By Hannah Smith
If there's to be any positive in the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, then let it be what he tells us about addiction. Who would have expected talented, intelligent, family man Hoffman to be a heroin addict before he himself talked about it? Who would have expected the headline "Philip Seymour Hoffman dead of suspected overdose" until the news outlets began reporting it? Maybe Jack Nicholson, maybe Lindsay Lohan, maybe some junkie on benefits, maybe some waste of space scumbag who dabbles in petty crime to feed his dirty habit. But Philip Seymour Hoffman?
For one, he had a sizeable midriff – not a look usually associated with your average junkie. He had three young children. He worked seemingly non stop, as his relatively short career and extensive CV testifies. His performances belied a deep intelligence. His ability to switch through emotions, lifestyles, class and psychotic behaviours showed a deep understanding of the human condition. Clearly, empathy was as easy to Hoffman as breathing is for the rest of us. So how does a man like Hoffman end up dead of an overdose?
Well, that's the question and the point. We like to assume that addiction is so far removed from our comfortable lives that it's almost impossible to accept a successful, talented, hard working man could fall into such a dumb trap. Because it's dumb, isn't it? Everyone knows not to do drugs, don't they? Everyone knows heroin is amongst the worst of drugs. Everyone knows that taking it in the first place is just plain stupid. Especially intelligent people such as Hoffman.
He wasn't on benefits. He didn't grow up on a council estate. He had a loving and supportive family and later went on to create his own with his partner and three children. He could talk about all sorts of world issues, make us laugh, make us cry and put any actor on screen next to him in danger of being acted off screen. So why would he do heroin?
Well let's start at the beginning. When Hoffman began taking drugs he was young, fresh out of drama school and high on life. He admitted himself that he had absolutely no interest in drinking in moderation, a fact he believed to be true even during his sober years. If he were to drink it would be explosive. So that's not just the folly of youth. That's a destructive trait. Why? Who knows. Maybe he was born with it, maybe he developed it, maybe that was how he coped with life. How can anyone know what makes one person destructive and another able to go to the pub and stop at three or four drinks?
But Hoffman decided he was going to kill himself if he didn't stop and checked himself into rehab. Let's not underestimate how difficult a decision that is and how, in fact, unlikely it is to work. To successfully kick heroin and alcohol and all their friends for 23 years is a huge achievement. One that most people who have never known an addict, and even those who do, find extremely hard to acknowledge or understand.
But what makes someone who's been off heroin for 23 years take that next dangerous hit? Have you ever smoked? Known a smoker? Known a smoker who gave up while pregnant and started again? Or gave up for years and started again? Any idea why they started smoking again? Why you did?
I once spoke to a heroin addict who had been clean for a few months before spiralling back into addiction; the reason they gave for taking that fatal next hit? Boredom. They found themselves alone and bored. Doesn't sound like a very good reason does it? Although, let's not forget that boredom often belies an emptyness, a void that we're a little too scared of in case the silence might send us spiralling down into it.
Have you ever gone out to the pub and got a little more drunk than you should have because you were bored? I know I have. Boredom has sent me on some of the funniest and craziest nights out I've ever had. Lucky for me I've never had a devil on my shoulder telling me to drink to oblivion or to take drugs. Hoffman did. And he battled against that voice for 23 years.
Who knows what triggered his relapse? Maybe it was boredom, maybe it was a difficult patch in life, maybe it was simply that he couldn't fight that urge to self destruct for one more day. The frightening lesson to us is that being an addict never ever goes away. And for those battling their own addictions, few have society's support or help. Few are respected amongst their peers. Few get to throw their energy into a creative outlet.
Now picture Hoffman and then picture the image you normally see when you think of a heroin addict. Think of how much you enjoyed Hoffman in whatever film you last saw him in or first saw him in. Think about what you think about the stereotypical heroin addict. What reaction they garner in you and what reaction Hoffman does. Is there a difference? If so, why? Is it snobbery? Is it something else?
Because underneath they are no different. There is a man in a suit going to an office every day and taking heroin in secret. There is a petty criminal, stealing to feed his habit, there is an addict in and out of prison, there is an actor, artist, singer, writer, physicist, politician, solicitor, judge, waiter, father, mother, grandmother taking heroin today. Tomorrow. Yesterday. There is no recipe for why someone chooses heroin as their drug, or alcohol, or cigarettes. Except maybe cigarettes and alcohol are much more readibly available and we assume heroin comes from somewhere dark. In fact, some drug dealers look highly respectable. There are dealers for all walks of life. There are drugs for all walks of life.
For Hoffman's family, until last year they would have assumed that chapter in their lives must be over. That he had kicked it. To watch him spiral so quickly to his death must be a shock and extremely painful for a family who undoubtedly had the pleasure of feeling proud of everything he had achieved. Not least kicking his habit. I'm sure none of them can comprehend how, after all that, they find themselves where they are today.
It's the fear of every family member of an addict. The relapse. And the relapse is the thing that tells you everything about the addiction in the first place. An addict in recovery doesn't have the naivety of the first time heroin user, that maybe it won't catch me. They've been caught. They've lost everything and come close to losing their lives. So why on Earth would they use again? Its the exact same question. Is it nature? Are some people born with a tendency to addiction, a little destructive valve that tells them to do it and then do more?
I don't know. You don't know. They don't know. I know I've never been tempted to try drugs; I don't like losing control. Hang on, let's look at that. As a person, I don't like losing control. What if I didn't have that fear? What if I loved to be out of control? At the moment, I don't like heights, would never jump out of a plane or swim with sharks. These are things I can control. I avoid getting close to people because I've been hurt and out of control. If I didn't have that personality trait I would be a different person, willing to try different things. Maybe I would be a skydiver. Maybe I would have embraced the acrobatics classes I had to do at drama school instead of screaming and then opting to sit out?
I can't answer. I can tell you this much. I'm not Philip Seymour Hoffman and I have no idea what drove him, what drives you, what drives anyone. I don't even truly know what drives me. But I do know that no one's life and life choices are uncomplicated. And no addict, in recovery or never having found the strength to get recovery does not deserve to be mourned.
And that is what I hope Philip Seymour Hoffman's death has taught us – that drug addiction has many faces and even a man you admire can be stupid enough to take heroin. Not just the guy on the street corner you find easy to judge. We'd do well to remember that.
So far I haven't seen any of the "bought it on himself" comments that we had with Amy Winehouse because, I assume, people liked him, respected him even. Maybe we should afford that courtesy to everyone struggling with the disease of addiction, with the button inside them that begs for them to push it, the little bomb they've decided to detonate inside themselves for what ever reason. A reason we will never know, maybe even they will never know.
All I know is that my life has been touched by addiction and I can say that an addict struggling to get clean is stronger and braver than you and I can ever know. And the addict without enough faith in themselves to try and battle the little demon that wants them to destroy themselves is worthy of our pity. Imagine hating yourself so much that you don't believe you are worth fighting for. Then imagine feeling like that when everyone else also doesn't believe you are worth fighting for.
Does Hoffman's death take away from his incredible life and the career we all enjoyed? If not, why do we dismiss so many others that have walked some of his path?