Schaffer Online Library of Drug Policy Sign the Resolution for a Federal Commission on Drug Policy

Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Historical Research


Experiences of Recent Opium Smokers

By Leslie Keeley

The Morphine Eater; or From Bondage to Freedom (Dwight, IH.: C. L. Pahner Co., 1881), 146-68.

This and the two following chapters of experiences have been written by former morphine eaters themselves and are full of interest. They have never been published before, and present truthful and accurate pictures of the opium habit which should be carefully studied. Doubtless thousands of victims could tell similar stories of misery and woe, and I have in my possession a large correspondence full of details of the same character.

These cases were written for this work at my request, and are typical of the majority of the great army of victims of morphine.

Dr. B-, a regular physician residing in Texas, wrote for a pamphlet on the opium habit, about one year ago. It was sent him, and, having ordered my remedy, he wrote a'series of letters describing his case and giving his experiences in such interesting terms that 1 have decided to make the following excerpts from the correspondence. The state of despair and ruin produced by the opium habit have seldom been portrayed so vividly:

Jan. 19th. "Unhappily a great many of the victims of opium disease are reduced to poverty before they know where they stand, or begin to look for help; and hundreds have been brought to poverty by frauds calling themselves "Doctors" and beguiling the poor wretches with solutions of morphia at fearful prices. One who thus styles himself, and who was, I think, the pioneer of these morphine dealers, got three or four hundred dollars, (may be more) out of a poor old man in this county, and then, of course, when the money failed, left him, as to the habit, exactly where he found him; and to this day the poor old wretch is consuming about four drachms of opium daily. The poor old fellow has sold property, piece by piece to gratify the craving for opium, or to pay for the "antidote," until now he is well nigh an object of charity. I myself have been beguiled for a large amount for so-called "antidotes." It is the old story of the poor drowning wretch clutching at a straw.

I fear in my case, after so long a time, there must be structural disease in the brain, degeneration of tissue, &c., &c., which, even were the cause entirely removed, would still leave incurable damage. At my age (63), the brain would naturally begin to weaken, and then such long abuse superadded, I don't see how it can recuperate. That I have been absolutely insane there is not a shadow of doubt, and at divers times, driven by my sufferings, I have been on the very verge of suicide. Were I to continue writing both day and night for a week I could not then fully relate the unutterable torments I have gone through. Once, I was a prosperous, respected man; now I have lost property, health, character, money, everything. I expect to die a pauper and in debt, and leave to my family nothing but the heavy cloud that hangs over my name.

"Once I looked upon opium as a 'magnum donum DeP for the alleviation of human suffering. Now I regard it as a deadly curse to the race, and believe it would be a blessing if the seed of the cursed poppy were destroyed utterly and lost from the face of the earth. The curse of alcohol is mostly intermittent, allowing its victims some intervals of rationality, and frequently long intervals; but that of opium is perpetual. The victim never can stop-he must go on, or suffer the torments of the damned until death releases him. I would like to warn medical practitioners against that trouble-saving but insidious instrument, the hypodermic syringe. How many patients have learned the trick of that instrument, and learned it to their own ruin! How many poor women and helpless innocent children have been brought down to poverty and actual beggary by it? The drinker of alcohol does, sometimes, come to his senses, go to work at his calling, and make something, however little; but the opium eater hardly ever. He sinks deeper and deeper, faster and faster until he becomes simply a breathing corpse, a burden to himself and a curse to all connected with him. Such, at least, is my experience.

Sometimes I am inclined to give up in despair. Financially and socially I am utterly and totally ruined and d--d for good and all, beyond any hope of recuperation, and but for the labor of my son on my poor little farm, would not have bread to eat. I am absolutely at the mercy of others. To a man of a once-proud spirit this is intensely galling. All my former friends have dropped off one by one long ago. In such a case what is life worth to any man? And the longer it continues, the worse it becomes. If this is not hell upon earth, I cannot imagine what is!

