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Odyssey of an American opium addict

Associated Press Modified: October 3, 2012 at 8:16 pm •  Published: October 3, 2012
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BANGKOK (AP) — One Halloween night, in a blacked-out bedroom in Bangkok's Chinatown, Steven Martin went into physical and mental free fall. High fever oscillated with shivering cold, gut-wrenching stomach pains brought on waves of diarrhea. Howling in agony, he leapt around the room in a kind of devil dance, his body smeared with oily sweat, vomit, mucus and feces.

"Opium Fiend, A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction" opens with this harrowing description of the American author trying to cut himself off from a drug that had taken over his life as a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia. Although Martin doesn't advocate opium use, his memoir is no simple cautionary tale, nor was he your average backpacker junkie, such as still roam this region of cheap and plentiful drugs.

After intensive research, Martin says he never found a detailed, honest account by an opium addict, even during the drug's heyday. "And as a result of the almost complete eradication of opium smoking in the traditional Chinese manner, it seemed that such a book never could be written — that the subject had been lost to history," he said in an interview.

"I knew that my experiences were uncommon. I simply wanted to share my story."

It's one that in equal measure details both the bliss the drug induced — "never again would sleep be so delicious; never again would dreams be so real" — and the pain of dependence and repeated attempts at withdrawal.

Five years later, now living in Los Angeles, the 50-year-old author acknowledges the drug's continuing siren call — as do experts on addiction.

"I think about opium every day — that's no exaggeration," he says. "While sleeping I dream about smoking opium, and sometimes I wake up from these dreams lying on my left side, in the same exact position that an opium smoker who is right-handed like myself would lie in order to prepare and smoke his pipes."

Dr. Christian Brule, a French doctor who coordinated drug policy at the Council of Europe, agrees that opium addiction is extremely difficult to shed, both physically and psychologically, the craving still there decades after the last pipe is smoked. "We call it the syndrome of lost heaven," he says.

Martin traces his addiction to childhood, when he exhibited a more than normal penchant for collecting things and an allure for exotic Asian artifacts.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy he moved to the Philippines and then Thailand, home for 18 years.

His introduction to opium came in 1992 in Laos, where the last of the old Chinese-style opium dens still existed. "Opium smoking, a habit that had financed empires and made fortunes all over the world, was now so rare that only in this landlocked backwater could the classic Chinese vice be witnessed," he writes.

It's still around in Southeast Asia today, but mainly used by elderly hilltribe people and young Westerners seeking a quick, exotic thrill while trekking in northern Thailand or hanging out in backpacker destinations like Vang Vieng in Laos. The so-called Golden Triangle, which includes areas of Laos, Myanmar and northern Thailand, remains the world's no. 2 opium producer although Afghanistan accounts for some 75 percent of the crop.

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