When the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by heroin overdose broke, social networks were abuzz. People were understandably shocked, upset, and sad. Many were livid. I saw dozens of comments castigating Hoffman for leaving his family because of his “irresponsible” or “reckless” choices. People were furious with a man they did not even know, somehow believing that he and abandoned his loved ones on purpose and squandered his amazing talent for no reason.
What I missed in these comments was any understanding of what addiction actually is and what it can drive the human animal to do. People somehow expect addicts to be rational, but they can’t be. Hoffman clearly did not intend to kill himself. (Read “A Complicated Actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his Last Days.“)
What he was trying to do was relieve his pain. The human brain is hard wired for pleasure seeking and pain avoidance, but as a culture we somehow still believe that addicts are simply weak-willed morally addled people undeserving of our compassion.
I have news: all of us are capable of becoming addicted. Some of us get addicted to food, some to alcohol, some to prescription medication, some to heroin. And many of us, myself included, fall prey to “soft” addictions. These include sex and love addiction, codependency (compulsively trying to “fix” other addicts), addiction to accomplishment and activity, even to Words with Friends and other online games.
The toxicology report is still out, but likely Hoffman was first addicted to prescription painkillers such as OxyContin before he turned to heroin. He suffered a severe neck injury as a high school wrestler, and may have gotten hooked on earlier generations of pain pills which led to other forms of substance abuse in his 20s. He was reportedly clean for 23 years, and then relapsed.
Skyrocketing deaths from heroin and “legal” pain medications should tell us something. We have a problem with addiction in the US and it’s way bigger than the tragic celebrity deaths that wake us out of denial every few years.
The New York Times reports that heroin addicts are becoming younger and whiter and their numbers are skyrocketing. For most, prescription drugs are the gateway.
Such was the case in the tragic death of 21-year-old Alysa Ivy, the daughter of Karen Hale, who died of a heroin overdose at a Super 8 motel in Hudson, Wisconsin near Minneapolis last spring. In an article entitled “Heroin’s Small-Town Toll, and a Mother’s Grief,” the Times reports that heroin deaths of teenagers and young adults tripled in the first decade of this century.
Ms. Hale sees Hoffman’s death as a wake up call. Few understand the way addiction mangles families, she said, and the rippling toll of the tens of thousands of fatal heroin and painkiller overdoses every year. It may have taken Mr. Hoffman’s death, she said, to “wake up America to all the no-names who passed away before him,” leaving a cross-country trail of bereavement.
Ms. Ivy’s was believed to be the seventh fatal heroin overdose in eight months in Hudson, a town of 13,000 people.
It was the “cross-country trail of bereavement” that got me. Addicts become lost to us even before they die. They will lie, cheat, and steal to get a fix and Alysa was no exception. Ms. Hale says they were often at each other’s throats. Our addictions crowd out our ability to engage with others, and even to love. We become totally fixated on our addictive substance or activity to the point that we cannot even care for ourselves. All 12-step programs teach self-care as one of the building blocks of recovery.
My hope, and my plea, is that we learn to have compassion for anyone who is struggling with addiction. And that we recognize the true cost – loss of life and heart wrenching grief – not just over the deaths of beloved people, but over a giant rip in the very fabric of our most important connections.
If Mr. Hoffman’s death causes us to look more plainly at ourselves, and reach out to others with understanding, it will not be the giant waste that many seem to feel it is