Feb 082014
 

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death has hit me hard. Inexplicably so. Or maybe not so much so.

Like he was, I’m an addict. To cigarettes and nicotine, for sure. And to sex, and secrecy, to the extent one can be addicted to those things. He was just about my age. And my own mortality has been very much on my mind lately, for a variety of reasons.

I’ve written lots about my thoughts about the semantics of addiction, but there’s no question in my mind that my experience leaves me with much in common with Hoffman.

I was talking with a friend, a woman who describes herself as a food addict, who had nothing but scorn for Hoffman. She didn’t feel bad for him, had not an ounce of sympathy. “He had millions of dollars, a family that loved him. He could have been in rehab. He selfishly chose not to be.”

The notion of addiction as selfish is ludicrous to me. Addicts are miserable, lonely, self-loathing, and rarely enjoy their “highs.” Rather, their highs are momentary tolerable moments between the torture that is life.

As awful as addiction is for the families and loved ones of addicts, the experience of an addict is, I would wager, differently, but also terribly, awful. Addicts don’t get high, smoke, fuck, because it’s fun, because they want to.

We do it because we can’t not. Because the pain of our lives demands more of us than we can summon. Because as bad as it feels to take another hit, another drag, to dive down yet another rabbit hole, as much as we know the meaning and consequences of our actions, even that – even the pain we know we are causing with our actions – feels to us like the only alternative, like if we don’t, we’ll die.

I stopped acting out sexually because of an uninvited, uninvitable, moment of clarity and perspective. I’ve quit smoking three times in moments of similar great good fortune.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was fatally lonely. And worse. The love he lacked wasn’t that of his wife, or children, or friends. It was something internal, something that would have made it possible for him to tolerate their love, rather than escape it.

My heart goes out to him. And his family both.

(T sent me this article, which helped me think about this a bit, and whose basic point I shamelessly plagiarized.)

  24 Responses to “Addiction and weakness”

  1. The notion of addiction as selfish is ludicrous to me. Addicts are miserable, lonely, self-loathing, and rarely enjoy their “highs.” Rather, their highs are momentary tolerable moments between the torture that is life.

    Enjoyment isn’t a litmus test for whether an action/behavior is selfish or not. In my mind, being selfish means putting yourself and your needs (or wants) above those of others. Hoffman put himself before his loved ones, and in my mind, that makes him selfish.

    Because the pain of our lives demands more of us than we can summon. Because as bad as it feels to take another hit, another drag, to dive down yet another rabbit hole, as much as we know the meaning and consequences of our actions, even that – even the pain we know we are causing with our actions – feels to us like the only alternative, like if we don’t, we’ll die.

    I’m no expert on addiction, but I find it difficult to believe that all addicts feel that if they don’t indulge/satisfy their addiction, they’ll die. Did you ever (or often) feel as if you would die if you didn’t have that next cigarette? (I don’t mean feel sick, or feel like “dying” as an exaggeration of what it feels like to be in withdrawal, I mean feel as if you’re heart would stop beating).

    While I’m absolutely sympathetic to Hoffman’s situation and the incredible pain he must have been enduring, I tend to agree with your friend here: “He had millions of dollars, a family that loved him. He could have been in rehab. He selfishly chose not to be.”

    He had a choice. He made a choice, and that choice was selfish. There’s no doubt in my mind that he did not enjoy the choice he was making, but that choice still put his needs above those of his family.

    • Um. Yes. The sensation I feel when not having a cigarette is, in fact, a sensation of imminent death. My heartbeat increases, my breaths go shallow, and I experience a (deluded, but real) sensation of suffocation. A crucial aspect of my quitting was my learning, in a felt, bodily sense, that I could in fact tolerate not meeting the craving, that it was survivable. (Knowing this rationally, unfortunately, is of no more use than knowing one “shouldn’t” be drawn to a certain type of dysfunctional relationship is in avoiding it.)

