When I read that Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the Oscar-winning actor, had died of a drug overdose, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched.
I have never met Mr. Hoffman, and I don’t presume to know any more about him beyond the fact that he was a very talented actor. But when I saw that drug addiction had taken his life, all I could think was, That could have been me.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, with my long skirts, scarved head and the gaggle of kids in the back of my minivan, but I am an addict. I have been one, I believe, from the day I was born, and I will be one until the day I die. Despite being clean, sober and “abstinent” (as they say in a program I belong to) for almost a decade, I am not cured of the disease of addiction. I simply have a reprieve, one day at a time.
Despite being clean and sober for almost a decade, I am not cured of the disease of addiction.
Many people, including a number in the medical establishment, would take issue with my calling addiction a “disease.” For those not afflicted with it, the ones who can leave a half-full glass of wine on the table, it would seem to be just a question of willpower: If someone has a problem with drugs, they just shouldn’t take them. A plus B equals C.
But let me assure you, from someone who has crawled her way up from the depths, that addiction is not a matter of willpower. When it comes to that bite, drink, smoke, or shot, I don’t have a choice. I may manage to claw my way through a few days without them, white-knuckled and shaky, but unless I have the support structure I need in place, I will always go back and use again. And again. And again. Until it kills me.
Allow me to illustrate.
My drug of choice is food. As early as I can remember, I ate differently from everyone else I knew. I ate copious amounts of it. I dug it out of garbage cans. I stole it from other people. I snuck it and hid it. I stole money in order to buy it. Naturally, I was obese by the time I was ten years old. I didn’t want to be fat, and my classmates’ teasing ripped me to shreds. I resolved, over and over, to lose weight. I tried almost every commercial diet program available. And yet I couldn’t stay away from the food. I didn’t know how to deal with the myriad of feelings I had, the pain, the anxiety; I had no tools to cope with life. Eventually, I would find a carton of ice cream in the freezer or start feeding bills to the vending machine, desperate for something that would numb me out. With the first bite, there was a rush of relief as the feelings dissolved. By 16, I weighed 250 pounds.
Desperate to stall the steep incline in weight, I started purging. It made me feel “in control,” despite being unable to stop eating everything in sight. But one night, during a purge, the food got caught deep in my throat and I started choking. I couldn’t breathe – I couldn’t even make a sound. For a few long moments, I was sure I was going to die.
Please God, I prayed silently. Please don’t let me die like this. I promise, I’ll never do it again.
Miraculously, the food dislodged. I could breathe again.
Five minutes later, I went back downstairs for something to eat.
I went to college, where I had freedom for the first time in my life, no one to answer to about how or what I was eating – or drinking, or smoking. I went to live in Europe for a while, a once-in-a-lifetime experience I wanted to take full advantage of. In reality, I spent most of my time there searching out grocery stores and restaurants, drinking or doing drugs. One night, in Paris (where I’d dreamed of going for years), a group of friends invited me to go out dancing with them. I opted, instead, to return to my hotel room and order room service. The fear of being in a place I’d never been, alone, was too overwhelming. Everything in me wanted to seize this time out of life, but it slipped by in a haze.
After that, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of working at two of the most successful film production companies in the world. I wanted to make a name for myself there, work my way up, have the kind of success I knew could be mine if I just put my all into it. I had every opportunity right there in front of me. But within a few months, I was calling out sick every day so I could stay home and binge. I would eat myself sick, resolve not to do it again, and then go out, sometimes minutes later, to buy more food.
I could no more control myself than I could a tsunami.
I barely showered or got out of my pajamas. I was obese, alone, isolated, ashamed. Everything I touched spun out of control. If I spent, it was in the thousands. If I drank, it was nine glasses of wine in 20 minutes. I would wake up and cry because I’d woken up, exhausted by the prospect of another day of battling myself. I knew, somehow, that I was the problem, but I could no more control myself than I could a tsunami. I wanted to live my life, to be a functional human being. I wanted to stop. But I had no choice.
I desperately hoped that I could find some magic pill that would give me the power I needed to control myself. I consulted medical professionals, who I assumed would get the root of the problem. Modern medicine had wiped out lethal diseases; surely they would have a solution for this.
“What happens,” I once asked a doctor at a world-renowned weight-loss center, “if there’s a chocolate cake in the kitchen that’s calling to me from downstairs and I can’t not eat it?”
She stared at me blankly. “Just don’t eat it.”
She might has well have told me not to breathe.
Once, when I was still living in Europe, I met a man named Nate. He was a college student, like me, handsome and highly intelligent. He was also an alcoholic. Almost every night would find him drunk at the local bar, ranting nonsense at everyone, his eyes glassy and melancholy.
One night, Nate staggered over to me, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “I know you.”
I laughed him off. “I know you, too, Nate…”
But I knew that wasn’t what he meant. He recognized the same beast in me that was tormenting him. I looked into his sad eyes and was chilled to the bone: it was like looking at myself.
Ten years ago I found a 12-step program that saved my life. Hoffman’s death reminds me that I can easily go right back where I was.
It was exactly how I felt this week, seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s face next to the headline announcing his death. According to reports, he had been clean and sober for 23 years before he relapsed. 23 years he lived without a drink or a drug, even as he became one of the most famous and respected actors in the world. He had a partner and three children, and a successful career. He had everything to fight for. But he didn’t make it.
I was blessed to find recovery ten years ago in a 12-step program, which has literally saved my life. I’ve developed a structure of support has enabled me to live through some of life’s most intense transitions – marriage, birth, and death – without needing to eat compulsively or use drugs. But Hoffman’s death reminds me that I can easily go right back where I was. It was never the food or the drugs that were my problem; I am my problem. Once the drugs are down, I still have to battle a disease that can kill me, every day, for the rest of my life.
Recovery means being fully present for every single experience, from the sublime to the harrowing, without anything to take the edge off (As a dear friend of mine says, “I’m a woman without a drug”). And I’ll tell you, life on this side is hard. Not only do we in recovery have to deal with the challenges of everyday living, but we do so with one hand on the cage that holds our demons. Even when the compulsion to use is lifted, there is always that impulse, when we’re battered by life – and even when we’re not – to pick up again. If I’m not vigilant, I will forget. I’ll forget the desperation and the fear and the horror, and I will convince myself that it’s okay to have just one. Just this one time.
One of the most painful parts of my disease was the isolation I felt as an addict in a world that doesn’t understand addiction, that regards us as weak people who make poor choices. I am not morally corrupt, or lazy, or lacking willpower. I am imperfect, to be sure, but I am just as decent and ambitious a person as anyone else. I am a wife, a parent, and a professional writer. I am capable and honest and hardworking. If, God forbid, I chose to go back into my addiction, it would not be because I am a bad person. It would be because I am a sick person.
Addiction is no discriminator; it affects people of all ages, races, colors and creeds. And, as we see with Mr. Hoffman, it takes no prisoners. If we are to help those struggling to overcome addiction – and there are many of us in the Jewish world – our view of what addiction is needs to change. When we hear that someone is battling cancer, God forbid, the community mobilizes to help, offering support, encouragement and freezers full of meals. When we hear that so-and-so’s daughter just went to rehab, however, it means whispers behind palms, speculation about who is to blame, and avoiding eye contact when you see her parents at shul. But addiction is just as serious and lethal a disease as any. And, more importantly, it’s no one’s fault.
I don’t blame Phillip Seymour Hoffman for his death. He, like me, had an incurable disease he had to battle for his entire life. I can only hope that others like us will find the help they need, along people who understand and have compassion for them, so that they can have a chance to recover.
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