Saturday, October 31, 2015
Freud and his Drug Demons
Cocaine addiction and psychoanalysis.
That Sigmund Freud was a cocaine abuser for some portion of his professional life is by now well known. Reading An Anatomy of Addiction by Howard Markel, M.D., which chronicles the careers of Freud and another famed cocaine abuser, Johns Hopkins surgeon William Halsted, I was struck by the many ways in which even the father of modern psychotherapy could not see the delusions, evasions and outright lies that were the byproducts of his very own disease of the body and mind: drug addiction. Markel makes the case that in several important ways Freud’s cocaine addiction was hopelessly entangled with, and partially responsible for, his theorizing about the workings of the mind.
In 1884, Freud published his book, On Coca, a treatise on the wonders of cocaine. To his fiance, he wrote: “I have other hopes and intentions about [cocaine]. I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success.” The book, a comprehensive review of cocaine’s effects, had an “n of 1”: “I have carried out experiments and studied, in myself and others, the effect of coca on the healthy human body.”
One of the defects of On Coca was its assertion that the drug was an effective antidote to serious morphine and alcohol abuse. Most astonishingly, however, Freud “skimmed over cocaine’s most important clinical use as a local anesthetic.” That discovery was later championed by ophthalmologist Carl Koller, whom Freud never forgave, even though the mistake was Freud’s alone. It seems reasonable to suggest that a moody doctor, who happened to be treating a close friend for morphine addiction at the time, might tend to focus on cocaine’s use against depression and drug abuse. And two years later, Freud vigorously fought back against an influential American doctor’s unambiguous assertion that cocaine was addictive. The U.S. physician had written that a “doctor self-prescribing cocaine was the equivalent of the lawyer representing himself in court: each had a fool for a patient or client.”
Markel notes that it is “also telling that he does not reveal to [his fiancé] the precise amount of cocaine he was ingesting. In fact, throughout his notes during this period, Freud minimizes the amount and frequency of his cocaine dosage, using such terms as ‘a little cocaine’ or a ‘bit of cocaine,’ a tactic many substance abusers employ to avoid the disapproval or intervention of others.”
Writing in his capacity as a physician, Markel states:
In light of the physical symptoms Freud suffered during this period, in my medical opinion, there is ample evidence that he was abusing significant amounts of cocaine during the early 1890s and that he was using it in a dependent, if not outright addictive fashion. In fact, cocaine likely had a negative effect on virtually every aspect of Sigmund’s personal relationships, behavior, and health. We can make such a declarative statement because his letters to Wilhelm Fleiss tells us precisely so…. Sigmund explained that he was suffering from a Fliessian syndrome of ‘crossed reflexes’ of the nose, brain, and genitals that had led to severe migraine headaches. The excruciating pain, not surprisingly, could only be interrupted by the multiple doses of cocaine prescribed by Dr. Fliess.
It was not pretty: “From a diagnostic standpoint, Sigmund’s nasal stuffiness is intriguing… Sigmund’s need for cauterization—the placement of a hot knife against swollen, blocked nasal tissue to, literally, burn open a passage for air—in concert with his disinclination to write suggests serious cocaine abuse.” And also telling is Freud’s habit of smoking 20 or more cigars each day.
By 1894, Markel writes, “the cardiac symptoms associated with cocaine use and the severe depression and headaches after its use—similar to what Sigmund was experiencing—were finally being reported in the medical journals of the day.” And, much like an alcoholic explaining away his chronic stomach troubles, “Freud continued to search for alternative explanations for his chest pain rather than seriously contemplate cocaine’s potential role in the matter.”
For readers in need of socioenvironmental triggers for addiction, Freud had a ready supply: “risk taking, resentments, loneliness, alienation, emotional pain, traumatic family experiences, phobias, neuroses, depression, denials and secretiveness about his sexuality, a possible sexual relationship with his sister-in-law, a brief flirtation with excessive drinking, and his self-documented cocaine abuse, to name some of his demons.”
About 1896, Freud stopped discussing his use of cocaine, and more or less dropped the subject altogether. Later in life, he speculated on whether his love of cigars (which eventually killed him) had helped keep him away from the task of working out his own psychological problems. “One wonders,” writes Markel, “whether his compulsive cocaine abuse from 1884 to 1896 was one of those unexplored problems.”
From 1896 to 1900, presumably cocaine-free years, Freud suffered from “depression, cocaine urges, occasional binge drinking, sexual affairs, caustic behaviors, and emotional absence.” To Markel, this adds up to the classic portrait of a “dry drunk,” AA’s description of someone who has given up drinking and drugs, and is miserable about it, and is making everyone around them miserable as well.
Markel points to the theory promulgated by historian Peter Swales to the effect that Freud’s entire concept of the libido “is merely a mask and a symbol for cocaine; the drug, or rather its invisible ghost, haunts the whole of Freud’s writing to the very end.”