"Opium Fiend" is the story of Steven Martin (no, not comedian Stephen Martin), a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia who became hooked on the hard stuff. His tale is a recollection of what started out as an innocent fascination in the dying culture of opium smoking. In his mind: a little bit of writing, a little bit of traveling ... no harm, no foul, right? But his passing interest led to a pipe collection, his pipe collection gave way to immersion, and his immersion eventually devolved into addiction. His body and mind became ravaged, but thankfully his story is one of resilience. Martin drags you down to rock bottom with him, but he climbs up, out, and onward toward spiritual healing in Thailand.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore . . .
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (1845)
Halloween, that day of symbolic horrors, seemed an appropriate time to stop. I had already stocked the refrigerator of my apartment in Bangkok’s Chinatown with nutritious, easy-to-digest food such as goat’s milk and yogurt, even though I knew it would be days before I could eat again. The flush lever on my toilet had long before rusted tight, and I’d become accustomed to lifting the lid of the water tank and pulling up on the little chain. Within a day or so that porcelain lid would be too heavy for me to lift, so I took it off and put it behind the toilet where I wouldn’t trip over it.
The door to my ninth-floor flat was situated down a dark corridor and next to a little-used stairwell that was marked as a fire escape. Like most doors in Chinatown, mine was barred against intruders with a wrought iron outer door. From inside the apartment it was possible to reach out through the bars of the outer door and fasten a large padlock on its latch, giving the impression that nobody was home. My bedroom window looked out on the corridor, and it, too, was barred. In addition to the bars, this window had layers of opacity to ensure privacy: on the inside heavy drapes, and on the outside a tinted windowpane completely obscured by a screen covered with dust so thick it might have been mistaken for a curtain of ash-colored velvet. From outside my apartment it was all but impossible to tell that I was inside.
For months I had been a recluse to the extent that my face-to-face social obligations were almost nil. But this situation was masked by the fact that I worked from home—people rarely saw me in person anyway. Communications didn’t worry me. Everybody knew that email had become my preferred method of keeping in touch. What they didn’t know was that I’d discovered email was perfect for preserving a façade of normalcy no matter how crazy things got. I could take as long as I needed to reply while fabricating plausible excuses as to why I couldn’t leave my apartment. If I became too addled to talk coherently, I could dodge telephone calls by simply ignoring them. Roxanna was the one person whose calls would be difficult to ignore, but her invitations had fallen off as my downward spiral had become more and more apparent.
As I waited for the symptoms to start, I began to think of ways to occupy my mind. I was no stranger to this scenario: I had twice tried to put a halt to my daily smoking. My first attempt might have succeeded if only I’d been more disciplined. Backing off from the habit wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought it would be, and this had made me confident that I was still my own master. But then I lost control. Two months of restrained dabbling on weekends had descended into a daily orgy of indulgence.
A second attempt at cutting back was harder, but I’d managed to abstain for a whole month before finding the perfect excuse for a relapse. And thus began my free fall. Subsequent attempts to quit were painful ordeals that lasted a single harrowing night and ended at dawn, when I would crawl back to the mat, light the lamp, and smoke with a voraciousness that shocked me. I watched as my own hands prepared pipe after pipe, both thrilled and terrified to know that a line I’d memorized from a Victorian-era book now applied to me: I had “succumbed to the fascinations of opium.”
By Halloween 2007, I had been smoking opium continuously for months—as much as thirty pipes a day. I decided to try to quit again. This time, I told myself, I would not fail. I knew I would be in for a rougher ride; I had let my habit get so out of hand that the withdrawal would be many times worse than my previous ordeals. I recalled those days of soul-piercing pain, the nights of sweat-soaked insomnia, and I tried to imagine how anything might be worse.
To steel myself for the storm, I pretended that I was going to suffer a bout of malaria in the days before quinine. The idea appealed to my sense of the romantic—here was another age-old affliction that had to be weathered stoically. But I knew very well that malarial fevers were never as ugly as what I would soon experience. Among my small library of century-old books with gilt leather bindings I had discovered a paragraph or two that described in clinical prose what I was about to endure.
I had read about the all-encompassing pain that drove opium addicts to beg for the relief that could be had only via a few draws on the pipe. I had read of people tightly trussed to their beds and locked in rooms by loved ones who then stopped their ears with raw cotton to block out the tortured screams. There were tales of prayers shrieked through the night; pleas for a hasty death that were sometimes answered by a body too shocked to function beyond a few days without opium. The morning after would be no scene of poignant demise; no Death of Chatterton angelically sprawled across his bed high above London. It would more resemble the aftermath of a cholera victim’s death throes— a room defiled by the performance of a macabre, bone-twisting Watusi to the rhythms of explosive farts and geysers of liquid shit.
And if I survived the physical pain, once it began to diminish, the mental anguish would take over: a dense boom of depression lowered onto a brain already exhausted by long nights of sleeplessness. This desperate funk manifests itself in many ways and is seemingly tailor-made to suit the fears and phobias of each and every addict. Just as your body turns against you during the days of physical withdrawal, so, too, your mind will conspire with opium to unleash mental torment at its most intolerable. Whatever is most likely to unhinge you, that is what you will experience. Imagine the sound of a thousand babies crying inconsolably for hours and hours on end. If I survived the physical pain, for how much longer would my opium-deprived brain persecute me? A month? A year?
The very thought of this had in the past been enough to make me give in before even starting. But this time I was determined. Savor what Halloween was meant to be, I told myself. Savor your nightmare. When it is all over you will be free of opium . . . forever.