Thank you, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
I’d wager a hundred people a day die in this country from overdoses and addictions. Too many go unmourned. When someone famous dies it always restarts people’s compassion for addicts. We wonder how someone so talented and so successful could succumb. How could they not get the help they needed? Meanwhile, the everyday addict remains subject of scorn and derision for failure of morality and fortitude.
Neither of these narratives is much like the truth. Getting help doesn’t necessarily get us sober. Doesn’t get us clean. Nor can our own efforts of will. I am an alcoholic because I love alcohol. Because there is something wrong in my brain that makes my relationship to alcohol different from a normal person’s. I’m an alcoholic whether I drink or not. As active alcoholics, the amount we drink doesn’t define us. Nor the frequency. How we define ourselves may vary, but the one I use is this: when I drink, I lose the ability to control how much I consume. And, once I’ve consumed any, I immediately feel intense, usually irresistible cravings for more.
I have been sober for two weeks short of six years. I read today that Phillip Seymour Hoffman had been clean for 23 years prior to relapsing earlier this year. Today, or perhaps a few days ago, he took too much of whatever he likes too much of. Now he’s dead. And yes, it’s sad to see a person of tremendous gifts perish too soon, and in such an undignified way. And yes, he is just one person, and many hundreds of other families are grieving their own dead addicts today. And yes, city morgues, and underpasses, and homeless shelters are full of their own addicted dead.
I’m not going to comment today on how I think society should address these issues. I’m not going to comment today on why I believe recovery finds some and misses others. Today, I’m going to thank Phillip Seymour Hoffman for dying.
I mean that sincerely. I am grateful to him. For the witness he provides me of the ruthless consequences of surrendering again to the smoldering hell I cradle in my mind, in my body, probably in my genes. I thank Mr. Hoffman for the prematurity of his passing. For the sundered lives he leaves behind. For the uncompleted art and all the things we knew he had to share. We all have those things. Each of us is an ember in someone else’s fire.
There is no guarantee in sobriety. I can’t know that I will never drink again. I am a man with fault like scrimshaw muraling my bones. But I rarely feel further from a drink than when I watch someone I admire return to the mouth of the bottle. To die there, squalid; stripped of dignity and lost to shame. Especially because I know, lips to marrow, I know the seduction and compulsion to which I will inevitably return without the daily maintenance of my sobriety. Because to me, to us, we alcoholics, we addicts, a dark intoxicated death is not such a horrible thing to contemplate. It often sounds better than breath and sunlight.
Thank you, Mr. Hoffman, for reminding me the end I will all too easily return to seeking. Thank you for the gift of your relapse. For dying. For an hour of gratitude for the clarity of my vision, the steadiness of my hand. We alcoholics, we addicts, will keep dying young. But today, it wasn’t me.