Published November 20, 2014
One Halloween night, in a blacked-out bedroom in Bangkok's Chinatown, Steven Martin went into physical and mental free fall. High fever oscillated with shivering cold, gut-wrenching stomach pains brought on waves of diarrhea. Howling in agony, he leapt around the room in a kind of devil dance, his body smeared with oily sweat, vomit, mucus and feces.
"Opium Fiend, A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction" opens with this harrowing description of the American author trying to cut himself off from a drug that had taken over his life as a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia. Although Martin doesn't advocate opium use, his memoir is no simple cautionary tale, nor was he your average backpacker junkie, such as still roam this region of cheap and plentiful drugs.
After intensive research, Martin says he never found a detailed, honest account by an opium addict, even during the drug's heyday. "And as a result of the almost complete eradication of opium smoking in the traditional Chinese manner, it seemed that such a book never could be written — that the subject had been lost to history," he said in an interview.
"I knew that my experiences were uncommon. I simply wanted to share my story."
It's one that in equal measure details both the bliss the drug induced — "never again would sleep be so delicious; never again would dreams be so real" — and the pain of dependence and repeated attempts at withdrawal.
Five years later, now living in Los Angeles, the 50-year-old author acknowledges the drug's continuing siren call — as do experts on addiction.
"I think about opium every day — that's no exaggeration," he says. "While sleeping I dream about smoking opium, and sometimes I wake up from these dreams lying on my left side, in the same exact position that an opium smoker who is right-handed like myself would lie in order to prepare and smoke his pipes."
Dr. Christian Brule, a French doctor who coordinated drug policy at the Council of Europe, agrees that opium addiction is extremely difficult to shed, both physically and psychologically, the craving still there decades after the last pipe is smoked. "We call it the syndrome of lost heaven," he says.
Martin traces his addiction to childhood, when he exhibited a more than normal penchant for collecting things and an allure for exotic Asian artifacts.
After a stint in the U.S. Navy he moved to the Philippines and then Thailand, home for 18 years.
His introduction to opium came in 1992 in Laos, where the last of the old Chinese-style opium dens still existed. "Opium smoking, a habit that had financed empires and made fortunes all over the world, was now so rare that only in this landlocked backwater could the classic Chinese vice be witnessed," he writes.
It's still around in Southeast Asia today, but mainly used by elderly hilltribe people and young Westerners seeking a quick, exotic thrill while trekking in northern Thailand or hanging out in backpacker destinations like Vang Vieng in Laos. The so-called Golden Triangle, which includes areas of Laos, Myanmar and northern Thailand, remains the world's no. 2 opium producer although Afghanistan accounts for some 75 percent of the crop.
But almost everywhere the opium is refined into heroin, which has supplanted the ancient opiate, along with designer drugs and sometimes morphine.
"Only very particular personalities still go into this hellish opium experience these days," says Brule, who has also worked with addicts while helming several international organizations related to narcotics.
What hooked Martin initially was not the drug itself but obsessive amassment of pipes, lamps and other opium-smoking paraphernalia. He eventually gathered one of the world's largest collections, wrote a book on the subject and pursued scholarly research into opium's history, culture and abiding romantic image.
An opium pipe became for him a thing of rare beauty and "symbol of the old Orient — as archaic as rickshaws, Chinese junks and man-eating tigers." Closer to home, he came upon the largely forgotten fact that in the 19th and early 20th century the United States was awash with opium. There were dens in Manhattan and popular songs like "Fast Asleep in Poppyland." ''Yen," was originally used to mean a craving for opium.
Along the way, Martin's occasional, recreational pipe led to a powerful addiction.
Martin doesn't hold back when describing the pleasures he drew from the drug. He experienced "a welling euphoria followed by a serene sense of well-being washing over me like a succession of tender caresses." A few pipes made him feel he could recapture childhood's boundless optimism and wonder at the world.
"Opium is a charismatic lover who takes you to heaven, giving you years of warmth and affection, and then, like a schizophrenic, inexplicably and without warning begins putting you through hell," he notes. And Martin was entering the lower depths, rooted to his apartment, his work neglected, afraid to be away for even a single night lest he go without a fix.
The death of a close companion in 2008 — possibly from sudden opium withdrawal — hit him hard. He had often smoked up to 30 pipes a day with Roxanna Brown, who remains a local legend for her expertise in Southeast Asian ceramics and her tragic life. A Vietnam War reporter, she lived in constant pain after losing a leg in a car accident and died in a U.S. prison where guards failed to provide her with medical care. Charges of alleged fraud involving smuggling of Thai antiques were dropped, the U.S. government paying compensation to her family.
Martin went through partially successful detoxification at Thailand's Tham Krabok Monastery, where hundreds of Thai and foreign addicts have sought treatment through Buddhist monastic discipline and a vomit-inducing herbal drink. He also tried on his own, and at some moment freed himself from opium's grip.
But the last line of his book is no ode to deliverance:
"When the cravings get particularly keen, I tell myself that when health is lost to disease or old age, I will find a way to once again to light the lamp, take up the pipe, and roll myself into sweet oblivion."