William S. Burroughs 1914-1997


I saw the apomorphine treatment really work. Eight days later I left the nursing home eating and sleeping normally. I remained completely off junk for two full years – a twelve year record. I did relapse for some months as a result of pain and illness. Another apomorphine cure has kept me off junk through this writing.

Introduction to ‘The Naked Lunch’ by William Burroughs

William Burroughs: writer, cultural icon, and ‘master addict’ claimed he was never completely cured of the craving for morphine until he took Dent’s apomorphine treatment in 1956. His life-long advocacy on the merits of apomorphine as an anti-addiction medication helped maintain knowledge of its existence long after it fell out of favour within the medical establishment.

Burroughs was born in the United States to a wealthy and well connected Missouri family. He began writing in his teenage years and excelled academically at school. He read English at Harvard and with the idea he might become a doctor took a conversion course in medical studies at the University of Vienna. With the rise of fascism in Europe he returned to the states in 1937 and completed a post graduate in Anthropology at Columbia University.

Burroughs identified himself as a homosexual from an early age. He saw himself as an ‘outsider’ at odds with the expectations of his background: to settle down and pursue a reputable career. However, Burroughs’s ambition was to be a published writer. A private income gave him the freedom to travel and immerse himself in experiences which he would draw on in his writing. In the years leading up to America’s involvement in World War 2 he sought out low paid employment, mix with rule breakers and exiles and involved himself in situations that strayed beyond the expectations of his upbringing.

By 1940, aged 34, Burroughs was addicted to opiates. Looking back at his long life he stated that becoming a junky was one of the best things he did. Drugs enabled him to experience the world differently and to write. Privately he needed drugs and alcohol to alleviate anxiousness and fear of failure.

Burroughs took many cures throughout his long life and until he became financially independent from his writing was reliant on family money to support and manage his addictions. Following the publication of his seminal work The Naked Lunch (1959) his addiction was monitored by a circle of close friends.

Burroughs break through as a recognised writer came following the U.S. publication of Naked Lunch in 1962. It launched his career and reputation as a writer in North America and Northern Europe. Burroughs credited his discovery of apomorphine in 1956 as representing the ‘turning point between life and death. I would never have been cured without it. Naked Lunch would never have been written.’

Burroughs spent much of the 1950s in Tangiers following the accidental death of his wife for which he was culpable. Free from domestic responsibilities (his son was looked after by his parents), he combined a hedonistic lifestyle with bursts of writing semi-autobiographical fiction.

In 1956 seriously ill from addiction to Eukodol, a legalised form of morphine, Burroughs was urged by his father to seek treatment in London. Unable to look after himself and hardly recognisable to those that knew him Burroughs ‘pulled himself together’ and travelled to London where he was recommended to Dr John Yerbury Dent who had a ‘good rate of success with addicts.’

Burroughs was sceptical of the motivations of cure doctors but Dent was different. He appeared honest to Burroughs and his book ‘Anxiety and Its Treatment’ struck a chord. Dent convinced Burroughs of the efficacy of apomophine as a metabolic regulator and he undertook the treatment in April. Writing to his long term friend and collaborator Allen Ginsberg he described the experience as ‘difficult’ and ‘awful’ but then added … ‘I had a real croaker (Dent) interested in Yage, Mayan Archaeology, every conceivable subject’. As the treatment progressed Burroughs came to like Dent. He found him reassuring and prepared to talk through the night when he couldn’t sleep. Following the cure Dent entertained Burroughs at his home and encouraged him to resume writing, commissioning an article for The Journal for The Study of Addiction which he edited.

Burroughs considered Dent’s approach a success. He wrote to Ginsberg: ‘Junk … Speaking of which I never feel the slightest temptation’, and ‘Since the cure I been sexy as an eighteen year old and healthy as a rat.’ He also reported that Dent had provided him with ‘a stock pile of apomorphine’ in case of relapse. Four months after receiving the treatment Burroughs was back in Tangier, maintaining a healthy lifestyle which included satisfactory sex and writing new material that would appear in ‘Naked Lunch’.

