Columbus Day almost killed me.
I woke up avalanched under a junkyard of pain, my body a trap of torn nerves and trashed organs. An oily rash of sweat had soaked through my pillow and into the mattress. I was coughing, confused and crazy with anger. A throbbing, deep-pink chemical sunburn covered my face; my bowels were spitting hot mercury. I slid out of bed and dropped to the floor, the weight of a snarling mountain gorilla bearing down on me. I saw myself in the mirror as I fell. I looked puffy.
Outside, the sun was terrifying, while the hiss from a neighbor’s dancing sprinkler got in my head and pissed me off so much, it felt as though my blood had become flammable and would ignite at the next insult.
I made it to the car and somehow drove one block down to the mailbox, expecting the Priority Mail package from my eBay dealer to save me.
I hobbled into the car and drove back to the house, used the bathroom and looked on the computer. The U.S. Postal Service Web site tracker verified that my box of poppies had been delivered to Reno at exactly 10:32 a.m. Well, where the hell was it? I typed a threatening e-mail to my supplier but didn’t send it.
Then I got back into the car, reeling and jumpy, went back and opened the mailbox.
I closed it. Locked it. Waited a second and then stuck the key in and opened it back up.
Still not there.
I got back in the car and decided to wait it out. My head whirled with psychic errata–miscalculations in the synapses. As though faced with gravity for the very first time, I struggled to hold the horizon line, like an infant with an iron skull. I wanted to ram my head straight into the dashboard but feared the airbag might blow and deliver the knockout punch. Or, worse, I’d miss and hit the damn horn.
Everything hurt, but the pain came in slow motion and actually seemed to stop to register with each and every nerve. My pulse rattled, and my heart seemed to sizzle.
Maybe my package had been intercepted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Good, I thought. Maybe they’ll be able to get me off this stupid homemade junk.
I sat there for less than a minute. Maybe I sat there for an hour; I don’t know. But something had to be done. I stuck some Klonopin under my tongue and drove to the post office, expecting to turn myself in. Give up. Take the 15 years, if they would just give me the fix. But the door was stuck. I pushed, pulled. It wouldn’t budge. No, it was locked. Closed for Columbus Day.
Columbus Day. No wonder everyone hated him. That tabard-wearing bastard had been dead for 500 years and was still causing trouble.
I took a dozen allergy pills to make me drowsy but couldn’t sleep. I lay awake in bed for the next two days before the shipment finally arrived. The postman had decided to make a long weekend out of the cheap-ass holiday.
I should’ve stayed in bed and ridden it out. I had put a price on my head in the form of a box-a-day addiction but already had endured the worst part of the withdrawal: the first 48 hours. But then the box arrived, and I was a helpless slave. I ripped it open by its pull string and dumped a dozen poppy pods onto the bed, trying to eat one whole. I then made a quick, crude tea, drank it and started to feel a rabid glow of health return in seconds.
What had all the fuss been about?
In better days, I used to crack the dried poppy pods over the blender like eggs, little rivulets of blue-black seeds rushing out as I shattered the crowned pods. Sometimes, I’d commandeer the kitchen and make a big production out of the whole thing, as though I was hosting some kind of lowbrow cooking show, doing stupid cockney accents while explaining the preparation process to the viewers.
Start with a clean, chemical-free stock of dried poppy pods. Pulverize in a blender and scald with water. Don’t boil. Don’t burn. Don’t vaporize. Just scald. Blend on low for about a minute, and then add a dash of lemon juice to taste. Add a cup of fine, aged brandy and then strain through an old T-shirt to remove lingering lumps.
Not only did the brandy serve to recreate that loose-laudanum effect; a swig satisfied the senses while I waited the few minutes for the infernal teapot to boil.
I had a whole list of fuel additives I’d researched on the Internet to intensify the tea experience: tyrosine, ascorbic acid, allergy medicine.
After downing a few bowls of tea, I’d lie down on the bed and watch the ceiling fan spin until my body felt etherized and free again. Ready for the imminent rapture.
But that was the first phase. And it didn’t last very long.
On a field trip to Washington, D.C., Nancy Reagan promised us third-graders that there were people in the world who actually wanted nothing more than to give us drugs–for free! Free crack. Free cigarettes and beer. Free grass. Free coke. Free PCP and LSD. At the time, I remember thinking this notion carried the vague backing of Mr. T.
Back at school, they showed us a video of the circumstances and places these drugs might be obtained: playgrounds, especially while playing kickball; from ice-cream trucks; in restrooms at parties.
I played lots of kickball, but no goon in a trench coat ever trapped the ball under his foot and asked me if I wanted to fly. My friends couldn’t score a Jolt cola, let alone a bump of nose candy. It was probably for the best. Had someone handed me a rock of crack, I think I would’ve put it in my mouth and eaten it. I couldn’t even get a beer. And New Year’s was coming up.
