News broke on Sunday of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman just prior to the Superbowl. As millions were on social media preparing to celebrate and watch that game – their collective attention shifted focus to Hoffman’s death and the role of drugs and addiction in Hollywood and larger society. In the days that have followed the death has continued to dominate news headlines and that collective discussion continues to grow and broaden. Within that, a solid majority have shown a decent grasp of the struggle of addiction, the stigmas associated, and how just the act of talking about it on this level can impact the lives of so many others. All of this has been good and productive.
While this has played out though, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death has meant something completely different for me – as someone nearly 6 years removed from any drug or alcohol use Hoffman’s death is an unwelcome reminder of my own possible fallibility.
I do not count days and unlike many others who struggle I don’t deal with constant triggers. Almost 6 years in I’ve been relatively confident and unthinking in my sobriety – even as I study addiction in University and frequently counsel others on the topic. Thinking about others use and sobriety in general comes easy, but for myself I’ve considered it a closed case long ago. Hoffman’s death – and the timeline of his struggle with addiction – has opened that back up for me in ways that make me terrified and uncomfortable.
Dead at 46 – Hoffman recognized problems with his use at the age of 22 and spent the following 23 years sober. Half of his life, and nearly his entire acting career, he maintained and practiced sobriety. During that span he achieved some of the highest praise of any living actor – including a SAG, Golden Globe and Oscar sweep for his portrayal of Truman Capote in “Capote” (2005). It’s been common place now to hear actors, critics and writers remember him as “one of the greatest” of our time. All of that achievement though could not stop the end.
In 2012 Hoffman had been proscribed pain killers, a move which began a slippery slope back into use. Again, he recognized this as a problem – checked into rehab and tried and managed to stay clean for a short while. Unfortunately, that did not last.
In Hoffman I see a similar timeline – he first got sober at 22, myself 23. Hoffman was also able to recognize and substantively be pro active with his own use – I was able to do the same. I will never reach the level of achievement that Hoffman reached in his profession though and Hoffman also had 17+ more years of sobriety on me. The knowledge that someone you look up to, someone you think has accomplished something, has fallen to something you desperately need to convince yourself is not optional is not sitting well with me.
It is hard to say what role stigma played in Hoffman’s death. Frequently a relapse after such a long period of sobriety will bring on such intense feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy that it creates a pit that people cannot see out from. In that, we can place our collective grief in trying to build those support networks and lessen that stigma so that if and when relapse happens it doesn’t have to mean death.
Personally I am still trying to find some solace in being confronted with my unthinking sobriety – trying to find constructive ways in which personal introspection can keep me more guarded, alert and reflexive. Talking about Hoffman’s death in this way has already had the positives of building on a support base I previous convinced myself I did not need, with many reaching out and sharing their stories or relaying that they are always there to listen (that’s always been my role). I preferred the comfort of convincing myself that this could never happen to me, but deaths like this show us that comfort can be fleeting. Even the best, the brightest and the most deserving can fall.
Friends, it’s time to work on our safety nets. The ones we convinced ourselves we didn’t need.