"Away out here, remote from civilization, it is hard indeed to find any but the very commonest medical talent, and the most superficial advice. As to treating the opium disease, all the doctors in this part of the State are in absolute darkness. They dont know one solitary feature of it, but are as ignorant of it as the horses they ride! Graduating at local and inferior medical colleges, what can they know beyond the uses of calornel, quinine and a few other drugs."

Jan. 26 ... The past ten years are gone and wasted, and all my property, my faculties, mental and physical, everything of value in life has gone with them, and here I am, a miserable, helpless, useless wreck! It is such reflections which excite suicidal tendencies. When a man who has been prosperous, respected and useful finds himself stranded on the shore of life, actually an object of aversion to all around him, what can he do? How can he bear the woful consciousness that his own folly has done all this? Looking back over past years to days when he was honored and successful and far above all fear of want, what wonder if the suffering is too much to bear and he seeks the only exit from such a state of misery that is left him? ... God in Heaven knows that I am tired of my slavery, and bowed down to the very dust in humiliation and shame when I think of my wasted years and means, and my ruined family. Some times I almost become wild with excitement and remorse when all this rises up before me. I have acquired a profound contempt for myself, and believe I do really despise myself more thoroughly, (if possible), than anybody else does. Only to think of business, duty, labor, family, all lost sight of, neglected, let go to destruction for ten long years-it is enough to make everybody hate me and despise me, as I am assured they do, and cause me to hate and despise myself.... I do consider myself too utterly crushed down, too completely degrated ever to hold up my head among men again or presume to do business with them. Everybody about here knows my history, how I have wasted my life and brought my family to ruin, and I could never go among them and hold up my head again. I feel as though I no longer have the right of equality with others that I once had. Sometimes I lose a whole night's sleep revolving all these things in my mind. Often when I see persons approaching who were once my friends, I manage to get out of sight, to avoid recognition. I cannot forget what I have been, and the comparison with what I now am overwhelms me, so that I would sink into the earth, if I could, to be out of people's sight. They regard me as sunk down beyond all hope or possibility of resurrection, and would count it a miracle to see me returned to soundness both mentally and physically. The people around me are full of their various business-I alone am without occupation, avoiding the walks of business, my life a dead, stagnant waste.

"Even in my own house and in my family I am simply a cipher. Nobody notices my movements or would miss me if I died. It is simply a sort of living death. Once I was all action, life and energy; now dull, apathetic, despondent; cut off from human sympathy and utterly isolated ....

"One in my condition gets little sympathy. Men say, 'he ought to stop,' &c., as though he could stop of his own volition, and regard him more as an offender against society, than as a helpless victim, bound hand and foot with bands of iron. I have borne the most unfair comments and insinuations from people utterly incapable of comprehending for one second the smallest part of my suffering, or even knowing that such could exist. Yet they claim to deliver opinions and comments as though better informed on the subject of opium eating than anybody else in the world. I have been stung by their talk as by hornets, and have been driven to solitude to avoid the fools .... Why do not the temperance lecturers now so numerous and "eloquent" pass now and then from their vivid pictures of the horrors of alcohol, to speak of the more deadly, because more secret, monsters opium and chloral? Whisky permits its victims to stop now and then and rest and recuperate nerves and brain, and to work; but opium never. Day by day, night by night, the deadly work goes on, until mental darkness or merciful death closes the scene forever. No land, no region is exempt from the opium curse, and its victims are chiefly of a kind that society does not willingly consent to give up to death."




While in my sophomore year in college I read De Quincey's Confession of an English Opium Eater and also his later utterance, Suspiria de Profundus. The first essay kindled within me a desire to experience for myself the grand dreams to which the drug gave birth in him. The latter did not warn me-I had not the remotest intention of becoming an opium eater, nor could a special divine revelation have then made me believe that my sighs would ever ascend from the midnight depths. I procured one or two grains of crude opium, and took it "just for fun," as I should have then said.

