Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
We spoke to a young man who was deeply affected by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, not only because he loved the actor, but because he also struggled with heroin — in fact, he used the same "strain" of Ace of Spades that was found in the late actor's home. We asked if he could shed some light on his experience, and how it makes him feel, as a former drug user, when these tragedies come to light. Here is his story:
As told to Leila Brillson:
"For the record, I did not know Philip Seymour Hoffman in any real way. But, I know how he felt, and in fact, he and I both knew we received similar treatments for a similar addiction. I understood what happened to him. I understood the powerlessness he probably felt before slipping back into the habit, for what was sadly the last time. I’ve felt it, too, on interminable subway rides and long, painful walks to my dealer. I’m struggling to make sense of how to make sense of this to you, to the person who can’t fathom how a father, or a mother, or someone with all the facets of a good life can seemingly make the choice to turn their back on those things. To choose death, rather than life.
How then, to make one understand the inconceivable? Because I want you to understand. Understand calling the electric company and telling them you have cancer so you don’t have to pay your bill for another month and then spend that money on crack. Understand shooting up in the same hospital room as your newborn baby. Shame. That utter and inescapable sense of aloneness. The stories change from person to person, but the feelings stay the same. The feeling that everyone else has it all figured it out, but something deep within you is so inherently and unbelievably wrong, and this void can’t ever be filled. Not by a dump truck full of dope or booze or crack — not that wouldn’t have stopped me from trying. Understand how a partner and father can be utterly and inescapably powerless over his addiction, in the same way that the diabetic is powerless or the cancer patient is powerless. All I ever wanted was for someone to understand.
This feeling of broken communication and desolation must only be amplified a hundred fold amidst the pressure and superficiality of Hollywood, something PSH struggled with immensely, if interviews are to be believed.
I met the news of Hoffman's passing with the same sadness and sense of loss — and shameful sense of thankfulness — that I meet when I hear of any fellow addict’s passing. The question of why I am still alive when so many others are not is haunting. I sat with the discomfort of remembrance of the isolation that addiction wrought upon me. The friends and lovers lost. Powerless. A single step away from the death of my heart and my soul.
So, I was asked, 'Why heroin?' The simple answer is that it’s the best cure for depression and anxiety that I’ve ever found, after decades of furious searching. It works incredibly well, in the short term. But, the long-term dividends seem to always be the same, terrific toll. Certainly I’ve found that, for those with a propensity for opiates and heroin, there are no weekend warriors. I believe this self-destructive urge stems from an inherent shame — leastways it did in myself. If I was not born with a shame in me, than I developed it very early on, and likewise developed the urge to bludgeon that shame out with drugs and alcohol. Heroin was the most effective, even when it paradoxically led me to the most shameful of places. I wound up trapped in a web, ashamed of the things I’d done to escape the shame I felt so deeply inside. Constantly on the run. You could call it a weakness, but I would call it a heightened state of awareness. So heightened that I needed to dull the senses and drown out the cacophonous pitch of life.
Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
I had to isolate myself from as much news and ignorant Facebook postings about Hoffman's death. They made me too angry — acquaintances who said he was "no good at being a heroin addict" to celebrities calling him stupid for hurting his family. I wanted to lash out against them. Instead, I took the time to step back and accept that I had no control over other people’s ignorance about addiction. How can I judge others for being ignorant when I was ignorant myself for so long? I thought I could stop on my own, that there was something morally bankrupt in my inability to merely man up and quit after years of daily heroin abuse. It’s a difficult reality to swallow, when one realizes one’s own powerlessness. Strange, too, that it’s the first step in a healing process that lasts a lifetime. All I really wanted after reading those Facebook posts and tweets about his death was for those people to understand. Imagine simply that his life was taken by a disease, as deadly as cancer or diabetes. Does that make it more palatable? Try to understand. If not, it’s okay. There are a million addicts that look just like you who do understand. I’m one of them.
What didn't he do that could have done? I can only know what changes I had to make in my life after suffering a relapse myself, and being lucky enough to walk away from it with my life. First off, I put my recovery first, before anything else. If there was ever a question in my mind about what was the most important thing in my life, I was left doubtless after my last relapse. Without a devotion to my own recovery, a family, a career, and a happy, healthy life would never be attainable. Addiction never sleeps. For myself, a relapse starts long before I actually put a substance in my body. It begins when I stop being honest, when I start being irresponsible, when I return to the habits of the addict. It may be something as simple as taking some food from my roommate without asking. It may seem like a little thing, but to me it's a warning sign that something is up, and I have to have my feelers out for those warning signs. When they pop up, I talk about them, I'm honest about them, and I don't hide them away in the dark recesses of my brain. I let the light in.
And, I’m still trying to make sense of why I am alive and so many are not. Perhaps it is because I wake up every morning and try to choose life. I take the necessary steps that are required of me to ensure that I do not wind up choosing death. The rest just isn’t up to me anymore. This death reminded me that I am never cured, and that my recovery is a lifelong process. That might seem like an awful prospect to someone, but it’s not. Some people need to wear glasses in order to see.
A death like this one serves as a sad reminder of how easily I could slip back into past habits, and how grateful I am for the life I get to live today, drug and alcohol free. When I see a family today, I am moved because I know I have the capacity to be a father and a loving husband, two things that I could never have been when I was using. I can be an honest and present friend. And, most importantly I can be of service to my fellow addict, I can help those who are still in need and suffering. Today I have purpose and integrity and willingness and I can look myself in the mirror when I shave. And, I need to remind myself of these things constantly because my addiction never dies.
Most of what I have written is for those who are not afflicted with addiction. Some of you who read this, however, may be. I do not write this as an excuse, but to merely tell my story and to say that we are not alone. I would have never believed in the midst of my addiction that I would have found my way out of the darkness. I could never have imagined that I would find kinship in this world. There is help and those willing to lend it. You are not alone, and never have to be again."