The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Honesty of Morphine Addiction

For the first time today, I had nicotine, in the form of gum. First I thought, “Wow, that’s powerful stuff.” Then I started thinking about addiction in general.

When I was in my twenties, I spent a lot of time in hospital, in considerable physical and mental pain. And by considerable, I mean “spent days screaming” and “some days no amount of painkillers was enough.” I also suffered from nausea. (Despite the major levels of actual pain, Ian’s rules of pain are that nausea is worse, and mental pain is worse than physical.)

Anyway, being that I was having such a swell time, I used rather a lot of Demerol and morphine. (Demerol is better, always choose Demerol, it provides a nice warm glow. Ahhhhh.)

I was concerned about addiction, but my doctor (a truly great man, and one of the only doctors I respect), said, “Take as much as you need, and if you get addicted, we’ll worry about it later.”

This attitude was, I suspect, composed in part by genuine empathy, in part by the nurses complaining about the screaming being “so tiresome,” and in part because, as I discovered later on reading my records, he didn’t think I was going to live, and there’s not much point in keeping a terminal patient from getting addicted to opiates. (Despite this, many asshole doctors refuse to give terminal patients adequate pain relief.)

But I surprised him, and screwed with the nurses’ betting pool on when I’d die, by living (Note: Said nurses’ pool is conjecture only. But if they’d had one, they should have let me place a bet!)

So I left the hospital, and yeah, I was addicted to morphine.

I stayed addicted for about three months, time in which I mostly slept, ate, and wished my parents would stop screaming at each other, or at least do it somewhere where I couldn’t hear them. Eating was probably the most important thing I did, since I’d left the hospital weighing 90 lbs, barely able to walk, and looking like Jesus right out of the desert.

As with the actual Jesus, good, honest “God Fearing Folk” treated me like a leper. Glassy-eyed and weaving around like a drunkard due to not having enough muscle mass to control lateral movement might have had something to do with it.

Or it could just be that good, honest, “God Fearing Folk” are mostly assholes to anyone who looks different.

Hard to say.

Or perhaps just impolite so say.


Morphine. Ah, morphine. Morphine is great stuff. You get super-relaxed, you don’t care about anything–including the fact that your back spasms every couple minutes and hits an inflamed, infected joint filled with liquid, causing you to scream. Great stuff, morphine.

But morphine, like all great mistresses, demands everything. Everything.

You can’t get shit done on morphine. And by shit, I mean “reading a book or playing a video game or having good sex.”

Morphine says, “You can have me, baby, or you can have everything else.”

So, eventually, I decided it was everything else. Breaking the addiction was unpleasant, but not that unpleasant. I tapered off till the only problem was I couldn’t sleep without taking morphine, then I stayed up about 40 hours before finally collapsing. Physical weakness was probably a big plus there.

Now, the problem with a lot of addictions is that they appear to allow you to keep everything, or most other things. Amphetamines give you more energy, let you work harder. Ecstasy makes you more sociable. Lower doses of opiates (a codeine addiction, say) let you squish through your life, and there are tons of more or less functioning alcoholics. My dad was an alcoholic, and he was extremely competent. Alcohol just made him a raging asshole to his family.

Most drugs have a cost: You get a few good years from amphetamines, years during which you look like a genius, then your brain fries and you’re never much good ever again. A lot of early Nazi success is based on “we’re all rocking amphetamines” and a lot of late Nazi failure is based on “this shit doesn’t work any more, and our brains are fried.”

But because a lot of drugs have their cost on the back-end, breaking the addiction is a lot harder. Cigarettes will kill you, but in the meantime they make you think better and they suppress your appetite. Alcohol, well, it relaxes you and makes you more social and it gets rid of that tight hot feeling in your gut from fear. SSRIs make you feel way better, but they really screw up your brain’s receptivity and uptake to serotonin, in ways from which you may never recover.

So even though morphine is really addictive, it has one great advantage over most other drugs: It’s honest. It says, “Baby, you can have me, or the world, but not both.”

In a way I was lucky, then: I got addicted to a drug that made its cost clear, upfront.  Most people aren’t so lucky and by the time they realize the cost, they’ve already paid most of it.

If you are ever addicted, may it be to an honest drug.

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  1. Mark

    Methamphetamines are very honest. The first time you use them, they look you in the eye and say, “I will kill you if you keep taking me.”

    If you don’t care about that, meth’s the greatest drug ever. Cocaine lies but meth is always upfront about the real cost.

    I know lots of former meth users. We all have one thing in common. We decided we didn’t want to die. After that, quitting was easy.

    Every drug teaches you something, if you care to learn.

  2. Are you saying morphine is like a domineering parent, lover or spouse? Or like a lot of employers? Or government agencies?

