Friday, October 19, 2012

Writing Junky

I first read this in the Australian Drug User League (AIVL) publication, JunkMail Issue 5.  I have been looking for the article or David Herkt's PhD work but no luck so far.  The article is good so I cut and paste it so others can read it, but check out AIVL too.  All the back issues of JunkMail are available.

This facinating article was first published back in March 1992 as a feature in the original Junkmail magazine. Between 1990 and 1992, AIVL managed to gain funding to establish and publish a new drug users magazine called “Junkmail”. Unfortunately, due to the lack of continued funding, Junkmail ceased to be published for the rest of the decade. When AIVL received government funding to produce a national drug

users policy magazine in late 2000, it seemed obvious that the magazine should be called “Junkmail” and continue in the proud tradition of the first national users magazine all those years before. The limited funding for the original Junkmail also meant that the print run was small and very few people ever got to see, let alone read or collect those amazing first issues. In order to get some of the best articles from the original Junkmail magazines out to a broader readership we have decided to re-print “Writing Junky” in this issue. “Writing Junky” is an amazing analysis of the origins of the terms “addict” and “junky” which are both central to the way we perceive and describe injecting drug users today. This article, which was originally written as part of David Herkt’s PhD thesis, is a must read for anyone who is interested in challenging the way that drug [Original article cuts off here - Ed]

Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions and the Origin of Addiction