In Burroughs’s article Letter from A Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs, published by Dent in January 1957, he summarises the narcotic effects of different drugs and cures he had received. On apomorphine he writes:

Apomorphine is certainly the best method of treating withdrawal that I have experienced.  It does not completely eliminate the withdrawal symptoms, but reduces them to an  endurable level. The acture symptoms such as stomach and leg cramps, convulsive or maniac states are completely controlled. In fact apomorphine treatment involves less discomfort than a reduction cure. I feel that I was never completely cured of the craving for morphine until I took apomorphine treatment. Perhaps the ‘psychological’ craving for morphine that persists after a cure is not psychological at all but metabolic. More potent variations of the apomorphine formula might prove qualitatively more effective in treating all forms of addiction.

Burroughs sought Dent’s treatment for a second time in 1957 having become addicted to heroin in Paris. Again apomorphine helped Burroughs to overcome his craving for junk.

In the years leading up to Dent’s death in 1962 Burroughs’s friendship with the addiction specialist deepened. They corresponded and met on several occasions and he learnt of Dent’s struggle to get apomorphine recognised as a non-emetic treatment for addiction in Great Britain and the United States. Throughout the 1960s until the treatment’s decline in the 1970s Burroughs widely promoted the treatment. He included Letter from A Master Addict… in the appendices of the 1962 and 1967 editions of Naked Lunch and published a series of interviews titled ‘Academy 23’ outlining his knowledge on apomorphine, his experience of receiving it and his hypothesis on why it wasn’t widely available.

Pharmaceutical researchers are told what research to pursue by vested interest, which gives orders to the American Narcotics Department. Billions for variations on the Benzedrine formula, for tranquilizers of dubious value, not ten cents for a drug that has unlimited potentials not only in treating addiction but in handling the whole problem of anxiety.

Burroughs can be credited with prompting the treatment’s revival in the 1970s. Some addicts convinced doctors to investigate the potential of apomorphine to treat opiate and benzedrine addiction. Doctors Beil in Hamburg, Lock Halvorsen and Martensen Larsen in Copenhagen and Schlatter in Ottowa familiarised themselves with Dent’s methods and conducted studies on addicts using oral preparations and non-aversive dosages of apomorphine. Their published papers confirmed that apomorphine stopped craving, revived potency, reduced anxiety and improved cognition. They also reported that the drug was difficult and time consuming to administer.  For it to be effective, it was suggested that each patient required their own dose and therapeutic treatment plan.

When the treatment became unavailable in the UK from 1968 Burroughs directed addicts to one of Dent’s nurses, Smitty, who unofficially obtained and administered apomorphine using Dent’s method. Keith Richards records in his autobiography Life being recommended apomorphine by Burroughs. The experience, not as Dent would have given it, was a botch job and ‘didn’t work’.

After having lived outside the United States for 24 years Burroughs returned in 1974. He lectured and continued to write inspiring a new generation of artists, musicians and writers.  The publication of Naked Lunch had given him fame and financial security. In 1981 he settled in St Lawrence Kansas and was based there until his death in 1997 aged 83.

Throughout his adult life Burroughs never achieved total abstinence from drugs or alcohol. On his return to the United States he relied on close friends to look after his health. He took many cures but the one that remained the most documented was apomorphine

Dent’s treatment may well have disappeared into obscurity had it not been for Burroughs’s continued endorsement of it and the referencing of his apomorphine experience by biographers and pundits. This alone has kept the knowledge of Dent’s treatment in circulation despite it disappearance from the field of addiction research and treatment services.

I suggest that research with variations of apomorphine and synthesis of it will open a new medical frontier extending far beyond the problem of addiction.

William Burroughs, Introduction, ‘The Naked Lunch’, 1957.

Image Credit
William Burroughs (I), 1975
 Peter Hujar
 ©1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC;
 Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel

