On Sunday, Feb. 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in New York City in an apartment he had been renting out as an office. He was 46. When investigators examined his body, they noted that Hoffman had been found with a needle in his arm and a generous amount of heroin in the room. Hoffman had struggled with addiction from a young age, first achieving sobriety when he was 22. In May 2012 he had checked himself into rehab following a relapse triggered by dependence on prescription pills. He was released after 10 days. Authorities are tentatively calling his cause of death an overdose.
It is not surprising that the conversation around Hoffman’s death has circulated almost as much around his battles with substance abuse as it has his incredible career on stage and in film. As fans, coworkers, and loved ones mourn, the eye of the public finds itself trained on that needle, the plentiful opiates peppering the apartment, the hole in the Hoffman family. Unfortunately, this discussion has been wrongheaded, dealing with addiction in the same dangerously judgmental way that we as a society have addressed the topic for decades.
As an intense fan of Hoffman’s work, as well as a recovering addict, I have been troubled a great deal by the discussions of his passing. I’ve found myself fuming and breaking down as I scroll through comments under lists of his best work, where he is called selfish and stupid. I found myself fighting back the urge to scream as I watched tweets flash under a CNN panel on the topic, the majority declaring that Hoffman was asking for it and that heroin was his choice. One poster, supposedly the mother of a child who was killed by an overdose, announced that she has no sympathy for the deceased. The backlash has not merely been from the random casual users of the Internet; Jared Padalecki and LeVar Burton have both decided that this is the time to righteously declaim on the actor’s stupidity. This is the time to judge the dead.
There are only so many times I can read the word “junkie,” only so many times I can see people talk about Hoffman willingly waltzing into the arms of addiction before I boil over. Like so many other things in this world, everyone is an expert on addiction, on its evils and tolls. Everyone is better than those who succumb to it. Everyone knows that it’s better to shame those already in its grasp than to find the dialogue that might actually prevent its proliferation. Thank God the Internet lets us hear what they all have to say.
I don’t want to come across as someone who claims to be an expert. My experience with substance abuse is certainly not the defining experience, and the grace of God that has helped me move forward in my life does not find everyone. Sometimes those who find it leave it behind. I do, however, know what it was like for me to be in that position, and I know how wrong this conversation now feels to me. I know there’s a better way to talk about this.
First off, it’s worth noting that addiction is a disease. It is a crippling and destructive affliction, and those who find themselves in its grasp rarely intend to get there. Often, and especially these past few days, I see people attempt to circumvent this. They talk about how it’s your choice to do drugs and how it can’t be a disease if some people stop.
Many people who end up as addicts don’t start with that intention. Many, if not most, don’t even start with that behavior. For an alcoholic, addiction can begin the first time one takes a drink. It can lie dormant as one stops after three or four. It can snarl in the periphery as the afflicted drinks healthily, sometimes for years. When addiction suddenly rears up, when it is truly noticeable, the addict is often past the point of stopping on his own. The blackout drinker now believes he needs that whole bottle. The once–social smoker would prefer to hit the bong alone for hours. When the outside world looks at addiction, it seems to imagine the addicts bringing it on themselves, sitting down at the bar one day and asking for 18 shots of whiskey and a chaser of vodka. This rarely ever happens.
When I first began to drink, I prided myself on my tolerance, prided myself on my never throwing up. I wasn’t an alcoholic, I said. I never blacked out. The sad and insidious thing about addiction is that the addict is the addict before his first use of the substance. The addicted brain is set in a certain way to promote dependency even before the substance is introduced. In cases where addiction is created in the brain, there are often extenuating circumstances: the man who randomly goes on a bender to cope with a break-up, his brain suddenly associating alcohol with the relief of stress; the woman who finds that alcohol works better than Wellbutrin, and conditions herself to only find happiness in a bottle of Teacher’s.
As for the second point, -that addiction can’t be a disease if the addict can stop: the taking of the drink, the snorting of the line, the puffing of the joint, is not the disease. It is a symptom. The alcoholic can stop drinking and the addict can stop shooting up, but the addiction itself remains. This is why programs such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) favor total abstinence models over simple “harm reduction” ones. The second an alcoholic takes a drink, even if he or she has been sober for 40 years, the addiction flares up and takes control. The substance is a catalyst that can be removed from the equation (often with great, great difficulty), but the foundation of the disease—the need, the craving, the dependence—will only ever be coped with, never totally excised.
