There’s no other way to cut it: The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman struck many at a personal level, because we’ve either struggled with our own substance “issues” or known someone who has. Or we’ve possibly also lost someone to the dark forces of abuse.
To several overlapping generations, Hoffman was an actor that seemed to be one of us; either because of his age or the roles that he played that we identified with. And we quite naturally presumed that his intelligence would ultimately lift him up and over any hurdles in his path.
But then, that’s a mistake we often make with addicts and substance abusers. There’s that wishful thinking that good sense and smarts will ultimately triumph over the banality of being ‘high’ or addicted.
Just think of all the times that an alcoholic can surprise you with anti-social intoxication: A family celebration or even a night when the person involved is being honored in some way. Rewards and love, yet booze still takes home first prize for control of that person’s behavior.
It wasn’t that long ago, some might now say the “Mad Men” days, when intelligent men would make getting loaded not just a habit but a pattern one could set their watch to. Bartenders and friends alike would agree that Sam or Larry would be “fine” driving home… because they drove home bombed so often. Our current attitudes about drunk driving have only fully crystalized since the 1980s. Yes, better late than never but… why did we turn away from alcohol-related crash deaths for so long?
Like the emergence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman may cause us to confront the unpleasant reality that the smartest, most talented and sophisticated minds of our time might also be destroying themselves with drugs. And far from being the seedy jazz drumming-backed “addict” of 50s and 60s film and TV who made connections in alleys, today’s addicts are often productive and even heralded contributors to society, the arts, and industry.
A good friend of mine told me that his own son recently revealed a heroin problem only after having trouble while attending a prestigious college where he excelled at his chosen path. Hoffman gave us magnificent and studied performances that we assumed came from a high level of inner discipline; a discipline that couldn’t possibly include a pattern of use with a destructive opiate. Because we viewed rock music as a form of adult acting out, we never found irony in the substance-related deaths of pop music ‘rock’ legends. We, in fact, stood back and enjoyed the show… waiting (see “Amy Winehouse/the crowd stands around watching/bingo”).
Some of that suggests that we might all have a role to play in any effort to save people from themselves, or perhaps more accurately, their own weakness. However when these kinds of concerns manifest in laws related to slowing self-abuse issues such as obesity leading to Type II diabetes or the smoking of cigarettes, we’re actually cavalier about those efforts. Yes, it’s bad to smoke cigarettes but let’s sneak one out here on the balcony and let characters smoke in movies. When the mayor of New York says to the people “Stop drinking soft drinks out of a plastic barrel, it’s killing you!” it’s the mayor – not future diabetics – that is targeted by late-night monologue jokes.
I’m sure we’d all like to see ourselves as less arrogant about heroin but only time, and the seemingly insatiable need to parody every serious effort we make as a collective, will tell. Interesting to think that we’re going to expand legalization of marijuana and at the same time really put our foot down about heroin, but perhaps we will. Still, let’s not use new-found anger about one drug to put more people in jail with those already unfairly incarcerated because they were caught with the rock-form of cocaine. Or they happened to live in Texas (See “prisons run for profit/big corporate business/injustice”).
Instead let’s look at the one key element that drives drug trade, death in Mexico, gang killings, and heartbreak of every sort: Our appetite for drugs. Do young people casually inhaling coke understand that it is their money that fuels death and murder?
Why this disconnect, when you often hear that same demographic arguing strenuously for environmental action or laws to stop dolphin deaths? Because despite all our digital connectivity, we are still a society that often refuses to put certain pieces together. Maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman refused to connect some dots in his life. Well, now we’ve seen how that works out.