Like most of the world this week, I am grieving the loss of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of an apparent heroin overdose on Sunday.
The stage and film worlds have lost a tremendous artist. Arguably the shining-est star of his generation. His friends and family have lost a good man, a husband, a father. It’s unbearably tragic. An incomprehensible loss.
But for me, there’s more. Beyond sorrow, there is also anxiety and fear. Because like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was just a year younger than me, I am an addict. Me, the grocery-shopping, lunch-packing, laundry-folding, carpool-driving work-at-home suburban mom. Yes, you read that right. I. Am. An. Addict.
Cocaine and dirty martinis, rather than heroin, were my drugs of choice. And though I came later to substance abuse than most addicts, for three years in my early 40s, I was a heavy user and drinker. Coke gave me more hours in my day and helped me drop the last of my baby weight — what busy, working mom wouldn’t want that, right? When I was finally ready to sleep, the booze turned off my brain … till my alarm woke me before sunrise so I could down some coffee, do some lines and start juggling everything all over again.
People are always stunned when I share this. “Holy shit! I had no idea!!” is a pretty typical response. That’s because no one did. Sure, friends knew I drank — there’s a reason I received a dozen-plus martini glasses as wedding gifts. I drank often, usually, to excess. But no one knew I had a “problem,” because I hid that part exceptionally well. Although there would typically be a rocks glass of vodka (the first of many) on my home office desk (right next to my little dish of coke), by 4 PM every day, I never lost a job. The various magazine editors I worked with never knew I was drinking and snorting as I wrote. I took my son to school every day; paid bills on time; maintained a beautiful home; drove a luxury sedan. I was never caught carrying (though I almost always had coke in my wallet). And, mercifully, I was never stopped when driving, although on more than one occasion, I was tipsy behind the wheel. And, of course, we know, “tipsy” is just a sugar-coated word for drunk. More mercifully, I never hurt or killed anyone, including myself.
I reached “my bottom” one night when I texted my husband to “come home asap.” He left a business dinner to race home, certain something was wrong with me or our then-toddler son. When he burst into our bedroom, ready to handle any emergency, I just blinked at him drunkenly, unable to remember why on earth I’d texted him in the first place. I am supremely fortunate that my husband is an understanding guy. If he’d been the one who’d pulled me out of key business meeting, I’d have been livid. But I didn’t need to test his patience further. That night, three years ago, was the last time I had a drink. Nine months later, I gave up the cocaine for good too. In a few weeks, I’ll pick up my two-year medallion. My sponsor will bring in a cake to my regular Tuesday night meeting. And we’ll all celebrate what those of us in 12-step programs call the “miracle” of recovery.
Which brings me back to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Most days I am rock solid in my recovery. I have no problem going to parties where everyone else boozes it up while I sip diet soda. I haven’t felt the slightest desire to do coke — not even when I watched Crocodile Dundee the other night, with all its classic ‘80s props, including a pile of blow on a mirror. I am steadfast in my conviction that just as I don’t smoke cigarettes, drive without buckling up, eat red meat, or go to the beach without sunscreen, I no longer drink or do drugs.
And yet … news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fatal overdose sparked the kind of stomach-churning anxiety that once sent me sprinting for the closest cocktail shaker. Why does this bother you so much? my parents, my friends want to know. They’re sad, in the way that people are sad when they hear unfortunate news about someone they aren’t connected with. They aren’t crying. So why am I? Why AM I?
Other than what I saw of him onscreen, I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman personally. But I knew the addict side of him. Every addict does. We know the stories he probably told himself to rationalize his using. We know the tricks he probably used to try to hide his using from those around him. We know the compulsion to blot out whatever we are feeling — joy, sadness, anger, boredom, anxiety, self-loathing — with our drug of choice. We know how to justify taking that sip, doing that line, swallowing that pill, pushing that syringe — even though we also know doing so could kill us. Many nights I wondered if the line I was about to do would be the one that would make me stroke out … and I snuffed it up anyway.
And those of us who make it into a recovery program also know the prickling fear that something, anything, could send us back out to use again.
Philip Seymour Hoffman had 23 years in recovery, and heroin still killed him. I have barely two years. And I am afraid. Whenever anyone (celebrity or not) with decades of clean time relapses and, worse, dies, other addicts tremble because it’s a reminder that it could happen to us. “None of us is immune,” my sponsor said in a meeting last night as I wept beside her. It’s been 25 years since she shot up … and even she admitted that all the talk about the New Heroin on the news had stirred her up too.
If there is one tiny sliver of a silver lining to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, it’s that expert after expert has stepped up to describe addiction, not as a moral failing, but as a chronic disease that requires careful, constant management. For addiction is a patient, stealthy killer. It can wait — years even, as we’ve just seen — to exploit weakness. And addiction loves isolation. It thrives on it. When you’re an addict, doing drugs is like having a secret lover. In the throes of active addiction, it’s really only the drugs, the booze that matters.
But you beat addiction back by being out in the open — even if that “open” is a close-knit circle of friends/family. That’s why I tell my story openly. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death blindsided me with the kind of anxiety that once had me numbing myself with three martinis nightly. I know this about myself. And so when my anxiety had me spinning earlier this week, I called my sponsor. I called girlfriends. I called other addicts in recovery. I went to meeting after meeting and, through tears, shared what I was feeling. And I’ll keep sharing about this until I regain my equilibrium. Because that’s what keeps me from picking up a drink or a line. As an addict, I know what all addicts know: that it just takes one poor decision to end up dead on the floor. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is senseless; it’s tragic, and it’s a stinging reminder that it’s only with vigilance that we addicts stay clean.