This dialogue becomes more complicated for many when the focus turns to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. People say, “Well, I can see how someone might get addicted to cigarettes or alcohol, maybe even marijuana. But why would you ever do heroin?” The answer is simple: no one starts with heroin.
Addiction is degenerative and hungry. It only ever gets worse. Often, alcohol, marijuana, and pills lose their potency and the wound that the substance usage is covering stings once more. When this happens, it seems natural, at your lowest, -full of fear and self–loathing, doubt and depression, -to take the needle, which you’re promised will do what those other things couldn’t:- bring you actual peace.
It is important to note that those who explain addiction in this way are not trying to draw attention away from how destructive a force it is to those outside of the addict. The addict lies and steals and cheats. The addict is violent, self–pitying, selfish, and cruel. The addict destroys relationships, breaks promises, and loses jobs and houses. The point, however, is to be able to separate this from the person on whom addiction has its hold. While I was drinking and using, I was a horrible, ugly person. I was reprehensible. I was shameless. But somewhere in my brain, I was able to justify it. I told myself that I needed what I lied for and that I deserved what I hid. At first, I thought if I didn’t have it I would die. In the end, I thought that death was all I had, and that using was the way to achieve it. The addict is cruel and selfish, not because he is a hateful person but because the world he loves is insurmountable and unsurvivable without the drug. He needs it to show up, and it always ensures that he doesn’t.
When I read the callous, judgmental, self–righteous things that were said in the wake of Hoffman’s death, I was terrified. If this man, this man who put in the incredible work to keep himself sober for over 20 years, was selfish because of his one mistake, then I must not have changed at all after my year off from school, fighting against this thing; the ugliness must not be the addiction. It must be me.
Your heart and your brain whisper to you that one day at a time means nothing, because eventually you will fall, crumble, break. Then you go into the world and you hear the same words. You realize that if this thing ever beat you, broke you, killed you like it has so many people in the past, you would be just another junkie in the gutter, the burden you thought you were when you first decided the drug was all that could help.
These are not things you hear in drug education. Instead, you hear that drugs are bad and they will kill you. That’s the bottom line. In drug education, they don’t tell you about the nights when no drug is as bad as the feeling in your gut and the voices in your head, when the death that could sneak up from behind the euphoria seems like the sweetest promise in the world. They don’t tell you what it’s like to try to fight. They just tell you not to be dumb enough to reach the point where you have to. They tell you drugs are about morality. They tell you drugs are about intelligence.
When we talk about addiction nowadays, too often we talk about right and wrong. We talk about the good people and the bad people, the strong people and the weak people, those who selfishly indulge and those who stoically stand apart. When we talk about addiction, we strip it of the crippling humanity that makes it possible: the agony, the loneliness, the shame. We just tell people to drink the right way, and then when they don’t, we tell them to go away. Nowadays, the addict is the disease rather than the addiction.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was a profound tragedy. An artistic community lost a passionate and intelligent performer. A human community lost a man of compassion and deep, often destructive, personal insight. A family lost someone they love, and I can promise you that their loss will not be eased by his public condemnation. Children reeling from their father’s sudden death are not healed by your judgment or by hearing you explain his death meant that he didn’t love them enough to stay alive.
To reduce this event to a chance to talk about the evils of drug usage -among the “junkies” on the street or the “indulgent arrogance” of Hollywood -is a human and an educational failure. In all of his films, Hoffman attempted to diagram and convey a raw and broken humanity, a fractured grace, a searching, a wanting. If we can do anything in this moment, it is to truly tap into the spirit of empathy and direct it at those suffering from the horrible, twisted thing that snatched this man from the earth. Let us see them as people. Let us see them as worthy of support, not judgment; love, not condemnation. Let us see when we truly do not understand, and let us make the effort to actually try to. Let us see them as worthy of our mourning, our compassion, our help. Let us help them see that there is healing beyond shame, that they are able to change, to grow, to fight with dignity, and to live on as men and women, more than their demons. Please, God, let us be kind.
Michael Darer is a member of the class of 2016.