Green’s Dictionary of Slang

monkey on one’s back n.

[ety. unknown; the image is of a monkey, clawing at the sufferer; note Schmidt, Narcotics Lingo and Lore (1959): ‘in allusion to the once popular carnival and vaudeville monkey-on-the-dog act in which a monkey, riding on a performing dog, held on inseparably to the back of its mount’]

1. anger or a bad temper.

[UK]Hotten Sl. Dict.
[UK]Barrère & Leland Dict. of Sl., Jargon and Cant.
[UK]Farmer & Henley Sl. and Its Analogues.

2. (orig. US drugs, also monk, monkey on one’s shoulder, gorilla on one’s back) drug addiction, esp. to heroin.

[[US] S. Crane in Sun (N.Y.) 20 Oct. in Stallman (1966) 145: When a man can cook [opium] for himself and buys his own layout, he is gone, probably. He has placed upon his shoulders an elephant which he may carry to the edge of forever].
[US]B. Dai Opium Addiction in Chicago 201: Monkey. Addiction to drugs, as in ‘I have a monkey on my back’.
[US]D. Maurer ‘Lang. of the Und. Narcotic Addict’ Pt 2 in Lang. Und. (1981).
[US]N. Algren Man with the Golden Arm 15: [He] dreamed, for the second time in his life, of the man with the thirty-five pound monkey on his back.
[US]W. Brown Monkey On My Back (1954) 4: ‘I – I’ve got a monkey on my back.’ At the phrase the detective suddenly became alert. To have a monkey on one’s back describes, in the jargon of the drug user, the frightful sensations of the addict when he or she is unable to get a ‘fix’.
[US]‘William Lee’ Junkie (1966) 100: ‘Old monkey climbing on your back?’ asked the man with the pipe.
[US]E. Hunter Second Ending 302: You will slowly and surely and without doubt sink into the gutter with your gorilla on your back.
[US]C. Himes Imabelle 30: I got to feed my monkey first...He’s on my back.
[US]H. Simmons Corner Boy 10: World’s tired, man, trying to keep the monkey off my back.
[US]‘Paul Merchant’ ‘Sex Gang’ in Pulling a Train’ (2012) [ebook] The stud had no monk, it was an orangutan, that big, that bad it was.
[US]Murtagh & Harris Who Live In Shadow (1960) 18: Hell, cat, the monkey on my back’s getting bigger every minute.
[UK]T. Taylor Baron’s Court All Change (2011) 59: He [...] wrote a series of articles [...] entitled ‘I Am A Drug Addict And Have A Monkey On My Back’.
[US]C. Himes Rage in Harlem (1969) 31: [as 1957].
[US]‘Iceberg Slim’ Pimp 274: I still had that expensive friend riding with me, that monkey on my back.
[US]D. Goines Dopefiend (1991) 206: When that monkey on your back gets too heavy.
[US](con. WWII) T. Sanchez Hollywoodland (1981) 170: Legs and arms, the first places every probation officer looked to see if a kid had a monkey on his back.
[US]P. Benchley Lush 61: It’s got you [...] You gotta shake the fuckin’ monkey off your back and kill the sucker.
[US]Bentley & Corbett Prison Sl. 79: When persons are physically addicted to drugs, usually [an] opiate, they are said to have a monkey or monkey on their back.
[Scot]I. Welsh Trainspotting 319: Thir’s a fuckin ape oan ma back wants feedin.
[US]N. McCall Makes Me Wanna Holler (1995) 367: That shit [i.e. crack] will [...] put a go-rilla on your back.
[Ire]D. Healy Bend for Home 284: Don’t you know what having a monkey on your shoulder means? No. It means having an addiction, he said.
[US]J. Ellroy ‘Hot-Prowl Rape-O’ in Destination: Morgue! (2004) 258: A heroin-hooking junkie with a 40-year monkey on his back.
[US]Codella and Bennett Alphaville (2011) 202: A four-hundred-dollar-a-day monkey on his back.

3. in fig. use for any form of addiction or long-term problem.

Berkshire Eve. Eagle (Pittsfield, MA) 25 Aug. 3/5: Mr. Stevenson is wearing what the slang-swingers call a monkey on his back.
[US]B. Schulberg On the Waterfront (1964) 242: It’s like carryin’ a monkey around on your back.
[US]H. Ellison Rockabilly (1963) 22: Is my monkey bothering you? [...] The one on my back.
[US]S. King Stand (1990) 470: He didn’t like it because too many ups and downs and all-arounds added up to one mean monkey on your back.
[Aus]M. Coleman Fatty 136: There was [...] the perception of Bob Fulton’s ‘monkey’. The monkey on Fulton’s back was reference to him coaching two sides to grand finals, only to come away empty-handed each time.
[UK]K. Sampson Awaydays 150: The moment the decision’s made, I feel liberated. With that particular monkey off my back, it’s starting to register how much of a lightweight I’ve been.
[UK]Indep. on Sun. Culture 26 Mar. 4: Martin Amis may yet finally shake the money monkey off his back.

In phrases

get the monkey off one’s back (v.) (also knock the monkey off one’s back)

to withdraw from narcotics addiction; also in fig. use.

[US]Ladies’ Home Jrnl 73 163: Learn [...] how to get that monkey off your back, and get along without washing dishes.
[Aus]W. Dick Bunch of Ratbags 288: I really appreciated Frank Sinatra’s acting when he played a dope-addict trying to get the monkey off his back in the picture Man with a Golden Arm.
[US]D.E. Miller Bk of Jargon 343: monkey on my back: [...] 2. Undergoing the effects of withdrawal from heroin or other opiates.
[US]Source Nov. 202: MCin’ is like crack: no matter how may times you knock the monkey off your back, the li’l bastard climbs right up again.