Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/An Overdose of Hasheesh
BEING one of the grand army of sufferers from headache, I took, last summer, by order of my physician, three small daily doses of Indian hemp (hasheesh), in the hope of holding my intimate enemy in check. Not discovering any of the stimulative effects of the drug, even after continual increase of the dose, I grew to regard it as a very harmless and inactive medicine, and one day, when I was assured by some familiar symptoms that my perpetual dull headache was about to assume an aggravated and acute form, such as usually sent me to bed for a number of days, I took, in the desperate hope of forestalling the attack, a much larger quantity of hasheesh than had ever been prescribed. Twenty minutes later I was seized with a strange sinking or faintness, which gave my family so much alarm that they telephoned at once for the doctor, who came in thirty minutes after the summons, bringing, as he had been requested, another practitioner with him.
I had just rallied from the third faint, as I call the sinking turns, for want of a more descriptive name, and was rapidly relapsing into another, when the doctors came. One of them asked at once if I had been taking anything unusual, and a friend who had been sent for remembered that I had been experimenting with hasheesh. The physicians asked then the size and time of the last dose, but I could not answer. I heard them distinctly, but my lips were sealed. Undoubtedly my looks conveyed a desire to speak, for Dr. G——, bending over me, asked if I had taken a much larger quantity than he ordered. I was half sitting up on the bed when he asked me that question, and, with all my energies bent upon giving him to understand that I had taken an overdose, I bowed my head, and at once became unconscious of everything except that bowing, which I kept up with ever-increasing force for seven or eight hours, according to my computation of time. I felt the veins of my throat swell nearly to bursting, and the cords tighten painfully, as, impelled by an irresistible force, I nodded like a wooden mandarin in a tea-store.
In the midst of it all I left my body, and quietly from the foot of the bed watched my unhappy self nodding with frightful velocity. I glanced indignantly at the shamefully indifferent group that did not even appear to notice the frantic motions, and resumed my place in my living temple of flesh in time to recover sufficiently to observe one doctor lift his finger from my wrist, where he had laid it to count the pulsations just as I lapsed into unconsciousness, and say to the other: "I think she moved her head. She means us to understand that she has taken largely of the cannabis Indica." So, in the long, interminable hours I had been nodding my head off, only time enough had elapsed to count my pulse, and the violent motions of my head had in fact been barely noticeable. This exaggerated appreciation of sight, motion, and sound is, I am told, a well-known effect of hasheesh, but I was ignorant of that fact then, and, even if I had not been, probably the mental torture I underwent during the time it enchained my faculties would not have been lessened, as I seemed to have no power to reason with myself, even in the semi-conscious intervals which came between the spells.
These intervals grew shorter, and in them I had no power to speak. My lips and face seemed to myself to be rigid and stony. I thought that I was dying, and, instead of the peace which I had always hoped would wait on my last moments, I was filled with a bitter, dark despair. It was not only death that I feared with a wild, unreasoning terror, but there was a fearful expectation of judgment, which must, I think, be like the torture of lost souls. I felt half sundered from the flesh, and my spiritual sufferings seemed to have begun, although I was conscious of living still.
One terrible reality—I can hardly term it a fancy even now—that came to me again and again, was so painful that it must, I fear, always be a vividly remembered agony. Like dreams, its vagaries can be accounted for by association of ideas past and passing, but the suffering was so intense and the memory of it so haunting that I have acquired a horror of death unknown to me before. I died, as I believed, although by a strange double consciousness I knew that I should again reanimate the body I had left. In leaving it I did not soar away, as one delights to think of the freed spirits soaring. Neither did I linger around dear, familiar scenes. I sank, an intangible, impalpable shape, through the bed, the floors, the cellar, the earth, down, down, down! As if I had been a fragment of glass dropping through the ocean, I dropped uninterruptedly through the earth and its atmosphere, and then fell on and on forever. I was perfectly composed, and speculated curiously upon the strange circumstance that even in going through the solid earth there was no displacement of material, and in my descent I gathered no momentum. I discovered that I was transparent and deprived of all power of volition, as well as bereft of the faculties belonging to humanity. But in place of my lost senses I had a marvelously keen sixth sense or power, which I can only describe as an intense superhuman consciousness that in some way embraced all the five and went immeasurably beyond them. As time went on, and my dropping through space continued, I became filled with the most profound loneliness, and a desperate fear took hold of me that I should be thus alone for evermore, and fall and fall eternally without finding rest.
