Monday, February 3, 2014

The Needle and the Damage Done: An Actor's Death and Addiction In America

Addict (noun) 1. a person who is addicted, especially to drugs, from the Latin ‘addictus’, to give one’s assent to.    
--World English Dictionary

Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was perhaps the greatest actor of his generation.  An Academy Award winner. A sensation on Broadway. A film director. Through his work in fifty movies and numerous stage productions, Hoffman raised his art to high art.  He was the kind of actor whose face we always knew but whose name sometime escaped us, and yet, when he acted, when he was onscreen or onstage, he mesmerized. He shone. He was amazing. 

But now he’s gone.

Because Hoffman was also an addict. The details of the 46 year old actor’s death last Sunday are now widely known.  Discovered in his New York City apartment, “Investigators [also] found a syringe in his arm and, nearby, an envelope containing what appeared to be heroin.” (from The New York Times). Hoffman left behind millions of fans and most tragically, a partner of many years and three children.

I’m not sure why his death has hit me so hard but it has. The wider culture is certainly in shock about it.  Maybe it’s because his demise is such a waste. How could one so talented, so idolized, so great at his craft, who seemingly had “everything”, take the risk of sticking a needle in his arm to get high?

How could one who had shared publically that he was clean and sober for twenty three years relapse so quickly, go so far down, so fast?  How could one who must have been aware of the dangers of heroin use, who knew of fellow artists who died from drug addiction--Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Amy Winehouse, et al—ignore this and still shoot up?  How did he become just another statistic, one of more than 38,000 Americans who will die this year from drug overdoses, 75 percent from opioids like heroin?

He was an addict. That’s how he died. That’s why he died.

We need to name that truth even as we mourn Hoffman.  Not to condemn or judge the man. As someone who works very closely with addicts and has faced addiction, I know firsthand the demons Hoffman must have wrestled with. I think the reason a death like Hoffman’s is so shocking is that most people, non-addicts, 90 percent by some estimates of the general population: they don’t understand what makes an addict tick, or use, play with fire, have an addiction.

If any “good” could come from Hoffman’s death, let it be that our nation take more seriously the huge social costs of addiction and more important, begin to better understand the nature of addiction. 

Addicts don’t use just because they want to or because they can. Addicts drink and drug because they have to; because they are driven by a soul deep compulsion to fill a hole within, which can seemingly never be repaired. Addicts drink and drug because they are mentally ill, not because of moral failings or a lack of willpower. Addicts drink and drug out of an insatiable physical need for a high and an unmet spiritual need, an inability to see their own worth as humans, as children of God. 

Addicts are often some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Addicts are not just the famous and well known like Hoffman, nor are they merely stereotypes: the junkie in a cheap motel room, the wino weaving down the street.  Addicts are also our neighbors, our sons and daughters, our spouses, our co-workers and our friends. 

Ultimately addicts need our help and our compassion.  Not condemnation. Not overly simplistic platitudes like “Just Say No”.  Addicts need something more: some power greater than themselves and some care from folks and society, to help them get and stay clean and sober, just one day at a time. 

God rest your soul Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Actor. Partner. Father. Friend. Human. And yes, addict. 



  1. Well said John. I've worked in the field of addiction since 1965 and your words ring true.

    1. Thank you David. Keep up the good work.