A groundbreaking meditation on pain, painkillers, and dependence from a prescription opioid user.
Her writing has been described as “measured,” “sensuous,” and “compelling.” In 2016, Carlyn Zwarenstein’s short narrative on pain made the Globe and Mail’s Top 100 Books. Now, she returns with a seductive dive into opioids and the nature of dependence.
North Americans are the world’s most prolific users of opioid painkillers. In On Opium, Zwarenstein describes her own use of opioid-inspired medicines to cope with a painful disease. Evoking both Thomas De Quincey and Frida Kahlo, she travels from the decadence of recreational drug use in past eras to the misery and privation of the overdose crisis today.
Speaking with users of prescribed morphine, illicit fentanyl, and smoked opium, Zwarenstein investigates uncomfortable questions about why people use substances and when substance use becomes addiction. And she exposes causes of drug-related harms: the debilitating effects of poverty, isolation, and trauma; the role of race, class, and gender in addressing pain; and a system of prohibition that has converted age-old medicines into taboo substances.
Through all of this, Zwarenstein finds hope. Drawing on solidarity between illicit drug users and people in pain; in a wise understanding of what humans need to be well; and in radical drug policies like legalization and safe supply, she lays out a vision of a world where suffering is no longer lauded, and opioids are no longer demonized.
Bespeak Audio Editions brings Canadian voices to the world with audiobook editions of some of the country’s greatest works of literature, performed by Canadian actors.
Carlyn Zwarenstein is a writer based in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Toronto Star, and Vice. She is also the author of Opium Eater: The New Confessions.
Published: March 2022
“Carlyn Zwarenstein provides a voice previously missing from the overdose crisis. With empathy and urgency, she takes us inside the world of people who use opioids at a time when they are dying in record numbers. On Opium captures people’s pain, hope, and resilience, and in sharing their stories, provides a blueprint to end the crisis.” — Travis Lupick, author of Fighting for Space
“Zwarenstein not only plumbs the depths of pain and relief and dependence on relief but traces the blurred lines between writer and subject on that — perhaps needlessly — charged question: What do we do for pain and its wily life-thieving-or-enabling remedy? What would happen if we turned our focus to the prevention and elimination of suffering, rather than the demonization and criminalization of sufferers?” — Anna Mehler Paperny, author of Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me
“Zwarenstein’s volume is a valuable tool for the promotion of harm reduction. When so much conservative rhetoric is based on an ideology of stoicism, it’s bracing to learn that Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius was also an opium user.” — Quill & Quire
“A beautifully written meditation on opioids, addiction, joy, and pain — and the cruel and rigid policies we devise that mainly serve to make suffering worse.” — Maia Szalavitz, author of Undoing Drugs
“Zwarenstein weaves her personal narrative of using prescription opioid medication to manage spinal arthritis with a deeply reported look at why people use substances and the causes of drug-related harms.” — Globe and Mail