"Where," I thought, "is the Saviour, who has called his own to his side? Has he forsaken me now? "And I strove in my dumb agony to cry to him. There was, it seemed to me, a forgotten text which, if remembered, would be the spell to stop my fatal falling and secure my salvation. I sought in my memory for it, I prayed to recall it, I fought for it madly, wrestling against the terrible fate which seemed to withhold it. Single words of it came to me in disconnected mockery, but erased themselves instantaneously. Mentally, I writhed in such hopeless agony that, in thinking of it, I wonder I could have borne such excess of emotion and lived. It was not the small fact of life or death that was at stake, but a soul's everlasting weal.
Suddenly it came. The thick darkness through which I was sinking became illuminated with a strange lurid light, and the air, space, atmosphere, whatever it might be called, separated and formed a wide black-sided opening, like the deadly pit which shows itself in the center of a maelstrom. Then, as I sank slowly into this chasm, from an immeasurable distance above me, yet forcibly distinct, the words I longed for were uttered in a voice of heavenly sweetness: "He that believeth on me hath everlasting life, and shall not come unto condemnation." My intense over-natural consciousness took possession of these words, which were, I knew, my seal of safety, my passport to heaven. For one wild instant a flash of ineffable joy, the joy of a ransomed soul, was mine. I triumphed over sin and hell and the unutterable horrors of the second death. Then I plunged again into the outer darkness of the damned. For the talisman which had been so suddenly revealed was, as if in mockery, as suddenly snatched from me, and, as before, obliterated from my recollection.
Then all the chaos beyond the gap into which I was falling became convulsed, as if shaken by wind and storm. Hideous sounds of souls in torment, and still more hideous peals of mocking, fiendish laughter, took the place of the hitherto oppressive silence. I was consumed by a fearful, stinging remorse for the sins done in the body. Unlike the experience of the drowning, my sins did not present themselves to my remembrance in an array of mathematical accuracy. On the contrary, not one was specifically recalled, but, if my daily walk and conversation had through life been entirely reprobate, and the worst of crimes my constant pastimes, my consequent agony of self-reproach could not have been greater. My conscience, in its condition of exaggerated self-accusation, was not only the worm that never dieth, but a viper that would sting eternally, a ravening beast that, still insatiate, would rend and gnaw everlastingly.
I began then, without having reached any goal, and for no apparent reason, to ascend with neither more nor less swiftness than I had gone down, and in the same recumbent position in which my forsaken body lay upon the bed a fathomless distance above, and which I had been all the time powerless to change. Even the dress, a thin, figured Swiss muslin, was the same, although a hundred times more diaphanous. Even in my agonies of remorse I noticed how undisturbed by my falling were its filmy folds. There was not even a flutter in the delicate lace with which it was ornamented. As I rose, a great and terrible voice, from a vast distance, pronounced my doom in these words of startling import: "In life you declared the negation of the supernatural. For truth you took a false philosophy. You denied the power of Christ in time—you shall feel it in eternity. In life, you turned from him—in death, he turns from you. Fall, fall, fall, to rise again in hopeless misery, and sink again in lonely agony forever!" All space took up the last four words of my terrible sentence, and myriads of voices, some sweet and sad, some with wicked, vindictive glee, echoed and re-echoed like a refrain, "In lonely agony forever!" Then ensued a wild and terrible commingling of unsyllabled sounds, so unearthly that it is not in the power of language to fitly describe them. It was something like a mighty Niagara of shrieks and groans, combined with the fearful din and crash of thousands of battles and the thunderous roar of a stormy sea. Over it all came again the same grandly dominant voice, sternly reiterating the four last words of doom, "In lonely agony forever!" and all the universe seemed to vibrate with them.
Silence reigned again. A strange, brassy light prevailed; rapid and fierce lightning flashed incessantly in all directions, and the shaft-like opening about me closed together. Impelled by a resistless force I still rose, although now against a crushing pressure and an active resistance which seemed to beat me back, and I fought my upward way in an agony which resembled nothing so much as the terrible moment when, from strangling or suffocation, all the forces of life struggle against death, and wrestle madly for another breath. In place of thesounds now reigned a deadly stillness, broken only at long but regular intervals by a loud report, as if a cannon, louder than any I ever heard on earth, were discharged at my side, almost shot into me, I might say, for the sound appeared to rend me from head to foot, and then die away into the dark chaos about me in strange, shuddering reverberations. Even in the misery of my ascending I was filled with a dread expectancy of the cruel sound. It gave me a feeling of acute physical torture, with a lingering intensity that bodily suffering could not have. It was repeated an incredible number of times, and always with the same suffering and shock to me. At last the sound came oftener, but with less force, and I seemed again nearing the shores of time. Dimly in the far distance I saw the room I had left, myself lying still and death-like upon the bed, and the friends watching me. I knew, with no pleasure in the knowledge, that I should presently reanimate the form I had left. Then, silently and invisibly, I floated into the room, and was one with myself again.
