"Only very particular personalities still go into this hellish opium experience these days," says Brule, who has also worked with addicts while helming several international organizations related to narcotics.
What hooked Martin initially was not the drug itself but obsessive amassment of pipes, lamps and other opium-smoking paraphernalia. He eventually gathered one of the world's largest collections, wrote a book on the subject and pursued scholarly research into opium's history, culture and abiding romantic image.
An opium pipe became for him a thing of rare beauty and "symbol of the old Orient — as archaic as rickshaws, Chinese junks and man-eating tigers." Closer to home, he came upon the largely forgotten fact that in the 19th and early 20th century the United States was awash with opium. There were dens in Manhattan and popular songs like "Fast Asleep in Poppyland." ''Yen," was originally used to mean a craving for opium.
Along the way, Martin's occasional, recreational pipe led to a powerful addiction.
Martin doesn't hold back when describing the pleasures he drew from the drug. He experienced "a welling euphoria followed by a serene sense of well-being washing over me like a succession of tender caresses." A few pipes made him feel he could recapture childhood's boundless optimism and wonder at the world.
"Opium is a charismatic lover who takes you to heaven, giving you years of warmth and affection, and then, like a schizophrenic, inexplicably and without warning begins putting you through hell," he notes. And Martin was entering the lower depths, rooted to his apartment, his work neglected, afraid to be away for even a single night lest he go without a fix.
The death of a close companion in 2008 — possibly from sudden opium withdrawal — hit him hard. He had often smoked up to 30 pipes a day with Roxanna Brown, who remains a local legend for her expertise in Southeast Asian ceramics and her tragic life. A Vietnam War reporter, she lived in constant pain after losing a leg in a car accident and died in a U.S. prison where guards failed to provide her with medical care. Charges of alleged fraud involving smuggling of Thai antiques were dropped, the U.S. government paying compensation to her family.
Martin went through partially successful detoxification at Thailand's Tham Krabok Monastery, where hundreds of Thai and foreign addicts have sought treatment through Buddhist monastic discipline and a vomit-inducing herbal drink. He also tried on his own, and at some moment freed himself from opium's grip.
But the last line of his book is no ode to deliverance:
"When the cravings get particularly keen, I tell myself that when health is lost to disease or old age, I will find a way to once again to light the lamp, take up the pipe, and roll myself into sweet oblivion."