    “If you need my help with anything or in any way you’re going to have to surrender yourself to me as your personal ‘slave’ or at least a dutiful ‘serf’, always ‘on-call’ whenever I need you.
    The minute you ‘sign the papers’ you’re mine. I’ll own your time, control your lifestyle, determine how much money you’re worth, penalize you for any sort of dissenting behaviors or words—even those uttered or done in your spare time I happen to be mad aware of.”

    Morphine: A drug that behaves like society itself.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Hmmm. Never had meth. Interesting.

  4. RJMeyers

    Depending on how you define “drug,” I used to have a moderate addiction to sugar. Like there was a voice in my head telling me, compelling me to go buy a bag of cookies and eat them all in a single day. The urges were often impossible to control and I’d inevitably cave and buy cookies, candy, or whatever. At buffets I’d have three deserts. I managed to kick it by doing low-carb, which changed my gut’s tolerance for refined sugar so that now, if I eat lots of sugar or other carbs (e.g. noodles, rice) for more than two or three days, I feel like absolute shit. I can still eat some, but I’m punished by my own body if I go beyond a modest amount. My brain seems to have accommodated to this.

    My current drug of choice is caffeine. I only developed a taste for coffee about three years ago, and that was out of necessity because my job was crushing me and I couldn’t stay awake. The first year or two on caffeine were almost miraculous. I made sure to get enough sleep when I could, but drinking that coffee was like turning on an extra part of my brain I hadn’t known existed. Now I have a tolerance for it and, while it does still help, the effect is pretty minor. I’ve gone decaff a few times since then, and the withdrawal isn’t too bad–after about 5 days of not feeling it, I suddenly have to sleep for 14 hours, then I’m fine. Apparently some people get terrible headaches for a week or more. But I inevitably come back to the coffee, because after being off it for a bit, you get much of that initial feeling by going back to it again.

  5. Erin Gannon

    Amusingly, I read this post immediately after reading this recent quote from the Man Who Launched a Thousand Junkies, Keith Richards: “Richards says he hopes to bring ‘Sister Morphine,’ another live set rarity, into the set list. ‘Playing it in rehearsals… it’s a very powerful sound; Ronnie Wood’s playing some great slide. Maybe because we haven’t done it for a long time it kind of felt fresh – if morphine can be fresh.'”

  6. cincop8

    I really like this column. It’s nice to see someone so articulate and seemingly well educated take the mask down and just be human. Not pontificating, or expostulating, or performing. (no offense intended)

    You did get me thinking about that Demerol glow…but yea, everything else.

  7. EmilianoZ

    For the nice warm glow, dilaudid aint bad either. Much more potent than morphine in my experience.

    I think Sartre had to resort to amphetamines to finish “Critique de la raison dialectique” (1960). He didn’t write much of note after that except perhaps “Les mots” (1964), which is a very short autobiographical book about his childhood.

  8. John

    My good friend Larry died several weeks ago. Short surprise ending, riddled with cancer. When they started giving him as much Dilaudid as he wanted, I figured he was on the way. In one of his moments of lucidity, he said “I’m really high as shit right now”
    Larry wasn’t really addicted to any drug in particular, but we certainly did a lot in our youth. Thinking about my father’s disturbing methadone hallucinations when he was dying of cancer, I figure a little prep experience is ok for the last big rush. Better to have some experience than be totally surprised by it all. Larry was not surprised at being high.
    Me, I like mushrooms. Not really addictive. A big wad of Indian opium under the tongue can make for the occasional pleasant day. But never get greedy. Never want it all the time.
    Now that is addiction, wanting all the time. Trying to fill the hole you keep digging.
    I was never interested in cocaine or meth. I called them Republican drugs. Grifter drugs. Gettin’ ahead drugs. Give you the delusion of getting shit done. Doing things.
    I always wanted a lot less doing and a little more being.
    Sitting by the creek and watching it flow is my drug of choice now.

  9. Ahh morphine.

    The drug you do care about… literally, there is nothing in the world that you care about.

  10. guest

    I had some sort of opiate after hernia surgery. Percocet? Anyway, if felt great for about 3 seconds before I passed out and woke up 4 hours later with nausea. I’ve heard opiates constipate you too. I think nausea is worse than pain, so I didn’t take any more of the drugs. Also, clearing your throat after a hernia operation hurts. The idea of vomiting and/or straining to shit during that time was a lot scarier than the general pain from the incision.
    Meth is sexy. You feel as horny as a teenage boy, and then you reach inside your trousers to feel what you think will be a great big erection, only to find your penis does not function (in fact, it shrivels up almost inside you). It also makes your vision super sharp and your mind sharp too. But the aftermath is a sore throat that feels like you have strep. I don’t know how people can do some of those drugs more than once or twice. All I could think of was how many days or weeks or months of my lifespan did I just burn up that night before.
    I don’t know what the big deal about ‘shrooms is. They changed me from tired to rested, and improved my mood, but otherwise nothing exceptional about them.
    I always said I’d try anything once, but I never got a chance to try cocaine. That is such a selfish drug. Whenever it comes out at a party, so many people start whining and begging for a line. I wasn’t about to grovel for it and it wasn’t being offered to me because the guys with the drugs were too busy dealing with the grovelers. It has been offered to me in exchange for sex by guys at clubs, but that idea was only slightly less appealing than the grovelling. Yuck.

