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The Chloroform Habit as Described by One of Its Victims

Detroit Lancet, Vol. 8 (1884-1885), 251-54.


I shall gladly write for you some account of my experiences as a chloroform habitue-provided, of course, you agree that my secret shall be safe with you as it has been these many years. But you have never known the whole secret as I mean to tell it now-f or any effect it may have to save others from what is to me a memory of shame. To this day I tremble when I think what it might have been -and it is many years since I broke from that awful bondage. I dare not boast even now of my freedom. I will try to make my story short.

With me the chloroform infatuation was a case of love at first sight. I had been always temperate-almost a total abstainer, in fact, from stimulants of all kinds. Once or twice I had smelled chloroform, and thought its odor pleasant. I was a young man just finishing my education, fond of study, and taking a keen interest in everything about me. I had had some curiosity to know what it was like to be put to sleep with chloroform, which had been bought to use for a tooth ache, I believe. I took the bottle home with me and when I went to bed put a little of the chloroform on a handkerchief, and for the first time felt the delightful sensation of being wafted through an enchanted land into Nirvana. Those who know nothing of intoxication except in the vulgar form produced by whisky, have yet to learn what power there can be in a poison to create in a moment an elysium of delight. It is a heaven of chaste pleasures. What I most remember is the vivid pictures that would seem to pass before my eyes-creations of marvellous beautyevery image distinct in outline, perfect in symmetry and brilliant in coloring. The enjoyment is purely passive; you have only to watch vision after vision, but why each vision seems more wonderful and charming than the last you cannot tell, and you do not stop to question.

I suppose that it was an unfortunate circumstance for me that I had never been drunk before in my life, and I never thought of comparing my blissful condition with that of the wretches I had sometimes seen staggering through the streets. I had made a great discovery. I had found a golden gate into dreamland-dangerous indeed to approach, I knew that, but who would heed any danger where the prize to be obtained was so great? and guarding jealously my secret, I took care night after night to have by me the key to that golden gate. Probably I inhaled from half a drachm to a drachm or two each time. Generally I did not waken again until morning, and my sleep seemed to be just as refreshing as usual, only now and then I would wake with a trifling headache and feel disposed to lie a little longer in bed than common. My bodily condition did not seem to suffer in the least and my faculties all seemed as keen as ever. I felt no craving for my pet intoxicant during the day-did not give it a thought often until bed-time came, and then it would occur to me for a moment to try and see how it would seem to go to sleep in the ordinary way, the conclusion always being that-to-morrow night I would make the experiment. So, before I knew it I was a slave. I would say to myself, "It does not hurt me, it seems to have no more effect than the cigar my friend smokes after dinner. Really I believe it is a positive benefit. It seems to keep my bowels regular, and it certainly makes me sleep soundly all night."

But after a while I found that I was using a larger quantity of chloroform than at first. I would take a two-ounce bottle half-full of the stuff to bed with me, and inhaling directly from the bottle would forget at last to cork it, and in the morning it would be empty. Sometimes I would wake after midnight, or partially wake to take another dose. I found that there was a bad taste in my mouth all the time@ keeping me in mind of chloroform. I was often nauseated in the morning, and sometimes at intervals during the day. I began to feel a longing for chloroform whenever I had a little headache, or was dispirited from any cause, and I sometimes yielded to what I already knew was a morbid craving. I began to be indifferent to the things that personally had interested me, avoided society, and became depressed in spirits. My complexion became sallow, whites of the eyes yellow, the bowels sometimes windy and unnaturally loose, skin dry and seemingly bloodless, and injuries of the skin did not heal rapidly. In winter there was a tendency to chapping, that had not before been noticed.

Meanwhile I had ceased to have visions, or they came rarely. I began to realize that my pet habit was becoming my tyrannical master. I had no special cares to drown, but it became my insane pleasure to draw over my senses the veil of oblivion. I loved the valley of the shadow of death. I knew there was danger that some night I should pass over the line, into a sleep from which there would be no waking, but death had no terrors for me. Nay, to bring all my faculties, and powers, and ambitions into the sweet oblivion of transient death was the one pleasure for which I cared to live. I was conscious of a profound moral deterioration; I became materialist; I had no soul; immortality was a dream of the ignorant; I, who had a thousand times annihilated my own soul with my senses, knew that the dream had no corresponding reality.

Yet all this time I continued faithful in my daily duties, and resisted successfully the temptation to hurry through my evening so as to get the sooner to my chloroform. I did not admit to myself that I was a slave to the habit, or even that the habit was an injury to me, as yet; but I began to be afraid, and the more when I found, when I resolved as often I did, to omit my nightly indulgence just for a week, how impotent my will was in the matter.

