Andrea Peyser wrote an unsympathetic column in the New York Post about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from heroin and was immediately denounced for it. I wanted to say a few things about addiction, and this seems to be an opportune time. It has little to do with Hoffman himself. The only reaction I ought to have to his death is compassion and respect for the human being who is no longer with us. But it has much to do with choices.
As an alcoholic from, I believe, birth, and actively so from the age of twelve, I know intimately the pull of addiction and what it’s like to be in its grip. I spent many years in and out of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous trying to discover my “defects of character” (Step 6) and the “exact nature of [my] wrongs” Step 5. After finally accepting that the rooms of AA would never be a fit for someone who neither believes in nor attributes supernatural qualities to a power greater than myself, and having accepted that despite its insistence, AA is a religious, cult-life organization (call it the Cult of the 12 Steps if nothing else); and, further, that its insistence on counting days and its view of continuous, uninterrupted sobriety as the holy grail and gold standard works against those like me, I finally decided I was not defective, I was not wrong, I was not “constitutionally incapable of being honest” with myself, and that I had a much better chance of staying sober without the programming.
Now that I’ve laid that foundation: addiction is not a disease. Cancer is a disease. Lupus is a disease. AIDS is a disease. Addiction is a predisposition, likely genetic. To indulge in one’s addiction does not make one the sufferer of a disease. Imagine any other debilitating disease state that could be magically cured by simply not doing something! Folks in the rooms of AA love to talk about their disease as if it is an entity, a malevolent spirit out to kill them. “My disease wants me dead,” they say, or, “My disease wants me drunk.” No, I often wanted to shout. You want you drunk! You want you to quit your job! You want you to run away from this excruciating moment and grab the first drink or the first pill or the first fix that will make you feel so, so good! There is no disease out to kill you but your own mind, cravings, compulsions and impulses.
Philip Seymour Hoffman had a choice, at least at one or several points in his last relapse, just as I had a choice in mine, not that long ago, to abandon my husband, to get more alcohol any way I could, and to finally, finally, die the ignominious death of the alcoholic I had always dreaded.
I did not. I made the choice to live, and I went through a week of terrible withdrawal and adjustment as my body and mind came back from the brink of oblivion and destruction. Hoffman had three small children. This keeps being brought up as if that fact alone should count for more and makes his death that much more senseless. No alcoholic or addict need die that way, children or none, partner or none. There was a time, a moment, when he could have chosen to get help, to step away from the abyss, but he kept moving toward it. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for him to grapple with going back to “the rooms” and endure the inevitable shame, guilt and humiliation that is there, hidden among the smiling faces, the “But for the grace of God”s whispered as you hear the chairperson ask, “Is anyone counting days who would like to share their day count?” If they really meant it as voluntary and beneficial, they wouldn’t ask it at all. Another fix was Hoffman’s answer, and he chose a body bag over another seat in another room. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. I am not powerless. I do not have a disease. I refuse to poison my life, mind and body with substances whose only purpose is to make me feel good while they kill me. Will I again? I can’t say, but not today.