The effects were delightful indeed! I had plucked the fruit of a forbidden tree, but it was very sweet to the taste, and seemed to open my eyes. I did not know that with the first taste, there was thrown lightly around me a coil of the serpent whose folds were at last to envelope me with rings of terrible strength. From time to time I repeated the experiment, but at considerable intervals. It seemed to me that I had found a new source of mental inspiration, and that I need no longer be dependent on whatever fickle god or goddess it may be which presides over the mind and directs its varying conditions. Simply by swallowing a small lump of opium-or a minute powder of morphia, which I soon came to use generally, instead of m-I was or rather believed that I was lifted u into high regions of intellectuality and had vivid imaginings. I therefore gradually came to use morphine when pressed by literary work. In time, I had frequently to address public meetings extemporaneously and I found that a small dose of the drug took away the nervous embarrassment, and enabled me to face an audience without physical or mental tremor. I did not perceive, till afterward, that the influence which prevented preliminary trepidation, also prevented that natural, healthy and fruitful excitement which enables a speaker to "think on his legs," take advantage of the varying moods of his listeners, and to throw into his speech all the weight of his individuality and character. A speaker whose oratory is inspired by morphine may indulge in what are called "flights of eloquence" and thus astonish "the ears of the groundlings"-but, if not "Full of sound and fury Signifying nothing,"


it will be more ornamental than useful; it will exhibit more display than power and effect.

It was ten or twelve years before I began to be alarmed on the subject of my morphine eating. Even at this time I only used it two or three times each week. Its effects still lasted for a considerable time. The first and second days after taking, say of a drachm of laudanum or its equivalent of morphia, I would feel no desire to repeat the dose. I was usually quite drowsy during the day after taking it, but the next day would, as I thought, feel naturally, and it was only on the succeeding day that I would begin to feel as though another dose of the opiate would be agreeable. I was deceived by the intervals, not then knowing that the poison extended its influence through those days of apparent freedom. I imagined that I could entirely cease the use of the drug if I pleased, because I did not feel obliged to take it every day.

At last however, having become uneasy on the subject I made such arrangements that I could devote myself almost entirely to physical labor for a while, and resolved to use the time to abandon the habit. For two months I did not take opium in any form, and the amount previously taken at a dose not having exceeded, and being usually less than two grains of morphine, and as I could go to bed each night tired out with physical exertion, I suffered no noticeable inconvenience.

But as soon as I began to have leisure I found that I was not cured. The craving for the opiate again manifested itself. It was not a painful demand, an outcry of nerves and muscles and the whole body for the poison, but simply a hunger for the mental stimulation effects of the drug. It did not make morphine seem an enemy whose fierceness must be placated, but a friend whose modest request there was no sufficient reason to refuse. It is in this way that the victim of the opium habit becomes a helpless captive before he is aware. The evil spirit of the drug hides its strength and touches the doomed one gently until it has made its grasp sure, then claws protrude from the soft hand and clutch the captive with a grip which he can have little hope of breaking. I resumed the use of morphine, taking it at first at the former intervals, but soon came to use it every day.

It is because of my own experience that I distrust all alleged "cures" which are said to be brought about either by gradually reducing the amount of the dose, or by stopping its use at once. There could not be a more favorable case than mine. I was as strong, and in as good health as was possible for a man of good constitution to be, under the circumstances. I ceased to use the drug for two months and did not suffer the least inconvenience from so doing; but at the end of that time my craving to experience the opium intoxication was just as strong and just as irresistible as when the period of abstinence began.

From the time I began to take daily doses of the drug my bondage was confirmed. This was over ten years ago. The quantity taken was gradually increased until, for the last four or five years of my "bondage in Egypt," I took each twenty-four hours and usually in a single dose, from fifteen to twenty-five grains of the sulphate of rnorphia. I did not usually measure very accurately, but during the last year or more one drachm bottle of morphia lasted me not over three days, and often less.

By the time I had reached five grains I was forced to admit to myself that I had become an opium eater. The fact is, doubtless, that notwithstanding the intervals between indulgence during the first ten or twelve years, when I seemed to myself to be only toying with the monster and could escape from him when I would-I was, in fact, a slave almost from the first dose. The tiger was toying with me-allowing me short runs of seeming escape-before it should make me feel the piercing of its fearful fangs.

