went to war with twice in the mid-nineteenth century—in which the drug played a major role. Britain insisted that it be allowed to import opium into China, which did not itself grow drug-producing poppies. India did, and Britain sought to spread the profitable trade by forcibly opening the closed Chinese market. They went to war to do so, and while some British traders were troubled by the forced sale of opium in China, many saw it as opening an unfairly closed market.
What is especially surprising about Guilty Thing is that there is no mention of De Quincey’s role as propagandist for the Opium Wars. In 1857, he wrote China, a book rife with the worst racial stereotypes and racist reasonings for why China should be forced to trade with Britain.
If his worst opium withdrawal dreams were full of confused dreams of Asia, his polemics against the Chinese are the worst kind of “alternative facts.” At one point, in clear and dehumanizing error, he claims that the Chinese have no system of mathematics, writing, “Mathematics!—how could these men have, who had no navigation, no science of projectiles, no engineering, no land-surveying, no natural philosophy, nor any practical discipline that depends on mathematics?” His hatred of China is that of the addict’s hatred for withdrawal. One wonders if De Quincey was capable of separating them in his head.
Wilson wanted to write a “De Quinceyian” biography of De Quincey, to convey to readers an understanding of the young man who could find thrill taking drugs and in murder (On Murder as a Fine Art was De Quincey’s other major work from the same period when Opium Eater was produced). But De Quincey’s deep-seated hostility toward the “Orient” was reinstantiated any time that DeQuincey had to taper his opium consumption. That hostility later had real world consequences when his written polemic had political influence in the Opium Wars.
I am a daughter of Eve.
In Judeo-Christian mythology, when Eve ate of the forbidden tree in the Garden, G*d punished her with pain. For thousands of years of theological arguments, woman, as the vessel through which mortality and evil entered the world, was given the inferior qualities in a binary system that divided the world between male and female, good and evil, the spirit and the physical, truth and lies, death and life everlasting. Understanding this binary system is one way of explaining the systematic misogyny of a culture in which one of its Ur-texts begins with a genealogy of Jesus that documents 42 generations of fathers, but does not mention the mother’s bodies through which these male bodies passed.
As Leslie Jamison wrote in the “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” I am of the generation of “post-wounded women,” those women who have been told that female artists are no longer allowed to write unironically about their pain. We have been surrounded by the suffering woman for so long—the suicidal poet, the consumptive writer, the wounded artist—that now, in order to escape the essentialist identification of woman with suffering, we have adapted the posture of the post-wounded.
Jamison wrote: “Pain is everywhere and nowhere. Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood. Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever.”
I do not write often about the chronic migraines and cluster headaches I have lived with for nearly ten years. I was raised by a father who forbade us to whine about being hurt. He coached my brothers and I on the soccer field, and there, we needed to be tough. On one occasion, I was sent home from school after hobbling around on an ankle the size of a grapefruit. I had sprained it in a soccer game the day before. My father had commanded me to “walk it off,” but it was my physical education teacher who sent me to the school nurse, and she called my parents and told them that I needed an x-ray, and I went home, relieved that an adult had noticed how much I had hurt myself. My parents did not have money nor did they have health insurance. My mum wrapped the ankle in an Ace bandage. That was the best they could do.
Part of the treatment for my daily headaches are the opioid medications I take. When I moved from New York state to Florida a year ago, I ran into a brick wall of bureaucracy that Florida had erected out of embarrassment that it had gained a reputation as the Oxy capital of the country. The family physician I went to see was unable to write a prescription for the medication I needed to continue taking after the move. I went through withdrawal while waiting to get an appointment with a specialist. Florida’s state legislature is determined that no more of its white suburban kids will die of an overdose. The state may have gutted its social programs and its mental health facilities, refused to raise taxes to fund education or invest in worker safety that would prevent the types of injuries that necessitate long-term painkiller use, but legislators made sure that chronic pain patients would have as much difficulty accessing their medications as your average recreational drug users.
For De Quincey, laudanum may have started as a pain remedy, but its ability to quell pain was not the reasoning behind his writing of Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Opium opened a door to consciousness for De Quincey, a level of thought that, in his other writings he made clear seemed only available to the Western European, educated, upper-class male. Certainly not the woman whose body depends on opium to quiet pain enough to be able to form rational and creative thoughts. Opium may give me a boost, but I start with the deficit of my sex with which to contend. And certainly not for the lowly reasons of the body, which require opium to quell pain, not expand my mind.
Wilson quotes cultural historian Mike Jay: “The genius of his Confessions is that De Quincey was not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening.”
In essence, De Quincey invented a new vice: the use of laudanum not as an analgesic for physical pain, but as a means of “freeing your head.” His insistence that opium could expand the brain’s capacity to think about metaphysics, De Quincey was offering another path to enlightenment that had traditionally only been available through established institutions such as the church and the university. Laudanum was a democratizing agent that offered to anyone willing to tune in to it a possibility for “discovering” the answers to the big questions. Of course, in order to tune in, it was necessary to “drop out.” De Quincey recounts that a reverie brought about by laudanum lasted for hours, hardly the type of worker behavior that would feed the capitalist nascent industrial revolution. Besides, De Quincey argued that opium was too expensive for the working class.
Drugs are a danger to the economy because the person engaged in drug-taking behavior that interferes with their ability to operate heavy machinery or to drive is not going to be contributing to the GDP. The purpose of a painkiller is to provide enough analgesia so that a person in pain is able to continue working despite the headache, backache, or common cold that might better be treated by spending an afternoon in bed. But television advertising frequently shows us a busy person contending with pain who is advised to take a pill to fight the pain so that they can continue with their work. If analgesia becomes a source of pleasure and therefore, interferes with productivity, it’s in the state’s best interests to regulate it.
Perhaps it’s the “post-wounded” cynic in me speaking, but I believe that if those who had been abusing OxyContin and other opioids had been able to continue working, the state of Florida and other governments would not have felt a need to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship and how those drugs get prescribed. And, the mark of Eve continues even in the treatment of female patients. Women’s pain is under-treated by doctors who do not trust women to tell the truth about their bodies. Even if women are willing to talk about their pain, medical practitioners treat women as if we are all Eve, the deceptive being.
Although he could not have foreseen it, Thomas De Quincey’s decision to be an evangelist for the mind-blowing side effects of laudanum has ultimately had a long-term negative effect on drug policy, and I would argue, women’s lives, in industrialized countries. De Quincey could not have known it, but memoirs like his, which encouraged the recreational use of opiates, have contributed to the restrictions that I as a person with chronic pain face each month.