Philip Seymour Hoffman, heroin, and the secret club of addiction

Categories: Film and TV

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For weeks after Heath Ledger's body was found in an apartment in New York City in 2008, curious folks would come into the store in SoHo where I worked and ask, "Do you know where Heath's building is?" Of course I knew where it was; everyone who worked or lived between Houston and Canal streets knew exactly where 421 Broome Street was. But I pretended I didn't know. Their intrusiveness made my stomach hurt. Whose business was it to know where Heath died -- besides the people who actually knew and loved him?

When Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Manhattan apartment this past Sunday, I felt like those nosy people. I wanted to know everything. Mostly because, like many deaths involving circumstances of which people were unaware, his death felt unreal. How could this happen? How can someone who is under such a bright spotlight do heroin? These questions are complex. People are complex. Addicts are complex people.

See also:
Listen to why Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the best actors of any generation [podcast]
Amy Winehouse's passing a reminder: addicts are people too

The immediate information surrounding Hoffman's death was both murky and sensational -- he was found on the bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. There was evidence that this was not his first foray into the current relapse that had killed him. The amount of heroin found in his apartment has changed in size over the last few days -- it was 50 bags. It was 70 bags. It was a five- or ten-day supply.

I don't have a TV and I disconnected myself from social networking last Sunday to avoid the Super Bowl mania, but I did catch some of the Hoffman speculation/chatter Monday night on the television at the gym. Dr. Drew was on Anderson Cooper, spinning his theories around addict behavior and the possible scenarios of Hoffman's recent heroin usage -- apparently the actor entered rehab last year, relapsing after more than two decades clean and sober. Dr. Drew insinuated that maybe Hoffman wasn't sober that whole time. This made me mad.

I'm a recovering alcoholic. I can't pretend I know what it's like to deal with an addiction like heroin, because all addictions and the people who have them are different. But I do know what it's like to struggle with the idea of sobriety on a daily basis. For the past seven years and seven months, I have gone through many stages with my addiction -- at some points, I've thought I was cured and hated the thought of perpetually identifying as "recovering." Why couldn't there be an end to insobriety? I didn't drink at one point in my life, so why couldn't I just go back to being that person, the un-drunk one?

Just when I would get bullish and big-headed about being done with being a drunk, I would be wrestled back into reality, usually by a reoccurring nightmare where I was getting wasted and no one could stop me. I have had these dreams regularly since I got sober. In waking life, I still want to get smashed. When I first quit drinking, I was often asked if I would ever go back to drinking, because how could I enjoy holidays and family celebrations and all of the other usual events where we drink to celebrate without being a normal, glass-clinking participant? My response was and is always the same: When my desire to get completely obliterated disappears, I'll have a drink.

But that's the thing: It has never disappeared. I don't know how to drink like a normal person. I've never wanted to have a glass of wine with dinner or a champagne toast at midnight. I have wanted to down six bottles of cheap wine and tear through a few six-packs of Miller High Life. I don't know the idea of "one drink." I just know addiction and the constant, wobbling balance between invincibility and total failure.

I don't know where Hoffman was in his course of addiction and life when he died. But I do know that as much as addiction is discussed in a public way and as much as we try to remove the stigma of substance abuse, it still can feel like it has to be a secret. Heroin is especially secret.


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