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Coleridge: The Opium Eater
“I am fully convinced,” Coleridge wrote, “That to a person with such a stomach and bowels as mine, if any stimulus is needful, opium is incomparably better in every respect than any fermented liquor, nay, far less pernicious even than tea.”
In Coleridge’s time opium was the only painkiller available and there is no doubting Coleridge’s need for it: his illness was genuine. The swollen joints, the stiffness, the fevers, the inability to move. These and his various other symptoms, the dry eyes, the stomach and bowel problems were attributed to “gout” or “rheumatism” but are recognised nowadays as some sort of auto-immune or auto-inflammatory condition.
The pain from these conditions can be excruciating, the stiffness and swelling disabling. Modern drugs aim to dampen down the body’s response to the illness. Pain control was the only option in Coleridge’s time. The problem with opiates is that with longterm use bigger and bigger doses are needed to achieve the same effect.
Like all medicines, opiates have side effects. One of the better ones is that they give you a “high”, a sense of relaxation and well-being, the feeling you don’t have to do much or bother with anything.
Coleridge was well aware of the recreational qualities of opium. He had experimented with drugs for years.
The adverse side effects of opiates are chronic constipation, depression and nightmares. Coleridge suffered all of these and any attempts to stop the drug caused violent withdrawal symptoms: diarrhoea, sweats, shaking and more nightmares.
He recognised his addiction and made several attempts to break it, including going abroad where he thought he wouldn’t be tempted, but opiates were available everywhere and he soon succumbed.
His close friends knew of his habit. Some tried to help him break it, but his wife Sara was the only one who knew its real hold on him. He couldn’t hide the evidence from her: the bottles, the money that was spent on them, the effects it had on him. She was the one who looked after him when he was ill, ministered the doses to him when he couldn’t move, and soothed him when he had nightmares.
She was also the one who bore the hardship of his habit, both emotionally and practically.
Opium was expensive. The family suffered financially as a result of Coleridge’s habit and Sara struggled to pay for food, clothing and fuel.
Then there was the emotional effect of the drug. Coleridge was always a moody person, given to periods of intense highs and deep depressions. But the opium exacerbated this: his bad moods were worse, he was impatient, quick-tempered, cruel and biting in his anger. He always blamed Sara for their arguments but his letters to her are often deeply unkind.
Coleridge was not a good father but his relationship with his children cannot wholly be blamed on his addiction. He wasn’t suited to family life: he craved freedom and used any excuse to be away.
He took opium partly to deal with his frustrations in his family life but it only worsened the situation.
In later life Coleridge lived with Dr.Gilmam who did his best to control his addiction.
Although he was convinced he would die young Coleridge died aged sixty one, a respectable age for an opium addict.
Bethany Askew is the author of seven novels:
The Time Before, The World Within, Out of Step, Counting the Days, Poppy’s Seed, Three Extraordinary Years and The Two Saras.
She has also written a short story, The Night of the Storm, and she writes poetry.
Two more women’s fiction books have been accepted for publication in 2020 and 2021 respectively and she is currently working on a new novel.
In her spare time she enjoys reading, music, theatre, walking, Pilates, dancing and voluntary work.
Bethany is married and lives in Somerset.