Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death via overdose has strangely affected me.
In fact as I sit here typing, I actually have begun to cry. Not because I knew Phillip Seymour Hoffman (PSH), I didn’t. Not personally, but I know, in a way I think, where he was and even more about how where he was affected the people around him. I think perhaps that is why his death has such an impact on me of late. I’ve read almost every single article that comes across my Facebook and news feed about him and how our society treats drugs and drug users (and that there is a clear double standard). The two that I’ve found most poignant are “Hoffman and the terrible heroin deaths in the shadows ” from The Atlantic by Jeff Deeney (03.02.2014) and “Russel Brand: my life without drugs” from The Guardian by Russel Brand (9.03.2013). I am sure more articles will come out that hit home too, as this hopefully not insignificant death has made at least some of America stop to think and reflect for a moment on ourselves, our society and what kind of lives we want to lead and leave for our families and future selves.
Perhaps PSH death has impacted me because I’ve also been thinking about how Puritanical America is and how ingrained some ideas had become in me, the ‘American abroad’, and more importantly – especially because I now have a son – what of those ideas really is important and what should be let go. I think that is my New Years resolution if I were to really have one, to question my Puritanical ideas, at least some of them. Through discussions with my students on a myriad of their presentation topics, I’ve come to realize that I am much more liberal than I originally thought. And here my father has always told me that I would eventually become so much more conservative as I aged, seeing the light as it were.
Maybe my liberalism can be blamed on living in Europe, or growing up in Portland, or growing up white and moderately privileged. Perhaps my tears come from [relatively] early motherhood. My son is an ever growing tank, but I am still breastfeeding.
Whatever. It’s all still here, with me, right now – for whatever reason.
Brands article, while not new, is still refreshingly honest and true.
Why do people use drugs?
Maybe at first because it might be fun, something we are not supposed to do, and perhaps because our friends are doing it and let’s face it, we’re all lemmings to a certain degree. But often, what happens is we find we are broken, hurt and in great pain, for whatever reason and using drugs is a way to self medicate. “I’ve had a bad day, so I deserve this [insert your vice here]” It’s justifiable. After all sugar, cigarettes and alcohol are all legal in the United States and practically all of the western world. According to Ben Randolph of Compassionate Interventions, “Addiction can include, but is not limited to; drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex addiction, pornography, internet and shopping.” This means “drugs” can actually be just about anything used in/to excess. Some of it happens to be moderately socially acceptable in the United States, some of it doesn’t.
My sister used to use. Being lost in her drug helped her feel like she was in control and helped her feel a little normal. I don’t want to tell her story here, because she does an excellent job of telling it herself today. She is a really amazing person today. The saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” might be her mantra, or not – but she is much stronger and more amazing today because of her history. Maybe one day I’ll ask her to tell you all about it. I also think Russel Brand explains pretty well what using is like…
[…]Off Santa Monica there’s a homeless man who I know uses gear. I could find him, buy him a bag if he takes me to score.
I leave him on the corner, a couple of rocks, a couple of $20 bags pressed into my sweaty palm. I get home, I pull out the foil, neatly torn. I break the bottom off a Martell miniature. I have cigarettes, using makes me need fags. I make a pipe for the rocks with the bottle. I lay a strip of foil on the counter to chase the brown. I pause to reflect and regret that I don’t know how to fix, only smoke, feeling inferior even in the manner of my using. I see the foil scorch. I hear the crackle from which crack gets it’s name. I feel the plastic fog hit the back of my yawning throat. Eyes up. Back relaxing, the bottle drops and the greedy bliss eats my pain. There is no girl, there is no tomorrow, there is nothing but the bilious kiss of the greedy bliss.
“I’ve had a bad day, so I deserve this [insert your vice here]”
What I can tell you is how it affected me and what I’ve learned from my sister’s use and the experience my family has gone through. There was a time that I was so fed up with my sister’s bull, that it did cross my mind that maybe it would be better if she was no longer of this earth. Just to have some finality instead of being forced to ride the roller coaster over and over against my will. I thought, if it happened perhaps it would give us some peace in the ultimate pain, since she was a ghost of herself anyway. She had put my parents and me through so much drama and pain, always saying that she wanted to be better, to get better. Generally this was only because she had been picked up by the police and wanted to be let out. Time and again she said she would change and time and again, she didn’t. But my parents believed her and it broke their heart every time, I could see it. They never said it, how could they? But I could see it. Looking back, those thoughts scare me and I am so happy that didn’t happen, that my sister didn’t end up like PSH. I’m glad that she was given the choice over and over again now, to get clean. Apparently there was something about that last incarceration that made her rethink her using, something about it that made her actually want to get clean. While I was angry about her use for so long, because of how helpless and powerless we, my family and I, were because she was a legal adult. Today I relish in her strength to initially get and now stay clean.
