Laudanum #atozchallenge

laudanum

I had a friend (now deceased, sadly) who used to write “Phantom of the Opera” fan fiction. (Maybe we should call it “Phan fiction.”) She shared one with me in which the heroine was constantly being given laudanum by a man looking to control her. And I didn’t want to admit it, but I had never heard of laudanum. I asked Mary, who reads a lot of Victorian romance, if she had heard of it, and she said “Of course, it shows up in a lot of my books.” Still had no idea what it was, but I assumed, based on the woman’s behavior in my friend’s story, it was some kind of an intoxicant that was addictive.

Well, I did some reading up on it, and learned it was opium mixed with alcohol as a tincture. That explained why it was so addictive. It was discovered by a Swiss alchemist named Phillip von Hohenheim, who took on the name Paracelsus after a First Century Roman physician. “Paracelsus” sang the praises of this new drug, which he named laudanum because he was singing its praises.

To be sure, it was effective as a painkiller. To this day, people are given opiates to dull their pain. I was prescribed hydrocodone with acetaminophen when I had my periodontal work done. Turns out I didn’t need it, but I had the prescription filled because, as a friend of mine in the inventory business used to say, “I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.” Morphine is regularly prescribed for people suffering with cancer, particularly in the end stages where the pain can be excruciating. We used to be able to buy cough syrup with codeine over the counter in the Sixties.

Laudanum, available at Sears! Sears really did have everything. (source: Pinterest)

Likewise, laudanum was used for almost every ache and pain during Victorian times. It was effective for dealing with menstrual cramps, colds, even yellow fever. It was effective against diarrhea because, like every opiate, it caused constipation. It was marketed freely in both England and the United States under such names as Godfrey’s Cocktail and Bailey’s Quieting Syrup.

It’s now a Class 2 drug, still available but by prescription only. Making opiates prescription drugs hasn’t prevented people from abusing them. In fact, the problem has only gotten worse.

41 thoughts on “Laudanum #atozchallenge

  1. Of course, I’ve heard about it through the movies like Tombstone. I had to look it up to find out what kind of drug it’s was. They did push this drug quite a bit which really hasn’t changed except we don’t push this for babies which is one good thing. I have to admit, when there is a crying, teething baby on a plane, I think a little bit of honey with cognac in it to rub on the gums would be great. Yes, all people can go and slap me now.

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  2. I had never heard of laudanum either until I read the novel “The House of the Scorpion”, a dystopian fiction YA novel set in the fictional country of Opium. I had to learn what it was to be able to explain it to students.

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  3. Your last sentence is the heartbreaking truth. We now know how detrimental opiates can be to your mental and physical health, but usage is on the increase. In this country, as I suppose in many others, the situation is out of control.

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    1. The government here is spending lots of money to combat the problem, but a lot of it is people who are getting it by prescription who go to multiple doctors and get prescriptions from each. Mary and I went to school with a guy who’s serving time in a California prison for distributing it. He’s a doctor and was selling opiates in his practice. It’s a huge problem.

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      1. I hope that doctor stays behind bars for a very long time. Some doctors also fill out prescriptions for treatment of any minor symptoms instead of encouraging healthy lifestyle changes – in my opinion that is also a crime.

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        1. I’m pretty sure he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail. Another friend was a doctor and married to another doctor who was writing herself prescriptions.

          The way they do healthcare now, they spend very little time with patients and often don’t take the time for counseling. Have a problem, take a pill.

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  4. Having written more than my fair share of Victorian and Regency historical fiction, I’m all too familiar with laudanum. True story: there was a period of time in England during which opium, laudanum, cocaine and heroin were all legal; heroin was used to treat addiction. Nice article; thank you!

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    1. They were selling cough medicine with codeine over the counter as late as the 1960’s here. For that matter, marijuana and LSD were legal in this country until the late ’60’s. It wasn’t until addiction became a problem that they considered making them “by prescription only.” Seems crazy now, but that’s how it was. Glad you liked the post.

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  5. The morphine on demand for hospital trauma patients doesn’t help opiate addiction either. I didn’t like the way it made me feel and didn’t use it on a couple occasions. Hospitals are a necessay evil – seems like I’m only ever in one for trauma after accidents.

