Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 7, 2014

Choose life over addiction

— — How can such an intelligent actor do something so stupid? From his earliest roles to his last, Philip Seymour Hoffman completely commanded attention every second he was on screen. Modern Hollywood loves the hunky and hot leading man but Hoffman was never that. Burly, freckled-faced and unafraid to appear unattractive, Hoffman attracted us anyway.

Just last month I watched “The Talented Mr. Ripley” again and was mesmerized by his performance as a snarky, privileged expat living in Italy whose fearless devotion to a missing friend drives a dramatic plot point in the movie. It seems as if he’s only on the screen about 20 minutes but he steals each one from Jude Law and Matt Damon.

Still, as a CNN commentator said this week, “You cannot see a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance and not see acres of pain.”

I admit I was both sad and angry when I heard of yet another artist who left life’s stage far too soon. What an idiot, I thought. The roles he had left to play, the Oscars he had still to win, and the performances that would’ve inspired or challenged us.   

However, Dr. Drew, the celebrity addiction expert, says it isn’t fair to demean him or question his intelligence. “It’s an illness, a disease, it’s separate from the person,” he said.

Hoffman got clean and sober in his early 20s and notably stayed that way for 23 years. He apparently relapsed last year on pills and heroin and returned to rehab. When the 46-year-old failed to pick up his three children as planned Sunday morning, friends discovered him dead on the bathroom floor with a needle in his left arm and about 50 baggies of heroin in his apartment. Four alleged drug dealers have been arrested in connection to his death. 

Did Hoffman love heroin more than his kids? More than acting? More than his Oscar? Did he love heroin more than life?

It is truly doubtful that he would have chosen one last high over his children and career, and so much more that he left behind. But he was an addict playing with a deadly drug. If he forgot that for one moment, he could die. It appears he forgot.

So it is tempting to call him stupid. Heroin must be a seductive mistress, a powerful craving and an alluring obsession if it can pull a person away from the people he or she loves, taking them on a final trip.

What does it feel like? How can it be so compelling? 

Curious, I researched online to see how users described the heroin high:  “It’s like a wave of relaxation and awesomeness comes over you. Your whole body feels warm and lovely, and like you’re sinking into a pool of peace ... Whatever issues you had, whatever was bothering you, goes away. The first time you do it, you puke.”

And then there are the actual, scientific effects of the drug. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): “In the brain, heroin is converted to morphine and binds rapidly to opioid receptors. Heroin is particularly addictive because it enters the brain so rapidly. With heroin, the rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe itching. After the initial effects, abusers usually will be drowsy for several hours. Mental function is clouded by heroin’s effect on the central nervous system. Cardiac function slows. Breathing is also severely slowed, sometimes to the point of death.”

A relaxing pool of peace may sound attractive to some people but there are so many other, less fatal ways to escape pain and to find relaxation. There are so many other things one can do that are helpful and healthy. So many other things that don’t leave you dead on a bathroom floor with a needle in your arm and your children bewildered by your immediate and lasting absence from their lives.

Overdose deaths from heroin have increased and heroin use is on the rise. In 2011, 4.2 million Americans over the age of 11 had tried heroin at least once, according to the NIDA. Nearly one in four of them will become addicts. This isn’t a social drug that one experiments with. Kids as young as 13 are seeking treatment, which reveals how quickly one can become addicted. And addicts require more and more to get high, which is why so many die. Also, it is often laced with another deadly agent.   

Hoffman is sadly in some talented company — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix and Cory Monteith all died with heroin in their systems. But there are those who overcame heroin addiction — Robert Downey Jr., Samuel Jackson, Keith Richards and Steven Tyler.

“I just hate to think that his death is about the drug and not his truly astonishing career,” said the CNN commentator. I understand that regret. We want to remember an individual’s life, the accomplishments, more than the death. But it is sometimes impossible to separate the two and it is right to let that connection serve as a warning to the rest of us. Hoffman’s death is a reminder to choose a path full of life and loved ones over the dead end path of addiction or deadly experimentation.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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