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Strength and compassion: a note to drug abuse concern trolls, concerning Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn't strong enough. 

That's not a value judgment. It's not a comment on his intelligence, his character, his drive or his talent. It's just a fact—one that anybody who's grappled with substance abuse or watched a loved one struggle with it will recognize. 

Addiction is a beast. It's powerful. Sometimes it overwhelms even those who fight hard against it for decades.

We should not ignore these facts when an addict relapses—temporarily, permanently or fatally. We should not distort these facts to make it easier to denounce the addict for failing a test of morality or guts. 

It's such a bizarre phenomenon, this concern trolling, this posthumous shaming. It reminds me of Western men's 19th century obsession with never showing "a yellow streak," as if physical courage were the sole determinant of virtue. 

It's dumb. It's unrealistic. It's cruel. 

And in this context, it's useless. 

The spur for this rant is the passive-aggressively hateful nonsense I've seen on Twitter and Facebook and in blog comments sections about Hoffman's death from a heroin overdose at 46. Some of it has been couched in terms of tough love, hideously enough—or worse, "wisdom." 

When I see people saying, of Hoffman's death, "What a waste" or "Pity he was so selfish" or "Why would anybody do that to their children?" or "While we're praising him, let's not forget the man was a junkie" or other such hateful blather, I wonder if they know what addiction is, or have chosen, for reasons of anger or preening self-regard, to pretend that they do not.

Addiction is not a morality play. It is a disease of the brain, rooted in genetics as well as habit and personal choice. Living with it is as tough as living with any physical disease or debilitating mental illness. 

There's a reason why people who aren't currently in thrall to drugs or alcohol or sex or gambling or whatever use the adjective "recovering" when describing their status, and not "recovered," or "former." 

There's a reason why, when you're in any kind of Twelve-Step Program and you ritually state your name and name your addiction, you use present tense, not past. 

I am an alcoholic. 

I am a sex addict. 

I am a gambling addict. 

I am. 

This is not a linguistic affectation. All addicts remain, forever, in some fundamental sense, addicts—but hopefully some of them get to a place where they're non-practicing. 

That temptation to resume "practice" is always there, though.

An addict's craving for the addictive substance or activity is hellishly powerful, especially during the chaotic early phase of recovery. Imagine a little kid trying to fend off a grownup who keeps trying to shove him and knock him over. That's the imbalance between the addict and the craving. It gets better over time, but slowly, and at no point does recovery become a done deal, something one can take for granted.  Most addicts relapse many times before sobriety sticks and lasts. And just because the beast is in hibernation doesn't mean it can't wake up without warning and start breaking things.

Inhabitants of the planet Earth know this, or ought to.

What I want to tell people who would ignore the reality of addiction—particularly those who fantasize that they're righteous truth-tellers who are just trying to "keep it real"—is this: 

Be a human being, why don't you? 

Have some decency. 

Have some compassion. 

The man tried hard, for decades, but he wasn't strong enough. 

As Corrigan Vaughan wrote in a piece titled "Addiction is not selfish," "I guarantee that every time Hoffman put that needle in his arm, he felt guilty. He felt conflicted. He craved that high that would take the pain away, but knew the pain he caused himself and those around him every time he took a hit. We all have destructive habits. If we’re lucky, it’s watching too much TV when it’s inhibiting our productivity, or looking at porn when we think it’s a sin, or lying, cheating, overeating. If we’re lucky, our addictions won’t kill us.  The majority of us can go through a partying phase and then grow up, settle down, and put down the sauce. But for an unfortunate group, the need to keep going becomes as pervasive as the need to eat or sleep. And we call them selfish, as if they would prefer to be a slave to the thing that’s ruining everything good in their lives."

Philip Seymour Hoffman was not selfish. He didn't choose drugs over life in the way that others might choose Pepsi over Coke or staying in over going out. He was not an example or counter-example of anything. 

His story is not a cautionary tale or a case study. It's an everyday tragedy.

I'll close by republishing, with permission, a story that was shared on Facebook by my friend James Merendino, the director of "SLC Punk!"  

Concerning heroin: 

In light of the recent demise of an actor who I respected greatly, I'll convey a story about my own experience with this drug. 

Some years ago I took it upon myself to help an actor who had been injecting heroin at 12 years old. His mother showed him how to do it. This actor had gotten into some trouble and I thought if I could keep him in my house and watch him and help him, all would be good. 

And all was good. The actor got clean and all was well in the kingdom. (It is typical of me to think I can save anything or anyone.) So the actor moved on, clean and sober. 

Well, what I didn't relay to you was the pain this individual went through. He suffered like no other as he kicked the drug. It was like watching a baby seal being beaten with a club. 

But the withdrawals passed. Many say that he should have been aware of the danger connected to this drug and it was his fault. 

But, I saw the grip the drug had over him. He was utterly helpless. 

At first I thought he was weak. But soon I realized that he was strong. The drug was stronger. 

And two years after he left my house, he was dead from an overdose from this drug. 

I hate that I know what an addict goes through. But I understand it. 

His name was Brad Renfro

He would not want anybody to say he died a tragic death. He would blame himself. But I know it was tragic. 

He died from a disease. Just like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I wrote Renfro's obituary for The New York Times


The details are different, but it's the same story.


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