Dying to Get High
Since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s body was discovered on February 2, 2014, I’ve pondered whether to write about it. What can I add to the flood of coverage? Maybe nothing, but here goes.
Let’s stop being ignorant about drug and alcohol addiction. We once embarked on a well-meaning, but painfully naive, campaign to JUST SAY NO to drugs. Perhaps one day a high-profile drug death will force us to JUST SAY NO to our collective ignorance of addiction. Addiction is disease, plain and simple.
Many of us think of the famous and talented has having something we don’t, an edge that we’d love to have. This is largely true. Addiction, it seems, is the great equalizer.
That Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor is undeniable, so, too, it seems is the fact that he was a drug addict. Being a great actor is a mark of distinction. Being an addict is not. The addict is like a character from a Tom Clancy novel, operating in the shadows, doing his best to conceal his true identity.
Hoffman gave many fine performances as an actor. His skills are now a footnote to his life. He will be largely remembered for how he died, not how he lived. For all its trappings, this is one component of the price of success. Anonymity is gone. Fame–or infamy–take its place.
Hoffman is not afforded the vague obituary of the shared addict. You know some of these people. Their obituaries say they died “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” or after a “fleeting illness.” Perhaps they died of “heart failure,” another shared euphemism for overdosing or drinking oneself to death. There are no requests to sustain cancer research or hospice care in lieu of flowers. They are relegated to the same types of amorphous remembrances as suicide victims.
Hoffman died like most addicts–alone. By all accounts, he had been clean for over two decades, only to relapse in the past associate of years. It took him two decades to build his enviable career. It took his addiction less than two years to kill him. If you are familiar with addiction, you’ve seen this same story play out before. in spite of of how glamorous one’s life may have been, this death is not.
The addict’s death is an ugly death. Google Chris Farley’s name, and one of the images you’ll see is his body after his overdose death. Ugly might be a mild information.
The chances are that every person reading this knows an addict. Perhaps you are one yourself. If so, you know the strength of the addiction. Maybe you are one of those for whom addiction is a sign of weakness or poor morals. If so, consider:
•Have you ever taken an illegal drug?
•Have you ever taken a prescription drug that belonged to someone else?
•Have you ever taken a legal drug but not followed the directions?
•Have you ever had a drink of alcohol?
•Have you ever been drunk?
Some folks-very, very few–can answer “No” to all of those questions. If so, you have avoided the risk of setting off your addiction. If you answered “Yes” to any of those, you are simply one of the great majority of us.
The great puzzlement of addiction is that most people–indeed, the overwhelming majority–can do all of the above without becoming an addict. Life for an addict is different.
The simplest (and best) explanation I’ve ever heard for why we drink or take drugs is this: We like the effect. That’s hard to let in for a lot of us. We want to think we are wine connoisseurs or that we “experiment.” The truth is more blunt: We like the effect.
The addict likes the effect, too. His world, though, is different. He obsesses about the effect. When he consumes a drink or his drug of choice, he likes the effect, but then craves more. In his last days, he can’t quite get the desired effect. More is better but never quite enough.
I am certain that most people reading this cannot relate. You may have a drink or two at dinner and think “I better slow down. I’m starting to feel this.” Maybe you smoke a joint to relax. For the addict, that drink or joint lights the fuse. His response is “I’m starting to feel this. I need more.” As F. Scott Fitzgerald said “First you take a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes you.”
Hoffman, Lenny Bruce, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin–all well-known drug deaths. A similar list could be compiled of the famous who drank themselves to death. Actors, athletes, politicians–the lists are nearly endless.
These are the addicts we know about. Consider all the ones we don’t. They include your friends, neighbors and already family. Maybe you, too.
Like other diseases, addiction doesn’t discriminate. The high and poor; black and white; male and female; young and old–addiction throws a general net. The addicts I’ve known include doctors, lawyers, accountants, realtors, salesmen, ministers, carpenters, brick masons, electricians, janitors, politicians, housewives and many others. Money, success, failure, poverty–none of this matters.
You may be of the stripe who say “Lock ’em, up!” While I disagree, I understand the sentiment. It is more comforting to think we can hide it. Looking at it is tough. There is shame in it. And fear. We’ve stuffed our prisons complete, in addition our friends and neighbors nevertheless die.
There is good news, though, among all this sorrow–and it is sorrow, by the way, destroying the lives of the addicts and all those who care about them. Addiction is treatable. Make no mistake here–it is not curable. The clean addict or sober drunk is one drug or drink away from disaster. current, effective treatment can and will prevent that. Our attitude toward addiction remains a great stumbling block.
The stigma attached to addiction is daunting, worse perhaps than mental illness. While we’ve grown accustomed to taking a pill for this or that, we nevertheless spread at the thought of a drug addict or alcoholic among us.
Shaming the addict into the shadows with the threat of prison or ostracizing him won’t work. I’ve never known an addict who enjoyed his or her addiction in its chronic form. No one sets out to be a drug addict or alcoholic. Sanctimonious preaching won’t cause a great revelation in the mind of the addict.
Why don’t they just straighten up? You might in addition ask a cancer patient why he “doesn’t just get well.” I once heard that no one was ever shamed or browbeaten into Christianity. Treatment for addiction works the same way.
If we consign addiction to the dust bin of moral failure, we simply accept it as a human frailty. It is much more than that. Likewise, it is not a bad habit. Leaving one’s dirty clothes in the floor is bad habit. Drinking or drugging oneself to death is not.
Addiction is a disease of the mind and body. The addict’s mind drives him to his drink or drug while his body craves more. Addicts aren’t “partying.” They are dying.
Addiction has one distinction that other diseases do not. Often, the addict has no desire to stop. The disease convinces him that he has no disease. I can think of no other chronic, fatal illness that has that so affects its sufferer. As a consequence, getting help for an addict is difficult, already impossible in many situations. That doesn’t average we shouldn’t try.
I speculate that if a terminal illness swept by our population like addiction has, we would bring every possible resource to bear on its eradication. Of course, it is foolish to think we can eliminate this disease. As long as there are human beings, some will want to change how they feel.
Perhaps if we take addiction out of the shadows and remove the stigma, we can make some progress. If every drug or alcohol death were publicized, we would be horrified by the numbers. For all his fame, talent and wealth, Hoffman died the addict’s death. He leaves children to mourn him and puzzled friends. The next time you hear of an overdose death, think about your friends and family. There’s probably an addict lurking among them.