"I CAN’T TELL YOU if I'll start back up," President Dwight Eisenhower once said of cigarette smoking, "But I'll tell you this: I sure as hell ain't quitting again."
On Sunday, the body of Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered in his Manhattan apartment with a needle in his arm. It appears that despite a stint in rehab last spring, Hoffman, like so many other lifelong addicts, relapsed. He wasn’t quitting again. Now he’s dead.
Embarrassment seems to be the major theme. Shame. It's a shame he had to go this way; it's a regrettable loss. How could he leave his kids without a father? How could he be so stupid or so selfish?
But if we're going to talk about embarrassment, we should remember that nobody would be more ashamed than Hoffman to see his own body, cold on a bathroom floor.
This isn’t an obituary. Perhaps it doesn’t go without saying that Hoffman was unparalleled among his peers, or that we have lost who knows how many roles he still had in him, but by now it has certainly been said. I don’t come to bury Hoffman, or to praise him: for that, I suggest Derek Thompson's beautifully rendered essay in The Atlantic.
Rather, I want to talk about the reaction; about the conversation that’s begun this week and which will no doubt continue in the weeks to come; about this old story that we tell whenever someone dies this way.
How could he? I don’t know. I don’t know why Philip Seymour Hoffman was an addict. I don’t know what demons might be to blame, but as a one-time junkie, I do know that the demons hardly matter. We imagine addiction as a voluntary act, romantic or tragic, depending on our mood. When we try to imagine the scene, we conjure up pictures of the wrong room and the wrong stress; tumultuous men brought low by vulnerability in the face of fear and loneliness.
Maybe that’s what happened here, but I doubt it. Most times, the confluence of circumstances don’t tend toward the dramatic. It’s just something to try. Many of us, especially in youth, experiment with the world’s wide array of narcotics. It’s just that some of us don’t stop.
It isn’t willpower, or shortsightedness. It might be easier if it were. It isn’t existential dread, or reckless abandon, or even some devilish seduction. Usually it’s just mundane. Usually it’s just that heroin is the best you’ll ever feel, and nobody feels that way once and says, “Okay, that was fun. Now I’m never doing it again.” You use. Then it becomes part of who you are.
It’s why a majority of addicts relapse within the first six months of treatment; it’s why first-year Twelve Step dropout rates top 95 percent. Sure, meetings help. So does therapy. But these things cannot shake the memory, not really.
That's why, despite being off heroin for nearly seven years, I still have a moment that comes every time the season turns when some part of me wants nothing more than to get high. Call it stupidity or selfishness or demons — really, it just is, in a way our language is ill equipped to explicate. There aren’t words for the stubborn fits of that desire. Compulsion doesn’t quite capture it. Addict does, but only in an obvious, unsatisfying way.
Fairly or not, it bothers me when people try. The last few days, I’ve seen an outpouring of sentiment on social media, and between the expressions of disbelief and endless clips from Boogie Nights and Capote, I’ve seen those who have not known addiction in their own lives attempt to make sense of what happened and offer their take on what we should “learn” from this.
I don’t mean the usual suspects. The knee-jerk sanctimony — from “this isn’t a tragedy, he brought it on himself” to "how could he do this to his children" and “how could someone so successful throw it all away?" — are almost easier to deal with. Those old tropes are too tired and obtuse to take too seriously. Rather, in the last few days, I’ve found myself resentfully fixated on the far more well-intentioned outcry of friends and fans who have not known addiction in their own life, saying things like “Remember, guys, it’s never worth it.”
“Don’t forget: heroin is bad for you! If you take it and die, people will be sad!” As if that was the lesson here. As if the thing that stands between an addict and sobriety is the intellectual revelation of the consequences, as if heroin users are operating under the misapprehension that it’s good for them. As if there weren’t junkies with needles in their arms as they read the news about Hoffman. As if, suddenly confronted by the inexorability of overdose, they all put those needles down in shame.
What do these friends imagine? That somebody was about to do heroin for the first time, but a quick check of their Facebook feed prevented it?
I don’t fault anyone for his or her feelings. But when we treat overcoming addiction like it was just a matter of making the consequences resonate enough — of remembering it isn’t worth it — we contribute to the very culture that kills men like Philip Seymour Hoffman. If getting clean were just a matter of dispassionate pros and cons, then we'd be justified in shaming somebody who just can't do the math right.
But it isn’t like that. We’re fond of saying “addiction is a disease,” but “addiction is a fundamental trait of personality” might be a more accurate refrain. It’s immutable like that. You can't fix it with a pill or an epiphany. Think of it as a nasty temper: you can learn to control the rage, but sometimes you can’t help seeing red.
If there is a “teaching moment” here, that’s it. First-time addicts rarely die; relapse is what kills. Hoffman had been to rehab. He knew the habit wasn’t worth it. The inevitable consequences had long resonated, I’m sure. But the culture that says that such remembering, taken one day at a time, is the key to recovery is the culture that drives so many — even those who have sought help in the past — to die in the shadows. It’s just too embarrassing to admit you did it anyway. Again.
There are limits to empathy. Every addict lives in fear of reaching them.
In an old episode of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin — no stranger to addiction — writes a scene in which Leo McGarry, the recovering alcoholic turned White House Chief of Staff, explains why he didn’t tell anyone the second time he took up drinking. “I went to rehab. My friends embraced me when I got out,” he says. “You relapse — it’s not like that. Get away from me, that’s what it’s like.” There are only so many times you can be forgiven for the same thing.
We love redemption stories. We love watching characters brought low by affliction fight their way to glory. We love watching their struggle and their doubts; hey, we’ll even indulge a few second-act screw-ups. But there’s a limit to the repetition we’ll allow. How many do-overs is too many do-overs? When do we get frustrated and bored? Is it five? Ten? Twelve? When does that moment come when even those who know better write off a former friend as a screw-up, consigned to a bed of their own making?
It’s a vicious irony, but the terror of that moment doesn’t stop people from relapsing. Addicts live with that fear, reminders or not. All the head shaking does is make addicts fear admitting that they’re back to square one, from seeking help this time around.
It’s a paralytic mixture of embarrassment and fear. The pressure cripples you. It’s crippled me. I spent the autumn of 2012 snorting painkillers, convinced that somehow this was the only thing preventing a full relapse. I never told anyone till now. You just don’t want to see the way that mouth forms around the word “Again?” And I’m only an ordinary, private addict — how much worse must it be for someone like Hoffman, who knows full well that another stint in rehab would curry a whole world asking why he doesn’t know better by now?
Maybe one day treatment will be easy. Maybe Suboxone, a painkiller with some promise as a withdrawal treatment, will gain widespread acceptance, or some more radical vaccine will hit the US market, and overcoming heroin will be as simple as beating back strep. But until then, it’s little different from cancer, and you wouldn’t tell friends locked in the grip of stage-four death to remember that “it isn’t worth it.” Remission doesn’t work like that.