What Opium Feels Like

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Image retrieved from images.fineartamerica.com on November 11th, 2013.

”While I was sitting at tea, I felt a strange sensation, totally unlike any thing I had ever felt before; a gradual creeping thrill, which in a few minutes occupied eery part of my body, lulling to sleep the before-mentioned racking pain, producing a pleasing glow from head to foot, and inducing a sensation of dreamy exhilaration (if the phrase be intelligible to others as it is to me), similar in nature but not in degree to the drowsiness caused by wine, though not inclining me to sleep; in fact so far from it, that I longed to engage in some active exercise; to sing, dance or leap.”
For amusement he went to a play where “so vividly did I feel my vitality – for I this state of delicious exhilaration even mere excitement seemed absolute elysium – that I could not resist the temptation to break out in the strangest vagaries, until my companions thought me deranged.”
After clowning around for a bit, Blair took his seat and literally took in the play. “After I had been seated a few minutes, the nature of the excitement changed, and a 'waking sleep' succeeded. The actors on the stage vanished; the stage itself lost its reality; and before my entranced sight magnificent halls stretched out in endless succession with gallery above gallery, while the roof was blazing with gems, like stars whose rays alone illumined the whole building, which was thronged with strange, gigantic figures, like wild possessors of a lost globe... I will not attempt farther to describe the magnificent vision which a little pill of 'brown gum' had conjured up from the realm of ideal being. No words that I can command would do justice to its Titanian splendor and immensity.”
As the dose of opium increases, relaxation and contentedness become even more blissful and euphoric. The kind of Quasi-hallucinations
Blair refers to are common but in no way similar to the harsh and powerful hallucinations brought on by psychedelic drugs like LSD. The “visions” are gentle, dreamlike and do not dominate the experience. Opium hallucinations are more an addition to reality, rather that an intrusion, and such hallucinations vanish upon direct attention. The sound of voices in happy conversation off in the background fades away when you try to listen to carefully.
The same goes for visual images. People report animals, from squirrels to tigers, being present in the room with them. As always the animals are harmless and cause no alarm, only interest. But should you try to touch them, or to scrutinize the hallucination to carefully, the vision melts away just as in a dream. More opium increases the blur between thought, dream, and reality.
Another famous opium fan was the movie star Errol Flynn who wrote of his drug experiences in his 1960 autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Here he gives us an account of an opium high, along with something of the flavor of a real-life opium den. Guided by a beautiful Chinese girl named Ting Ling, Flynn finds himself smack in the middle of an early American opium den:

I entered and was confronted with a dark blue haze and a curious odor. There were only two people here. Sure enough they were on their elbows. The blue haze seemed to hang over them.
I sat on a soft mat. Ting Ling sat beside me.
A man entered the room with an orange that was cut in half and a lamp which was half copper, half jade, he scooped out the pulp interior of the orange and bored four little portholes into it. I watched Ting Ling while this operation was being done. Her eyes were wider as she looked at the little lamp
A tiny flame was put in the empty half-orange.
The man also had what looked like a tin of English tobacco.
In Chinese Ting Ling had a long debate with him. I figured she was fixing he price.
Quickly a round wooden pill was put near me. “Lie on your elbow,” she panted. “Lie down. Relax.”
Ting Ling arranged the pillow with a little impatient gesture, and I was made more or less comfortable.
She herself sat cross-legged, that blue haze around her, like a goddess, enchanted, distant, close, mysterious, all things.
The attendant took out two instruments like crochet needles, reopened the tin box and removed the black treacly substance – opium in the raw. Ting Ling looked down at it carefully, nodded brightly. ”very good stuff. Very good.”
Sitting cross-legged, the attendant cooked this inside the orange and the flame. It bubbled. He mashed it skillfully, delicatlely, like an artisan.
My eyes followed the work, fascinated.
Here he produced a magnificent instrument, It looked like an early saxophone, but small at each end.
Ting Ling took the freshly prepared pill from the attendant and put it in the end of the piccolo-like instrument, jamming it in.
She inhaled and held.
I counted. It was a long time
Very slowly she exhaled.
She puffed very strongly, sibilantly inhaling. In a most truly graceful way she lay down beside me.
She lay there staring into the ceiling – that lovely neck,
beautiful face. Her figure writhed a little beside me on the mat.
After a time she slowly turned to me on her left elbow. “Now, darling” – the first time she had ever called me that – “your turn. You see what I do?”
Surprisingly she lapsed into pidgin English. “You do same. All same.”
I grabbed the instrument and drew on it. The taste was unlike any tobacco that I ever had but not unpleasant. Certainly it wasn't burning my throat in any way.
The man prepared another little round black pill, stuck it on the end of the crochet needle and put it inside of the orange. I tried to hold and go through the same motions as Ting Ling had done.
She seemed to be looking at me with a far-away amusement. “Do you feel any ting?” she asked.
”No.” I didn't, except that I had a feeling I’d like to open the window.
”all right. Finish that one. Then lie down.”
Together we lay side by side, both staring at the ceiling.
Suddenly that ceiling seemed to take on a new dimension. I felt Ting Ling's little hand on my right wrist. “How you feel?”
”You take a little bit more.”
She said something in a soft tone to the fellow who prepared the smokes. He prepared another little pill.
The half-orange had grown bigger. Somehow, I don't know but it seemed that it should be hanging from the ceiling like a Chinese lantern and my eyes were glued to it, fascinated.
I took the next umchuck, as Ting Ling told me it was pronounced in Macao.
Lying back, I began to feel a sense of panic. The orange in front of me was no longer an orange. It was a big old lantern, but it was now hilariously funny, because it was doing a dance and smiling at me.

pp. 18-22 Opium for the Masses by Jim Hogshire (1994)

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