Unmerciful World

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Us, and the Scourge of Addiction

Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead, a needle in his arm.

Just six years older than me and a force in my cultural life since 1992, I’m gutted by this news.

I don’t read celebrity interviews much, so I never realized he had been clean for 23 years before one pill, one day, awoke his dormant inner-addict he’d squelched as a man in his early 20s.

Not since River Phoenix’s death on a Hollywood sidewalk has a celebrity death rattled me so personally. The right combination of movies, right combination of roles… I’ve been a fan of Hoffman since 1992’s Scent of a Woman.

I’m lost thinking about drugs and addiction today. Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, once proclaimed the pot capital of the world, I’m as local as they get — habits included.

I made it to 19 before I ever smoked a joint, but I got exposed to drugs when I was as young as 8.

So I learned two things at a young age. One, pot made people do silly things — it was amusing and nothing to worry about. Two, any other drug could go bad in a hurry.

I don’t remember where I first heard that “once” was enough to turn you into a coke addict or a heroin junkie. I don’t remember when I first was told that addiction wasn’t a thing you developed — an addict was what you were, whether you had ever touched the drug or not. Somewhere inside you, “addict” was written on your soul. Doing a drug like heroin or cocaine, if you were pre-programmed for addiction, would be like coming home after a long, cold night — it just felt right.

And that, of course, was where it would all go wrong.

For this reason, I wasn’t a frequent hard drinker. I was careful. I drank, but I never pushed it. I never touched drugs beyond a joint (except one Yellow Submarine experience that will remain between me, two friends, and my bathtub).

Hoffman, for me, always had characters who did things, said things, or believed things that resonated deeply. His portrayal of writers especially always hit home — as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, those words he mutters hold true to me as a writer, person, and journalist: “ You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.” As Capote, he broke my heart. The things we do for our passions.

Today as one hears tributes pouring in from industry insiders and critics who held him in such high regard, it’s obvious Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of those once-a-generation special voices who touched us in unique ways.

And maybe that’s a part of the problem.

There is something desperately lonely about seeing the world in a unique way. It’s part of being an introvert. It’s something many creative people struggle with, but I imagine a genius of Hoffman’s calibre finds it even more daunting.

There’s beautiful but also painful truth in living as an artist of any kind. This world gets seen through filters and ideas, those proverbial rose-coloured glasses. Waking to real life with its banality and its unimaginative ignorance can be insufferable for those who see the world through such an artistic haze.

So on days like these I realize part of the reason I never touched heroin and cocaine (etc) is because I understand their appeal.

The idea of the head-tripping that comes by way of such hardcore drug use is very, very attractive to someone like myself, already living on the weird end of the spectrum. Some days, some grey and unfulfilling days, I’m very glad that having a little wine and a nice meal is enough for me, and I pray that remains the case.

I have no doubt that I would love the experience that comes via hard drugs. That fucking terrifies me. I will never, ever touch them as a result. I’ve witnessed too many downward spirals, talked to too many addicts. I’ve seen friends lose their homes, their lives, their loves to their addictions.

And yet drugs fascinate me and always will. I remain with my nose pressed against the glass, wide-eyed watching as the crazed and addicted whirl through this world, sometimes surviving their antics and sometimes falling to them.

In my late-teens and early-20s, I voraciously read addicts’ accounts, like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and The Basketball Diaries and Permanent Midnight and Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs and so many more. Drug-experienced writers — recovering and otherwise — seemed best able to burrow into my brain. It turned me on. The vivid, exciting prose just rocked me.

Through fluke and fate I never had a charismatic pusher coerce me into “just once” trying the big, bad drugs.

Today, I know: I’m a smart, powerful woman. I am certain I would’ve enjoyed myself too much, would have been able to convince myself I was smart enough to “conservatively” do those drugs. You know, just a bit. Because, of course, people as smart as me never become addicts.

But addiction doesn’t discriminate.

And people who live in their heads, like I do, however smart, are more likely to fall prey to the shiny, swirly, magical world, or beyond. If beyond, there’s the demon of duplicity; the sordid way people “chase the dragon” — seeking that heroin-or-otherwise high more mind-blowing than the first time it was taken.

But it never comes.

Now and then we hear of rockstars who lived a rollicking couple decades with wild drug escapades, who made it to the other side and then back again. Would they do it again? No, not now. Do they regret it? Some of the consequences, but the highs themselves, no.

The “enlightenment” of highs are cherished by those who’ve had them, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix writing about kissing the sky or Steve Jobs confessing that early LSD use was critical to his business success, or the guy you knew from college who’s just a happy, contented dad today.

Rockstars or not, addicts who survive extreme periods of heavy use, if not addiction, are the lucky and the few, like soldiers who made it through the greatest battles of World War II or Vietnam. They may have been eager to go there, eager to return, but often have no fucking clue how they made it out alive while so many of their contemporaries did not.

I read recently where kids today are smoking more pot, but drinking less alcohol, doing fewer hardcore drugs. I hope kids today have it right.

Even if they do, maybe “once” is still enough. Maybe that’s all it really takes. One angelic night with a meth pipe. One euphoric injection of heroin. One wild cocaine ride. Maybe “once” is still that doorway to addiction.

Pot-smoking certainly isn’t that entry point, as most casual smokers can tell you. Many of us won’t go past the good, green gates of our herby heaven. We know where we don’t belong, and where we do belong is hiking on a trail, surfing, or just watching a movie with a big bowl of popcorn and a joint.

But do most people understand themselves well enough to know who they might become in the face of bigger, badder drugs? Do they understand the psychology of addiction? The chemical side?

No. Or they wouldn’t be telling addicts to just clean up and stop doing drugs.

