An Excerpt from On Opium by Carlyn Zwarenstein
Goose Lane Editions
In Room Magazine, Lauren Kirschner described Zwarenstein’s first book, Opium Eater, as a “measured look at the causes of our increased dependence, which doubles as a critical memoir on the relationship between opioids, creativity, and pain.” In this excerpt from On Opium: Pain, Pleasure, and Other Matters of Substance, Zwarenstein deepens that gaze and considers a complicated relationship between chronic pain, relief and dependence, exploring the profound and systemic whys of addiction, and what we collectively need to become well.
It’s a release that I’ve earned through the sheer effort of waiting for it all day. At last I take the pill, and I begin to focus intently on the pain in my neck and down my back — waiting for the magic moment when it begins to melt away. I watch, feel, and wait. Minutes pass. Is it gone? I think I feel it leave. But no. The pain is still there.
Then, as it always does, at almost exactly the one-hour mark, something shifts. The ropey muscles of the neck that pull my head forward, the tight muscles around my hips, mid-back, and sacroiliac joints (in an X-ray you can see the erosion) — they all seem to loosen at last. I sigh audibly, letting my shoulders fall. I stand up straighter. Gravity stops pounding me into submission. All at once, I seem able to inhale more oxygen than usual. That breath is rich and deep. I’m also breathing more slowly than usual.
I close my eyes almost unconsciously. When I let them close, just for a moment, there’s a pleasant weight on my eyelids, as if I were falling into a dreamless, restorative sleep. At the same time I seem to float, perhaps on a pool raft drifting on saltwater waves, with a sort of inner buoyancy. It is wonderful.
I could stay in it forever, like those Victorian gentlemen found after days by worried families — prostrate upon a back-alley opium den couch, obscured in a cloud of stale smoke.
But I open my eyes after a moment because in the infinite peace and wisdom now upon me — right now — I also see my goal: to write, to create, clearly and without stress.
First physical pain recedes, and then emotional pain. I was depressed, and now I am not.
Nothing is hazy or distorted or vague. There is no drunkenness, no lack of balance or blurring. I can once again see all the little worries and big angsts in my life from a bearable distance. And now, taken a little out of myself, I can also see and feel compassion for other people’s struggles, am interested once again in their stories. For these few hours I have regained the essential human characteristic of someone who is well and flourishing: a healthy curiosity about everything that is not me.
Not least, the thread of thought I want to track down and record in writing plays out smoothly and I can follow it. Peaceful, concentrated work is the best opioid side effect of all.
I close my eyes again. There are endless variations in the texture of good feelings that keep me here, happily working at my desk. Every time I close my eyes — every time I inhale, deeply, then exhale — these feelings are intensified. This eye-closing, this looking within: it’s a subtle action which, over a group dinner or in a café, I’ve sometimes caught friends catching, to my shame. But then, why should I feel ashamed?