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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

How Opium Enhances the Senses,

Sight and Hearing.

In his autobiographical novel “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” Thomas de Quincey depicts the time period when the addictive qualities of opium had not been properly understood and gives a pioneering and, first of all, an insider’s account of a man living within the boundaries of his addiction to opium. The author presented the chronicle of a drug abuse from the point of view of an addict, which appeared to be a “self-help” book for other opium eaters.

The book appeared to be among the first works related to the literature genre describing drug experiences. The lurid subject matter of this groundbreaking book and the frankness concerning the issue that had never been properly documented before added to its success. “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” seemed to become a rather controversial book due to the fact that its author openly discussed the issue of the drug addiction and other certain aspects related to it. While reading the book, what strikes the most is the idea concerning the evident contrast between the opium eater fate of that period and today. Nowadays the apparent addiction to the same drug would lead to much worse consequences. Its patterns of usage tremendously changed.  Throughout the years starting with the decline of western materialism until the present day, opium became a different cultural object.

From Thomas de Quincey’s biographical facts it is known that from 1804 until his death in 1859 he used opium regularly. Aimed at recovering de Quincey’s personal struggles with the drug and his eventual recovery, the book clears up public misconceptions about the narcotic and its effects. In his book the author stated that not he himself, but opium should be mentioned as the only true hero of the essay. Directly addressing the public Thomas de Quincey brings that period alive for the readers, however leaving plenty of gaps and unanswered questions. For instance, what was the cause for his moving from recreational opium use to addiction. Even though this book looks like a “self-help” guide for other opium addicts, it is still not clear whether the author actually quit.

Today being aware of the effects and consequents of the drug, it is hard to imagine how available it was about two centuries ago. Keeping low price and having no restrictions on its usage or sale, the narcotic was in common use by people of all classes. For a long time it was the only efficient painkiller and cure for different illnesses, ranging from colds to alcoholism. Opium offered a desired relief for people suffering from numerous diseases. Women were noticed to be especially vulnerable to the opiate dependency. Moreover, the drug increased in its popularity due to the fact that it was culturally sanctioned. At that time opium was viewed as a medicine and not as a drug of abuse.

Opium (coming from a Greek word “opion”, which means poppy juice) was probably the first authentic antidepressant in the world. It is a strongly addictive, yellowish-brown narcotic with a bitter taste. This drug is an extract derived from seedpods of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, which is the only species of Papaver used to produce opium. Consisting of benzylisoquinolines, including papaverine, and phenanthrenes, including codeine and morphine, opium in the case of regular use causes physical tolerance and possible dependence. Making 10 – 16 % of the total, morphine appeared to be the most important opium alkaloid. However, it was underestimated until 1853 when a Scottish doctor Alexander Wood invented a hypodermic needle that helped opium to access the bloodstream at once. The reaction when a brain creates new “pseudo” receptors for opioids occurs as a response to the drug. However, in order for a brain to replace the “pseudo” receptors with the functional ones, one needs to abstain from the drug for a long time. Consisting of many chemicals, opium has a tremendous effect on a human body. The first time when codeine, morphine or any other opiate are introduced into the human body, different reactions begin to occur. As a response to narcotic pulse and respiration slow, blood pressure falls and pupils constrict. Taken orally, narcotic is liable to cause annoying gastric-side effects. Fear, anxiety and panic begin to lessen, bringing instead the feelings of warmness and relaxation. Regular usage of the drug may lead to more serious consequences, such as change in nervous system receptors or total addiction to opium, which is very hard to overcome. There may be physical, psychological (also known as addiction) dependence or tolerance. Physical dependence occurs, when the body due to the constant use of opium needs the drug in order to function properly. Otherwise, the following symptoms might occur: increased blood pressure, rapid pulse, muscle spasm, nausea, tears, runny nose, back pain, gooseflesh, restlessness and dehydration. Tolerance occurs in the case when the human body needs a constant increase in the drug dose in order to get the desired effect. Psychological dependence or addiction is extremely powerful and thus causes the most dangerous consequences. As for the effects the drug produces on mind, there can be plenty of them. Stupidity and dullness can be followed by extremely vivid imaginations and exaltations of mind. Deep, heavy sleep caused by the usage of a strong dose does not refresh the opium eaters. Instead, it leads to extreme sensitiveness of the certain senses. In general, the drug produces paralysis of the functional activity and general depression.

Used for medical purposes, opium indeed helps to relief pain, alleviate anxiety and give the feeling of relaxation, euphoria and well being, which appear to be the effect the opium addict is seeking for. Making the opium eater dreamy and docile, the drug usually brings the indifference to hunger, sexual urges and basic human demands. The drug effects on senses, hearing and especially sight appear to be rather unpredictable very often. However, the mood does not last long. The miraculous effects of the drug disappear very soon, instead bringing unbearable tortures to its victim.

In his book De Quincey gave a detailed description of the hallucinations he had under the influence of the drug, which ranged from the euphoric to the disturbing feelings. By the end of the book the author totally loses control over his visions, which become real and terrifying. The opium habit appeared to be a poison habit that has been weighty handicaps to the progress of the humankind during the last several centuries.

Works Cited:

References: Drugs & Drug Abuse, Addiction Research Foundation, Toronto 1983; Encyclopedia of Drug Abuse, Facts on File, 1994

The Development and Causes of Opium Addiction as a Social Problem

C. E. Terry

Journal of Educational Sociology, Vol. 4, No. 6, Narcotic Education (Feb., 1931), pp. 335-346.