The Opiates of the Masses?

Well-Written “Nonvella” Provides an Account of Author’s Experience and Corrects Some Common Myths

Opium EaterOpium Eater: The New Confessions
by Carlyn Zwarenstein
110 pages / ISBN-10: 0993621686
Nonvella Publishing Inc. Paperback: $13.95

Reviewed by Tom Sandborn

Ever since Thomas De Quincy invented the genre in the 19th century, tales of opiate addiction and recovery have been popular with readers, especially when the authors have been celebrities and/or have appeared on the Oprah show. Carlyn Zwarenstein, a Toronto based free lance writer and the author of Opium Eater: The New Confessions, is well aware of the tradition to which her book belongs, and in fact makes graceful references to the 19th century ur-text throughout her slight but beautifully written “nonvella.” (A nonvella is a relatively new format being popularized in Canada by Zwarentstein’s publisher and others, a mid length text that can be viewed as a short book or extended, long form prose article.)

While the bookshelves are crowded these days with books and magazine articles about drug addiction and its discontents, this elegantly written account stands out for the quality of its prose and for its avoidance of most of the usual tropes to be found in addiction memoirs. It is a particularly timely read just now, with over dose deaths from the latest high potency opioids to hit the street filling the headlines.

Zwarenstein, a young mother whose involvement with prescription painkillers began as she endured the agonizing effects of ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative autoimmune disease that brings with it chronic inflammation of the spine and the intense pain and constricted muscles that are created by that inflammation. She has mainly used tramadol, a relatively low potency opioid that she takes in pill form. Some of this little book’s most lovely prose is deployed in her detailed and lyrical accounts of the relief from pain and heightened sense of well being mental clarity she experiences when she takes the drug.

For as long as human beings have carried the mixed blessing of reflective consciousness around, we have sought out substances that relieve pain and/or provide pleasurable changes in that consciousness. For millennia, opium, its derivatives and its synthetic analogues, including morphine, heroin and tramadol, have been perennial favorites. One heroin user I knew years ago used to say “If God made anything better than heroin, He kept it for himself,” and Zwarenstein’s descriptions of the tramadol experience rival De Quincy’s opium narratives for lyrical beauty and persuasiveness as she tracks the impact of the drug on her body and mind. Given how much of the public discourse around opioids is filled with images of down and out addicts dying slowly (and these days, not so slowly) on the streets of our cities, it is useful to have a book that reminds us a) that people take drugs for a reason, or a number of reasons, and b) that pleasure is one of the most compelling of those reasons, and finally, c) many opioid users are, like the author, nowhere near the stereotyped image of the “drug fiend” many still retain.

This book is, odd though it may seem given the grim realities that surround opioid use, about which the author is frank, a lovely and easy read. We are all going to be called upon in the future to weigh in on public policy debates about opioid use, as the butcher’s bill of over dose deaths linked to fentanyl continues to grow. This book should be read by anyone trying to think through how we can devise and implement good harm reduction policies.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at

Search Columbia Journal Search WWW