Our conception of the addict or junky has its origins in 1820. It can be quite precisely dated. By 30th September 1821, all the conceptions that make up our paradigm of opiate use and dependence, and our idea of the opiate user, the addict or the junky, had been put into general circulation. The remainder of the nineteenth century saw a working-out of this paradigm with regard to both medicine and law. The individual responsible for our conception of the junky or user was Thomas DeQincey. DeQuincy was dependent on laudanum for 52 years. Therefore, with regard to the conception of drug use that he developed, DeQuincy can be considered the first junky. He was a writer and through his writings in his particular book, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, DeQuincey delineated many of the features of that model of dependence and opiate use that remains current. Most influentially, DeQuincey brought the attention of the medical profession to the idea of opiate dependence for the first time. He documented that syndrome that we now know as withdrawal, and he also brought opiate tolerance and opiate dependence to the notice of the medicine. DeQuincey was also utilised by nineteenth century medicine as their major case study, because of his extensive descriptions of his physical relationship to laudanum. While many historical writers have outlined DeQuincey’s importance, his centrality in any discussion of our conception of opiate dependence and stereotypes of the opiate dependent, has not yet been fully acknowledged. For us, it is as if opiate dependence always existed. Without a beginning, it is as if our conception of opiate use and opiate users
is the only conception there has been and can be no other. The origin of the concept that we refer to as opiate dependence has been very little examined. For medicine, in particular, given the fact that its conception of opiate dependency is strongly connected to a government policy of drug prohibition, this origin might provide certain problems. For if there are other conceptions of use and users that are possible, the basis for the current prohibition is put in doubt, along with the livelihood of those who are employed by its supporting services and its bureaucracy.
The early nineteenth century is critical in any examination of the origin of our concepts of opiate dependence and those who are opiate dependent. Given the fact that we see opiate dependence as a medical and legal matter, it is surprising that those individuals who had the greatest influence on this origin were a poet and a writer. Perhaps this should not surprise us though, for, as can be demonstrated, this origin is an event that occured in ideas and was the success of a certain description of the world.
DeQuincey was substantially influenced both in his writing and his personal life by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge is regarded as one of the great poets of the nineteenth century. His poems include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and more pertinent to the subject, Kublai Khan. Coleridge, in his preface to Kublai Khan (“In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/ a stately pleasure dome decree...”) states that, in 1797, he had taken a dose of an anodyne into a half-drowse during which he dreamed the poem. When he woke it was with a perfect recollection of the poem and he began writing the lines down. However, he was interrupted by a visitor and when he returned to his page, he discovered that he had forgotten the remainder. The fifty-seven lines he wrote before the interruption are all that survives. Coleridge was dependent on laudanum from approximately 1797 to his death in 1833, for approximately thrity-six years. It seems strange to say, but Coleridge did not know of his physical dependence at all.
Opiates were freely available at that time and were totally unregulated. It wasn’t until the middle of the century that any form of regulation was imposed on sales or use. Opium could be bought from the corner grocer, pharmacist or apothecary, or from door-to-door salesmen or street merchants. It was routinely used as an analgesic, as a calmative and a sleeping draught. It was also used for pleasure in many of the larger factory areas. Grocers and apothecaries put out additional stocks of wrapped opium pellets for Saturday nights as it was cheaper than gin. There were areas of England where use was widespread and constant, particularly the Fens. As a consequence there must have been large numbers of individuals who were opiate dependent, but had never discovered it, having never had to go without it.
Coleridge’s conception of his own use is interesting. He was aware that he had a habit, but to him it was exactly that, a habit or a custom. Coleridge claimed that he began taking it for an illness and then became accustomed to it. He felt some remorse, due to his strong Christian philosophy, that he was succumbing to a luxury and surrendering to a pleasure. Then when dependence set in, and he attempted to stop, he found that this cessation was accompanied by physical illness. However, Coleridge simply considered that this was the return of the underlying illness that opium had served to palliate or to halt.
The model is clear: Coleridge had an illness, he took opium and the illness went away. When he stopped taking opium, the illness returned. Coleridge did not associate his symptoms with anything resembling withdrawal as we know it. It is pertinent to note that Coleridge demanded that his body, after his death, be autopsied to discover this basic illness that had seemingly so bedevilled his existence.
Coleridge was famous in England at that time for his writing and his personality. To us now, some of the descriptions of Coleridge’s shining face and bright eyes and interminable monologues describe some characteristics of opiate use. He was very much respected for his intellect and his personality and was the object of attentions of young writers and “intellectuals” of the time.1
