I am an alcoholic. For years, alcohol was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning. All day long, I obsessed over drinking: when could I start, did I have enough, how could I hide it. Every hour until that first drink was steeped in unease and self-hatred. Every hour past that first drink was focused on the drink after that. I lived completely in the past or the future, in regrets and anxiety. The present was increasingly intolerable and so I sought escape. It was a vicious cycle that went on and on and on.
You have probably had your fill of people using Philip Seymour Hoffman's tragic overdose as an excuse to talk about addiction. Forgive me for adding to the noise, but it's been hard for me to think of anything else lately. It's been hard to see the number of people condemning Hoffman for the "stupid, selfish" act that took his life and not feel painted with those same hurtful broad strokes.
I drank openly for many years, then I spent years hiding my drinking. I quit, and I relapsed. At my lowest points (it turns out that infamous rock bottom can be reached more than once), I thought of myself as a completely worthless human being. My drinking was wrapped in guilt and shame and self-loathing, and yet I did not stop. I felt utterly trapped by my addiction, soul-sick and exhausted to the core by the sheer effort of feeding into the same shiteous cycle day in and day out, but I did not stop.
Here is where I pause in order to tell you two things. One: I am sober and have been for 7 months and 15 days. Two: I believe -- strongly -- in personal accountability.
The day Philip Seymour Hoffman's death hit the news, I posted the following on Twitter: "Hoffman was clean for 23 years. God, that part gives me the shivers. Addiction has infinite patience."
Someone responded: "Don't anthropomorphize addiction. Man has infinite weakness, and infinite willpower. You choose which one wins."
I don't disagree with that point of view. My recovery does not involve a higher power. The person who got sober is me, and the person with the power to stay sober is also me.
However, these days I do think of my alcoholism as a presence that lurks in waiting. In my mind, it's not separate from me, nor is it a disease which bloomed, wholly unbidden, inside my body. It is a sort of shadow-self, an alternate reality with a liquid-thin line of separation from the healthy, happy life I have. At any point in my existence, I am one swallow from drowning.
Hoffman was reportedly clean and sober for 23 years before he relapsed in 2013. It doesn't make sense, does it? Why a man would once again choose to be a slave to the thing he knew would ruin everything good in his life. But addiction can only be managed, never cured. It's why people talk in terms of one day at a time, because the blunt truth, that as a recovering addict you will need to hold watch every day for the rest of your life, is too overwhelming.
Russell Brand published an amazing piece about addiction a while back, in which he wrote,
It is 10 years since I used drugs or drank alcohol and my life has improved immeasurably. I have a job, a house, a cat, good friendships, and generally a bright outlook. The price of this is constant vigilance because the disease of addiction is not rational.
The very definition of addiction is that it's the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences. It's not that addicts are completely helpless -- it's that they're caught up in a ruinous need that can become more powerful than their health, their relationships, their job, and their family. If you have no idea how deep and dark that hole can get, I am truly glad for you. But I think everyone is at least a little familiar with being helpless in the face of a bad habit. Everyone who's ever tried and failed to lose weight, for instance, or lost it only to gain it back, should have an idea.
Ultimately, Philip Seymour Hoffman was responsible for choices that led to his death. He could have pursued sobriety instead, and it is a terrible tragedy for his children and loved ones and those of us who so greatly admired his acting talent that he did not.
Some people will argue that Hoffman was selfish and deserved what he got. Some will say he was a victim. Personally, I think the road to recovery is hard enough without the moral assessment. Addicts are neither martyrs nor villains. We are, all of us, flawed, imperfect, occasionally in need of help -- and worth a moment of empathy, if nothing else.
Image via olivier-lafuteur/Flickr