“Philip Seymour Hoffman died,” my husband said a few Sunday afternoons ago.
“Really? What happened?” I asked. He shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
A few hours later, while my kids danced around the living room, I caught a headline on the TV that sat on, waiting for the Super Bowl to begin.
I saw words like: heroin, recovering, substance abuse, needle.
I feel it first around my heart, but the news settles in my stomach, bitter and undigestable.
These news stories are always eerily the same: a concerned friend, family member or police officer discovers the celebrity. They are dead, alone in their apartment or home or hotel room.
This story, the story that is Cory Monteith’s story and Layne Staley’s story and now Philip Hoffman’s story—this story is my family’s story.
When I was 24, my 21-year-old brother died in his apartment from a combination of heroin and alcohol. It’s been almost 15 years, and yet there is still a piece of me that doesn’t believe that it happened to us, to my brother.
My brother was creative, sensitive and just barely an adult.
And every time I hear that someone as gifted as Hoffman or as golden as Monteith was, is gone and gone to addiction, it breaks me a little bit. It presses on my scars, leaving them raised and red and tender.
Addiction-related deaths are not quite accidents, and they are not quite suicides; they hover somewhere in between, in the heartbreaking land of what ifs and whys.
But what struck me most about Hoffman’s story was his sobriety. He’d reportedly enjoyed 23 years of sobriety. When I hear of someone with that length of abstinence, I think he’s out of the woods. I think she’s got this thing.
Hoffman’s sobriety lasted longer than my brother’s entire life.
Of course, as addicts, whether it’s to food or heroin, none of us are ever really ‘out of the woods.’ None of us ‘have this thing.’
Some of the people I love the most have impressively long periods of sobriety, while others, like my brother, have died from their addictions. It’s humbling to think, as some addiction literature states, that even while we’re abstaining from our addictions, that addiction not only lingers, but grows. It’s like a snow globe placed on a shelf, the white flakes settling into the base. Dormant, but ready. Still gathering snow. Shake it a little, and a blizzard breaks out.
I learned this the hard way in my late 20s when I decided to smoke a few cigarettes after having quit years before. I knew it was a bad idea, but once that glint of craving was in my head, once I decided I wanted that wispy poison in my lungs, I was in trouble. I made rules about it—I could only smoke when I was in Vermont at my grad school residency.
Soon, the rule was to only smoke when I was outside of the town I was living. Only when I’m drinking coffee. Only in my car.
Only when I’m awake.
Pretty soon, I was sucking in a pack a day, more than I’d ever smoked in the past. The period of abstinence from cigarettes did nothing to stave off the current addiction, except to remind that I was capable of quitting. Which I did. Over and over and over.
I thought I could control the addiction, but it was already controlling me.
It’s been several years now since I’ve had a cigarette, and I know better than to think I can have just one and call it quits. I’ve learned with my food addiction that if I can stay away from the foods that trigger the cycle of craving, I don’t have to deal with as many cravings. I can let the snow settle.
But sometimes the cravings appear out of nowhere, tricking my brain into thinking that a cigarette or a joint or a large pizza are just the thing to help me feel better. That any of those things will make whatever hurts better is an illusion, a faultily lit neural pathway, a wrong turn down a one-way street.
In my 20s, a friend described the torture of staying away from heroin. We sat on a cold slab of concrete, smoking cigarettes and chatting. He said, “The thing is, I could be 40 years old with a wife and family, and I’m still going to be thinking that nothing feels as good as heroin.” He never made it to 40.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why some people with addictions survive and thrive and others don’t. And why some, like Philip Seymour Hoffman, seem to survive and thrive for long periods of time, and then relapse. Is it grace? Fate? Luck?
Oftentimes, I’ve heard people talk of the slow drift from the things that kept them sober, their recovery muscles gradually atrophying, until one day the craving appears and their defenses are down. The snow clouds their vision. They indulge, eventually avalanching into a relapse.
A blizzard breaks out.
I like to think that by staying close to the things that get us better—recovery meetings, supportive friends and family, exercise, a belief in something bigger than our own mind, and a healthy dose of fear of the addictive substances—we can stave off relapse. That by putting as many positive things as possible between ourselves and that glittery craving, we can stay safe. We can shelve our addiction.
But I don’t really know. And that scares me.
Have you struggled with addiction? How do you protect yourself from relapse?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Aimanness Photography