Faint and exhausted, but conscious, the seal of silence still on my lips, with all the energy I was capable of I struggled to speak, to move, to make some sign which my friends would understand; but I was as mutely powerless as if in the clutch of paralysis. I could hear every word that was spoken, but the sound seemed strangely far away. I could not open my eyes without a stupendous effort, and then only for an instant. "She is conscious now," I heard one of the doctors say, and he gently lifted the lids of my eyes and looked into them. I tried my best then to throw all the intelligence I could into them, and returned is look with one of recognition. But, even with my eyes fixed on his, I felt myself going again in spite of my craving to stay. I longed to implore the doctor to save me, to keep me from the unutterable anguish of falling into the vastness and vagueness of that shadowy sea of nothingness again. I clasped my hands in wild entreaty; I was shaken by horrible convulsions—so, at least, it seemed to me at the time—but, beyond a slight quivering of the fingers, no movement was discernible by the others. I was unable to account for the apathy with which my dearest friends regarded my violent movements, and could only suppose it was because my condition was so hopeless that they knew any effort to help me would be futile.
For five hours I remained in the same condition—short intervals of half-consciousness, and then long lapses into the agonizing experience I have described. Six times the door of time seemed to close on me, and I was thrust shuddering into a hopeless eternity, each time falling, as at first, into that terrible abyss wrapped in the fearful dread of the unknown. Always there were the same utter helplessness and the same harrowing desire to rest upon something, to stop, if but for an instant, to feel some support beneath; and through all the horrors of my sinking the same solemn and remorseful certainty penetrated my consciousness that, had I not in life questioned the power of Christ to save, I should have felt under me the "everlasting arms" bearing me safely to an immortality of bliss. There was no variation in my trances; always the same horror came, and each time when sensibility partially returned I fought against my fate and struggled to avert it. But I never could compel my lips to speak, and the violent paroxysms my agonizing dread threw me into were all unseen by my friends, for in reality, as I was afterward told, I made no motion except a slight muscular twitching of the fingers.
Later on, when the effect of the drug was lessening, although the spells or trances recurred, the intervals were long, and in them I seemed to regain clearer reasoning power and was able to account for some of my hallucinations. Even when my returns to consciousness were very partial, Dr. G——had made me inhale small quantities of nitrite of amyl to maintain the action of the heart, which it was the tendency of the excess of hasheesh to diminish. Coming out of the last trance, I discovered that the measured rending report like the discharge of a cannon which attended my upward way was the throbbing of my own heart. As I sank I was probably too unconscious to notice it, but always, as it made itself heard, my falling ceased and the pain of my ascending began. The immense time between the throbs gives me as I remember it an idea of infinite duration that was impossible to me before.
For several days I had slight relapses into the trance-like state I have tried to describe, each being preceded by a feeling of profound dejection. I felt myself going as before, but by a desperate effort of will saved myself from falling far into the shadowy horrors which I saw before me. I dragged myself back from my fate, faint and exhausted and with a melancholy belief that I was cut off from human sympathy, and my wretched destiny must always be unsuspected by my friends, for I could not bring myself to speak to any one of the dreadful foretaste of the hereafter I firmly believed I had experienced. On one of these occasions, when I felt myself falling from life, I saw a great black ocean like a rocky wall bounding the formless chaos into which I sank. As I watched in descending the long line of towering, tumultuous waves break against some invisible barrier, a sighing whisper by my side told me each tiny drop of spray was a human existence which in that passing instant had its birth, life, and death.
"How short a life!" was my unspoken thought.
"Not short in time," was the answer. "A lifetime there is shorter than the breaking of a bubble here. Each wave is a world, a piece of here, that serves its purpose in the universal system, then returns again to be reabsorbed into infinity."
"How pitifully sad is life!" were the words I formed in my mind as I felt myself going back to the frame I had quitted.
"How pitifully sadder to have had no life, for only through life can the gate of this bliss be entered!" was the whispered answer. "I never lived—I never shall."
"What are you, then?"
I had taken my place again among the living when the answer came, a sighing whisper still, but so vividly distinct that I looked about me suddenly to see if others besides myself could hear the strange words:
"Woe, woe! I am an unreal actual, a formless atom, and of such as I am is chaos made."