A Treatment that Cancels Addiction
By William Burroughs
Junk is a generic term for all habit-forming preparations and derivatives of opium including the synthetics. There are also non-habit-forming derivatives and preparations of opium. Papaverene, which is found in raw opium, is non-habit-forming. Apomorphine, which is derived from morphine, is non-habit-forming. Yet both substances are classified as narcotics in America under the Harrison Narcotics Act. Any form of junk can cause addiction. Nor does it make much difference whether it is injected, sniffed or taken orally. The result is always the same – addiction. The addict functions on junk. Like a diver depends on his air-line, the addict depends on his junk line. When his junk is cut off, he suffers agonising withdrawal symptoms: watering, burning eyes, light fever, hot and cold flashes, leg and stomach cramps, diarrhoea, insomnia, prostration, and in some cases death from circulatory collapse and shock. Withdrawal symptoms are distinguished from any syndrome of comparable severity by the fact that they are immediately relieved by administering a sufficient quantity of opiates. The withdrawal symptoms reach their peak on the fourth day, then gradually disappear over a period of three to six weeks. The later stages are marked by profound depression.
The exact mechanisms of addiction are not known. Doctor Isbell of the Public Health Centre at Lexington, Kentucky, has suggested that junk blankets the cell receptors. This cell-blanketing action could account both for the pain-killing and the habit-forming action of junk. The way in which junk relieves pain is habit-forming, and all preparations of junk so far tested have proved habit-forming to the exact extent of their effectiveness as pain-killers. Any preparation of junk that relieves acute pain will afford proportionate relief to withdrawal symptoms. A non-habit-forming morphine would seem to be a latter-day philosopher’s stone, yet much of the research at Lexington is currently orientated in this barren direction. When the cell-blanketing agent is removed the body undergoes an agonising period of reconversion to normal metabolism characterised by the withdrawal symptoms already described.
The question as to what sort of persons become addicts has been answered by the Public Health Department: ‘Anyone who takes any addicting preparation long enough.’ The time necessary to establish addiction varies with individual susceptibility and the addictive strength of the preparation used. Normally anyone who receives daily injections totalling one grain of morphine every day for a month will experience considerable discomfort if the injections are discontinued. Four to six months of use is enough to establish full addiction. Addiction is an illness of exposure. By and large, those become addicts who have access to junk. In Iran where opium was sold openly in shops they had three million addicts. There is no more a pre-addict personality than there is a pre-malarial personality despite all the hogwash of Psychiatry to the contrary.
To say it country simple, most folks enjoy junk. Having once experienced this pleasure, the human organism will tend to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it. The addict’s illness is junk. Knock on any door. Whatever answers the door give it four and a half grain shots of God’s Own Medicine every day for six months and the so called ‘addict personality’ is there … an old junky selling Christmas seals on North Clark Street the ‘Priest’ they called him, seedy and furtive cold fish eyes that seem to be looking at something other folks can’t see. That something he is looking at is junk. The whole addict personality can be summed up in one sentence: the addict needs junk. He will do a lot to get junk just as you would do a lot for water if you were thirsty enough. You see junk is a personality – a seedy grey man couldn’t be anything else but junk rooming-house a shabby street room on the top floor these stairs cough the ‘Priest’ there pulling himself up along the banister bathroom yellow wood panels dripping toilet works stacked under the wash basin back in his room now cooking up grey shadow on a distant wall used to be me Mister.
I was on junk for almost 15 years. In that time I took 10 cures. I have taken abrupt withdrawal treatments and prolonged withdrawal treatments, cortisone, tranquillisers, antihistamines and the prolonged sleep cure. In every case I relapsed at the first opportunity. Why do addicts voluntarily take a cure and then relapse? I think on a deep biological level most addicts want to be cured. Junk is death and your body knows it. I relapsed because I was never physiologically cured until I took the apomorphine treatment.
Apomorphine is the only agent I know that evicts the ‘addict personality’, my old friend Opium Jones. We were mighty close in Tangier 1957 shooting every hour 15 grains of methodone per day, which equals 30 grains of morphine and that’s a lot of GOM. I never changed my clothes. Jones likes his clothes to season to stale rooming-house flesh until you can tell by a hat on the table a coat hung over a chair that Jones lives there. I never took a bath. Old Jones don’t like the feel of water on his skin. I spent whole days looking at the end of my shoe just communing with Jones. Then one day I saw that Jones was not a real friend that our interests were in fact divergent. So I took a plane to London and found Doctor Dent charcoal fire in the grate Scottish terrier cup of tea. He told me about the treatment and I entered the nursing-home the following day. It was one of those four-storey buildings on Cromwell Road room with rose wallpaper on the third floor. I had a day nurse and a night nurse and received an injection of apomorphine one twentieth grain every two hours day and night. Doctor Dent told me I could have morphine if I needed it but the amount would be small – one-twelfth what I had been using, with quite a cut again the next day.
