As I was about to turn in for the night, my body and mind left with not one more calorie of energy to burn after a day that started at 3:45am and never stopped, I find that part of my brain controlled by my tech addiction somehow extracting that last hidden unit of energy to do what it is now programmed to do - reach for the iPhone. Just one more time. “No! Go to bed you fool!!” says the rational mind. “But it’s just a little spin around the internet…and really what harm is it?” says the addict. This time, because it is just social media (unicorns and rainbows my friends compared to where I’ve been), I let the addict win, and that all too familiar mindless/mindful/compulsory behavior propels my arm to the nightstand. I MUST check Instagram just one last time. Surely something is going down on Facebook right now, too. Did I set my alarm? Better also check my calendar while I’m at it and see what’s in store for tomorrow. And maybe just one last spin through OK Cupid…ugh.
Honestly, I shouldn’t be complaining. At least it’s only social media. At least it’s only 10 cups of coffee a day. At least it’s only houseplants I can’t stop buying. No, I don’t really mind that I can’t stop signing up for spiritual workshops and yoga classes, or that last week I learned that even essential oils can become addicting. THANK YOU GOD that it’s not alcohol, or that marijuana/nicotine combo I sucked into my lungs night after night to fall asleep/stay awake/feel something else. At least it’s not a phone call to Waiters on Wheels for that recurring hundred dollar order of CPK that would end up in a greasy brown lumpy mess in my toilet bowl not more than 30 minutes after I tipped the delivery guy. At least it’s not a black-out-drunk online shopping session that ends in 12 new magazine subscriptions, a new JCrew wardrobe, and a monogrammed sheet set from West Elm. Thank you God that it’s just the good stuff, or at least, the not as bad stuff.
First stop, Instagram. And that is where my bedtime smartphone tryst ends. Because the first thing I see is that Philip Seymour Hoffman has died from a drug overdose.
Another beautiful life needlessly stolen, another one of us dies the lonely undignified untimely death that hits all too close to home (it could have been me, say those suffering addiction around the world), another foot soldier down in the field of one of the most losing and bloodied battles our country has ever fought. And of course, hyperbole and commentary that normally accompanies these sad events flows. We say “Oh my God HOW?” and “Oh my God WHY?” and “He was so smart” or “He had so much to give” and my favorite, “It’s just so sad, he had those demons he couldn’t shake.” We are surprised and mad and sad and angry and outraged that a brilliant 46 year old man who “Had everything going for him” dies alone in an office space with a needle of heroin still stuck in his arm.
And of course, we will look into this very carefully. What led him to this terrible fate? What was inherently wrong with him? What was it he was so tortured over? How many poor choices were made, how many friends tried to help, what did he do the night and days before, how great he seemed to be doing in recent [weeks/months/years?]. We will years later recount the tale of his demise, and those final hours and seconds. It will continue to be splashed across headlines and continue to sell newsprint. We will most likely write this off to the weakness or self-destructive nature of Philip Seymour Hoffman. We will pour over and devour every single detail about this incident and replay it over and over again until it is legend. Like Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and the countless others who met the same fate. He was just fucked, maybe.
What we won’t investigate, what we will all fail to do, is question what we did as a society. We will – undoubtedly – completely fail to acknowledge that we still treat addiction as a private matter, a choice of the abuser (see Matthew Perry’s recent interview with Peter Hitchens (“People don’t want to stop," said Hitchens)), a shame, and an anonymous affair. We will not question that our best “treatment” option is offered in basements and was developed before the break-out of World War II. We will scream “How could he have not been helped!” and cry a thousand tears for this tragedy, and yet we will not examine or question our own personal relationship to substances, or the addictive habits of those who are closest to us.
We will say “He needlessly suffered alone," and we will totally fail to draw the correlation that addiction and recovery are inherently meant to be suffered and worked alone. From my perspective, Philip Seymour Hoffman had a disease that is encouraged to be treated alone and anonymously. So Philip Seymour Hoffman died alone and had it not been for his star, it most certainly would have been anonymously.
