"An Overdose of Hasheesh" (1884)

by Mary C. Hungerford

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 had 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 life 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 circumstances 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.

* * *

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 nitrate of amyl to maintain the action of the heart, which it was the tendency of the excess ofhasheesh 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."




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