When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away due to a drug overdose on Feb 2, 2014, the scourge of heroin was revisited by the nation. Opinions varied widely on the nature of heroin addiction and overdose. Some couldn’t understand how a man who seemingly had it all could possibly turn to such a drug, much less how he could possibly do enough to end his own life. Others blamed an immoral Hollywood system or the degraded character of those in the acting profession. No matter what the opinions, most felt a heartfelt sadness for a man who entertained and enlightened from a boundless repository of talent.
What didn’t show up much in the opinions was the notion that addiction is a disease. It’s not a moral affliction nor are addicts necessarily bad people. A select few are prone to bad behaviors, such as theft and murder, but they are the minority of users. Heroin addicts often conduct normal-seeming lives. They perform quite well at top schools, they install and operate complicated cellphone networks. Addicts are frequently high achievers for whom the best is not enough.
According to media reports, Hoffman had been clean for several years prior to his relapse, so the question of how he could possibly return to such a degraded lifestyle was posed. The disease of addiction is never fully cured. It enters remission, it ebbs and flows, but addicts remain in that state for their entire life. No amount of willpower, time, or hopeful thinking can ever eradicate the facts of obsession and physical craving.
Probably no one will ever know why he returned to the needle, or why he decided to once again ″chase the dragon,″ as the addiction is sometimes called. What is likely the case is that he slipped. He lost his diligent watch over his problem. He forgot what it was like to kick the habit of heroin. He forgot how the drug takes everything of value away and leaves the addict hopeless and alone. He forgot the pain of desperation when the drug is not available and the sheer nightmare of withdrawal. While heroin withdrawal is almost as bad as alcohol detoxification, the addict’s mind can suppress even that horror.
Something was stirred in Mr. Hoffman, as happens with so many relapsed addicts, some old trauma or maybe some fresh pain sent him seeking the sense of ease and comfort which is unmatched outside of a syringe. Perhaps life simply wasn’t enough for him. As Lars Von Trier’s heroine in the current film, Nymphomaniac, says, ″the sunset was not enough.″ Even the greatest beauty needs to be amplified for the addict to be satisfied. For the addict, too much is never enough – of anything.
While Hoffman’s tale captured the public mind for a few moments back in February, there are still thousands or even millions of heroin addicts roaming the streets, office buildings, hospitals, and corporate suites of the United States. Heroin addiction and overdose does not discriminate on the basis of gender, age, class, race, intelligence, talent, or political affiliation. It arises from an unknown source but it is not a moral problem. It is a sort of disease, an affliction of mind which can be treated but never cured.
Commentary by Hobie Anthony