One place to get free stuff was the library. My mother dropped me off like it was day care, me and the damn bums. I looked for books with naked people. I read through investment magazines. Finally, I found the fiction section and a book called Beowulf. I liked it. The Vikings drank this stuff called “mead.” It was an alcoholic drink made from honey. I looked in the card catalog and found a book on mead. It even showed how to make it. I was 12. The librarian had her hair full keeping the bums from falling asleep on the newspapers. She stamped my books and sent me away.
The recipe seemed simple enough. I rode my bike to the supermarket and bought a bear-shaped jar of honey and some Fleischmann’s yeast.
I kept my mead in a pair of empty plastic Coke bottles. Every day, I’d have to twist the cap off and release the carbon dioxide, or the stuff would explode. On New Year’s Eve, I poured my first glass. It was warm, almost hot. It wasn’t sweet at all–it tasted like some kind of milky lard. I couldn’t drink it at first, but I made myself chug the stuff. I’m not sure what happened, but all of a sudden it was dark outside, I thought I heard Dick Clark talking about his balls, and I couldn’t stand up.
Because my neighborhood had failed me with its lack of blight, I began to see the supermarket and drugstore as potential drug dealers. I drank bottles of cough syrup before I knew what dextromethorphan was. I ate catnip and didn’t feel anything. I ate nutmeg and felt everything. There was no Internet to guide me and nothing in the library about morning-glory seeds. My mother just happened to have some Heavenly Blues in the junk drawer. I had never seen the carpet move like that before. I tried everything in the medicine aisle and everything in the bulk food hoppers.
I got my first pain pills from my friend’s dead grandmother. I liked them. I liked them so much, I started hanging out with my own grandmother, just checking in on her every now and then.
By the time I was driving, I still hadn’t found out where to get anything stronger than pot on the street. But they had just opened a whole-foods store about 20 miles away. Also, there was this damn new thing called the World Wide Web. There were whole pages on “legal highs.” I was an opiate man.
At the health-food store, I looked at the huge bins of sesame seeds and fennel seeds and poppy seeds. The page on legal highs had said that trying to extract opium from poppy seeds was ridiculous. You needed pounds of the stuff.
I bought pounds of the stuff. I had them back-ordered and front-ordered at 97 cents a pound.
Per instructions, I boiled some water and slurred the mix around until it poured out in a pale yellow oil. I added some lemon and forced it down. Thirty minutes later, I was a poppy plant floating in the vase of my own body. It felt like I had a headache that didn’t hurt, just these pleasant vexations. Later, I remembered this feeling, this innocent password to paradise.
In college, after a few semesters of spiking needles in my arms and toes before class, my friend Lukas never came back from spring break with the heroin he had promised. The way they described it, his heart had exploded. They called it an allergic reaction. I didn’t know what to think except that the greedy bastard had copped my share. I remember needing a fix but was too scared to shoot up. The shrink had me on Klonopin for anxiety attacks. I drank until drinking didn’t work. I tried every drug I could find. I stole Vicodin from medicine cabinets and kept an open ear for those with upcoming dental work, but the stuff was getting harder and harder to score.
There were online pharmacies on the Internet. I ordered Tramadol from Mexico and Nurofen Plus with the legal max 12.8 milligrams of codeine per tablet from New Zealand. Then that got tougher.
Finally, I found eBay. I had been looking for old motel stationery and fake Jackson Pollock drip paintings. They sold everything–why not drugs?
I typed “poppy pods” into the search bar.
Like anyone trolling the Internet at 4 a.m., I had been looking for some kind of temporary fix. I found it on eBay under Crafts>Floral Supplies>Flowers, Foliage>Dried.
Crafting. Sure. I liked art.
A query turned up all sizes and quantities of poppies. Some, called gigantheums, were as big as tennis balls. A special of “600 XXL-sized gigantheums” was selling for $399. Fortunately, for crafting projects requiring so many poppy plants, financing was available for $17 per month. For all of us hard-core flower arrangers, of course.
The recipe was simple enough. I ordered a few dozen dried flowers from a seller with more than 3,000 positive-feedback points and a clever handle that was a clear double-entendre on horticulture and getting high.
At first, the plants came double-boxed, rubber-banded by the dozen with the stems intact. But after a few more orders, the seller seemed to cut out the pretense that I might actually be using the poppies for floral arrangements and just sent the pods themselves.
The first taste gave off a steamy insult. Even after being filtered twice, the manna was as putrid as a bowl of warm pus. It seemed completely undrinkable. Its fermented, earthy taste–a little like a liquid squeezed from gym socks–had to be chased with something sweet. The dark grinds of crushed seed and sediment formed a repulsive grit in a half-ring around the bottom of the bowl.