Here Brand talking about what addiction does to the addict and those around them:
A friend of mine’s brother cannot stop drinking. He gets a few months of sobriety and his inner beauty, with the obstacles of his horrible drunken behaviour pushed aside by the presence of a programme, begins to radiate. His family bask relieved, in the joy of their returned loved one, his life gathers momentum but then he somehow forgets the price of this freedom, returns to his old way of thinking, picks up a drink and Mr Hyde is back in the saddle. Once more his brother’s face is gaunt and hopeless. His family blame themselves and wonder what they could have done differently, racking their minds for a perfect sentiment; wrapped up in the perfect sentence, a magic bullet to sear right through the toxic fortress that has incarcerated the person they love and restore them to sanity. The fact is, though, that they can’t, the sufferer must, of course, be a willing participant in their own recovery. They must not pick up a drink or drug, one day at a time. Just don’t pick up, that’s all.
Perhaps PSH death and the circumstances surrounding it have affected me because I remember the pain my sisters’ use caused me like it was yesterday, even though my sister hasn’t used in fourteen years. My sister and I have made peace about our painful shared past. Perhaps it is because I know what a thin line there is between recovery and addiction and the fact that PSH hadn’t used in something like 20 plus years and then for whatever reason picked back up again. Perhaps because at any moment, my sister, her husband or anyone they know and love can fall like PSH. By grace of God, as my sister believes – and so I will not doubt, my sister got clean and has remained so. From what she has taught me, I know it can be a very tough and treacherous road, even though the mantra is the most simple.
…Don’t pick up a drink or drug, one day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple but it isn’t easy: it requires incredible support and fastidious structuring. Not to mention that the whole infrastructure of abstinence based recovery is shrouded in necessary secrecy. There are support fellowships that are easy to find and open to anyone who needs them but they eschew promotion of any kind in order to preserve the purity of their purpose, which is for people with alcoholism and addiction to help one another stay clean and sober. […]
If this seems odd to you it is because you are not an alcoholic or a drug addict. You are likely one of the 90% of people who can drink and use drugs safely. I have friends who can smoke weed, swill gin, even do crack and then merrily get on with their lives. For me, this is not an option. I will relinquish all else to ride that buzz to oblivion. Even if it began as a timid glass of chardonnay on a ponce’s yacht, it would end with me necking the bottle, swimming to shore and sprinting to Bethnal Green in search of a crack house. I look to drugs and booze to fill up a hole in me; unchecked, the call of the wild is too strong. I still survey streets for signs of the subterranean escapes that used to provide my sanctuary. I still eye the shuffling subclass of junkies and dealers, invisibly gliding between doorways through the gutters. I see that dereliction can survive in opulence; the abundantly wealthy with destitution in their stare. […] (Brandt, the Guardian, 09.03.2013).
And this is where I begin to question aspects of my Puritanical American upbringing. Because I have come from a very angry and selfish place as a young adult to (I hope) a reflective adult questioning the reality of drug use and incarceration in the United States. Currently, drug use and incarceration aren’t mutually exclusive. They usually go hand in hand without offering much help for the afflicted. That doesn’t help anyone though. Never mind that the United States locks up more people than any other country in the world and that costs every American a total of $63.3 BILLION a year. Maintaining the status quo has not worked. The fact that we as a society fail hundreds of people, actually probably more – is telling. This isn’t an issue of us and them. As a friend of mine put it, drug addiction is a public policy issue because it affects and effects large swaths of our populations – especially in America. Short of decriminalizing drugs, like Portugal did in 2001, America especially needs to look differently at its drug reform policy. I believe with hope that with the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of Marijuana in Washington and Colorado America will do just that. Addressing the issue at the end point has not helped, the problem needs to be addressed as close to the beginning of the issue as possible. America needs better, more realistic drug awareness education and, then better mental health assistance and addiction counseling in place of our go-to action of incarceration.
