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Philip Seymour Hoffman, RIP

Why am I choking back tears when an actor I never knew personally dies of an overdose?

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By Maddy Demberg

02/03/14

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I was eating lunch with my husband yesterday when he pulled out his phone to find a friend of ours on Facebook. “Here she is,” he said, directing me to her Facebook wall. That’s when I saw it: “Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead in his New York City apartment.” 

Our friend had just posted the notice on her wall, courtesy of the New York Times. I was eating a giant salad in the tiny swank take-out place, sitting across from my sweet husband on a balmy Sunday afternoon, happy as a clam. I hadn’t expected to find this. Instead, I stopped. I put my fork down, put the phone down, and I bit back tears.

When I use drugs, I do nothing. I just do drugs. 

At that point, only minutes since the news had been reported, all the sordid details hadn’t been let out yet. Not thirty minutes later and the entire world knew everything: Philip Seymour Hoffman, according to the New York Times, “perhaps the most ambitious and widely acclaimed American actor of his generation,” was found dead in his underpants on the floor of his bathroom, a needle in his arm, with bags of heroin at his side. 

Hoffman, the Academy Award winning actor and three time Tony Award nominee. I was shocked. I still am. I guess some people knew he’d been in rehab recently. But I didn’t. I didn’t know he had been sober or that he had ever had a problem with drinking. So it came as a complete surprise. I kept saying to my husband, over and over during he course of the afternoon, “I just don’t understand.”

Because what I cannot get my mind around is how someone so prolific, someone so active in his craft, could also be a heroin user. This, I know, will seem naïve. Of course there are plenty of addicts and alcoholics who can use, and use a lot, and yet somehow still keep going. I can’t understand because I’m not one of them. When I drink, I lose friends, I call in sick, and my world gets smaller and smaller. When I use drugs, I do nothing. I just do drugs. 

When I was nineteen I spent one summer using heroin. That’s what I did. That’s all I did. I sat around my friend’s apartment with her using heroin. I didn’t buy groceries, I didn’t shop, I didn’t work or watch television. We used all summer until we both nearly died from overdoses. Then we stopped. 

I should rephrase that. No one “stops.” I’m talking about addiction. Once I started I could not stop. How could I? I got sober when I was 20. I nearly died. It occurred to me one afternoon or morning, evening, whatever that I didn’t actually want to die, that death was an inevitable side effect of what I was doing and that I could not stop. I called a rehab center, begged them to take me and after more phone calls and more begging, they finally said they had a free bed if I could wait one week. Of course, I couldn’t. How could I? They suggested I get to an AA meeting. So I did. I did that for one week, went to meetings, thinking, “If I can just make it until Friday when a bed is free at the rehab, I'll be okay.” And somehow, miraculously, I did. I didn’t use and I went to rehab. And I was able to stay sober for seventeen years. Then one day I picked up a drink (I’d stopped going to meetings, no longer had an AA sponsor, and wasn’t working any kind of a spiritual program). It took me five years to get back to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

I was at a meeting yesterday morning. It is a tradition at the start of this meeting to go around the room and say your name and your sobriety date. I hadn’t been to this specific meeting for a while, a few months, so it took me some time to figure out the year. I kept thinking I got sober September 6, 2012 because its 2014 now and 2012 seems like two years ago. As people around the room were saying their names and dates, I was getting more and more confused. I eventually pulled out my phone and looked at my “sobriety check” which said, "September 6, 2011.” Wow, I thought, that’s a long time. And at that moment I was struck with such an overwhelming sense of gratitude, I had to swallow hard when it was my turn to say my name and sober date.  

There can be no judgment about such things as this. Apparently Hoffman got sober when he was 22 and, until about a year ago, had 23 years of back-to-back sobriety. Why we are fortunate enough to get sober in the first place is to me the supreme mystery. I have no answers. I was not able to stop using drugs or drinking. And yet somehow I was able to make the calls I needed to and get myself to rehab. And then later, when I picked up after 17 years of sobriety, when I was out for five years, when I’d reached such a low point that even my husband said to me, repeatedly, “You will never be able to stop,” I was somehow able to. I no longer have a desire to drink alcohol or use drugs. It’s quite simply gone. And yet I know if I take a drink or use one drug, I’m back out there again and I don’t know that I’d be fortunate enough to find my way back. 

That Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead is a tragedy and a tremendous waste. He had three young children and a partner, as well as a promising career ahead of him. In an interview in 2008 with the New York Times, Hoffman said, "I try to live my life in such a way that I don’t have profound regrets. That’s probably why I work so much. I don’t want to feel I missed something important.” And yet—I cant help but wonder how much of that drive was bound up with his final moments.

Recently I began studying full time in a graduate program. I am also teaching full time, and writing essays and reviews. This past December, when I had a two-week break from classes, I spoke with my AA sponsor about how many projects I had to complete during my two week break. When I was finally done, she said to me, “Really, you should spend your time with your husband.” She then went on to tell me one thing she had noticed was that I was always so busy that I was missing my life. It was passing me by.

“And you’ll never have that time again. It’s gone.”

By the end of our conversation, I committed to doing as little as possible during my break, and spending as much time as possible with my husband. 

And so I am terribly sad and shocked about Hoffman’s tragic death. But also, I am reminded, once again, just how quickly our lives pass us by.

Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about anorexia.

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