Confessions of an eBay opium addict

A pleasure trip to the Internet auction site sent me into the hell of opium addiction. Could death be the only redemption?

Illustration By Sandra Hoover

Columbus Day almost killed me.

I woke up avalanched under a junkyard of pain, my body a trap of torn nerves and trashed organs. An oily rash of sweat had soaked through my pillow and into the mattress. I was coughing, confused and crazy with anger. A throbbing, deep-pink chemical sunburn covered my face; my bowels were spitting hot mercury. I slid out of bed and dropped to the floor, the weight of a snarling mountain gorilla bearing me down. I saw myself in the mirror as I fell. I looked puffy.Outside, the sun was terrifying, while the hiss from a neighbor’s dancing sprinkler got in my head and pissed me off so much, it felt as though my blood had become flammable and would ignite at the next insult. I made it to the car and somehow drove one block down to the mailbox, expecting the Priority Mail package from my eBay dealer to save me.


I hobbled into the car and drove back to the house, used the bathroom and looked on the computer. The U.S. Postal Service Web site tracker verified that my box of poppies had been delivered at exactly 10:32 a.m. Where the hell was it? I typed a threatening e-mail to my supplier but didn’t send it. Then I got back into the car, reeling and jumpy.

I opened the mailbox.


I closed it. Locked it. Waited a second and then stuck the key in and opened it back up.

Still not there.

I got back in the car and decided to wait it out. My head whirled, as though faced with gravity for the very first time. I wanted to ram it straight into the dashboard. Everything hurt, but the pain came in slow-motion and then seemed to actually stop to register. My pulse rattled, and my heart seemed to hiss.

Maybe my package had been intercepted by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Good, I thought. Maybe they’ll be able to get me off this stupid homemade junk.

I sat there for less than a minute. Something had to be done. I drove over to the post office, expecting to turn myself in. Give up. Take the 15 years, if they would just give me the fix. But the door was stuck. I pushed, pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. No, it was locked. Closed for Columbus Day.

Columbus Day.

No wonder everyone hated him. That bastard was dead for 500 years and still causing trouble.

I took a dozen allergy pills but couldn’t sleep. I lay awake in bed for the next two days before the shipment finally arrived. The postman had decided to make a long weekend out of the cheap-ass holiday.

I should’ve stayed in bed and ridden it out. I had put a price on my own head, and I had already endured the worst part. But then the box arrived, and I was helpless. I ripped it open by its pull string and dumped a dozen poppy pods onto the bed, trying to eat one whole. I made a quick, crude tea and immediately started to feel better.

What had all the fuss been about?

In better days, I used to crack the dried poppy pods over the blender like eggs, little rivulets of blue-black seeds rushing out as I shattered the crowned pods. Sometimes I’d commandeer the kitchen and make a big production out of the whole thing, as though I was hosting some kind of lowbrow cooking show, doing stupid cockney accents while explaining the preparation process to the viewers.

Dry, the pods blended into a sandy, fibrous powder.

I’d throw in a little nip of whisky for that loose-laudanum effect while waiting for the teapot to boil.

I had a whole list of potentates, fuel additives I’d researched on the Internet to intensify the experience.

After downing a few bowls of tea, I’d lie down on the bed and watch the ceiling fan spin until my body felt etherized and free again.

But that was the first phase. And it didn’t last very long.

Dried poppy pods, available to “flower arrangers” in eBay’s virtual “crafting” aisle, were the raw ingredient of the putrid concoction, at first barely consumable, later all-consuming.

Like anyone trolling the Internet at 4 a.m., I had been looking for some kind of temporary fix. I found it on eBay under Crafts>Floral Supplies>Flowers>Foliage>Dried. Crafting. Sure. A query turned up all sizes and quantities of poppies. Some, called gigantheums, were as big as tennis balls. A special of “600 XXL-sized gigantheums” were selling for $399. Fortunately, for crafting projects requiring so many poppy plants, financing was available for $17 per month. For all of us hardcore flower-arrangers, of course.

The recipe was simple enough. Hot water and crushed poppies. A blender and a strainer or an old T-shirt to squeeze out the pulp. I ordered a few dozen dried flowers from a seller with more than 3,000 positives and a clever handle that was a clear double-entendre on horticulture and getting high.

At first, the plants came double-boxed, rubber-banded by the dozen with the stems intact. But after a few more orders, the seller seemed to cut out the pretense that I might actually be using the poppies for floral arrangements and just sent the pods themselves.

The first taste gave off a steamy insult. Even after being filtered twice, the manna was as putrid as a bowl of warm pus. It seemed completely inedible. Its fermented, earthy taste—a little like a liquid squeezed from gym socks—had to be chased with something sweet. The dark grinds of crushed seed and sediment formed a repulsive grit in a half-ring around the bottom of the bowl.

