Imagine you are an addict in the 1940s - III/III

Tipped Issue #8: Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen looks back on her addiction in the final book of her trilogy of memoirs

‘Gray, slimy, ugly and intolerable’: Dependency

Reading time: 4 minutes

I don’t read much about addiction and my only knowledge comes from films —watching Requiem for a Dream and Gia as a teenager had scarred me so bad that I still haven’t rewatched it, and I don’t get the plaudit for Trainspotting either. I remember watching Flight starring Denzel Washington and that batshit crazy opening sequence, and it was so suffocating that I had to pause it several times (I probably thought it was one of the cheesy disaster movies I love so much). Only film about addiction I truly like, albeit remotely, is The Shining; Jack is after all an ex-alcoholic trapped in a hotel and visited by a bartender (the ghost of his past addiction?) serving him gin.

That’s why reading Tove Ditlevsen’s introduction to drugs and struggle with addiction in Dependency hit me so vividly, as if I were the needle piercing her skin. I spent the past few weeks tracing her life from childhood to adulthood, and now in the final book, I get to see her vulnerability and susceptivity, hard-hitting. Dependency in Danish means both married and poison, which is the perfect summary of Tove’s marriages, but it is more spot-on in that it also underlines her dependency on drugs.

Tove visiting her childhood street in Vesterbro

It starts with a terrible quest to find a doctor to perform an abortion, and my mind drifts to one of the most honest book club gatherings I was part of, discussing Annie Ernaux’s Happening as the writer revisits her trauma of an illegal abortion she administered herself. It is more than a memoir, a striking documentation of a woman’s body and traumas inflicted upon her. Isn’t it infuriating that access to abortion is basic human’s rights yet we are still discussing its legality —women have had and will have abortions if it is in the law or not. In Onlyherstory, we hear stories of a lot of women in Turkey, who miscarry with herbs recommended by other women. With Annie Ernaux, it is the knitting needle. With Tove, it is a shady doctor and quinine pills, followed by a trip to the ER.

Her second abortion, is carried out by her lover, Carl, who happens to be a doctor. He injects her first Demerol, and ‘a bliss [she has] never felt before spreads through [her] entire body’. The first part of the book, in a way her life as she knows it, ends there as she is determined to experience that bliss again.

Relax, he said. I'll give you a shot. I smiled thankfully at him, and the fluid went into my blood, lifting me up to the only level where I wanted to exist. Then he went to bed with me, like he always did, when the effect was at its peak. His embrace was strangely brief and violent, with no foreplay, no tenderness; and I didn't feel anything. Light, gentle, untroubled thoughts glided through my head. I thought warmly about all my friends who I almost never saw anymore, and I fantasized that I was having conversations with them. How is it possible, Lise said to me recently, that you could be in love with him? I said, Who can ever understand someone else's love? I lay there for couple of hours, and the effect wore off, so it was more difficult to find that blank, untroubled state. Everything returned to being gray, slimy, ugly and intolerable.

From then on, it is all downhill. Tove leaves her second husband to be with Carl, who turns out to suffer from a mental illness, and holds Tove to the command of his syringe. Facilitated to the maximum by Carl, her addiction to Demerol, methadone, and other painkillers escalates. She stops seeing friends and family, loses tremendous amount of weight, and her relationship with Carl is dominated by the ebb and flow of her withdrawal/high and his insecurity/obsession. She stops writing. She even undergoes a completely unnecessary ear surgery, which causes loss of hearing, as she gets all these Demerol shots lying that she has an earache.

In one of her worst episodes, she finds the power to call another doctor to tell them about Carl’s misconduct. She is admitted to rehab and cleans her system after many nights of suffering, waiting for the next stabilising shot. As she leaves rehab, her doctor warns her that she will one day think it was not that bad and it will only take a tiny trigger to go back to her old days. A pharmacy’s shining window does the trick one day. Another day, it is the anticipation of socialising with friends that makes her swallow four pills. Indeed, it would stay with her as long as she lived, until she died by overdosing on sleeping pills in 1976, leaving behind an immensely praised bibliography, many prizes, and a legacy that still resonates in Denmark after decades.

Thank you for following me in my journey to read Tove Ditlevsen’s extraordinary trilogy of memoirs: Childhood, Youth, and Dependency as I plowed my way through the 30s, World War II, addiction, female oppression, and writer’s dilemmas. Reading about an obscure Danish writer for the past three weeks must be not that exciting, so thank you for sticking with me!


Didn’t make the cut but…

The appetite for the addicted genius never dies. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled was sold at $110.5 million a couple of years ago —he was claimed to be doing 100 bags of heroin a day and died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Anna Kavan, whom I’ve recently discovered, has a cult on her own in the British literary world, also died of a heroin overdose, her Notting Hill flat ‘containing enough heroin to kill the neighbourhood’.

I couldn’t help but wonder, have I developed an obsession with 20th century writers, who are blonde and ~problematic~?

Amy Winehouse, The 27 Club, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Jean Paul Sartre, F. Scott Fitzgerald. These names flock to my mind, but this NPR article is really something else. Art historian David Bellingham looks at Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece Venus and Mars, showing two gods becoming lovers, perhaps captured after coitus. But maybe it is because they are high, as Bellingham draws our attention to the fruit in the bottom right of the canvas, datura, known as ‘poor man’s acid’. Please enjoy Mars tripping balls:

See you in the next issue, and please forward this to friends who might love this type of content!📢📢📢