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I had an encounter with Dilaudid in the hospital.
A few years ago, I had an intense emergency surgery that tore my chest open. My ribcage had to heal afterwards. Dilaudid was prescribed to me to diminish the (sometimes excruciating) pain of the recovery period. I came to find I liked the feeling it gave me.
Eventually the pain subsided as I started to heal. But I found that I kinda wanted to continue the Dilaudid thing. On Dilaudid, I got a rush sensation of safety and well-being—“everything is fine.” It was simultaneously soaring and warm. But I’m not saying anything novel here.
One morning in the hospital after I received Dilaudid, the thought hit me: Why wouldn’t I want to feel like this all the time? I remembered scaring myself with this thought.
I glimpsed how easily and quickly addiction would overtake me if I was left to my own devices.
My personal story has a happy, ordinary ending. With my doctors’ guidance, I slowly withdrew from the opiate and I was ultimately released from the hospital.
Sadly, millions of people have a different ending. And I feel for them.
There are numerous songs about opiate addiction. Neil Young’s searing heroin ballad “The Needle And The Damage Done” is the first one that springs to mind, but the song that most intrigues me is both simpler and more elliptical: Gillian Welch’s beautiful and gentle “My Morphine.”
Based around the delicate, intertwining acoustic guitar work of Welch and her partner David Rawling, “My Morphine” feels like genuine antique parlor country music. Its chord changes are so traditional and exquisitely soothing, the song could function as a lullaby.
And its slow, sleepwalking pace feels … well, drugged. But the music never feels sinister. In fact, you kind of want it to go on forever, which is precisely why it is so chilling and effective.
The very simple premise of “My Morphine” is stated in the title. Phonetically, the word “Morphine” almost sounds like the proper (if maybe southern?) name of a woman. And in this song, it is a woman. For this reason, I’m gonna capitalize it in this essay.
People come up with all sorts of metaphors for drugs. And while “My Morphine” is probably not the first song to anthropomorphize a chemical substance, I think it does this in a uniquely convincing way. You can actually listen to the song as a simple love song about a relationship that is lovely and entrancing at the outset … and begins to go wrong. Therein lies Welch and Rawling’s innovation, I think. Even taken as a single entendre, it’s kind of heartbreaking.
Welch appears to sing in the voice of a male soldier here. We get the sense Morphine was beautiful and flirty when the soldier met her. Morphine was sweet to him and he was in love. But something began to change and Morphine began to be cruel. And now he doesn’t know what he’s gonna do.
A moving and relatable narrative even without the overlay of drug addiction.
But since we know the song is about an opiate and not a woman, it feels scarier. The soldier tries to appeal to Morphine’s compassion—“Morphine, morphine/ what made you so mean?/ You never used to do me like you do”—and this maps perfectly to the pleading entreaties of an addict.
I love you, why are you being so nasty now? Can’t we go back to the way things were before? What have I done to deserve this? Maybe I have to get away from you. I don’t wanna get away from you. I just want that feeling again. Baby, please…
You can’t help but empathize with the desperation and bewilderment of this character. The metaphor of failing love is traced with Welch’s lilting voice and old-fashioned melody. The melody seduces you to empathize, which defeats the impulse to moralize.
Notably, “My Morphine” does not offer a conclusion to the narrative.
But it doesn’t feel promising.