In 2013, I set down my last drink. When I hit my rock bottom, it looked like this: 2-3 bottles of wine a day or 2-3 pints of Jameson, a close and personal relationship with every liquor store in a 1 mile radius of the San Francisco Financial District (my home) so that my drinking went undetected, and a comradery with the homeless men and women that slept on my stoop at night (because I knew it wasn’t long before I joined them). To be clear, it started with a glass of wine after work. One became two, two became three, and appropriate drinking hours became less and less clear, or for that matter, important, as the complexity of life unfolded and the pressures and inescapable loneliness of an 80 hour workweek took their toll. No one knew – to the outside world, I was a successful professional who liked to party. When I set out on my recovery in 2013, I made the announcement to myself and a few others, but I worked my recovery alone. Don’t get me wrong, I was incredibly proud and loud as I always am. But the mere mention to anyone that I was recovering from addiction or had stopped drinking was a show-stopper, a truth that I could handle because I had come to terms with it, but a truth that society at large has no clue how to handle, and a truth that made for a lot of awkward party conversations and some really bad jokes.
In 2013, my mother also happened to get breast cancer. From the moment the words cancer rolled off her doctor’s tongue, troops were rallied, pink shirts were purchased, and hands were held. She received casseroles, accolades for her bravery, and for three months I don’t think I ended a single conversation with anyone that didn’t include the words “how is” and “your mother’s cancer”. Six of us walked the Susan G. Komen together in Fresno to celebrate her recovery, among thousands and thousands of other women and their support networks. She got a pink rose and a pink survivor kit, and we blasted it on Facebook, “She beat cancer!!!” At Thanksgiving, my cousin toasted all that we had overcome that year – my mother’s cancer second only to my uncle’s liver transplant. And I sat there, my sobriety either undetected or just too uncomfortable a subject to toast, silently swilling my fizzy water as glasses of chardonnay clinked around me at the miracle that is surviving cancer.
I obviously don’t begrudge my mother any of this, so please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. It just raises what seems to be an obvious contradiction, and an even more obvious question — what would addiction look like if we treated it like we do a cancer diagnosis? What if we had our own color for sobriety? What if the second we were diagnosed with addiction we called our friends to tell them the terrible news, and they lined up at our doors with casseroles? What if that diagnosis entitled us to Make-A-Wish and all of the sudden those suffering drug and alcohol addiction were running around with Ed Lee in batman costumes and flying into zero-gravity with Hallie Berry, media crews in tail, the entire world rooting for and cheering our recovery? What if we didn’t have to resort to basement church meetings or private recovery centers but instead had access to state-of-the art facilities where the latest addiction treatments were available to us? What if saying you were addicted meant immediate empathy, immediate sympathy, and a recovery you’re able to enjoy in the public eye with your friends and family in toe? I dream.
I am 296 days sober from alcohol, about 90 days out of bulimia, and 14 days clean of marijuana and cigarettes. When I began my journey, I knew that if anything, I had to get clean to fix this entirely backwards broken system. I also knew that I had to speak of the darkest and most disgusting parts of this awful, horrible disease that can and does rob countless addiction sufferers and their families of almost everything – house, job, marriage, savings, dignity, health, and as in Philip Seymore Hoffman’s case, life. Somewhere along this path, I knew it was my purpose in life to come back from the other side with pictures, stories, and a much deeper appreciation of how ill-equipped our society is to deal with any form of addiction on a macro and micro level. I knew I had to somehow tell you from a sober perspective what the stigmatization leads to – a completely subterranean culture of shame that invites a slow, humiliating, lonely death. We are surrounded by a culture that glamorizes drinking culture, we are surrounded by a culture that categorizes us and them when it comes to addiction, and therefore, we are an entire population wholly unequipped to deal with the addiction trap.
My heart goes out to you Philip Seymour Hoffman, to all of those who have died needless lonely deaths before you or who will after you, to those of you suffering any form of addiction, and to those who love someone who suffers from addiction. In other words, my heart goes out to the world.