During the years of my subjection to its power, the drug had been accomplishing in me its evil work. All pleasant exhilaration from its use had long since ceased. The drowsiness which, at first, did not make its appearance until eight or ten hours after taking the daily dose, now came on in half an hour, and for from one to three hours I would sit dozing, half asleep, thinking or dreaming of nothing definite or of any importance. Exertion became more and more distasteful. Business was postponed, and responsibility avoided. Ambition and the desire to accumulate were paralyzed. I shrunk from attempting any new enterprise, and seemed unable to bestow upon anything continuous thought. Under the pressure of excitement I could think and work with ordinary ability, but during the periods between I lived a torpid existence. I continued to read considerably-using one eye for hours, when morphine had rendered me diploptic-but what I read was not assimilated as formerly and I did not increase in knowledge in proportion to my reading. At length I came to shrink from taking up any book except some work of fiction. I seem to have been an instance of arrested development. The promise and the hopes of my earlier years were unfulfilled. I was gradually being crowded to the outside of the compact mass of those who are in the centre of activity and who are pressing forward with all their energies to win the prizes of life.

Society became distasteful to me and I avoided meeting even my most familiar friends. One principal reason for this was that I was perpetually conscious of my slavery. I did not show marked outward signs of the habit which was destroying my life, but the fact of its existence left my consciousness for hardly a moment. I could not respect myself. Much less could I assert myself, for I knew that, at any moment, my shameful secret might be discovered or revealed. This perpetual feeling of shame, causing loss of self respect, is an effect of the opium habit which, so far as my own case is concerned, was worse than any physical one. I never laid down at night, for at least ten years, that my morphine trouble did not at once come into my thoughts-as though it had been a tormenting imp more malicious than Poe's Raven, perched ever in waiting upon the bed's head. Regrets for the past, resolutions of resistance and escape for the future repeated themselves over and over again in my mind, and beneath all was the ever-present consciousness of secret weakness and concealed disgrace.





It was in the year 1867 that I began the use of morphine continuously. I had suffered from chronic diarrhoea ever since the close of the war, in which I was a surgeon, and I at last resorted to frequent doses of morphine as the only certain means of controlling the difficulty. I at first took about half a grain every two or three days, but at the end of a year was taking from two to five grains each twenty-four hours. About this time I became alarmed, and undertook to abandon the use of the drug. My practice was to take my dose in the morning of each day, the effect lasting for twentyfour hours. I found that I could get through the day succeeding the morning on which my usual dose was omitted with comparative comfort, and could sleep during the first night, but after that I had neither sleep nor rest. My uneasiness and the aches and pains in every part of my body were unbearable. Sometimes, (for I made several attempts), I would hold out for four or five days, but at the end of that time the limit of my endurance was reached, and I had to go back into my captivity. I was a confirmed morphine eater -that fact could not be disguised. The only way to avoid insanity, or death from mere intensity of pain, seemed to be to follow the path on which I had entered without ever again attempting to leave it. From this time the daily quantity of morphine taken steadily increased until in 1876 I was using from twenty to thirty-five grains each twenty-four hours.

During the years in which these things were occurring my condition was growing worse in every respect. Each so-called remedy increased instead of diminishing my need of morphine, and I was taking from twenty-five to forty grains per day. I grew wholly unfitted for business and allowed much of my practice to slip out of my hands, merely because I was too sluggish and too procrastinating to attend to calls. All that I earned for ten years went for morphine or for those wholly useless "cures." Poverty stared me in the face, and the worst of it was that I could not get rid of the feeling that I was to blame for this condition of affairs. My life was a failure and the gloom and despair I felt were constant and unrelieved. Twice during the last five years I have been on the point of suicide. The first time the revolver was taken from me, and the last time some one came up as I was about to shoot myself, and my thoughts were diverted. The infirmity of will induced by opium is, I think, all that kept me from ending the miserable story of my life with a bullet. I felt that to die and go to hell would involve less torment than that I was suffering every day. I was emaciated, pallid, weak in body, and my strength of will and energy of mind were all gone. I felt that I was a curse to myself and to all around me.


Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Historical Research