  11. alyosha

    Enjoyed this piece a lot. I’m really only familiar with being addicted to two drugs: pot and caffeine. Experiences vary, but pot expanded my consciouous enough so that I could get in touch with what I was feeling and who I really was inside. I could also see subtle energy and work with it much more easily. In that way, if functioned something like peyote in Carlos Casteneda’s books. His mentor, don Juan gave him drugs because Casteneda literally was so stupid, so conditioned by the culture he came from. Get sufficiently unconditioned, so that you can actually see what’s going on, and you don’t need psychedelics any more. My life improved dramatically with pot, but it ultimately fed my arrogance, and I cross some major lines of social conventions, and lost a job because of it. That was the end of pot for me. It had taken me where I needed to go.

    The particular drugs a culture sanctions are revealing. We’re all for “Republican drugs” (thanks John), such as caffeine so we can be really productive tunnel visioned robots, but completely against anything like psychedelics which have a chance at expanding your consciousness to the point where you can see through all the social conditioning.

  12. Barry Fay

    As often, a sound and sober (i.e. non-hysterical) take on an important subject that is completely misunderstood: drugs. If you don´t start with the “admission” that they can make you feel great, you will never really get anywhere in dealing with them. The Puritans, however, are afraid of any truth that undermines their abstinence lifestyle so they lie. Drugs are BAD. Good luck with that approach, it seems to have worked well so far!

  13. Adams

    I spent a week floating on clouds, having beautiful, idyllic dreams. Demerol is the best. Then one day it stopped. I hit the call button and said I was still in a lot of pain, really, really a lot of pain. Could I have just one more dose? Please, sir? The answer was “NO.” Later, I spend months on Vicodin during the day and Percocet at night. Not even close.

    Thanks for helping me understand what I missed.

  14. One thing to realize about the United states drug culture, is they want us to be reliant on drugs which are nowhere near as effective, but can be replaced by the next medication under patent, then get hooked on drugs which have been well known for a long time. Particularly marijuana, which could be controlled relatively easily, and distributed relatively widely.

  15. sanctimonious purist

    I think this is born out all over the place: “Breaking the addiction was unpleasant, but not that unpleasant. I tapered off till the only problem was I couldn’t sleep without taking morphine, then I stayed up about 40 hours before finally collapsing. Physical weakness was probably a big plus there.”

    You have something to live for, you break the addiction. Bruce Alexander showed it in his Rat Park experiments in the 60’s. Addicts coming back from Viet Nam did it in the 70’s in droves. But prohibition is still the method of control because racism and militarization are profitable. Read Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. We need to decriminalize drugs like Portugal has.

  16. Second on the decriminalization of drugs such as Portugal. It might be better for us to have plans worked out in advance, but at this time I realize that that is not going to happen. So legalizing, and figure out what to do with the remaining questions.

  17. CMike

    If you’re not inclined to get that Chasing the Scream book, which Sanctimonious Purist recommends, consider listening to this Sam Seder interview of its author, Johann Hari, which runs from 6:06 to 58:17 HERE.

  18. dude

    I haven’t sought drugs, but I have had morphine. I had kidney stones first. I too did quite a lot of screaming for hours on end and am pretty sure that’s why the doctors gave me morphine. I remember the slow build-up of warmth, the odd, spreading numbness as the pain receded taking with it my consciousness. I don’t know how long I was out. It was like a dreamless sleep. I know I was given morphine several times in ensuing days— not enough to be addicted, but enough to get through the pain.

    Did I want it again? I sure did. When I went to pee, I discovered I had been “roto-rootered”. I don’t think even morphine could have damped-down that shocker!

  19. Ian Welsh

    There are levels where no dose of morphine will work. I only hit that point once, it was memorable. A few hours later, however, I started fading out entirely.

    I was, at that point, very close to death. Can’t say I cared much.

    Another lesson of pain is that sometimes death, can, indeed, seem very welcome.

    As for kidney stones, I remember a man who had them while I was in hospital. The intensity of his whimpering was impressive. I felt bad for him.

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