This was my condition at the end of two years. I was still only using a moderate quantity of chloroform, about three drachms daily, exceeding that quantity only by accident. An opportunity offered for a change of occupation and surroundings, which I eagerly seized in the hope that it might enable me to break my fetters.

For about three months, under the new surroundings, I abstained from chloroform, and found it really not difficult to do so. I began to think that I had greatly over-rated the power of the habit. At all events, after the first week I had no craving for the stimulant. But one day I came across a bottle of chloroform. When I saw it I smiled to myself to think that I had imagined myself a slave of any such thing. Night came, and when I was ready for bed the devil of appetite gave me his commands, and I obeyed. Just one smell to see whether I really wanted it; I would not take the bottle to bed with me. So I inhaled, standing, directly from the bottle-a full pound of chloroform-and with the first breath of the vapor came back with renewed force, all the old appetite, keener than ever from long abstinence. Once more I saw the old time visions, as beautiful and as vivid as at first. One peculiarity of these visions I may speak of right here. Objects would appear with wonderful sharpness of outline just as they would be seen with the eyes, only reduced to microscopic size like objects seen through an invented microscope.

To go on with my story. What happened after I got the bottle in my hands I do not know. The next morning I found the bottle corked and in its place, but only half full of chloroform, and I was told that I had been found lying in some kind of a fit; some thought I was drunk-as indeed I was. From this time I realized myself a slave, but not now a willing one. I did not again commence at once the use of the chloroform, but at intervals of from three to eight weeks would indulge in a regular spree, lasting from one to three days, during which I would keep myself as nearly as possible dead drunk, and would consume from four to eight ounces of chloroform. All this time I kept my habit a secret, and continued to do my ordinary work with the usual zest in the intervals between my sprees. At last discovery came. You well remember how I was found apparently lifeless, and how by the active use of restoratives, you brought me to myself. How my moral perceptions were quickened the moment I saw myself through the eyes of another! You were a true friend to me in that hour of my trouble. I had thought the doctors only mercenary creatures like the rest of us; perhaps the majority of them are so, but when you came to me in my humiliation, and tenderly, and without word of reproach, helped me to recover my self-respect and my power of will, I gained a new idea of what the true physician may be and sometimes is for the sick. You must let me say these things now; I have never put them in words before, as never before have I told to anyone the story of my degradation. You know that it was not in a week or a year that I was placed morally on a firm foothold again. Indeed, you did not know how often, after I had given you and myself my word and pledge to abstain wholly from chloroform, I relapsed, taken unawares by the tempter. For more than two years I kept up the conflict, too often thinking the final victory won, only to find there was one imperative command it was useless for me to attempt to disobey, and that command came to me whenever the least whiff of chloroform entered my nostrils. Once or twice I tried the expedient of returning to my first practice of a regular moderate use of the stimulant, but I found that moderation was now almost impossible. If I went to sleep under the influence I would awake again, and find myself then unable to sleep, distressingly wide awake and nervous, until I courted again my "dearest foe." Symptoms like those of delirium tremens several times developed. I saw "things," not now beautiful visions, but shadowy images, that filled me with nameless, irrational horror. Appetite was capricious. I was frequently nauseated, but food seemed to relieve this condition; vitality was low, the blood ran sluggishly in my veins, and seemed especially to desert the surface of the body. I suffered particularly in cold weather, and it was during cold weather in winter, especially, that I found it almost impossible to resist my besetting temptation.

These particulars, since you ask for them, I have given thus fully in the hope that by using me as "an awful example," you may accomplish something in the way of warning others against such a fate as mine. By God's mercy I am saved, but without your patient help, and faithful warning and encouragement, I think I should never have dragged myself from that horrible pit of death into which I walked so carelessly. At last I prevailed by sheer force of will. I had recovered enough faith in the soul to assert my freedom, and I now look back upon those years of conflict with a kind of self pity, to think I could have been so weak. But I do not to-day court temptation. I am not conscious of a lurking appetite, but I dare not put my virtue to any severe test. I am sure, however, that the chloroform habit is one that can be broken by steady determination. I have no faith in any process of tapering off. It is just as easy to quit once for all, as to prolong the agony, and the suffering is often purely imaginary. It took many months for me to recover fully my health, but whenever 1 stopped the use of chloroform I began to improve in every way.

Doctors sometimes advise patients to use chloroform for the relief of trifling ailments, or they fail to remonstrate against the practice when they hear of it among their patients. If they knew the power of fascination it has for some persons at least, they would say: "Let it alone. The danger of the wine cup is nothing to that of the chloroform bottle."


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