As I poured the slosh into what would become my ceremonial chalice—a plastic child’s cereal bowl with a built-in silly straw on the side—I learned how to drink it. Rather, it seemed to teach me how.

Fifteen minutes after downing my first bowl of poppy tea, I entered Flanders’ Fields for the first time.

Immediately, I felt redeemed. The raw reel of life became distant, pleasant. My head was an overstuffed pillow that could softly implode any minute, and it didn’t matter. Nothing could. A pleasant pressure settled on the back of my neck. I was snacky. I wanted sweets. I felt the promise of a divine massage as the pressure spread through my shoulders and opened my ribs like wings. My thoughts slowed down until just about everything seemed to fold neatly inside everything else.

I became happily over-focused in the comfortable mud of abstraction and triumph, fragments of immortality floated like fat peaches bobbing in a hot tub.

It was far from the predictable recklessness of alcohol or the silly buzz of marijuana. I didn’t have the lubricated jaws of a chatty coke fiend nor the mystical misconceptions of a psychedelic spaceman. It was quiet up there.

For a while. [page]

Poppy tea seemed to inspire creativity, from conception to actual completion, without any of those time-consuming frat-boy impulses. It effectively killed the sex drive for the night. As such, much work could be done. A good dose could keep me up all night without that toothless amphetamine tick.

By morning, things tended to irritate me, and the return of the sun seemed an impossibly horrifying insult. I covered the windows with blankets.

As the original confessional opium-eater, Thomas DeQuincey, put it way back in the September 1821 edition of London Magazine, “Booze is an acute pleasure while opium is a chronic one. It introduces among the faculties the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony. Wine robs a man of his self-possession, opium greatly invigorates it.”

Another thing opium tea slowed down were the bowels. As an experienced pod-head, I learned to carry a Fleet two-pack before any major binge. (Those are the ones in the green box.) Opium bunged things up the way eating a beach towel might. When things did finally make their exit, they felt like pinecones being forced through a tiny hole in a dry brick.

There was also the cotton-mouth. It was once so bad that it was physically impossible for me to eat a sandwich.

Poppy tea was an extreme beverage for sure, but no more foul than that goofy, green yuppie-goo, wheat grass.

I did it a few times. Then a few more. By a month, I was drinking upwards of 60 crushed pods per day—swallowing gallons of liquid and pissing out about $300 a week worth of dried plant matter. Bowl after bowl of blissful narcotic bloat that I sucked down with a silly straw.

Often, I’d get that uncontrollable opiate itch.

Raking my skin with a giant plastic novelty comb seemed to help. Occasionally, I’d bleed or accidentally scrape a piece of a mole right off.

The thing is, heroin gets you addicted to heroin. But opium is 40-50 different alkaloids, meaning 40-50 different drugs I was becoming addicted to.

Some nights I’d just lie in bed, content, even cheerful and impossibly satisfied enough to watch my wife read a copy of Lucky magazine, helping her put those little stickers on items she wanted.

Admittedly, slugging down bowl after bowl of plant slop through a silly straw lacked the romance of an opium den or the skinny-tie-and-suit jet-setting of the French Connection; it didn’t have the instant appeal of the smoky red-light pleasures—the real ensemble pieces of the imagination—the ones where curly white smoke swirls in slow motion until it takes on the figure of a overly-gracious geisha girl in fine red silk.

It didn’t even have the Hollywood appeal of heroin anti-glamour mainstays like former Alf-writer/junkie Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight. The sick yellow desperation of the cotton-ball-and-spoon crowd, those icons that made filmmakers swoon in the late ‘90s. Cut to the tourniquet in the toothless addict’s mouth or cut to the buffoon drinking grime out of a children’s cereal bowl? I could feel the late William S. Burroughs cackling at me. I was living somewhere between Junkie and Budget Living magazine. But the habit was my own. It was DIY. Fuck those movieland creeps, anyway—enough had been written about heroin addiction by the time of Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend—Hollywood had just been sluicing the depths ever since.

Poppy tea didn’t leave me fashionably thin, either. In fact, after four months of constant use, I had never been so freaking fat in my life. I swelled from a size 30 to a 38 in jeans. I gained 65 pounds, almost exclusively in the middle.

While hard drugs collapsed on the user like a broken elevator when they wore off, poppy tea seemed to fade into the next day like a down escalator.

At first.

The chronicles of the opium trade zigzag through early civilization from Mesopotamia to China and eventually wander to Neolithic southwestern Europe, where groups of early open-minded dump dwellers found the opium poppy plant, papaver somniferum, growing like a weed among piles of refuse. They soon discovered that not only would the plant seemingly thrive almost anywhere, but when eaten or brewed into a primitive tea, it even took the edge off of living in a dump.