As I poured the slosh into what would become my ceremonial chalice–a plastic child’s cereal bowl with a built-in silly straw on the side–I learned how to drink it. Rather, it seemed to teach me how. Its nauseating properties demanded that it be downed fast at first, and then titrated for the rest of the session.
Fifteen minutes after downing my first bowl of poppy-pod tea, I entered “Flanders Fields,” from the John McCrae poem: Where the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.
Immediately, I felt redeemed. The raw reel of life became distant, pleasant. My head was an overstuffed pillow that could softly implode any minute, and it didn’t matter. Nothing could. A pleasant pressure settled on the back of my neck. I was snacky. I wanted sweets. I felt the promise of a divine massage as the pressure spread through my shoulders and opened my ribs like wings. My thoughts slowed down until just about everything seemed to fold neatly inside everything else.
I became happily over-focused in the comfortable mud of abstraction and triumph; immortality bobbed around me like fat peaches in a hot tub.
It was far from the predictable recklessness of alcohol or the silly buzz of marijuana. I didn’t have the lubricated jaws of a chatty coke fiend or the mystical misconceptions of a psychedelic spaceman.
It was quiet up there.
For a while.
Poppy tea seemed to inspire creativity, from conception to actual completion, without any of those time-consuming frat-boy impulses. It effectively killed the sex drive for the night. As such, much writing could be done. A good dose could keep me up all night without that toothless amphetamine tic.
By morning, things tended to irritate me, and the return of the sun seemed an impossibly horrifying affront. I covered the windows with blankets.
As the original confessional opium-eater, Thomas DeQuincey, put it way back in the September 1821 edition of London Magazine, “Booze is an acute pleasure while opium is a chronic one. It introduces among the faculties the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony. Wine robs a man of his self-possession, opium greatly invigorates it.”
Another thing opium tea slows down is the bowels. As an experienced pod-head, I learned to carry a Fleet two-pack before any major binge. (Those are the enemas in the green box.) Opium bunged things up the way eating a beach towel might. When things did finally make their exit, they felt like pine cones being forced through a tiny hole in a dry brick.
There was also the cottonmouth. It was once so bad that it was physically impossible for me to eat a sandwich.
Poppy tea was an extreme beverage for sure, but no more foul than that goofy, green yuppie-goo: wheat grass.
I swallowed the tea a few times. Then a few more. By a month, I was drinking the juice of upward of 60 crushed pods per day–swallowing gallons of liquid and pissing out about $300 a week worth of tea matter. Bowl after bowl of blissful narcotic bloat that I sucked down with a silly straw.
Often, late into a session, I’d get that uncontrollable opiate itch.
Raking my skin with a giant plastic comb seemed to help. Occasionally, I’d bleed or accidentally scrape a piece of a mole right off.
The thing is, heroin gets you addicted to heroin. But opium is 40 to 50 different alkaloids, meaning 40 to 50 different drugs I was becoming addicted to.
Some nights on the tea, I’d just lie in bed, content, even cheerful and impossibly satisfied enough to watch my wife read a copy of Lucky magazine, helping her put those little stickers on items she wanted.
Admittedly, slugging down bowl after bowl of plant slop through a silly straw lacked the romance of an opium den or the skinny-tie-and-suit jet-setting of the French Connection; it didn’t have the instant appeal of the smoky red-light pleasures–the real ensemble pieces of the imagination–the ones where curly white smoke swirls in slow motion until it takes on the figure of an overly gracious geisha girl in fine red silk.
Poppy tea didn’t leave me fashionably thin, either. In fact, after four months of constant use, I had never been so freaking fat in my life. I swelled from a size 30 to a 38 in jeans. I gained 65 pounds, almost exclusively in the middle, from the constipating bloat and junk-food chasers. While hard drugs collapsed on the user like a broken elevator when they wore off, poppy tea seemed to fade into the next day like a down escalator.
The chronicles of the opium trade zigzag through early civilizations from Mesopotamia to China and eventually wander to Neolithic southwestern Europe, where groups of early open-minded dump dwellers found the opium poppy plant, papaver somniferum, growing like a weed among piles of refuse. They soon discovered that not only would the plant seemingly thrive almost anywhere, but, also, when eaten or brewed into a primitive tea, it even took the edge off of living in a dump.
During the 1800s, when the strong painkilling alkaloid morphine was first isolated from the poppy and used in everything from battlefield amputations to snake oils and suspect tonics with names like “Mister Jim’s Special Relief for Facial Neuralgia” or “Calmer’s Baby Tonic for Calmer Babies,” the poppy’s use as a tea fell out of practice. Purified morphine was cheaper than liquor, and a mix of the two, called laudanum, was sold as a kind of cure-all by greedy, apple-cheeked pharmacists everywhere. Once morphine was processed into brand-name heroin, the use of poppy tea just about came to an end, at least until eBay came onto the scene.