      Similarly, when I was acting out sexually, my body was in full-on flight mode, as if I were reacting to/fleeing from a deadly foe. (I was – my emotions.)

      It’s all well and good for you to question my or another’s experience, and obviously, you have every right to do so. And I suspect nothing that I say will convince you, from your dismissive tone.

      But I’d wager you’re not an addict, recovering or otherwise, and, regardless of whether you are or aren’t, would implore that you at least take seriously the seriousness with which I’m offering my experience: I’m not excusing my past behavior. I’m simply trying to help you feel some of what I felt.

      And I agree with you on the definitional point, that selfishness is putting oneself ahead of others. But again, I think you’re manifestly wrong: Hoffman is DEAD now. That’s what he put in front of others. Death. His own.

      I’m baffled by any understanding of the word “selfish” that purports to capture a suicidal impulse.

      A final set of questions, DD: what does judging Hoffman (or other addicts) do for you? What does it get you? What does it protect you from? Does it make you feel better? Better than?

      I am no different than Philip Seymour Hoffman. Except that I’m luckier.

      Perhaps you are better than both of us. I don’t know.

  2. The sensation I feel when not having a cigarette is, in fact, a sensation of imminent death. My heartbeat increases, my breaths go shallow, and I experience a (deluded, but real) sensation of suffocation.

    (I can already imagine the charge of arguing semantics, but I’ll wade in anyway.)

    Having sensations similar to those that might be experienced before biological death is different than thinking/believing that you will die.

    I’m not challenging you on your feeling sensations of “imminent death” (I don’t doubt those sensations or that you experienced them). I’m asking if you really felt as if you had two choices: a cigarette or death.

    I’m challenging you on your statement because I think it’s an exaggeration. I believe smokers know they will feel awful (have the sensations you mentioned) if they don’t have a cigarette, but I don’t believe smokers think they will die if they don’t have a cigarette.

    And I agree with you on the definitional point, that selfishness is putting oneself ahead of others. But again, I think you’re manifestly wrong: Hoffman is DEAD now. That’s what he put in front of others. Death. His own.

    I’m not sure I understand where I’m wrong?

    But, to your point that he put his death in front of others, I don’t think he chose to die — I don’t think that was his purpose. I think he chose to take drugs and the consequence of those drugs was his death. (Of course, I am sure there are addicts who do want to die, but in general, I don’t think most addicts want/choose death — unfortunately, though, sometimes it’s a consequence).

    I’m baffled by any understanding of the word “selfish” that purports to capture a suicidal impulse.

    This is the first mention of ‘suicidal impulse’ in this discussion, for the record. I made no comment about a relationship between selfishness and suicidal ideation. Regardless, I don’t endorse the idea that addiction automatically makes someone suicidal or the idea that all addicts want to commit suicide.

    A final set of questions, DD: what does judging Hoffman (or other addicts) do for you? What does it get you? What does it protect you from? Does it make you feel better? Better than?

    It gets me nothing, it protects me from nothing, and it makes me feel no better or worse about anything or anyone. And?

    You made a point about selfishness and addiction that I disagree with. I wrote out that disagreement.

    And I suspect nothing that I say will convince you, from your dismissive tone.

    I just don’t get this. I disagree with you. I’m challenging you on what you wrote. Is disagreement or challenge automatically dismissive? Or is it something else?

    • I guess it feels dismissive to me because you are disagreeing with a post that is, ultimately, about experience. About my experience. And I don’t really understand conceptually the meaning or import of disagreeing with my experience.

      I tell you that in a profound, deep, embodied sense, in the throes of addiction, many addicts experience the deluded, but nonetheless potent, sense that the only way to live, whether to FEEL alive, or actually to BE alive, is to act out, and you tell me that I’m exaggerating, or wrong. That is dismissive.

      I choose my words very carefully. You don’t believe them.

    • On judgment, if it gets you nothing, does nothing for you, then why express it? It flies in the face of logic to assert it gets you nothing. When we speak, we do so for a reason. You and I seem to think differently about psychology and motivation. But you wanted to express your judgment. Why? How would the world have been worse off had you not done so?

