Addiction and judgment (more on Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Blaming addicts for their addictions is unhelpful.

It is not “true” to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman was selfish; it’s a judgment, a subjective claim.

I was harsh in reply to something Dumb Domme – a super smart, very thoughtful, and very funny writer with whom I disagree occasionally (or more accurately, who disagrees with me occasionally) – wrote. I asked her, “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.” Her reply, confusing to me, is here.

Judging accomplishes two things. It makes the judge feel better about her or himself, providing reassurance that s/he is somehow, fundamentally, different from, better than, whoever s/he judges.

And by doing that, it (further) stigmatizes the addict.

It adds nothing to our understanding of the world. It contributes nothing positive.

There’s no “truth” in judgment, other than the emotional truth of the speaker: that s/he wishes to put distance between herself and the addict in question, and/or to express her pain or discomfort.

Judgment is intrinsically, essentially, emotionally dishonest. The “true” statement would be something like, “When I see what happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman, what he did/felt compelled to do to himself, to his family, I’m baffled, confused, scared. I simply don’t understand how a person could do what he did, because I never would, because I can’t imagine myself in his shoes.” And maybe, “The reason I believe I wouldn’t ever do what he did is because I believe so deeply that what he did was foolish, wrong, selfish that I simply can’t envision a world in which I might make the choices it seems he did.”

If you find yourself compelled to deride Philip Seymour Hoffman as “selfish,” I ask you: to what end? How is the world a better place after you have spoken your judgment? What have you added to it?

Emotional truth is real, and vital.

When expressed honestly, it’s powerful, meaningful.

But when expressed as judgment, when disowned by the speaker and repackaged as truth, it becomes not truth but violence.


  1. How a person lived his life is his business, after all he was the one who would be responsible for himself. It is also this reason that I feel the same about gays and lesbians. To them, I neither agree nor disagree, it’s their business !

  2. I’ve been meaning to comment on this lovely post of yours for days now, but struggled to find the right words for what I’m trying to say. I still am, but since I can’t seem to let it go I thought I might as well give it another try.

    I don’t like using the word ‘addict’, I’d much rather speak of ‘someone struggling/living with addiction’. The same way I wouldn’t call a person suffering from schizophrenia a schizophrenic. Perhaps this is my way of compartmentalizing – when you have to treat someone for whatever disorder, you need to be able to split off the ‘problem’ (for lack of a more sophisticated word) from the person underneath. Because if they are one and the same… why bother?

    For the same reason, I would never call someone struggling with an addiction of any sort selfish. However, I have no problem whatsoever labeling addiction (and depression, eating disorders and a handful of other things) as incredibly selfish diseases. And I don’t think judging the selfish aspects of any disease has to be a bad thing.

    I’ve judged. Openly. In court, even. And even though I’ve always, *always* tried to judge the addiction-fueled, horribly bad decision-making, sometimes the lines blurred and I’ve judged the person behind it. Not because I wanted to feel superior, but because I wanted custody of two children who suffered neglect and abuse because of addiction that wasn’t their own.

    So how is the world a better place after I had spoken my judgment? I don’t know, maybe it’s not. Not as a whole. But hopefully the world is a better place for two children who now get to eat every day and aren’t pushed into strangers arms as payment for drugs.

    I’m writing a novel here, sorry. I guess what I’m trying to say is that judgment doesn’t always have to be strictly negative, or (ha) for selfish reasons. As long as you know you’re judging more of a ‘what’ and less of a ‘who’.

    1. Thanks for this. I think, increasingly, that any conversation about addiction that omits the social factors contributing to addiction OR the physiological factors is necessarily incomplete.

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