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Thank you, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

2 February 2014

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.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 February 2014 02:54

    Terrific post so in tune with my own experience and feelings.
    To me sadly another drug death that will fuel that debate – official UK stats have heroin deaths (inc medical mistakes) about 200 a year slightly more than with methadone our govt treatment alternative. Alcohol is 8000 those are where it is on the certificate not the crashes, heart attacks, cancers, strokes etc. An acceptable killer

  2. Deborah permalink
    3 February 2014 18:56

    Wow. You are a truly brilliant writer …. This post should be submitted o the NYT op Ed page and find a wide audience. Thank you for sharing.

  3. 3 February 2014 22:12

    This is profound. From “the smoldering hell I cradle in my mind, in my body, probably in my genes” to the “ember in someone else’s fire” to “a man with fault like scrimshaw muraling my bones”, I am made thoughtful. Thank you for sharing.

  4. 3 February 2014 22:17

    Reblogged this on Just Science.

  5. anon permalink
    4 February 2014 00:14

    Your post is really beautiful and thought provoking. Thank you. My cousin, an alcoholic, died a more deliberate death than Phillip Seymour Hoffman, by suicide. But it was alcohol that truly that took him. I think that it terrified him that alcohol would always haunt him, yet it was also alcohol that bolstered his bravery the night he pulled the trigger. Your post helps me understand that.

    He was only 25. Now I’m older by 20 years, than my brilliant older cousin ever was. I do so wish he were still with us.

    Keep fighting that fight, every moment of every day, and let us help you protect yourself from that smoldering hell if we can. For you, and for all who love you.

  6. 4 February 2014 00:54

    Raw, honest, eloquent. Painfully beautiful. Thankyou for sharing.

  7. 4 February 2014 23:39

    Brutal, honest, painful, and true. Thank you for reminding me of my own close relationship with sobriety.

  8. 6 February 2014 10:42

    What beautiful insightful writing. I agree with Deborah. I have shared it with several of my addicted loved ones.

  9. 6 February 2014 23:27

    I hit 6 years last month. Congratulations on your pending anniversary. Stay strong and never think you’re better.

  10. Syd permalink
    9 February 2014 13:07

    I did not think about thanking him. I wish that he had not died. I see your point. It is a terrible thing to have the disease waiting to surface and a reminder of what it can do if one lapses on spiritual fitness.


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