Thomas DeQuincey was born in 1785 in Manchester, the son of a merchant. He had literary ambitions and made serveral attempts to meet Coleridge. However, it was not only an interest in writing, poetry and philosopy that they had in common, for by the time that DeQuincey met Coleridge in 1807, he had already begun his career as an opiate user. The patterns of opiate use, prior to the institution of laws against he use of the drug, must be of interest to us. Neither Coleridge and DeQuincey had restrictions on their consumption and no formal bounds to their usage. There were no social, medical or legal restrictions on use. DeQuincey referred to the years 1804-1812 as his years of “practicing” opiate use. In 1813, an “irritation” of his stomach was responsible for him raising his dose to 340 grains of opium or 8000 drops of laudanum a day (“a formidable figure”, writes A.H.Japp, DeQuincey’s first biographer, though we learn that it is only a little more than half of what Coleridge was taking at the same time.”) It was during this period, in which DeQuincey attempted to control his increasing tolerance, that he constructed, by connecting the effects of opium on his own body, a model of dependence which, in essence, is substantially the same as our present conception. It was the years 1818-1819 that De Quincey found himself customarily using large amounts of laudanum. This period was seminal for his writing of the Confessions. His “dreaming faculty” was dominant and his state of “nodding-off” produced great dreams and fantasies. “When I lay in bed vast processions passed along in mournful pomp; friezes of never-ending stories, that to my feelings were as sad and as solemn as if they were drawn from the times before Oedipus or Priam - before Tyre - before Memphis.” In the Confessions, he writes of this time: “I sometimes seemed to have lived seventy or a hundred years in one night... the splendours of my dreams were chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomps of cities and palaces as were never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in clouds... I escaped sometimes and found myself in Chinese houses, with cane tables, etc. All the feet of the tables, sofas, etc, soon becme instinct with life; the abominable head of the crocodile, with his leering eyes looked out at me...” DeQuincey speaks of these years “set as it were, and insulated in the gloom and cloudy melancholy of opium.” His regaining control of his dose and his life resulted in his literary success. DeQuincey was the first of a long line of individuals who utilised their drugtaking experiences as the basis of a career or a successful best-selling book.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was serialised in two parts in the London Magazine for September and October 1821. In the nineteenth century these monthly magazines were extemely popular, providing to their subscribers with sophisticated commentary on contemporaneous events, intellectual discussion, reviews, fiction and vivid opinion. Confessions created great interest and it Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reviewed well. As a result DeQuincey began selling other contributions to such magazines and he became a famous figure in London, being sought-out for interviews and dinners. Confessions were reprinted in book-form in 1882. The book is fascinating when viewed from our later perspective.
DeQuincey describes his opiate use in the preface to the book: “If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess not yet recorded...” DeQuincey’s recording of the event and the manner and content of this recording were crucial to the development of a conception of opiate use. He told of his usage of opiates in sensational detail, but he placed it in the context of his life, as providing the key to him becoming an opium-eater. This connection is important.
Prior to DeQuincey, an opium habit, if it was noticed at all,was a simple behaviour with no more relevance than any other habit. The situation of DeQuincey’s opiate use in his life created the paradigm whereby opiate use has been seen, not as a behaviour, but a a result of a whole process of life. Currently it is this paradigm that has led to opiate use being seen as a result of an individual’s upbringing or character. DeQuincey’s story as told in the first version of the Confessions, tells of his action of running away from school in 1802. He wandered over England, through North Wales and to London. Then aged sixteen, he avoided all contact with his guardians until he ended up on the streets of London. With scarce financial resources and often hungry, he lived where he could find shelter. As someone who was forced to live on the streets, he fell in naturally with those women “technically known as Street-walkers.”
He developed a relationship with one of many Victorian sex-workers he met, a fifteen year old girl, named Ann. She had taken care of him when he collapsed from hunger, and DeQuincey fell in love with her. After he was recognised by a friend of his family, he made arrangements to see her again, but she did not come to their assigned meeting and though DeQuincey searched for her for as long as he could, he could not find her in the maze of London streets. In his later dreams, DeQuincey was often searching hopelessly, with increasing anxiety, for a young woman in great phantom cities with endless streets.
Part two of the book describes his discovery of opium. After an illness consisting of “excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face”, a friend recommended him opium. It was a wet cheerless Sunday afternoon in 1804 and the sudden transition caused by the drug, as discovered by innummerable other users on their first encounter with opiates, was a wonderous experience. The pleasure of the drug was amazing to the nineteen year old as was the new world that opened up to him. Over the next months he began to repeat the pleasure. He would use it every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday or Saturday night. DeQuincey would take his laudanum and simply wander through the city, exploring the maze of London streets, watching the faces and following the crowds.