  3. ” Hoffman is DEAD now. That’s what he put in front of others. Death. His own.”

    This statement speaks volumes to me. I guess I can only say if you read this and don’t understand the true meaning of it, then you’ve never been in a space mentally where your death was a better alternative. A conscious choice or not.

    His death confused me, which is a lot to me for I’m not often moved by the death of people I do not know.

    I had no idea he struggled with addiction…I just assumed he gave us his great performances, went home and was a relatively happy man.
    He must have been in incredible pain.

    As for DD’s inability to understand eminent death, let it go my friend. She doesn’t understand and can’t.

    For approx 3 days over the holidays I was sure I was going to die. That my heart would cease to beat because it was sooooo tired….I truly feared falling asleep. That is the irrational fear of one’s death….and to me, it felt VERY real. I’m glad that feeling is over and hope it never returns. Even the thought of it returning scares me.

    PSH must have felt that every time he used heroin…and for that alone, I feel for him.

    • As for DD’s inability to understand eminent death, let it go my friend. She doesn’t understand and can’t.

      On what basis do you make this assertion?

      There’s a difference between inability or failure to understand and disagreeing. I understand what N is saying (what he suggested about addiction: “like if we don’t, we’ll die.”) and as a generalization about addicts’ beliefs, I disagree with him.

      • I apologize for generalizing. Maybe I should only speak about (literally, I believe) every addict I’ve ever met in all the hours I’ve spent sitting around tables in 12-step rooms.

  4. I base my assertion simply on this:

    “I’m no expert on addiction, but I find it difficult to believe that all addicts feel that if they don’t indulge/satisfy their addiction, they’ll die.”

    If you can’t believe addicts or anyone who suffers from pain can truly feel this, then you simply can’t understand.

    It’s just that easy…and that’s fine, I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on anybody.

    It’s fucking scary and reminds me how short and fragile life is.

    Maybe it’s easier to believe that because they feel like they’re close to death, that in order to NOT FEEL that pain they indulge in whatever their addiction is…
    I don’t fault them for this, if I could have taken something, ingested something to not FEEL as I did for those three days, I would have in a heartbeat.

  5. My statement: “but I find it difficult to believe that all addicts feel that if they don’t indulge/satisfy their addiction, they’ll die.”

    Your statement: “If you can’t believe addicts or anyone who suffers from pain can truly feel this…”

    There’s the difference. N’s presentation of addicts as “we” is a universal, generalizing one. I believe addicts (or anyone) can feel that way, but I don’t believe they always do, or even that most of them do. More than that, I’m sure addicts (and people in general) all feel pain in varying degrees, but I don’t believe that all addicts consciously believe they only have two choices: 1) addictive substance, or 2) death.

    • It is easy to quibble with generalizations or global assertions.

      I believe that (almost?) no one willingly chooses addiction.

      I believe that (all?) addicts feel that death is either the only alternative to addiction, the only escape, or both. (I believe this may even be an essential, definitional element of addiction.)

      And I believe that tarring addicts with the label “selfish” radically misunderstands the phenomenon of addiction in a way that privileges the goal of making the speaker feel different from/better than the addict, at the cost of misapprehending the very essence of the addicted experience.

      I also believe that the stigma of selfishness attached to addiction does substantial harm to public health in this country.

  6. I wish what you say was true…unfortunately as a woman with an addictive personality(and an addict) and as someone who’s run a group for those who suffer from chronic pain, MOST people I know and have met that are addicts have felt this at some point during their addiction.

    I hope you never do, it’s a miserable existence.

    • You’re not responding to what I’m writing and I’m not interested in an addiction pissing contest.

      Best to you, MG. I hope you’re recovered from the holidays and I wish you the best in your journey.

