I’m a writer and journalist based in Toronto. My writing has been described variously as compelling, sensuous, measured, rage-inducing, radical, and gorgeous. My second book, On Opium: Pain, Pleasure, and Other Matters of Substance, may be some or all of these things. It was published by Goose Lane Editions in September, 2021. It’s a look at opioids, pain, the nature of dependence, the overdose crisis, and what we all need to be well. The print and e-book versions are available now in bookshops and online stores across Canada and the United States (paperback here, e-book here for example). The audiobook, narrated by Christine Horne, is available worldwide from ECW Press: 15 hours of my honeyed words for your e-reader, tablet, Android or iOS. The Walrus Magazine adapted an excerpt of On Opium, so you can try before you buy! Or read on for reviews and interviews about the book, below.


“A beautifully written meditation on opioids, addiction, joy, and pain — and the cruel and rigid policies we devise that mainly serve to make suffering worse.”

Maia Szalavitz, author of Undoing Drugs

“Carlyn Zwarenstein provides a voice previously missing from the overdose crisis. With empathy and urgency, she takes us inside the world of people who use opioids at a time when they are dying in record numbers. On Opium captures people’s pain, hope, and resilience, and in sharing their stories, provides a blueprint to end the crisis.”

Travis Lupick, author of Fighting for Space

“Zwarenstein has a very special and specific writing style. At times, it’s intoxicating. I felt swept into her world, whether on a trip to Venice or at a supervised injection facility … the urgency in this book is transcendent.”

“Captivating, rage-inducing, and most important of all, helpful… I found this revelatory… CBC  Books listed this as one of the fall’s must-read nonfiction books, and I agree… its compassion, accessibility, readability, radical proposal, and examination of privilege will leave you the tools to demand better.”
         the Miramichi Reader 

         “Rarely have I felt so trusted as a reader.”
                   Literary Review of Canada

No one who wants to understand non-medical use of drugs in this society should fail to read this book… Part memoir, part history of the lures of opium across the ages, part deep reflection about what it is to be a writer, part meditation on the meaning of pain, part plea for reform, the book takes readers by the hand and leads them gently (but firmly) on… It’s possible to disagree with parts of this book. It’s impossible not to recognize its power.”
Healthy Debate

“Zwarenstein not only plumbs the depths of pain and relief and dependence on relief but traces the blurred lines between writer and subject on that — perhaps needlessly — charged question: What do we do for pain and its wily life-thieving-or-enabling remedy? What would happen if we turned our focus to the prevention and elimination of suffering, rather than the demonization and criminalization of sufferers?”

Anna Mehler Paperny, author of Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me

“A valuable tool for the promotion of harm reduction.”
         Quill & Quire (p. 27)

        “Required reading … this volume belongs on every library shelf”.
WordCity Literary Journal

On Opium expands upon its novella-length predecessor, Opium Eater: The New Confessions, a brief meditation on opioid painkillers & pain that was a Globe 100 Best Book of 2016. That shorter book was also shortlisted for the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada book award.

Room Magazine’s Lauren Kirshner describes that first book as “a sensuous and compelling meditation”, while Jade Colbert wrote in the Globe & Mail,

“In her Confessions – a 21st-century update on De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) – Zwarenstein achieves that rare thing: a dispassionate account informed by deeply personal experience. Readers will benefit from this measured look at the causes of our increased dependence, which doubles as a critical memoir on the relationship between opioids, creativity, and pain.”

Opium Eater is taught on graduate and undergraduate university courses in both English literature and addiction studies. Find out more about teaching Opium Eater.

I live in Toronto, spend time in Mexico City, and write about a lot of different things, both in books and as a long-time independent journalist.

Right now I am working on my first novel, a trilogy; and on a new non-fiction book. Current journalism and essay projects touch on subjects as diverse as kindness, visual arts, harm reduction, evidence in medicine & climate science, and literature.

For information about my books or for interview or speaking requests, please contact Marilyn Biderman at Transatlantic Agency. I’m also on Twitter, @CarlynZwaren.

Member, Writers’ Union of Canada and IWW Freelance Journalists Union.

6 thoughts on “Home

  1. John Ukos says:

    I just read your essay “Why Should I Feel Ashamed of My Opioid Prescription?” and was filled with a sense of comradery. You described exactly how I approach pain medication, such as delaying usage until it is most beneficial, and putting its effect to good use because feeling well means we can do the things that will bring us satisfaction and make us useful. I take anti inflammatory meds (indomethacine) but feel ashamed that I am taking them to make myself feel better even though I could manage without. I have never heard anyone else describe this struggle …ever!.. or so eloquently and with such clarity and justification for it. Thank you!



    • zwarenst says:

      Thanks so much for writing. I hope you’ll consider seeking out my book (it’s available in libraries in Canada as well as from any bookstore, and has just come out as an audiobook in the US and worldwide so easy to find). Definitely much more of this struggle. Wishing you all the very best as you deal with it all yourself.


  2. Marianne Fiendell says:

    Ms Zwarensteyn,
    Are you by any chance related to Dr. Hendrick Zwarensteyn who taught International Business Law at Michigan State University from about 1955 to 1977 or so?
    If so, I would like to connect with you and tell you how he changed my life (for good).


    • zwarenst says:

      I’m sure I’m related distantly at least to every Zwarenstein or variation in the world. But no, no close relation to this particular Dr. Zwarensteyn, I’m afraid.


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