Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Tragedy of Addiction

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“Everyone’s life is grotesque if you look close enough.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose yesterday at the age of 46. Hoffman had long talked about the addiction problems he’d struggled with for most of his adult life, problems that he’d managed to control for a long time, before succumbing to those problems on the floor of his West Village apartment, a needle in his arm, dozens of glassines full of heroin found nearby. As is now the custom, social media feeds were soon flooded with reactions to the news of Hoffman’s death. These reactions took the form of clips of some of Hoffman’s finest performances, of which there are no shortage—Hoffman was a genius on film and on stage. Many people expressed shock at losing an artist whose ubiquity was one of the most impressive things about his craft. Has there ever been another actor who so seamlessly inhabited such a wide variety of roles, both leading and supporting? I can’t think of one. Hoffman seemed to be everywhere in film, and now he is nowhere. And because the cause of Hoffman’s death was immediately known, many of the people expressing grief also addressed the subject of addiction, and called Hoffman’s death everything from a waste to tragic to foolish to selfish. Nobody said it outright (at least not that I saw) but the sentiment was there—Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose yesterday at the age of 46, and it was basically his fault. And what we are left with is a man has been blamed for his own death, while the disease that kills him remains a mystery, making it easier for those of us untouched by addictive tendencies to reassure ourselves that it couldn’t have been us, it will never be us.

Some people are uncomfortable with calling addiction a disease. These are usually the people who maybe have sympathy for addiction in general, but secretly (or not-so-secretly) think that addiction wouldn’t even happen if people didn’t even try heroin in the first place, or never snorted that first line of coke. These are usually the type of people who were never that interested in doing drugs to begin with, who never smoked a cigarette, who know how to say no after two beers. These people exist and there is something I admire in them, and there are things about their lives that I want to emulate, qualities they possess that I wish I had (I’d bet they even check their mailboxes—both e- and literal—regularly). But for all the seemingly intelligent discourse that usually surrounds these people who spout clichés about personal agency and restraint, they really know nothing about control, because they have never had to control themselves. They are the type of people who have always chosen life, who can’t imagine the allure of darkness, or numbness, of oblivion. They don’t know and they don’t want to know, so they don’t just think that Hoffman’s death is tragic, they also think of it as being foolish.

There is more than one way to make sense of life. There is the way (and probably it is the healthier way because it, you know, keeps you healthy and keeps you alive) that some people live and it involves sustaining life and ignoring death and thinking of oblivion as something that they would never bring on themselves. And then there are the people who can only make sense of life by thinking of death, who can only understand that life is pain, so they look for pain and try to push through it, try to make sense out of everything that hurts. We don’t know—I don’t know—what it was that Hoffman was going through these last few days, or months, or years. We know that he struggled with addiction for years. We know that he viewed himself with some level of self-disgust and that this led to him drinking excessively in an effort to “seek out oblivion.” For anyone who saw Hoffman pedaling his bike around the West Village or performing on stage or stealing every single scene of every movie he was in, it is hard to accept that this was a man who felt grotesque, who felt flawed. But really, it shouldn’t be hard to accept. All it means is that he was human, and susceptible to the same push-and-pull between life and death that we all are to various degrees.

The public’s incomprehension that accompanies a death of such a celebrated person is usually because people don’t understand why someone like Hoffman couldn’t like himself when he was beloved by the rest of the world. But Hoffman didn’t see himself the way we saw him. Hoffman wrestled with life and death and the impulse toward both for years, which is probably no small part of why he was so relatable in his performances…he could be anyone because he had felt everything. Hoffman wasn’t foolish or stupid because he died. But he couldn’t stop  his disease. Diseases only go away if you kill them or if they kill you. This doesn’t make him someone to be looked down upon as weak or less than someone who conquers their addiction, all it does is make him human, and all it should do for the rest of us is make us want to help others who can’t fully help themselves. We all have problems and they all manifest in different ways. And just because certain problems don’t exist within us, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t empathize with those who do suffer. Hoffman once said, “I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.” The sad truth for Hoffman was that his problems weren’t benign, his flaws were his death. What we do with that truth now is what’s important. There’s no need to judge or condemn a man for his disease, not when there are so many others out there who could use help with their own struggles, so that they too won’t fall into oblivion.

Follow Kristin Iversen @kmiversen

4 Comment

  • Ms. Iversen:

    While I agree with you that “there’s no need to judge or condemn” Hoffman and that empathy is the appropriate response to his tragic and untimely death, I disagree with your argument that understanding substance abuse is predicated on framing it as a “disease.” Just as, as you write, “there is more than one way to make sense of life,” there is more than one way to make sense of substance abuse and the disease model is just that – one way.

    For some people, the disease model approach to substance abuse works; for others, it does not. I have a substance abuse problem and years of 12 step work were not successful for me. What has finally worked for me is the harm reduction, “partial abstinence” approach practiced at the Stonewall Foundation in San Francisco.

    In fighting for the (much deserved) empathy people living with substance abuse need, let’s move away from a dogmatic doctrine about the “right” and “wrong” way to view substance abuse and toward a more critical and open-minded dialogue about the diverse approaches to recovery.

    • Totally agree w the above comment. Harm reduction is an excellent tool when confronting substance abuse. Were all extremely different from one another. For some 12 step programs work & thats great. But sitting at meeting after meeting chain smoking & drinking lots of coffee & talking about getting high is not for everyone. Yoga, therapy, antidepressants & partial abstinence is whats been best for me.

      • I am an alcoholic, and cannot even begin to comprehend the idea of “partial abstinence.” When an addict has one drink or one hit he can’t stop, that’s how the disease manifests, at least with me and many others. Addiction is a disease. Should we have multiple models for cancer too? A disease is a disease.

        • Matthew – if the disease model works for you, great! If partial abstinence works for me, great! I get frustrated when a group of people puts everyone’s experience with substance abuse within the same parameters. It’s time for a variety of approaches – as long as they work for the individual.