  7. Thank you N for another thought provoking post.
    hugs,
    mg

  8. its funny, I’m not usually one for celebrity gossip but Woody Allen and psh have got me thinking this week,
    psh was a contemporary. about my age. and sober for a long time, like me.

    when i first went to rehab, there was a guy in there with me who had been clean 7 years and ‘gone back out.’ i was SHOCKED that anyone could be clean SO LONG and still succumb to a drink or a drug. i found myself collecting stories of relapses, i was always interested in the ones where the relapsers had a lot of time. i was hoping there was maybe some magic number that once one gets beyond, sobriety for life is guaranteed. Well, if 23 years isn’t a magic number, i don’t know what it.

    I’ll have 20 years come april and the longer i stay clean the more it seems miraculous or ephemeral (in a way). I’m terrified i’ll get struck drunk. Now, i *know* thats not how it happens, i’d have to take some kind of action. But let me tell you, when feelings get unbearable, i do some stupid shit, i just hope i never do *that* kind of stupid shit again because theres no guarantee i’ll ever get back from it.

    i think i may have heard that he started on pain pills for some surgical procedure. that is not the story i want to hear. i want it to be something i couldn’t imagine myself doing. i wanna figure out how I’m different. how i could NEVER be in that position. i wanna distance myself from him as much as i can (and i a friend kindly pointed out I’m neither famous nor that rich), because the closeness is terrifying.

  9. I can only imagine the enormous guilt he felt.

    All addicts do…and when those with outdated ideas that they selfishly chose themselves over their family, friends, etc…no they chose the drug(alcohol, food, nicotine, etc)*

    People may think there is no difference but there is.
    Addicts self harm.

    The irony of self harm is the hopes to never feel (pain) again.

    I think the important thing to remember here is addiction is an illness. To label it any differently is simply outdated thinking.

    *(and even that statement I don’t feel is truthful because I don’t believe there is a choice when you are deep in your addiction).

  10. Having lost a close cousin to heroin, whose first relapse killed him after being clean for just one year, I can tell you that if he could have simply decided to be well, to choose life instead of death, to put his loving relationships with family and friends before the needle, he would have. He was imprisoned and chained. It crushes me every time i think about how he died, suffocating alone while his friends flushed the drugs before calling 911, and trying to reconcile that image with the one of the little sweet friendly boy in footy pajamas asking me to read him a story. Knowing we have the story of how PSH was found and contrasting that with his brilliance on film and stage… I wonder if someone remembers him in footy pajamas too.

    N, I hope you keep working towards freedom in the life-long battle.

  11. I would like to say something, but I don’t feel my view is really relevant. I am not an addict. I am lucky in that way.
    I think part of the reason why is because my brain worked in such ways that my subconscious knew I should never start, for fear of never being able to stop. I was also lucky that I come from a family where drugs were not easily available (and sex barely spoken of, though that might not have prevented an addiction to it, I realise). There was no example of anyone smoking or even drinking to exaggeration. I am afraid to contemplate what my life might look like if these drugs had been more readily available.
    It’s not until fairly recently, once I’d overcome my depression, that I started to feel strong enough to drink, to simply enjoy the fuzzy feeling it coud provide, without fear of succumbing to the numbness it could create.
    Having spent some time in a psychiatric hospital, and though I wasn’t an addict, I can say that when one contemplates self harm, it’s never selfish. It’s never a choice. For me, it actually came with the belief that I was doing my family, my children, a favour by getting out of their lives. I truly felt they would be better off without me. So it didn’t come from a selfish position, but actually one (though heavily biased, I realised later on) of love and concern.
    As for the numerous addicts I met there… they all said that, though they were able to rationalise when sober and in remission, they knew the minute they would fall back to their old habits, they wouldn’t be able to rationalise anything anymore. The only way to try and prevent a full blown relapse was to have good friends aware of the warning signs.
    Thank you N. for writing this piece with your soul. You are the only one who knows what you felt like when you were acting up. I hope for you that you will always have the strength to not go back.
    XO

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