Thursday, February 06, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Chasing the Dragon

The outpouring of sadness, anger, and weirdness over the passing on the great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has shone a bright light on the ugly realities of America's dysfunction around how we deal with (or deny) addiction.  Our love affair with the abusive spouses of booze and drugs is so warped and so distorted that it takes the death of a celebrity to bring it to the forefront.

But there are people who die every day from alcoholism and addiction. They die quiet, lonely deaths, and that is as much a tragedy as when a film star or rock star breathes their last due to these maladies.

Our so-called "drug war" is an impotent and destructive method of responding to the disease of addiction, and like any war it leaves the collateral damage of those it does not help, and often wounds or kills, in its wake. It is a war we are losing with every addict in prison, hospitals, or the cemetery, and to think we can win that war with the same tactics we have always used is insanity.

Hoffman was a talented, brilliant man, but it is not this which I am most stunned and saddened at in his relapse into heroin use and overdose. He amassed over 20 years clean and sober before he succumbed to his illness again, and that is mind boggling. The length of time you amass away from using those substances is no protection against their siren call. And the disease of addiction waits patiently.

As someone who has some experience with addictions myself, I know that I cannot become complacent in my recovery. I have a path that has served me well; total abstinence and service to others. But even that is not enough.

Years ago, a friend of mine who was not a celebrity but who had racked up quite a bit of time clean and sober relapsed around the use of pain medications. He kept trying to get clean again, but, like Hoffman, he kept returning to the demons that were killing him. After a short time, he overdosed alone in his apartment, like Hoffman, but without the fanfare and tributes that a well known actor receives. His death was an important reminder to me of the folly of thinking "this time will be different." I honor him, and Hoffman, by remembering that lesson. Both of them had the same opportunity to get well. Both of them couldn't do it, and the price they paid was their lives. I mourn for both of them as brothers in a struggle that requires vigilance and consistency, and I see them not as failures, but as casualties.

As Philip K. Dick said, some drug users are punished entirely too harshly for what they have done, and yet some of us can pull out of that swan dive before we hit the rocky ground. Some don't. That doesn't make them bad or weak people, it just makes them human.

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