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    1. I’ve always felt that the worst place to be when you’re sick is in the hospital. When I was in PT after the stroke, I had a terrible time sleeping. One night I had just gotten to sleep when the third-shift phlebotomist showed up to draw blood. He put every light in the room on and started yakking using his outside voice. If I could have gotten out of bed to kick his ass, I would have.

      They’ve gotten to the point where they prescribe opiates for almost any kind of pain. I had a tooth pulled last year, and they prescribed acetaminophen with codeine for after the novocain wore off. I was determined that I wouldn’t take them unless the pain was excruciating, and it never got to that point. At least not with the tooth; I had the worst sciatic pain a couple of months ago that wouldn’t respond to either ibuprofen or naproxen, and took it for that.

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      1. I also hated the every six hours hospital vampire thing. How are you supposed to get better if they’re waking you up all the time to draw blood?

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        1. That’s why I say that a hospital is nowhere to be when you’re sick. Too many infections floating around. When they moved me from intensive care to a regular room, I ended up with pneumonia and had to go back to intensive care. They took a chest x-ray every night at 3 AM…

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  6. Fascinating – I had no idea of the composition of laudanum. But knowing it was credited with causing the dream the induced Coleridge’s Kubla Khan poem, I always imagined it a hallucinogenic.

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  7. Interesting post. I only know laudanum from reading, but with my recent injury and the following surgeries I was given several opiate type drugs. I hated it, but sometimes it is necessary! It is hard to sleep or heal if you are in serious pain. I think I am one person not in danger of addiction to these because pretty much all of them made me sick as a dog. They took care of the surgical pain, but I stopped them as soon as possible because having barf bags in every room I go into is not my idea of fun…

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  8. Hi John – it was certainly common in the 17 and 1800s … lots of authors used it – I think Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, et al … dental problems caused George Washington to rely on laudanum. Today – not so good … but am glad opium is available for cancer sufferers … medical remedies for other illnesses could be necessary too – what one does about the criminal elements I don’t know – cheers Hilary

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    1. I’ve had a few experiences where loved ones were in the end stages of cancer and were given morphine for the pain, and it was very effective. I’ve heard that people who take it for that kind of pain have a lower instance of becoming addicted to it. There are some places where a doctor needs to justify its use before administering it to a patient, which seems a bit ham-fisted to me.

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  9. Absinthe was another Victorian biggie. My great grandfather ended up in Santa Clara, California’s Agnews Hospital as a result of Absinthe’s debilitating effects on his brain. He died at Agnews in 1917.

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  10. Laudanum is all over literature for me, too. The Romantics loved it, go figure.
    I’m astounded by the scope of people addicted to opiates. I regularly deal with people who are afraid to take pills for pain because they’re afraid of addiction. Who can blame them? Not me.

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    1. Mary told me that she had heard that people who take opiates for severe pain generally don’t become addicted to them. Certainly people in the late stages of cancer can use them, and as far as I’m concerned they should get whatever they want and need to be comfortable in those cases. But I understand the misgivings people have about them. I know I was hesitant to use them after I had my tooth pulled, but got them in the event the pain got so bad. I ended up using them for my recent bout with sciatica. I was in utter agony…

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  11. John,

    This is new-to-me. I’m not one for taking anything more than I have to but I do agree that it’s best to have it and not need it then to need it and not have it. I usually get my pain med scripts filled but usually wind up flushing it away. I won’t put it in the trash for fear someone will actually find it.

    Curious as a Cathy
    iPad Art Sketch ‘L’ is for Lamppost

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    1. I always heard to flush them down the toilet when they go bad, but lately I’ve read that they don’t want you to do that and to bring them back to the pharmacy for disposal. Seems like a lot of work, but then, that’s the world we live in…

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  12. Good post, but now I have to go look up ‘tincture’ since it’s another of those words I’ve read a lot and assume I know the full definition, but I have to be sure. 😉 Unless that’s your T? I’ll be sure to check there first.
    Jamie Lyn Weigt | Writing Dragons

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