“Addiction can include, but is not limited to; drugs and alcohol, gambling, sex addiction, pornography, internet and shopping.” -Ben Randolph, Compassionate Interventions, MA CADC III
Here is more from Brand, this time about sympathy, empathy and helping those that need it:
It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?[…]
[…]if you regard alcoholics and drug addicts not as bad people but as sick people then we can help them to get better. By we, I mean other people who have the same problem but have found a way to live drug-and-alcohol-free lives. Guided by principles and traditions a programme has been founded that has worked miracles in millions of lives. Not just the alcoholics and addicts themselves but their families, their friends and of course society as a whole.
Add Brand’s words to Deeney’s from his Atlantic piece: “More people are using heroin, according to a 2012 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey. The survey found that between 2007 and 2012, the number of heroin users ages 12 and up increased from 373,000 to 669,000.” Deeney continues to explain that this uptick in heroin users is expected considering just how many people have been abusing prescription drugs in recent years. “In Philadelphia, an 80 milligram OxyContin pill will cost you $40. “Oxys” are safe in that the potency is predictable […] for the same amount of money, you could get four bags of heroin that are just as potent.” All I can say is that I am so glad that heroin wasn’t my sister’s poison. I take very small solace in that and that she apparently never shot up her drug of choice, however had the circumstances been different in her path to sobriety, perhaps that was the next step. I am just glad it didn’t go there.
Deeney, himself a recovering addict, sheds light on a medication used now in places like Vancouver, British Columbia where users are also provided a safe place to shoot up and obtain clean needles without the fear being arrested. This non-narcotic is called Naloxone, which can apparently reverse an overdose and many public safety officers are increasingly willing to carry this medication and dispense it as needed. Advocates are also wanting it to be available over the counter. This is possibly a ray of hope in the darkness for users and for family members of those users. And as Deeney explains, “dead people cannot get clean, every reversed overdose is another chance at life. In retrospect, I am overjoyed that my sister didn’t ever overdose on her drug of choice, and I’m happy that she was in and out of jail. She could have overdosed, likely by lethally combining drugs and she could have gone to prison for the rest of her life, but she didn’t and that is what matters to me and our family.
I respect Russel Brand more every time I hear him speak out about issues that are important to him. Who better to spread the message of sobriety than former users like Brand and Deeney. My sister too is now speaking out. Actually, her speaking out isn’t anything new. She has been an advocate for people getting clean for almost as long as she has been clean. I believe in her and her message so much that, at least while I was still living in Oregon, I found various ways to incorporate her into my lessons as a special hands-on guest speaker. I miss doing that here in Germany. There have been a few times that I know her insight could have really helped my students understand the reality about “how things work in the US” or at least in Oregon and Washington. I look to her and know that if she can handle all that she has on her plate, returning from her own hell in one piece – I can get up in the morning and deal with my stuff too. My sister and those closest to her are living the message, which I think more people need to hear. I know that my sister has lost a few friends back to addiction since she has been clean, so the system isn’t perfect, because people aren’t perfect. Yet, if more people were willing to embrace both sharing and hearing the message from addicts and former users, then perhaps we could really honestly address some of the issues around addiction. I know that for me, my sister was the best drug education I ever had, and I went through the famed D.A.R.E. program, whose long-term effectiveness has been under question since its inception.
Hopefully too, PSH won’t just be another celebrity cliché who lost the battle against his demons but might just be what helps someone into recovery.
For more information about Brand’s partnership with the charity organization, Comic Relief, look here.
For more information about the Vancouver British Columbia safe space Deeney speaks of in his article, look here.
If you or someone you know need help with addiction, look here for help.
UPDATE 07.02.14: For an updated comment by Russel Brand on PSH, drug addiction, mental health and “extremely stupid laws” look here. This article, “Russell Brand: Philip Seymour Hoffman is another victim of extremely stupid drug laws” was published in the Guardian on 06.02.14.
UPDATE 13.02.14: Since first publishing this post, I’ve listened to two Podcasts that I think really drive home how America’s Puritanical views, mental health and addiction all intersect, and just how big that double standard is in America. One of these Podcasts are the Best of the Left, which compiles clips from across American left-leaning media and comedy to showcase particularly hot topics like health care, climate/energy, and food, just to name a few. The most recent compilation is show #798: “Learning to play nice with mother nature (war on drugs)” (it can also be found on iTunes) and was probably at least in part prompted by PSH death. The other Podcast is produced by Dan Carlin called Common Sense, “an independent look at politics and current events from popular New Media personality Dan Carlin” His most recent show is #269 “The challenges of living dangerously“. Both Podcasts discuss mental health, addiction, and society very well and I encourage you, dear reader, to check them out.