O'Donnell, a costume designer who first met Hoffman in 1999, recalls that they "fell in love artistically first" and began their relationship in late 2001. Hoffman was always open with her about his addictions: He regularly attended AA meetings, worked with a therapist, and established a strong support network through the AA program.
The couple had three children together, and O'Donnell recalls that Hoffman was committed to their family rule of never spending more than two weeks apart, regardless of how hectic work became. Her article is full of beautiful memories and bittersweet moments.
But it's the inevitable that really packs a punch: The moment O'Donnell realized Hoffman was headed into a dangerous relapse. The first sign was when he suggested trying to "have a drink" again.
"I thought it was a terrible idea, and I said so...He started having a drink or two without it seeming a big deal, but the moment drugs came into play, I confronted Phil, who admitted that he’d gotten ahold of some prescription opioids," O'Donnell recalls. "He told me that it was just this one time, and that it wouldn’t happen again. It scared him enough that, for a while, he kept his word."
O'Donnell describes dreading the end of his work on the play Death of a Salesman, because she feared he would once again turn to drugs without a job to focus on. Tragically, she was correct and instantly sensed that Hoffman had once again turned to heroin. O'Donnell's words will ring painfully true to anyone who has ever loved an addict: "Every day was filled with worry. Every night, when he went out, I wondered: Will I see him again?"
She checked her husband into rehab and he quickly relapsed upon his return. The next time Hoffman went to rehab, it was of his own volition. People are often quick to stigmatize individuals with drug addictions, but it's so important to remember that it's an illness — and one that Hoffman sought help for on multiple occasions. The month before his death, O'Donnell and Hoffman were in the process of arranging another stint in rehab.
O'Donnell says that Hoffman was sober for 20 years and speculates on the myriad factors that may have played a role in his relapse — but she's blunt about the fact that, when it comes to addictions, there are never the clear, straightforward answers we crave.
"[Certain] things were more specific: His longtime therapist died of cancer, which was devastating, and he had a falling out with a bunch of his AA friends. Phil had a love/hate relationship with acting," O'Donnell says. "The thing he hated most was the loss of anonymity. He was making film after film — we had a big family and had bought a bigger apartment — and AA started to get short shrift."
All of these factors undoubtedly played some sort of role, but relapse can be triggered by multiple events or one major trauma. It's different for everyone, but the most important thing to remember is that this is an illness and not a source of shame. It's something we should be talking about more, not less — drug overdoses in America hit an all-time high in 2016 and the opioid epidemic has been declared a public health emergency.
By opening up in Vogue, O'Donnell used her platform to let other families in similar situations know they're not alone. An open, honest dialogue about addiction is crucial to combatting the issue and I hope her piece serves as an important conversation starter. I hope it also serves as a reminder that neither addicts nor their families have anything to be ashamed of.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.