The next chapter heading in the Confessions was entitled “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”. In the period between 1804 nd 1812, he had continued to use the drug but at intervals and for short periods. An illness in 1813 caused him to take larger amounts, with more frequency until, taking the drug on a daily basis, he developed his first habit. Living at the time in a small cottage in the Lake District, he began to experience the full effects of constant use, allied with the large doses he was then using. He experienced “a sympathy that seemed to arise between the waking and dreaming states” which we refer to as “nodding off”. Because of the effects of the opium, the strength of his doses and DeQuincey’s constitutional state of being “a dreamer”, DeQuincey experienced long, complex and nightmarish dreams. William Burroughs, the author of Junkie and Naked Lunch, comments upon his own time in Tangier when he could similarly utilise large amounts of opiates daily for a number of years: “One is forcefully reminded of DeQuincey... when he describes the gloom, the oppression and feeling of death, brought on by habitual over-dosage.”
From our modern perspective, DeQuincey was discovering, without any culturally preordained idea of the drug, the opium experience as we know it. It is a dramatic event. To read his words and transfer those descriptions onto our own concepts and experiences is a remarkable process. However, it is in the Appendix to the 1822 book-version of the Confessions that DeQuincey makes his most important discovery, for he describes a syndrome, or a connection or Thomas DeQuincey - he was our first junky. He discovered dependence and wrote opiate usage into our culture. A series of symptoms, that we now know as withdrawal. If people do not know what to expect, their experience of the world will not tell them that opiate use causes physical dependence and cessation of that use cause physical illness.
Opiate dependence is a unique phenomenon. To claim that stopping opiate use ‘causes’ this illness is a discovery that had not been made in any of the medical literature of the early nineteenth century. In fact, medicine was almost ignorant about opiates at that time, except for the fact that they were (and still are) the
most effective analgesic known. No medical materials in 1820 referred to any aspect of ‘addiction’ or ‘withdrawal’, though it was known that some individuals had a habit of using opiates daily. DeQuincey, in the small Appendix to his book, gave his reduction schedule from 24th June 1821 to 27th July 1821, as he attempted to reduce his dose from 130 drops of laudanum to none. He carries out this regimen well, though his relapses (eg: “Monday 8th July: 300 drops”) must be familiar to anyone who has attempted this self-imposed schedule. But simultaneously, DeQuincey notes and describes his symptoms. “Meanwhile the symptoms which attended my case were these: enormous irritability and excitement of the whole system; the stomach in particular restored to full vitality, unceasing restlessness night and day, sleep - I scarcely knew what it was...” He suffered “violent sternutation” (which can be translated as runny nose and sneezing), excessive perspiration and an inability to keep still for more than a minute. Another symptom was what he called internal rheumatism, which affected his shoulders and joints and which any user who has hung out and ‘kicked’ a habit knows only too well. He also notes: “It’s remarkable that the whole period of years through which I had taken opium, I had never once caught a cold,” (a comment which has been echoed by innumarable users from DeQuincey to Keith Richards and William Burroughs), “but now a violent cold attacked me.”
The list of symptoms to his runny nose to his diarrhoea is the first cataloguing of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are also connected causally by DeQuincey, to his cessation of opiates. Thus on 20th September 1822, Thomas DeQuincey provided the information that enabled the construction of the opiate experience, much as we know it today. The story of a boy who runs away from school, hitchhikes around the country,
hits the streets of a large city where he becomes a street-kid, hangs around with sex workers, and develops a drug habit is a standard story. It is repeated daily in our media, in some form or another. It has nothing to do with the intrinsic nautre of opiates or the type of individual. Rather it can be seen that DeQuincey wrote a paradigmatic case and so influential was his writing, that all medical descriptions of opiate use in the nineteenth century directly utilised DeQuincey’s model and often quoted his descriptions. However, it was not simply medicine that followed DeQuincey. Such was his success that several individuals were brought to the attention of the medical authorities in the 1820’s, because they overdosed in an attempt to followed
DeQuincey’s example. Thousands of others would have followed his example without overdose.
DeQuincey’s description of himself and his drug adventures created a social construction of use, where any individual using, even for the first time, approached opiate use as already situated in his or her social world, in his or her cultural context. In other words, each of us knowing what to expect from the experience, as a result our experience will follow that path. DeQuincey’s personality, his rebellion, his fascination with dreams and visions, his explorations of the psychic world that opium created for him, were all used to establish a certain type of use and user. This conception of use predominates in our world now, in people who have never heard of DeQuincey. When DeQuincey described himself as “an English opium-eater” he took upon himself an identity as a user, as a ‘junky’. This first proclamation of this identity established a basic pattern for perceiving users for the next two hundred years. It is of interest to ponder how our perception of users might have differed if it had been another dependent individual of the time, such as the aristocratic Lord Erskine, who was the Lord Chancellor of England, William Wilberforce, the politician and philanthropist, or Dr Isaac Milner, the Dean of Carlisle, who had written such a book. Then, instead of seeing users as rebellious and street-wise, perhaps we would have seen users as being upperclass, conservative men, who had integral roles to play in the nation’s power structure.
Thomas DeQuincey and the effects of his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater have had on subsequent history has been immense, but such is the power of discovery and first descriptions, which not only describe, but create.

by David Herkt

(When this article was written David Herkt was the Editor of Junkmail. This material
forms part of David Herkt’s PhD thesis: “Writing Junky: The Creation of Addiction”.)

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