Now every addict has his special symptom, the one that hits him hardest when his junk is cut off. With me its feeling the slow painful death of Mr Jones. Listen to the old-timers in Lexington talking about their symptom:
‘Now with me it’s puking is the worst.’
‘I never puke. It’s this cold burn on my skin drives me up the wall.’
‘My trouble is sneezing.’
‘I feel myself encased in the old grey corpse of Mr Jones. Not another person in this world I want to see. Not a thing I want to do except revise Mr Jones.’
Third day cup of tea at dawn calm miracle of apomorphine I was learning to live without Jones, reading newspapers writing letters, most cases I can’t write a letter for month and here I was writing a letter on the third day and looking forward to a talk with Doctor Dent who isn’t Jones at all. Apomorphine had taken care of my special symptom. Seven days after entering the nursing-home I got my last eighth-grain shot. Three days later I left the hospital. I went back to Tangier where junk was readily available at that time. I didn’t have to use will power whatever that is. I just didn’t want any junk. The apomorphine treatment had given me a long calm look at all the grey junk yesterdays, a long calm look at Mr Jones standing there in his shabby black suit and grey felt hat stale rooming-house flesh cold undersea eyes. So I boiled him in hydrochloric acid. Only way to get him clean you understand layers and layers of that grey junk rooming-house smell.
Apomorphine is made from morphine by boiling with hydrochloric acid but its physiological action is quite different. Morphine sedates the front brain. Apomorphine stimulates the back brain and the vomiting centres. One-twelfth grain of apomorphine injected will produce vomiting in a few minutes and for many years the only use made of this drug was as an emetic in cases of poisoning.
When Doctor Dent started using the apomorphine treatment, 40 years ago, all his patients were alcoholics. He would put a bottle of whisky by the bed and invite the patient to drink all he wanted. But with each drink the patient received an injection of apomorphine. After a few days the patient conceived such a distaste for alcohol that he would ask to have the bottle removed from the room. Doctor Dent thought at first that this was due to a conditioned aversion, since the spirit was associated with a dose of apomorphine that often produced vomiting. However, he found that some of his patients were not in the least nauseated by the dose of apomorphine received. There is considerable individual variation. Nonetheless these patients experienced the same distaste for alcohol and voluntarily stopped drinking after a few days of treatment. He concluded that his patients conceived a distaste for alcohol because they no longer needed it and that apomorphine acts on the back brain to regulate metabolism so that the body no longer needs a sedative to which it had become accustomed. From that time he stressed the fact that apomorphine is not an aversion treatment. Apomorphine is a metabolic regulator and it is the only drug known that acts in this way to normalise a disturbed metabolism.
The treatment is fully described with dosage in Doctor Dent’s book, Anxiety and its Treatment. Anyone undertaking to administer the apomorphine treatment should consult this book. It is essential to the success of the treatment to give a sufficient quantity of apomorphine over a sufficient period of time. Vomiting should be avoided whenever possible. If the method of administration is sublingual as much as a tenth of a grain can be given even hour. With sublingual administration it is quite easy to control or eliminate nausea and the entire treatment can be carried out successfully without a single instance of vomiting. The concentration of apomorphine in the system must reach a certain level for the treatment to be successful. I have known doctors in America who gave two injections of apomorphine per day. This is quite worthless. It is important to remember that any opiate or any sedative reverses the action of apomorphine. As regards sedatives, tranquillisers and sleeping pills, absolutely none should be given.
Like a good policeman, apomorphine does its work and goes. The fact that it is not an addictive substitute drug is crucial. In any reduction cure the addict knows that he is still receiving narcotics and he dreads the time when the last dose is withdrawn. In the apomorphine treatment the addict knows he is getting better without morphine.
When you take apomorphine for a severe emotional state you have faced the problem, not avoided it. The apomorphine has normalised your metabolism, always disturbed in any emotional upset, so that you can face the problem with calmness and sanity. Apomorphine is the anti-anxiety drug. I have witnessed in others, and experienced myself, dramatic relief from anxiety caused by mescalin after a dose of apomorphine where tranquillisers were quite ineffective.
I feel that any form of so called psychotherapy is strongly contradicted for addicts. Addicts should not be led to dwell on or relive the addict experience since this conduces to relapse. The question ‘Why did you start using narcotics in the first place?’ should never be asked. It is quite as irrelevant to treatment as it would be to ask a malarial patient why he went to a malarial area.
First published, 4th March, 1966, New Statesman
Re published 5th February, 2014, New Statesman
Reproduced courtesy of New Statesman