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Hoffman’s Demons Are Ours, Too

Hoffman’s Demons are Ours, Too
By Jeffrey L. Reynolds, Ph.D, CEAP, SAP

SpotlightSelfish, irresponsible, careless, criminal are just a few of the kinder terms that have been used to describe Philip Seymour Hoffman since he died of an apparent overdose last Sunday morning.  While journalists scrambled to cover every gory detail of the famed actor’s final hours, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with stunning suggestions that Hoffman’s death was “sad, but inevitable” and “well-deserved.” Others went further, calling overdose fatalities a Darwinian “thinning of the herd.”

Online commentators are notoriously mean-spirited, even when they aren’t fully anonymous, but those kinds of callous responses to any other disease would be socially unacceptable and provoke a spirited defense. Indeed, addiction often involves unflattering behaviors that impact others and myths about the disease abound. But there’s more to it than that.

Addiction makes us uncomfortable, in part because there’s some of it in each of us.  Most Americans have used drugs and alcohol – sometimes in considerable quantities during adolescence – without significant consequences.  And let’s face it, we’ve all got our own vices, unhealthy habits or dependencies – the six cups of coffee per day, Saturday afternoon six packs, pre-flight Xanax, shopping sprees, food binges, 60-hour work weeks or Powerball mania. That we do these things without wrecking our lives or destroying those around us reinforces our notion that those who can’t control their addictive behaviors are weak, lazy or selfish.

There’s no one in America whose life hasn’t been touched by addiction and while that should foster a better understanding of the disease, the scars run deep. Whether as a child we cowered in a dark bedroom corner as Mom or Dad went on a drunken rampage or as a teenager we watched helplessly as a friend’s weekend forays turn into a life-altering downward spiral, we’ve all seen, experienced and internalized the horrors of this dreadful disease. We’ve attended funerals of loved ones who died suddenly of “natural causes,” tip-toed around the co-worker who “just isn’t right” and read news accounts of the desperate addict who held up a pharmacy, burglarized a home, or killed someone in a car crash while impaired. Those experiences have left us angry, bitter, disappointed, ashamed and in some cases, wracked with guilt.

When we read about Hoffman’s disappointed kids waiting to be picked up a couple blocks away, our sympathy plummeted – maybe because we’ve been in that place. When a commentator pointed out that Hoffman had access to the world’s best clinicians and finest treatment facilities, the senselessness of his death was multiplied – maybe because we know someone who didn’t have that access. When we heard about Hoffman’s two decades of sobriety, we wondered why he’d throw all that away and questioned whether our friends – even if they’ve got a decades-old anniversary date – could someday meet the same fate.

For most, addiction is a dark, scary place fueled by well-kept secrets, persistent disappointments and public condemnation of those who struggle. The success stories never grab the headlines and celebrations of recovery are relegated to private, anonymous gatherings in church basements.

Addiction is a brain disease and while it’s not curable, it’s treatable. We need to help individuals and families more fully – and maybe publicly – celebrate treatment successes, just as we would an aggressive cancer placed into remission. And just as we wouldn’t condemn, but encourage and support a cancer survivor who had a recurrence, we need to look at addiction along the same lines – as a chronic, potentially relapsing condition.

For celebrities, a private hell can quickly become public, and they become the public face of addiction as we gawk at the latest public breakdown and shake our heads at the latest overdose. For everyone else, addiction – whether in ourselves or a loved one – generally remains our little secret, even if the private hell turns into heaven as the miracle of recovery takes hold. And so the stigma remains and the demons continue to win.

As we dim the lights on Broadway, Phillip Seymour Hoffman lost a battle with his demons, at least in part, because we haven’t confronted our own. Let’s turn the lights back on and get to work.