During the 1800s, when the strong pain-killing alkaloid morphine was first isolated from the poppy and used in everything from battlefield amputations to snake oils and suspect tonics with names like “Mister Jim’s Special Relief for Facial Neuralgia” or “Calmer’s Baby Tonic for Calmer Babies,” the poppy’s use as a tea fell out of practice. Purified morphine was cheaper than liquor, and a mix of the two, called laudanum, was sold by greedy, apple-cheeked pharmacists everywhere as a kind of cure-all. Once morphine was processed into brand-name heroin, the use of poppy tea just about came to an end, at least until eBay came onto the scene.

As modern world-bazaar or world-sized museum of bizarre junk, eBay reconnected trade routes electronically that grassed and grew over centuries ago. Pfalzgraff table settings with minor chips, black wedding dresses, a plaster mold of Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky” ass—millions of pieces of crap and treasure moved through the mails every day because of the auction site. Half-empty boxes of Band-Aids were bought and sold. Gold teeth—"genuine 9-carat solid gold bling-bling accessories” went for less than $30. A lot of eight “gently used” 40DD bras closed with one bid at $6.50.

While becoming a worldwide garage sale, global swap meet and anthropologist’s curio shop, eBay also had quite naturally become the official opium gray market to at least some of the masses.

It was sometime before sunrise, and I was sitting in a motel in Carson City. My wife didn’t kick me out. She didn’t even tell me to stop drinking the tea. There was no ultimatum. I just packed three huge boxes of poppies in the car with the blender and left. I didn’t tell her where I was going. I didn’t really know. But that seemed to be when you were likely to end up at a cheap motel in Carson City. There was some equation there.

I walked a few miles to a grocery store for some lemon juice and Coke and junk food for the binge.

I tried to get the motel tap water running to a boil, but the closest I could get was to put the hand-crushed poppies in the ice bucket and run the shower until steamy water filled it to the brim.

The reverie, the calm of the ocean, a measured but strong divine state for silent natural trances. I was back in the folds of the plant. I realized I had left because I didn’t want to share this experience with anyone. I reached into the grocery bag and ripped open a three-pack of yellow Easter Peeps.

This was living.

DeQuincey noted that some nights he seemed to live for 70 to 100 years. This was going to be one of those nights. As long as I didn’t die, at least.

I took a poppy pod out of the box and looked it over. It was regal, like a birch-colored rose wearing a halo; a poet could sit effusive for days meditating over its near-beauty.

Insulated by the opium and the sumptuousness of a secured motel room, I lay down with hope of the state between consciousness and sleep.

Suddenly, everything got blurry. The lights stayed put while my eyes moved. It was as though they were riding on oily ball joints. Or were the lights on ball joints?

My lips shrank, and I couldn’t talk. My heart drummed fiercely. I needed to calm down.

I panicked. The fear was intense. My toes wiggled around and got stuck in a cigarette hole in the bottom sheet of the motel bed. Did I take too many? This was the high-water mark. I scratched my itches. Chasing. Always chasing. But this time I wasn’t catching anything. I was caught.

I had drunk the salt of 200 pods and only felt doom. I got out of bed and looked in the mirror to make sure I was still there. I looked like a mad scientist, my hair up in the air, pasted in place by sweat and spilled drink. Tiny poppy seeds were stuck to my shirt. They were everywhere. In the bed. Under my feet. On the floor.

I turned on the TV. The news. Some jackass was trying to sell a body part on eBay, and it had made the headlines.

I needed more of something, less of something else. I just couldn’t put it straight.

I felt like I was trapped in an aviary of evil eye-pecking birds. The threats were soaring overhead, then dive-bombing beak-first into the pores in my aching skull. I screamed. The writhing, palpitating torment, the shattering headache, the agitation and the enormous irritability and agitation of the world all fit into the grit in my teeth.

I needed something. Some kind of painkiller or I was going to die. I didn’t know any old people who might have medicine cabinets stocked with Norco. I needed help. I thought about the stairwell. I thought maybe I could push myself down the stairwell and break something and go to the ER and get some pain meds.

I hurried down the hall and stood over the top, but I couldn’t throw myself off. I couldn’t jump, either. My eyes fogged over with tears that didn’t stream. I never knew how serious it had gotten until it had gotten serious. I had left my wife. I had blown through our savings. But I couldn’t make myself take the final fall and literally hit bottom.

I went back into my room and found the Bible. I promised to God I’d quit. I tried to read some passages, but my eyes kept closing. I knew if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up. I found a section called “Leviticus.” It was awful. Something about an “unclean creeping carcase.” I had to get out of there. By “there,” I meant my body.

But I was stuck.

Porter Bartlett is a pseudonym.