I just read Opium Fiend, a 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century addiction by Steven Martin. As a rule I don’t read non-fiction. Yet, my wife was reading it so I picked it up when I had to run to the bathroom. The result was an addictive read (pun intended) that I enjoyed.
I had spent a good part of the summer of 1989 in Thailand. The book primarily takes place in Thailand and covers some of the same time period I was there. I remember reading lonely planet guide books at the time. I also took a tour to the northern hill tribe area where opium was still smoked by a few elderly people. Steven Martin was actually a contributor to guide books and may have even provided some of the information I relied upon in my guide book.This personal experience may have impacted my enjoyment of the book.
I’m also an avid collector, although not of Asian antiques. As Mr. Martin warns in his book there are a lot of fakes out there. His discussion about collecting was interesting to me.
Yet, you don’t need to have experienced Thialand or be a collector to enjoy the book. The look and feel of Thailand is so different from America that it is possible to get bogged down with description. Given that the author wrote guidebooks it must have been a temptation. but this was not a trap that Mr. Martin falls into. The book was mostly about his life and what he was going through.
His addiction was a part of that story. His denial and final acceptance of his addiction was an important part of the book as well. His relationship with and/or lack of a relationship with others was also important. The description of the use of opium and the paraphernalia was fascinating.Yet, this also was not the whole story.
It was clear he loved opium. Not simply the effect it had on him but the time capsule to the past it provided. He loved the history and the photographs and objects that captured that history. To Mr. Martin opium unlike morphine or heroin (also opiates) was romantic. His collection of paraphernalia was a gateway to 19th Century China.
(Spoiler Alert – Stop Here If You Intend To Read This Book)
Mr. Martin finally accepts his addiction. This was an epiphany brought on by having to sell some of his beloved objects to pay for the drug. It goes to show you a part of Mr. Martin’s mental state when he could ignore the weight loss and the loss of friends and employment but the loss of his beloved paraphernalia was what brought him to seek help. He goes to the Buddist Monastery to seek treatment. After finally getting off the drug he relapses only to find he no longer enjoys the drug as much as he did. In addition the opium related death of his closest friend had to have an impact on his desire to use opium. It makes me wonder if Mr. Martin is using or not using opium today (If you are reading this blog Mr. Martin I would be curious).
End Of Spoiler Alert
I would recommend the book. Not just because Opium Fiend sounds like a great name for a sequel to Cocaine Zombies but because it opens the door to a tradition that is all but extinct. It romanticizes but at the same time it demonises a drug that is rarely used in its pure form. Opium was once a large part of Chinese culture. It was also an important part of American culture. Mr. Martin points out the books and music from the late 19th century to the early 20th century that referenced opium. I think the psychological trauma of giving up the romantic aspects of preparing the tray and rolling the pills was harder for Mr. Martin to give up than the drug itself. All and all an interesting read