I discovered Opium Eater: The New Confessions in a Twitter thread on books to read. I read it in early 2019, and I liked it. I liked it a lot, but I didn’t fully understand some of it.

Why did the author seem so obsessed with opium? Why opium specifically and not drugs in general? And what was the big deal with drugs and creativity? 

I was ignorant, living a life free from chronic pain. I’d never been around anyone with addiction or physical dependency that I knew of. I understood why the author used prescription medication to manage her chronic pain. I use prescription medication, as well. But why the fascination with individuals like Thomas de Quincey who struggled with substance abuse? I didn’t get it, so I furrowed my brows and moved on.

opium eater

Understanding Opioid Use

Fast forward four months later, and I found myself dating a lovely man who was, granted, a little strange. He would fall asleep anywhere, sometimes even standing up washing the dishes. Other times, he would disappear for hours, and then show back up as if nothing had happened. We’d go out to eat for lunch, and he’d “run to the bathroom for a minute,” only to be missing until midnight.

Soon, he began stealing my car. His mysterious behavior began to unravel, and I found myself dating a man with an opioid use disorder.

“Heroin (like opium and morphine) is made from the resin of poppy plants. Milky, sap-like opium is first removed from the pod of the poppy flower. This opium is refined to make morphine, then further refined into different forms of heroin.” 

-Foundation for a Drug-Free World

5 Stars

opioid books

Opium Eater: The New Confessions Book Review

I went back to my room and took Opium Eater: The New Confessions off the shelf. I re-read it with a pen in hand this time, underlining and starring large chunks that suddenly made sense. 

Carlyn Zwarenstein, the author of Opium Eater: The New Confessions, is not an addict, but she is intrigued with altered mental states, and takes prescribed opioids for a disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). Ankylosing Spondylitis is “a degenerative autoimmune disease. A form of inflammatory arthritis…” For pain relief, she takes a prescribed opioid called Tramadol. 

Her book is a study of opium and the people, especially creatives, who have used it to relieve mental and physical pain, and create art. She discusses the way that drugs have enhanced her life, from easing pain and lifting depression to aiding her in her writing process.

books about opium
Photo by Min An on


Zwarenstein opens the book with a plane ride she took in 2016 from Toronto to New York. She describes the symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis with details that made me ache: 

“My neck cranes forward, pushed by stiff, hunching shoulders. The muscles at the front of my neck are as short and tight as steel cables; a dull burn at the back of my neck radiates down to my tailbone. My lower back feels unstable, an oddly unbearable sensation, as if my spinal column were inadequate to support the rest of me.”

-Carlyn Zwarenstein

On the plane, she takes Tramadol with coffee, and by the end of the plane ride, she is able to stand up quickly, “waves of good feeling” coursing through her.

In the chapters that follow, Zwarenstein takes us on a satisfying journey that is a mix of reflections on her own life taking prescription opioids, as well as a discussion of the history of opium and the creatives (like Thomas de Quincey and Frida Kahlo) who used opioids throughout their lives. 

Throughout the book, Zwarenstein finds herself searching for a way to get her life back, the life she had before she developed AS. She searches for pain relief not only for relief’s sake, but also to be able to work more and play with her two sons, who she worries will “absorb depression just as they thirstily absorb every other influence.”

Because prescription opioids become less effective over time, she tries to take Tramadol sparingly. She’s tried several different medications, including anti-inflammatory medicines, hydromorphone, and morphine. However, she finds herself searching for more reliable pain relief… and feeling hopeless.

memoirs about opium
Photo by Karoli

At the end of the book, when she goes to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, she leaves with “a list of mindfulness meditation programs to contact, recommendations that [she] look into mood stabilizers and antidepressants, a referral for magnetic deep brain stimulation.” Essentially, she doesn’t get the answers or the relief she was hoping for, and ends the book thinking of Frida Kahlo on her death bed and the still life of watermelons she painted. 

The juxtaposition of her own hopelessness and Kahlo’s death against the “famous, joyous still life of watermelons” is important to note because it shows that while life will always be full of pain, there is joy to be had and art to create. We must keep trying, keep creating, and use our experiences to make good art.

“Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art.“

-Neil Gaiman (quoted on page 40 of Opium Eater: The New Confessions).

addiction books

Still Life With Watermelons

Opium Eater: The New Confessions is a fascinating read that looks at chronic pain, creativity, and altered mental states through the empathetic dual lens of self-study and social commentary. It’s a short read and well worth your time.

➡️ To read the exclusive interview with the author, click here.

Not sure how to get a copy of the book during quarantine? You can:

  • Request Opium Eater: The New Confessions at a library near you.
  • If your library is not yet open due to COVID-19, you may still be able to check it out electronically with your library card number.
  • Order a copy online.
  • Purchase copies directly from Carlyn Zwarenstein at bleedingheartcommunications@gmail.com

About the Author:

Josie Thornhill is a freelance writer and student. She is probably having a panic attack in a fast food restaurant or doing yoga with a cigarette between her teeth. She is working on her first book. You can learn more about her at her website.

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