If you’re mystified that smart people can become addicts, then you don’t understand drugs, getting high, or how much it complements the creative brain.

If you think I’m glorifying drug use, then you don’t understand a thing I’ve said.

There’s something terrifying about unlocking the door to whole universes inside your head. It’s scary to know you can go to a mental place that is unlike anywhere you can go on Earth.

Take that experience and amplify it with more creativity, more intelligence, an ability to see the big cosmic picture, and the surrender of creative vulnerability; that high could be of mythical proportions.

That’s not glorifying drugs. That’s stating facts.

That’s also a great argument to never, ever touch them.

If I opened the door to that world, I might never leave it. And not likely alive. I know that much about myself.

I simply walk out of the room if it’s around. I’m oddly not curious about doing them, and I don’t want to try them; the price is high and I’m unwilling to pay it.

I’m able to make that choice because I am not an addict. I am lucky.

When a Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of a heroin addiction, shooting up in a room alone, it’s not like vapid brokers doing coke off a hooker’s belly, a la Wolf of Wall Street.

It’s entirely about the mental world, the chemical need. It’s not a party trick, a mob mentality thing, or peer pressure.

But Hoffman didn’t awaken his addiction through heroin.

He took a pill. A legal pill. Then he took another.

Then he snorted heroin.

Then he shot heroin.

Then he died.

All within two years, around 17,000 hours into a return to addiction’s ever-loving arms.

Unfortunately, much addiction today spirals the same as Hoffman’s did: Through pills.

Incredibly, growing addiction to prescription painkillers coupled with addicts’ inability to get continued access to those painkillers is actually sparking a resurgence in heroin use. Thanks, big pharma!

I medicated myself out of my mind with opioids when I blew my back in the autumn of 2008. It had the side perk of making the cockroaches on my floor around me more entertaining and less scary. Two months of my life was a swirl of halcyon delight comprised of silly visions and inexplicable daydreams, muddled with the worst pain of my life.

Luckily even at a just-buzzing high, the opioid I was on had one negative side effect I couldn’t handle: It made me stupid. I loathed how spacey I sounded. As a result, it didn’t take long for me to want to kick it after I began to heal and reintegrate with society. These days, I stick to Tylenol.

I took those painkillers out of necessity. The pain was so bad, so intrusive, that I was crying and unable to cope. I needed relief. In the back of my mind, I knew it might spark addiction. It didn’t; I didn’t go looking for a similar high that wouldn’t make me stupid, I just stopped taking them. That comforts me somewhat.

My awareness of prescription-fueled addictions has been in the making since I turned 20.

My early ambivalence towards pills was crystallized in Requiem for a Dream, with Ellen Burstyn and her electrifying descent into prescription addiction. Director Darren Aronofsky made a brilliant visual case in that film that demonized both street drugs and pharmaceutical abuse — but his early warning about our dangerous dance with prescriptions has gone unheard.

I’m 40 now.

Today, we demonize heroin but if anything’s ailing you, there’s a pill for that. From run-of-the-mill stress to clinical anxiety, it’s A-okay to give up some control and take a little pill to get you through.

But what happens if that pill given to you by a doctor in a gleaming white coat is your “once”? What if all your life you’ve played it cool with illegal drugs, preferring to sip a cocktail, and here you are, taking something you’re not even aware is the gateway to addiction? What if you’re clean for 23 years and you think there’s no way a little legal pill can resurrect your nasty heroin addiction?

Because here we are. This morning, my generation’s Brando was found dead on the floor, a needle in his arm, because he took a pill a couple years ago that undid 23 years of fighting a dragon he thought he’d slayed back when Nirvana was just about to release a little album called Nevermind.

Prescription abuse is tearing our creatives apart, but that addiction is everywhere, from the halls of Washington through to elementary schools.

I often credit antidepressants with saving my life in 2006. Pills are an important part of controlling mental health for those who suffer biochemical imbalances, and I’m grateful it was an option when I needed it.

But discontent or unhappiness isn’t always a reason to get a prescription. Not everything should be medicated (but there are those whose lives are in fact saved because of the pills they’re on). It shouldn’t be a first resort. Sometimes, life isn’t optimal. Sometimes, happiness isn’t the result. Life’s tough. Get a helmet first, not a prescription.

Stress? We’re supposed to experience stress. It’s expected to cripple us sometimes. We’re supposed to cry, turn to people, act out, be stupid, lose a little sleep. That’s part of being alive. We can’t medicate that out of ourselves. It becomes our art, it drives our dreams, pushes us to do ever more. Pain forges our humanity.

Sleep disorders? For most of us, we’re working too much, we’re not eating right, we’re not exercising right — how can we be sleeping right? Taking a pill isn’t the answer. It’s through sleeping pills that my mother (and the William Styron and Judy Garland, etc.) became suicidal. Witnessing my mother’s suicide attempt spurred my lifelong disdain of this prescribing-something-for-everything trend.

Pain relief? It baffles me that we take an extract of heroin, turn it into a painkiller, and think we won’t have to deal it becoming some people’s “once,” opening the door to their life as an addict.

When I was a kid, I believed the “once” I had to be scared of was dealt on the street by a thug who’d probably just as soon kill me as make me a customer.

Today, the “once” we have to be afraid of comes from the pharmacist’s counter. Today, people like me understand how easily we can become addicts, yet access to addiction is now ubiquitous and often legal.

So if you find yourself wondering how a genius like Hoffman can do something as “stupid” as die from an overdose, it’s time you wake to the reality of how easy addiction is.

It’s just once.

It is a disease. It does not discriminate. In fact, the smarter, more unique, more talented, more introverted you are, perhaps the more vulnerable you are.

Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who makes my soul weep today.

What a sad fucking day. What a horrible fucking disease.

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