As a modern world-bazaar or world-sized museum of bizarre junk, eBay reconnected well-worn trade routes electronically that had disappeared and grassed over centuries ago. While becoming a worldwide garage sale, global swap meet and anthropologist’s curio shop, eBay also quite naturally had become the official opium gray market to at least some of the masses.
But it didn’t also sell the cure.
It was sometime before sunrise, and I was sitting in a motel in Carson City, Nev. My wife didn’t kick me out. She didn’t even tell me to stop drinking the tea. There was no ultimatum. I just packed three huge boxes of poppies in the car with the blender and left. I didn’t tell her where I was going. I didn’t really know. But that seemed to be where you were likely to end up–at a cheap motel. There was some equation there.
I walked a few miles to a grocery store for some lemon juice, Coke and junk food for the binge.
I tried to get the motel tap water running to a boil, but the closest I could get was to put the hand-crushed poppies in the ice bucket and run the shower until steamy water filled it to the brim. I drank it down in hideous gulps.
The reverie, the calm of my ocean, a measured but strong divine state for silent natural trances. I was back in the folds of the plant. I realized I had left because I didn’t want to share this experience with anyone. I reached into the grocery bag and ripped open a three-pack of yellow Easter Peeps.
This was living.
DeQuincey noted that some nights he seemed to live for 70 to 100 years. This was going to be one of those nights. As long as I didn’t die, at least.
I took a poppy pod out of the box and looked it over. It was regal, like a birch-colored rose wearing a halo; a poet could sit and be effusive for days meditating over its near-beauty.
Insulated by the opium and the sumptuousness of a secured motel room, I lay down with hopes of the state between consciousness and sleep.
Suddenly, everything got blurry. The lights stayed put while my eyes moved. It was as though they were riding on oily ball joints. Or were the lights on ball joints? My lips shrank, and I couldn’t talk. My heart drummed fiercely. I needed to calm down.
I panicked. The fear was intense. My toes wiggled around and got stuck in a cigarette hole in the bottom sheet of the motel bed. Did I drink too much? This was the high-water mark. I scratched my itches. Chasing. Always chasing. But this time, I wasn’t catching anything. I was caught.
I made more tea. Used more pods than ever before. I was trying to blast off somewhere.
A few hours later, I had drunk the salt of 200 pods but only felt a kind of necessary doom. I got out of bed and looked in the mirror to make sure I was still there. I looked like that mug shot of Nick Nolte, my hair up in the air, pasted in place by sweat and spilled drink. Tiny poppy seeds were stuck to my shirt. They were everywhere. In the bed. Under my feet. On the floor.
I turned on the TV. The news. Some jackass was trying to sell a body part on eBay, and it had made the headlines.
I felt like I was trapped in an aviary of evil eye-pecking birds. The threats were soaring overhead, then dive-bombing beak-first into the pores in my aching skull. I screamed. The writhing, palpitating torment; the shattering headache; and the enormous irritability and agitation of the world all fit into the grit in my teeth.
I needed something, some kind of painkiller, or I was going to die. I didn’t know any old people who might have medicine cabinets stocked with Norco. I needed help. I thought about the stairwell. I thought maybe I could push myself down the stairwell and break something and go to the emergency room and get some pain meds.
I hurried down the hall and stood over the top, but I couldn’t throw myself off. It was carpeted. I might just bruise, not break. I couldn’t jump. My eyes fogged over with tears that didn’t stream. I never knew how serious it had gotten until it had gotten serious. I had left my wife. I had blown through our savings. But I couldn’t make myself take the final fall and literally hit bottom.
I went back into my room and found the Bible. I promised to God I’d quit. I tried to read some passages, but my eyes kept closing. I knew if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up. I found a section called “Leviticus.” It was awful. Something about an “unclean creeping carcase.” I had to get out of there. By “there,” I meant my body.
But I was stuck.
I’ve been off opium tea for almost two weeks: twelve days of nonstop low-grade flu and restless thoughts of maybe sawing off my head with a bowie knife. I’ve also considered a homemade lobotomy with a knitting needle. I can’t live on this plane of plain sobriety.
When I can sleep, I wake up after a couple of hours, shivering, as though I’ve been sleeping in the steerage of some Alaskan fishing boat. Everything hurts.
I’ve tried jogging to build up that natural high, but my brain’s capacity to make natural painkillers has been so dimmed by the opium that it feels like my knee joints are ripping with every stride.
The thing about it is I realize that I’m going to order more poppies. It’s not a question of “if.” I know where I can get them. It’s only a matter of time before I do this all over again. As long as someone sells the pods, and nobody cares to stop them, my recidivism is all but assured.
Poppies have shown me a better place. An occasional oasis of emotional stability. It’s medicine for life. I doubt it will ever kill me. Perhaps make me into a 400-pound shut-in. Whatever–as long as I can get to the mailbox.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Reno News & Review